We tend to forget the SNP and Greens signed a working agreement in 2007. It fell short of the kind of alliance the “Bute House Agreement” seeks to cement now (even if it stops short of calling itself a coalition). It defines close areas of cooperation but notably circumvents big issues like international relations and Nato.
Presumably, it was meant to bolster the moral argument for Indyref2 to Downing Street: 71 to 57 MSPs support a second independence referendum. Boris Johnson and his team flatly dismissed this.
Scotland will now be saddled with a meaningless, quasi-coalition government for five years. The public did not vote for it, even if their respective members and executives did. We have a political partnership forged in the crucible of compromise, not manifesto pledges.
This would be less of an issue (and not as ironic) if Scotland's democratic deficit was not decried daily. It is a central pillar of the independence argument. The SNP and Greens have long complained Scotland does not get the UK governments it voted for. Who voted for this coalition?
The Labour-Liberal Democrat coalitions of 1999 and 2003 were not as rosy as we tend to remember. Lib Dem members complained their leader, Jim Wallace, had brokered a deal with a “bunch of liars”. Labour backbencher MSPs called for a minority government over a coalition. Others were concerned a deal would silence backbenchers in a bid to keep the peace.
In 2014, the Institute for Government produced a fantastic research paper, Separate Space: The Final Year of the Scottish Coalition, 1999-2007. It reads like a premonition for the 2026 election. Because so many policy commitments had been locked in as part of the coalition, it became extremely difficult to innovate and deviate along party-political lines.
Former First Minister Jack McConnell reflected: “It’s very hard to be party political when on a day-to-day basis you are being consensual between two parties, or at least reaching agreement and presenting a united front.”
It will be interesting to watch how this new coalition spins successes and failures in the years ahead. The Greens will likely find they are tarred with the same brush as the SNP. They are bound by a Cabinet collective responsibility – defend their government publicly, but criticise behind closed doors. The debacle over vaccine passports was an uncomfortable wake-up call for the party.
Greater sway over policy inevitably brings a more significant share of the responsibility when it goes wrong. Coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 destroyed the Liberal Democrats as a relevant, moral and alternative political force.
As we look back on these years, you have to ask if power was worth electoral obliteration? By 2007, as noted by the Institute for Government paper, Labour and the Lib Dems could not be entirely free of one another. They protected manifesto innovations like fiefdoms. That the SNP took hold can hardly be called surprising. Coalitions deny the electorate genuine choice.
A friend of mine points out that we live in a representative democracy: we vote for politicians and parties to make decisions on our behalf. He adds coalitions are an extension of that right. It is no different to the millions of other reactive and proactive determinations made by governments and held accountable by the Scottish Parliament.
And exceptional circumstances do mandate exceptional cooperation – there should have been a 'wartime', national coalition when the pandemic first hit. Political alliances, like Better Together and the umbrella Yes movement, are important as single-issue organisations.
There are also obvious exceptions as to when coalitions are welcome. Local councils with no overall control should seek partnerships. People feel the absence of bin collections more than the political machinations of Holyrood.
However, confidence-and-supply agreements make more sense on a policy/vote basis. They allow all parties to alter the agreement, vote on issues with greater freedom, or dissolve without toppling the government.
Many countries have a tradition of stable coalition governments, such as Finland, Germany, and Denmark. Scotland is uniquely and oddly placed in that it exists in a permanent revolution, forever focused on the next referendum. To make a real change, we need to target the political culture that underpins our entire democracy and try to find stability.
American political scientist Lucian Pye says a “political culture is the set of attitudes, beliefs, and sentiments, which give order and meaning to a political process and provide the underlying assumptions and rules that govern behaviour in the political system”.
We have this endless debate that complex decisions should be made with a simple yes/no question. That in itself undercuts the point of electing politicians to spends months and years considering intricate subjects. Mandate mayhem is the modus operandi, instability endemic, and coalitions confuse the simple notion that we elect representatives to act on the manifesto that they put to the people.
Deciding not to see a manifesto as a binding contract is a cop-out. There is already a habit of accepting five or six high-level pledges that must be followed through. The rest is quietly forgotten about or wheeled out at the next election as a “broken promise” by other parties. We have governance by theme, not detail.
We cannot continue expecting direct input on some things, compromise on others. Watered-down manifestos and negotiated values are not democracy. What is the point of voting for a party if it then picks and chooses in discussion with partners what it keeps and what it abandons?
That is not a progressive Scotland. It's the type of backroom dealing for which so many condemn the Westminster system.