Hopes that next month’s ballot will move beyond debate over independence are likely to be in vain says Tom Peterkin
There was something almost touchingly naïve about the Scottish Green Party’s local election manifesto launch in Glasgow the other day. The party’s co-conveners Patrick Harvie and Maggie Chapman talked about empowering local communities, better bus services, energy efficient housing and protecting green spaces.
These worthy and environmentally friendly aims were entirely appropriate for a party whose green credentials are the reason for its existence. (The clue’s in the name.)
Rather the note of naivety was struck by the Green council candidate Allan Faulds, who rather optimistically suggested that next month’s Town Hall poll should be about local matters rather than the constitutional question.
“This is an election about local issues. I think the parties that are trying to make it about constitutional issues are doing their constituents a great disservice,” said Mr Faulds, a candidate in the Victoria Park ward in Glasgow.
Mr Faulds was responding to a remark made by Theresa May when the Prime Minister suggested May’s election was a chance to vote Tory to send the SNP the message that the people are not interested in a second referendum.
Of course Mr Faulds has a point in that local authority elections should be about local issues. But in the current political climate that seems little more than a lofty ideal. The irony of the view expressed by Mr Faulds is that it is difficult to escape the conclusion that his party’s commitment to the environment is playing second fiddle to the constitution.
Without the support of the six Green MSPs, Ms Sturgeon’s SNP would not have got the numbers to ensure that a majority at Holyrood is in favour of holding a second vote. As the holders of the balance of power at Holyrood, the Greens are in an uniquely powerful position and it is to them that Ms Sturgeon owes her Scottish Parliamentary mandate for indyref2.
Where opponents of independence have a beef with the Greens is that the threshold set out by Mr Harvie for a second referendum in the Green Sottish election manifesto has not yet been met.
The SNP promised a referendum if there was clear evidence that independence was the “preferred option” of the Scottish people or a “material change in circumstances” such as a vote to leave the EU.
Of the two referendum scenarios offered by the SNP the former has not come to pass, but the latter has. The ground from which the SNP is arguing for indyref2 is more solid than that occupied by the Greens, whose manifesto position last year suggested a second vote should only happen if the Scottish people wanted it.
“If a new referendum is to happen, it should come about by the will of the people and not be driven by calculations of party political advantage,” it read.
With the opinion polls still suggesting a majority of voters are against a re-run of the 2014 vote, many believe it is a bit rich that the Greens should be complaining that constitutional politics is back on the table given they played such a crucial role in putting it there.
Given the contents of the Green manifesto, it is hardly surprising that there is pro-Union hostility towards Mr Harvie and his colleagues.
It was not always thus. In the dimly remembered pre-referendum days, the Greens had little to do with Scottish independence.
Indeed Holyrood’s first ever Green MSP Robin Harper, whose colourful scarf and free-spirited attitude was a feature of the first devolved parliament, came out for a No vote, despite his party’s pro-independence stance during the 2014 referendum.
More recently the father of the Scottish Greens appeared at odds with his successors when he warned that “dashing” into a referendum before the Brexit outcome was known would be “unwise”.
Mr Harper’s views are in contrast with those who represent the future of the party. Recently the 22-year-old Green MSP Ross Greer spent a good deal of time and effort on constitutional business.
Mr Greer may be the youngest MSP in the parliament, but he is gaining a reputation as a formidable and articulate campaigner.
Earlier this week, it became known that he had orchestrated a group of 50 politicians from across Europe to sign a letter stating that an independent Scotland would be “most welcome” as a full member of the European Union.
The letter, signed by parliamentarians from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Sweden, Greece, Hungary and Malta, was sent to Holyrood Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh.
It was an initiative that had little to do with saving the planet and everything to do with promoting Scottish independence. The truth is that – regardless of what may or may not have been in last year’s Green manifesto – anyone who voted Green in the belief that the party would be content to put independence on the back-burner would, like Mr Faulds, be guilty of naivety.
In 2014 the Greens played a hugely prominent role in the Yes campaign. Mr Harvie and his colleagues in today’s Scottish Green Party have never made any secret of their belief in Scottish independence – quite the opposite.
Whether Mr Faulds likes it or not, the May 2017 council elections are going to be viewed through the narrow lens of the constitutional question and his party must take a share of the responsibility for that.