Orcadian Column, 24 August 2021

There’s an old adage that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. The same goes for coalitions.

For all the protestations by SNP and Green Party politicians that the agreement signed last Friday amid the splendour of the First Minister’s Bute House residence, it is hard not to see this as other than a coalition. 

The Greens already provided a guarantee of support for budgets brought forward by minority SNP administrations, even if it needed a bit of choreographed brinkmanship at times. Under this agreement, the Greens are to be rewarded with a couple of ministerial positions, special advisers and a seat round the Cabinet table.  Certainly the days of the SNP boasting about ‘slimmed down’ government are a thing of the past.

As a Liberal Democrat, I have no difficulty with the principle of what both Scotland’s nationalist parties are doing. Indeed, there is pretty consistent public support for the idea of political parties working together, even if this tends to stop short of giving a rousing endorsement to the idea of coalitions.

Yet, making out that you’re in government when it suits and in opposition when the fur starts flying doesn’t really wash. For all the talk of an historic move to take the Greens into power in the UK for the first time, the party’s leaders seem desperately keen to hold on to the trappings of opposition.

Much as Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater may seek to explain the nuances, the fact is it will be difficult for them to ‘play both sides’. Quite apart from anything else, attempting to do so will place significant if not unbearable strains on relationships between both parties, across the ministerial team but also on the backbenches and amongst the wider grassroots.

So there is every likelihood that as well as having to explain why they appear to have ditched their opposition to the dualling of the A9, the Greens will also have to take ownership of the deep problems that beset our education and health and care services even before the pandemic struck

Meantime, SNP MSPs have been busy trying to reassure key sectors of the economy, including oil and gas, farming and aquaculture that the Greens’ influence in these areas will be minimised. Claims about a ‘coalition of chaos’ can perhaps be put down to the usual political hyperbole, but it is interesting how quick SNP sources have been to insist that Green fingers will not be allowed near the main economic levers.

In the midst of a climate emergency, that seems an odd claim to make. It also rather undermines one of the main attractions of the deal to the First Minister. As we approach COP26 in Glasgow in November, presumably this tie up is viewed as a way of Nicola Sturgeon burnishing her environmental credentials. Even so, the principal attraction appears to be the parliamentary majority it affords her in pursuing a second independence referendum. Yet it’s hard to see how this is a gain given that the Greens have been firmly in the nationalist camp for some time now.

Despite that bond over matters constitutional, there is certainly no love lost between quite a number on both sides. SNP Ministers and MSPs have often done little to disguise their distrust and even dislike of partners they consider to be both unreliable and unreasonable. It is a mood not helped by the sometimes condescending tone adopted in response by Green party representatives.

It will take time to properly assess this new arrangement and the effect it has on parliament’s ability to hold government to account. Don’t be surprised, though, if attempts by Green MSPs to ask awkward questions of SNP Ministers or claim credit for the good stuff while denying responsibility for the bad are met with retaliatory briefings to journalists.

Despite all the smiles for the cameras at Bute House last week, Nicola Sturgeon and her Green counterparts will know that keeping this sort of political partnership on the road is hard work. Convincing the public that it’s not a coalition may be just as hard, mind you.

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