Insight: SNP and Scottish Greens to announce radical co-operation deal this week

The potential deal between the SNP and the Scottish Greens is set to be a radical departure from traditional co-governance agreements between two parties, with details set to be announced later this week.

The agreement will not be a confidence and supply deal nor a formal coalition and is set to break new ground as a form of collaborative politics never seen before in the UK.

Sources suggest the deal – if finalised – will be closer to the ‘co-operation agreement’ struck between New Zealand’s Green Party and the country’s ruling Labour Party in 2020 than the formal coalition between the Irish Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

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Negotiations remain ongoing between officials and representatives from the Scottish Government and their prospective partners, but are well advanced as the deadline for the talks to reach a conclusion approaches.

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Any announcement of a deal is most likely to be made this coming week should talks continue to progress positively, with the chances of negotiations collapsing at this late stage small.

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A Scottish Greens source told Scotland on Sunday they were “optimistic” a deal would be struck with the SNP.

It would be the first time the SNP has officially worked with another party in government during its 14 years of power and it is understood ministerial positions for the co-leaders of the Scottish Greens, Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie, are a possibility.

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In 2007, the then-SNP leader Alex Salmond struck a much looser ‘working deal’ with the Scottish Greens, which confirmed his ascension to First Minister and the SNP to power in a minority government.

The possibility of a deal between the two parties after the Holyrood elections in May was openly discussed, with both leaders asked about the potential of such a deal.

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Asked about the prospect of a coalition prior to the Holyrood election in May, Mr Harvie said any negotiations would involve a “difficult conversation” with the SNP.

Those discussions are now almost over, but any agreement is likely to have a wide-ranging impact on Scottish politics for at least the next five years.

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How the election shaped negotiations between the Greens and SNP

The position of both parties was strengthened after the election, with the SNP winning 64 seats – one short of a majority – and the Greens eight, two more than in 2016.

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Parliamentary arithmetic made a deal much more likely and has increased significance for the future constitutional arrangement for the United Kingdom.

While the Conservative attack line post-election was the SNP had failed to reach a majority, the SNP response – that there was a clear pro-independence majority in Parliament – required a degree of additional support.

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A formal deal with the Scottish Greens, particularly one that includes both co-leaders gaining a seat around the Cabinet table, strengthens that claim.

It would be hard – but likely inevitable – for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to deny there is a mandate for a second independence referendum in Holyrood if broader Green support of the SNP was formalised in such a manner.

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Failing to demand one within the next Parliament from such a position of significant parliamentary strength and formal co-governance would likely undermine any future Holyrood campaign fought on demands for indyref2 for both the SNP and the Greens.

The decision by Alison Johnstone to move into the seat of the Presiding Officer gave the Greens an additional reason to increase their influence on the SNP Government.

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Down to seven MSPs, two potential ministers in Mr Harvie – their most recognisable public face – and Ms Slater – newly elected as an MSP this year and fresh to the role of full-time politician – would radically increase their exposure to the wider electorate.

This could have its downsides and since the election the additional scrutiny on the party as talks began has proven difficult.

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First, in May, Mr Harvie, Ms Slater and colleague Ross Greer were photographed breaching Covid-19 rules in a pub in Edinburgh, leading to an apology from the party for an “honest mistake”.

The party has also been in receipt of pointed criticism around the way it handled a controversy surrounding one of its former MSPs, Andy Wightman.

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In an excoriating blog post last week, Mr Wightman hit out at Mr Harvie’s leadership and blasted the party for what he alleged was an intolerant approach to the debate around trans rights.

Any entry into government by the Scottish Greens will inevitably lead to increasing scrutiny on the party, its beliefs and its representatives, and will not be smooth sailing.

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What could be contained in the Greens-SNP deal?

There is a firm deadline to deliberations between the SNP and the Scottish Greens due to the fact Nicola Sturgeon is set to present her programme for government to Holyrood on August 31 after the end of recess.

