BY the end of this year the Scottish Greens will have completed more than 16 months in power following the Bute House Agreement signed with the SNP.
For the smaller party especially the deal was an historic moment, the first time Green politicians had become government ministers anywhere in the UK and they entered it determined to make a difference in how Scotland was governed.
Taking stock of the new working relationship First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney released a progress report in August with the Greens co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater to mark the pact’s 12 month anniversary.
The update listed a raft of policies which had been set out in the two parties’ joint programme published alongside the agreement and set out where progress had been made.
They included the introduction in free bus travel for everyone under 22, which was brought in on January 31. To date 540,000 cards have been issued and 34 free million journeys made.
Other headline policies, pushed by the Greens and picked up by the SNP, have included the nationalisation of Scotrail on March 31, the introduction of emergency rent freeze until at least March next year (passed by Holyrood in October) and the announcement in the Scottish Budget of a six month pilot scrapping peak fares.
The Greens will also be proud of their role in bans on new coal mines, announced at the party’s conference in Dundee in October, and on new waste incinerators as well as a reduction in the cap on waste that can be burnt.
The ban on new incinerators was unveiled by Ms Slater, minister for the circular economy in June, saying planning permission would no longer be given to the facilities.
On the environmental front, the Greens can also point to record funding for walking, wheeling and cycling infrastructure, a nature restoration fund which has supported projects all across Scotland and an improved package of Home Energy Scotland grants and loans for heat pumps and energy efficiency.
Most of these policies have been relatively uncontroversial and moved forward with little resistance from the SNP and in a way which has caused the larger party few internal difficulties.
The same cannot be said for one of the biggest ambitions for the Greens this year, the passing of the reforms under the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
For long a key commitment for the Scottish Greens, the pledge to reform the gender recognition act to make it easier for transgender people to obtain a gender recognition certificate was among the measures listed in the Bute House joint policy programme with a promise to reform the law in the first year of the new parliamentary session.
Reform of the gender recognition act was a red line for the Scottish Greens in the cooperation agreement.
Under the changes, passed last week, trans people will no longer have to undergo medical examination and require a gender dysphoria diagnosis to obtain a gender recognition certificate – an amendment to a birth certificate used for pension and benefits claims and changing gender in the eyes of the law.
The self-ID Bill, backed by all parties except the Tories, also lowers the minimum age to obtain a certificate from 18 to 16.
However, the passage of the bill caused considerable internal difficulties in the SNP with the party suffering its largest backbench revolt in October in its 15 years in power with one minister resigning in order to vote against the plans and eight other backbench MSPs defying the whip in the bill’s first parliamentary stage.
During the last year, the Scottish Greens have been strongly united behind the reforms (one of the few parties that were) but the party has encountered it own challenges on them. Its highly respected former MSP Andy Wightman quit the party over the changes in December 2020. And in October this year the Scottish Greens voted at their party conference to suspend ties with the Green Party in England and Wales over differing approaches to trans rights.
But what about Green policies that where promised but have yet to be delivered?
Top of the list is an independence referendum. The shared policy programme with the SNP which took the Greens into power boldly states the ambition to “hold a referendum on Scottish independence after the Covid pandemic has passed, within the current parliamentary session.”
More than a year and a half since the new parliament there is little sign of the promised referendum. The Supreme Court ruling in November which ruled that Holyrood does not have the powers to hold a unilaterally vote on independence has scuppered the plan for a referendum in October next year, and with Scots voters broadly equally split (though recent polls show Yes edging ahead) no indication that the UK Government will agree to one before 2026.
While Mr Harvie has officially backed the next general election being used as a “de facto” referendum, how enthusiastic the Greens are about the First Minister’s pronouncement remains unclear. Unlike the SNP the party has not called a special conference to debate its details.
On other pledges too, Green activists would likely give the party in Holyrood a “must try harder” report card.
Under the SNP and Scottish Greens the Scottish Government has a long-term target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 and an interim target of 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030.
Yet the latest report by the advisory body, the Climate Change Committee, published earlier this month found the Scottish Government lacked a clear delivery plan and has not offered a coherent explanation for how its policies will achieve Scotland’s bold emissions reduction targets and concluded “the integrity of the Scottish climate framework is now at risk”.
Other ambitions too appear to have fallen by the wayside.
The party’s manifesto promised ahead of the last Holyrood election that it wanted people to work four days rather than five for the same salaries, and promised a citizen’s assembly on tax and to stop council tax replacing it with a property based tax. Little mention by the Greens in government have been given to these issues.
And the parties MSPs’ have been silent too on their 2021 manifesto pledge to raise the school age to seven and expand nursery education in line with many countries on the European mainland.
Their reluctance to continue to campaign on the matter is all the more curious as the SNP backed a motion at its annual conference to raise the school starting age from four or five to six. However, the larger party’s leadership appears resistant to the move with the policy quietly parked by the government.
The episode is perhaps emblematic of the Greens and SNP in government. The smaller party has certainly benefited from the higher profile it has been given since being in power in Holyrood.
Many believe the arrangement helped boost the Scottish Greens’ performance at this May’s council elections where the party secured its largest number of councillors ever (35, up 16). The result in Glasgow, where the party won ten seats (up three) helped it enter a power sharing deal with the SNP to run Scotland’s largest local authority for the first time.
Nationally, the party wants to be seen as pushing the more conservative partner the SNP in a more progressive direction but at times the larger party is resistant hence the slow pace of change in some areas.
For instance back in early 2019 the Greens put forward the tourist tax in their Budget negotiations with the Scottish Government. The levy is one that the Scottish Greens argued should be given as an option to councils as a means of raising more revenue to fund frontline local services.
It’s a fairly mainstream policy in place in many parts of Europe and one which could have been used by councils during the pandemic when many parts of Scotland experienced a staycation boom leading to an increase in the cost of visitor accommodation but also additional pressure on facilities such as car parks and toilets used by tourists and residents alike.
Yet almost four years on, there’s no sign of the Scottish Government bringing forward the enabling legislation that would give this financial power to council bosses, keen – some would say desperate – to raise more funds at a time of national crisis.
In Holyrood last Wednesday Deputy First Minister John Swinney insisted the bill would be brought in in “due course” in the current parliamentary term.
Whether there’s any tension between the Scottish Greens and the SNP behind the scenes on the lack of progress on policies such as this is unclear.
What is plain though is that Green activists while still broadly supportive are becoming a little more questioning of the arrangement.
They demanded an update from MSPs on the Bute House Agreement during their annual conference in October. Some members at the conference also questioned the merit of governing with the SNP while many prominent members in the larger party are opposed to gender recognition act reform.
Last month a motion was debated at an extradordinary general meeting to split the leadership and ministerial roles in a proposal to give the party more leeway to criticise the Scottish Government. The move was defeated but nevertheless the fact that it was proposed and debated is significant.
Whether and how that touch of scepticism among activists about their MSPs working with the SNP develops will be fascinating to observe in 2023.
In the meantime the challenge for the Greens at Holyrood next year will be to continue to pursue a constructive working relationship with Nicola Sturgeon’s party while making progress on more of their own radical agenda in the areas of climate change, local taxation, wider tax reforms and addressing wealth inequality.
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