The Greens are Back on Better Ground

The SNP’s decision to scrap the Bute House Agreement stung, but the Greens will bounce back once they find their real friends, writes Jen Bell.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, by Kurzon

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A frog and a scorpion meet at a river bank. The scorpion needs the frog’s help to cross the river because he cannot swim. The frog has misgivings and so do her friends, but there’s so much yummy food on the other side of the river, and the scorpion gave his promise not to sting her. How could she say no? So she carries the scorpion on her back. Mid-swim the scorpion stings her, dooming them both. When the frog cries “Why!?”, the scorpion responds: “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature!”.

When the SNP ended the Bute House Agreement, Humza Yousaf said it was “in the best interests of the people of Scotland to pursue a different arrangement.” Serving what it saw as Scotland’s best interest was simply the SNP’s nature. It planted a sting in the back of the Greens, and the Cooperative Agreement was dead in the water. The SNP’s and Greens’ government journey together was over before it had reached most of its legislative objectives.

This is no surprise from the self-styled Scottish National Party that claims to represent everything and everyone in the nation. As long as such an attitude persists, the prospect of future cooperation is tenuous at best. By acting according to its nature, the SNP doomed the cooperative project and sank the pro-independence majority.

Despite the sting that came with the end of the Bute House Agreement, the Scottish Greens are better positioned in opposition now. When our grassroots membership launched the petition on whether to leave the BHA, some of us feared a 2015 Lib Dem style wipeout if we stayed on in government after conceding on the vital 75%-cut-by-2030 climate targets which we had pushed for in the first place. We’re now best positioned to avoid that fate in 2026, though it’s not guaranteed.

In our 2.5 years in government, we made progress, securing vastly increased Scottish Child Payments, free school meal expansion, and scrapping of peak-time rail fares. But in 2.5 years out of 25 years of devolution, we’ve at best stemmed the flood of austerity and privatisation rather than reversed it. £250bn in wealth has been extracted from the Scottish working class in those 25 years. It’s no coincidence that the SNP has been at the wheel for 17 of those 25.

The veneer of progressivism under Sturgeon and Yousaf is coming off. The tartan Tories are running the show now. John Swinney can claim to run a ‘progressive centre-left’ government, that serves ‘all the people of Scotland’. Anyone can look ‘centre left’ compared to the new Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes, whose ideology sits somewhere between Milton Friedman and Mary Whitehouse. As for the ‘all-Scots’ approach – it sounds cosy on the surface, but it’s hopelessly naive to the inequalities of wealth and power lying underneath.

Take the many marginalised and exploited groups in Scotland and the world over: the working class, women, queers, migrants from the Global South, and myriad others. These are the people who have been locked out of the corridors of power for centuries, while the cabinets of the world operate as committees of the rich to manage their balance sheets. The fiscally and socially conservative elites that the SNP flirt with will continue to try to marginalise and exploit these groups from their position on the inside, and the people on the outside will always use collective power to oppose them. These are two diametrically opposed forces: numbers in the bank versus numbers on the ground. The Government cannot be a neutral umpire. It must decide whose Scotland they are fighting for.  

If you’re not for the tailors, you’re repping the suits.

As the General Election approaches, no one is in any doubt what side Labour will be on. The Greens have an opportunity to do a wee bit of upcycling: to claim the mantle Labour tore up and cast aside long ago, and be the radical voice of the working class.

This will mean getting used to shouting again. Years spent using our indoor voice in government have made us timid. The Greens have experienced a considerable membership surge and polling boost following the end of the BHA, but at the same time, we’ve lost dedicated senior activists because of our silence and diffidence in class struggle. I’ve known many Living Renters – enthused by the Greens’ push for rent controls – who left when their faith in us wavered. I’ve known EIS colleagues who’ve lost faith in our ability to fight for teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning conditions. My friend and former fellow co-convener on the Rainbow Greens, Ryan Donachie, also left due to the Greens’ failure to stop the decimation of the further education sector by the SNP. The departure of folk like Ryan on the left of the party should stand as a warning. 

We want to avoid the fate of Podemos and its journey from the core of a movement to its margins. Riding the wave of Spain’s anti-austerity indignados movement in the mid-2010s, Podemos emerged as a chimera – a ‘party-movement’ of the people – that wanted to enter the halls of the elites to turn their institutions against them. At its peak, their leader Pablo Iglesias was Deputy Prime Minister. Nowadays they have four deputies and have been eclipsed by the green-left alliance Sumar.

The Greens as a political force have always worked best when combining principle and power, by understanding that we are one part of a tapestry of movements. Our constituency is the dispossessed, the despondent, and the betrayed. Our voice must echo those shut out of the fortress whose sound cannot carry through the walls. Tenants extorted by landlords. Lecturers and students whose colleges are being vandalised by the employer class. The young and the unborn whose future is being stolen by climate criminals day after day. We know whose side we are on. It’s time to join our place alongside them and fight for them again.

Jen Bell (@rightsandroses) is a community educator, trade unionist and co-convener of the Rainbow Greens.