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Any deal between the two parties must be approved by the members of the Scottish Greens at an emergency general meeting [EGM], most likely taking place the week prior.

It is understood the technical detail of how the deal will work in practice is the main point of ongoing discussion for both sides due to the complex nature of the novel arrangement.

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The entirety of the SNP’s coming legislative programme has been a subject of discussion by negotiators. However, details of where the Scottish Greens have gained ground has been kept tightly under wraps.

However, sources suggest the deal will include a list of areas on which the Scottish Greens will be able to continue to criticise the Scottish Government, and where the party is bound by stricter rules of collective responsibility.

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Areas which could see more collaborative work and potentially rise on the priority list include policies such as the universal basic income, a four-day working week, and further devolution of taxation powers to Holyrood.

The Greens may also push for the SNP to act on several years of promises to reform and replace council tax, as well as pressure on key infrastructure issues such as Scotland’s railways and renewable power.

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Other issues which may prove more difficult for clear alignment between the two parties include education, where the Greens have been heavily critical of the SNP’s approach to exams and the curriculum, and transport infrastructure such as the dualling of the A9 and other major road-building plans.

How the talks have triggered nerves in both camps

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Talk of a deal between the parties without a clear understanding of what may constitute any agreement has understandably led to nerves among the membership of both the SNP and the Greens.

Some members within the Greens have expressed concern their successful attempts at pulling the governing party to their side through budget negotiations and the potential for defeats at key Holyrood votes has been a beneficial approach.

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Examples such as the decision by John Swinney to U-turn around exam results in 2020, a direct result of a deal with the Scottish Greens ahead of a confidence vote in the then education secretary, are highlighted as ways the standard approach has worked.

However, there are concerns within the party the next step is to enter government as a junior partner, following in the footsteps of other Green parties such as those in Ireland, Sweden and Finland in recent years.

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One senior Green source said: “It’s 22 years since Greens first entered Parliament and 14 years since the first Green councillors were elected.

"As a member for over 30 years, I have seen how the major issues which we were set up to tackle – like climate change, environmental destruction, erosion of community power – have become more and more urgent and I do believe it’s time for Green politics to take the next step up to drive change faster and further.

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"No-one is in any doubt that it will involve compromise and difficult decisions. No deal will be perfect. But I am left asking if not now, then when?”

There is also an urgency, given fresh impetus by the “code red” warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last week, that to tackle climate change and make real progress the party should work collaboratively and join government.

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This is viewed as a better way to drag the less radical aspects of the SNP-led Scottish Government closer to where the Greens require and where, they would argue, the planet needs politicians to sit.

It goes without saying that in the year of COP26, set to be held in Glasgow this November, that Nicola Sturgeon would benefit from the undoubted positive PR of working with a pro-Green agenda party.

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Another point of contention for the SNP’s membership is the ongoing debate around trans rights and the more hardline approach by the Scottish Greens.

Ms Sturgeon’s party has faced years of bitter infighting on the issue of reform of the Gender Recognition Act, with disagreements over trans rights also costing the Scottish Greens one of its most experienced MSPs in Mr Wightman.

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Any deal between the two on this issue will be subject to a war of words from both sides of the debate, with some of the SNP’s more gender critical members likely to oppose the move, while pro-trans rights Green members may view any agreement with suspicion.

Fundamentally, the deal will neuter Holyrood’s atmosphere of hostility that began to boil over towards the end of the last parliamentary session.

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Bitter division often permeated the Scottish Parliament’s main chamber during debates and the SNP’s deal with the Greens will be viewed by many as a way of reducing this type of politics.

The Scottish Conservatives, who have gained significant political capital through threatening damaging votes on policy in Holyrood, may be put on the back foot if the SNP can rely on Green support on the vast majority of policy areas.

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More collaborative and constructive politics may follow, but the deal could split Holyrood further down the middle on constitutional grounds.

