Euan McColm: Harvie’s heresy should force SNP rethink

Patrick Harvie. Picture: Greg Macvean
Patrick Harvie. Picture: Greg Macvean
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FOR a while there it was difficult to see the differences between the SNP and the Scottish Greens.

During last year’s independence campaign, Nicola Sturgeon was frequently seen in the company of Patrick Harvie. The then deputy first minister and the co-convener of the Greens formed quite the double act, standing shoulder to shoulder to save the NHS from privatisation that was never going to happen, complain about austerity (while smoothing over the reality that the figures in the independence White Paper didn’t add up), and talk at length about hope.

This was a fascinating marriage of convenience. While the SNP might talk a radical game, the party is generally cautious. Its desire, in the event of a Yes vote, for currency union with the rest of the UK, stood testament to that. The Greens, on the other hand, are all about the radical. Harvie’s preference was for Scotland to tear things up and start again with its own currency.

But, despite fairly significant differences in their politics, the nationalists and the Greens formed a formidable team during the referendum. Harvie, a shrewd political operator, knew his place. He was the junior partner and, with an eye on the bigger picture, kept schtum during sticky moments.

Harvie’s reward for being a team player was a lift in Scottish Greens membership and polling figures that suggest the party could return eight MSPs to Holyrood next May.

The benefits of a smoochy, slow dance with the SNP are evident.

But the love-in would appear to be over. This week, Green MP Caroline Lucas – the member for Brighton Pavilion and the party’s only representative in the House of Commons – voted against an SNP amendment to the Scotland Bill which would have paved the way for full fiscal autonomy. This, she did, in support of the views of her Scottish colleagues.

Unsurprisingly, a great number of SNP supporters were unhappy about this turn of events. How could the Greens betray them? Weren’t they all on the same side?

Harvie found himself in the position – more commonly assumed by unionist politicians, these days – of having to point out to SNP supporters that disagreeing with their party was not voting against Scotland.

It will be interesting to see whether there are any serious implications for the Greens’ electoral success next year following the party’s decision to vote against the SNP amendment. There has been an assumption, based on anecdote, that some SNP voters might give their second Holyrood vote to the Greens in order to maximise the number of pro-independence parties in the Scottish Parliament.

It may be that threats – and there have been a few – that the Greens have “just lost my vote” could turn out to be true. But, whether there’s any comeback or not, Lucas, on behalf of her Scottish associates, was right to do what she did.

For one thing, it’s about time the Greens got out from the SNP shadow and reasserted their identity. The party’s not – or not supposed to be – the environmental wing of the SNP.

But, more importantly in the scheme of things, the Green position is logical.

Defending – and, yes, he had to defend – Lucas’s vote, Harvie said that his party had backed independence because it believed Scotland should have a chance to change economic direction. Neither the currency union proposed during the referendum campaign nor full fiscal autonomy (FFA) would allow that to happen, he added.

What’s more, said Harvie, full fiscal autonomy might make it appear Scotland had more power but the reality would be that – with the ongoing link to Westminster – the Scottish Parliament’s hands would be tied.

Harvie’s intervention on this matter is significant. Unionist politicians have, for months on end, been pointing out the risks of FFA. Their opposition to the policy had been based on studies which show that it would leave Scotland with an annual financial black hole of almost £8 billion. This would require either cuts to public services or substantial tax hikes.

But unionist politicians aren’t much in vogue, and their criticisms haven’t gained much purchase.

For a pro-independence politician like Harvie, however, to speak out against FFA is another matter. Mightn’t it strengthen the case that FFA is wrong-headed?

Here’s the thing, though: much as the SNP might talk about financial levers and the extra power the full transfer of tax-raising powers to Holyrood might bring, I remain convinced they don’t actually want it.

A great skill of the SNP is to create momentum around itself. Having lost the referendum, the nationalists were up and running immediately. The demand for FFA has helped create the impression of perpetual motion.

It’s a policy that says the battle for independence moves on apace.

That the numbers don’t add up is neither here nor there because the SNP can rest safe in the knowledge that the UK government is not going to hand these powers over. Why would it?

The SNP finds itself in the enviable political position of making a demand for something which, in reality, would be damaging and then to complain when it is denied to it. Westminster refusal to support FFA for Scotland isn’t, you see, a matter of common sense, it’s an attack on Scottish aspiration. You’ll be familiar with the lines, I’m sure.

Harvie’s opposition to FFA comes from a different place to the unionist parties’ opposition. The Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats think it’s too risky while the Greens think it’s not bold enough.

But all agree that it would not create the opportunities for prosperity that the Scottish Government would have us believe.

Of course, when it comes to the majority of true believers in the independence cause, any kind of criticism of SNP policy is considered heresy. But Harvie’s opposition to the policy is coherent and principled.

The SNP is being attacked over FFA on two fronts, now. How long can the party maintain the pretence that it’s a good idea? «