The SNP’s climate politics are a well-directed theatre production. Political change comes not from rhetoric but from struggle, boycott, protest and assembly, writes Calum Hodgson.
Whenever we see protesters in the news – consistently interrupting FMQs, challenging the First Minister, delaying or disrupting sporting events – there is a debate about how effective their actions are in terms of their movement’s image and their goals. It seems that if activists target public events the backlash centres around their choosing wrong targets, while actions against politicians are met with performative rhetoric that sidesteps real change. Is there space in politics for a real political drive for radical change? And if so, how can climate activists successfully challenge power in Scotland when politics is more theatre than real?
The SNP became a political force and ascended to government through posturing as the new left anti-austerity party of the 2010s, a socially progressive alternative to a tired Labour government, and an ideological challenger to the Tories of Westminster. This image, created by successive party leaders and a well-oiled media machine, survived over 15 years in government. While this strong image allowed for election victory after election victory, the actual figures show a different story. In 2010/11, there were about 15% of the population living in relative poverty. By 2022, that number had risen to 21% of adults of working age.
The SNP has morphed from the party of anti-austerity into the party of climate leadership. We see in their rhetoric an enthusiasm for a green economy that will solve the climate crisis as well as tackle poverty in communities across Scotland. Rhetoric used by Humza Yousaf in his programme for Scotland clearly pinned his colours to the green economy mast. An agenda for a Just Transition, not leaving communities in the North East to the same fate as the coal towns of the 1980s. An aspiration for Scotland to become a world leader in climate mitigation and loss and damage. These are the positions of an outward-looking, ambitious government. The problem, again, is that action has not met the words of the SNP. We were promised 130,000 new green jobs by 2020, but in 2023 the number is around 20,000 and falling. We have a climate plan that is ambitious in its targets, but independent auditors claim that there is not enough detail to know whether it is even possible. Why believe that this party somehow will enact change now?
There are problems in this comparison between anti-austerity SNP and climate-committed SNP. The political debates of this decade are different from those of the last. Where the SNP of the 2010s was built on protest and mitigation, the rhetoric of the 2020s is much more difficult to enact. The requirement for action, not just words of protest, leaves questions as to how the Scottish Government, given its current political power, can embody the image it is desperate to project.
The problem, in my opinion, can be thought of in terms of the divide between politics and the political. Where the former is built around images, symbols, and rhetoric, the latter is created through action. The idea of this divide comes from the post-foundationalism of the French political thinkers Claude Lefort and Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy writes on the divide:
politics is a form of technological action and thinking consisting nowadays mainly of institutionalised social management… where all arising problems and difficulties are to be ‘resolved’ by administrative means, while everything questionable in the radical sense, that is, questionability as such, disappears. 
In essence we can view politics as a place of rhetorical performance that happens beyond genuine political struggle. We see this performative nature in First Minister’s Questions, other parliamentary set-pieces, and TV debates in which politicians act in set roles, furthering the institutions of parliamentary democracy and ‘legitimate’ authority over the people. Our role, by extension, is to watch on as a passive audience. We may get to vote once every few years, to buy tickets to a new show, or to carry on watching what is being acted out in front of us. But once the tickets are bought we are expected to take our seats and become the mere spectators of a politics of legitimation and a rhetorical theatre of social change.
The political, on the other hand, is pure action. The political is a space in which individuals enter, as political beings, to challenge power and offer radical ideas of change in society. We can see the political when individuals participate actively in debate and discussion and within public conversations. Pure democracy happens in a participatory space. In opposition to the institutional routes of power and change, individuals can protest, boycott, and assemble groups to enact change. They can do so as part of political action groups within the environmental movement.
GNDRising, a UK wide group campaigning for climate and social justice through the implementation of a Green New Deal, has focused on contrasting the SNP’s rhetoric and image management with their failures in climate action. Last month, a group of us challenged the First Minister on his rhetoric during the leadership campaign. His promises of community wealth, green jobs, and a just transition all seem a million miles from the position he has set out in the programme for government.
We need to challenge politicians on their rhetoric and point to its disconnection from the radical action required. We also need to support real action taken by political groups: community assemblies that campaign on local issues, unions withdrawing their labour, and disruptive protests that bring climate climate issues into the public conversation are all part of the ecosystem of the political real. Discussion and rhetoric have a place in changing the minds of society, but to achieve radical change its end goal must be action. We need to take and smash the media managed theatre of politicians who perform a role without action. In a system divided by politics and the political, campaign groups are acting in a way that drags politicians from the safety of ‘legitimate’ institutional politics to the political sphere of the real, where action and power are legitimated not through rhetoric and image management, but through genuine policy and radical action in society.
 Oliver Marchart, Post-Foundational Political Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 68.
Calum Hodgson is an environmental campaigner and PhD student in political philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.