An informal coalition of opposition between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories could be floated by rival party leaders Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross, but would have significant knock-on effects for all three.

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Who are the Scottish Greens’ MSPs?

Patrick Harvie

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The longest-serving of the Greens’ Holyrood contingent and one of its two co-leaders, first elected to that position in 2008 after former leader Robin Harper stood down from the role.

Mr Harvie was first elected in 2003 and has represented Glasgow as a regional MSP throughout, helping to grow the party from two MSPs in 2007 to eight in 2021.

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An LGBT rights activist and sexual health worker prior to his election to Holyrood, Mr Harvie was a prominent campaigner and member of the Yes Scotland board during the 2014 independence referendum.

Lorna Slater

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One of the fresh faces in the Scottish Green contingent elected in May, the Lothians MSP replaced Andy Wightman, who quit the party prior to the election over a disagreement about trans rights.

Ms Slater is originally from Alberta, Canada, and worked in the renewable energy sector, including in tidal power, prior to her election to Holyrood.

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She was elected as co-leader of the Scottish Greens in August 2019 and is a keen amateur trapeze artist.

Ross Greer

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When first elected on the regional list for West Scotland during the Scottish Greens’ major step forward in 2016, Mr Greer was the youngest-ever MSP.

Re-elected in 2021, the 27-year-old has been an outspoken critic of the Scottish Government’s education policy, particularly around the exams scandal of 2020.

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He also worked with the Yes Scotland campaign in 2014, and has courted controversy around his views about former prime minister Winston Churchill.

Maggie Chapman

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Previously the co-leader of the Scottish Greens with Patrick Harvie at the 2016 election, Ms Chapman was finally elected to Holyrood after several failures in 2021 as a regional list MSP for the North East.

Prior to this she was a councillor in Edinburgh and represented the Scottish Greens as a member of the Smith Commission, which examined what powers should be devolved to Scotland after the referendum result of 2014.

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Born in Zimbabwe Rhodesia just prior to the country’s independence from the UK, Ms Chapman moved to Scotland to study zoology in Edinburgh in 2001 and was elected as rector of the University of Aberdeen twice in 2014 and 2017.

Mark Ruskell

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First elected in 2003 as a regional MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, Mr Ruskell was one of the casualties of the Scottish Greens’ miserable performance at the ballot box in 2007.

However, he returned to Holyrood in 2016 and was re-elected in 2021. He is the party’s spokesperson on climate, energy, environment, food and farming, while sitting on the environment committee.

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Another Green MSP to work in the renewables sector, Mr Ruskell was also a councillor in Stirling during his time outside of Parliament.

Arianne Burgess

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One of the Scottish Greens’ new MSPs for 2021 having been elected in the Highlands and Islands regional list, taking over from the retiring John Finnie.

She will act as the party’s spokesperson on communities, land reform, housing and rural affairs and has campaigned locally against issues such as the expansion of Inverness Airport and in favour of the dualling of the Highland mainline.

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Gillian Mackay

Another of the Scottish Greens’ fresh faces elected in 2021, Ms Mackay was the first-ever MSP from the party to be elected in Central Scotland on the regional list.

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With a degree in marine biotechnology and biodiversity, she is well-versed in the world of Holyrood after spending the last session as a parliamentary researcher.

As an MSP she will represent the Greens as health and social care spokesperson.

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Alison Johnstone

Former co-convener of the Scottish Greens with Robin Harper from 2007 until 2008, Ms Johnstone was elected as an MSP for the Lothian region initially in 2011.

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A high-profile presence among the party, she was re-elected again in 2016 and 2021 and was joint leader of the party in the Scottish Parliament from 2019 until the election in May.

After re-election, Ms Johnstone ran for the position of Presiding Officer in Holyrood, beating SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing and Liberal Democrat Liam McArthur in an election of MSPs.

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The role of Presiding Officer requires its occupant to give up their party affiliation for the duration they are in the role.

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