David Jamieson

David Jamieson

Green/SNP Coalition: The Unbearable Lightness of Government

Reading Time: 4 minutes

David Jamieson argues that the coalition government means more phony ‘progress‘ for Scotland and that independence is the only basis for the new administration’s legitimacy.

I am absolutely certain that the Scottish Government will fulfil at least one of its most audacious sounding commitments in this parliament – the so called ‘minimum income guarantee’.

Announcing the policy in tremulous tones (“I can announce today”) before the May Scottish Elections, Nicola Sturgeon explained that she wants to “identify the extent to which” she can improve wages and benefits so that everyone is on a “minimum” level.

This policy is otherwise known as ‘income’. The government will continue to pay wages to public employees, and benefits to those who are entitled (don’t get too excited, the money comes from our taxes). The private sector likewise will continue in the now centuries-old wage relation, paying money in exchange for labour.

In other words, this policy is what we already have. More impressive than the transmutation of lead into gold, Sturgeon will in fact transmute nothing into nothing. If some in party and government circles didn’t allow themselves a giggle at this, they ought to cheer up.

This is what happens 14 years into rule by a party of aggressively managerial technocrats. There can be few countries on earth where press conferences are held to announce nothing with words like ‘universal’ and ‘guarantee’ chucked-in for flavour, and no one even rolls an eye.

The creation of Scotland’s new Green/SNP administration felt similarly unreal. In an indifferent blur a coalition agreement was agreed, voted-through by party memberships and executives, and launched.

Had this taken place after the 2016 Scottish elections (which it easily could have given how similar the outcomes were) the celebrations would have been prolonged and hysterical. But in 2021 few took notice outside the thin social layer who surround official political life; many of them essentially outgrowths of the state in the media, higher education, the third sector and so on.

Both parties excel in ‘progressive’ elevator muzak. Scottish Government policy is a vast graveyard of schemes consulted on or piloted that went nowhere. Every one had a lofty sounding end.

How many times has the government pledged to eliminate poverty? We are nowhere closer that goal. Sturgeon herself once strutted the boards of a Ted Talk (what else) to pronounce on the need to move beyond GDP-type measures of economic growth to a ‘wellbeing economy’. That concept was expressly ruled-out in the coalition agreement.

Instead we have a ‘circular economy’; another buzz-idea which is endlessly elastic and can be approached forever in tiny increments (taking the necessary time to consult with all the stakeholders, many of them directly funded by the government itself in a circular economy of finger food and free plonk). I’ve heard about this circular economy on several distinct occasions – all of them party conferences. I’ve seen Green and Tory politicians alike nod agreeably at this weightless notion in the sure knowledge that it will never encroach on interests nor produce measurable results, lest they be judged by them.

As head of our newly circular economy, Green co-leader Lorna Slater will be rounding-off the hard edges and provisioning the free lunches. I doubt anyone will notice. Patrick Harvie will be minister for ‘zero-carbon buildings, active travel and tenants’ rights’. The first two could presumably be covered by tinkering with planning rules and paving some more cycle lanes. The tenants’ rights brief opens more opportunities, but the coalition agreement on introducing national rent controls already betrays a whiff of the Holyrood swamp.

Both SNP and the Greens agreed to introduce the controls by the end of 2025. This of course means little or nothing to renters right here in 2021, some of whom are facing evictions with the lifting of special pandemic measures. But just as importantly, both parties understand that this timing makes the policy precarious. The government often pushes potentially life-improving legislation towards the end of the parliamentary session in the hopes that time will run down and it can be dragged to next five years. At the very least, the threat of this scenario can add weight to the lobby for watering-down the regulation.

We shouldn’t be fooled by claims that rent controls (or anything else) must involve years of consultation. Where real intent exists, so can haste. The Greens understood what the 2025 date meant, and they accepted this as a ‘give’ during negotiations.

There’s no denying that the putative basis for unity between the SNP and Greens is independence. To the extent that this coalition represents ‘popular will’ it is on that platform, and this is proven in the fact that independence tops the list of the coalition policies. One peculiarity of this coalition is that it is completely unnecessary. It wasn’t founded as a way to ward-off a threat from the right. The Greens have cosigned every SNP cuts budget for the last five years running (making a nonsense of discussions about how to resist Green assimilation into the swamp).

Yet the two parties were elected to this opportunity by an avowed commitment to independence, and have now formed a government. This speaks to a fundamental reality – the entire edifice of modern Scottish politics rests on the national question. Without it, there would be no obvious source for popular legitimacy.

Scotland is not at all unlike other European democracies: hollowed out of democratic content, prey to wonks and lobbyists who represent embedded interests, and generally repulsive to an alienated population. Indeed, if anything Scotland is the very archetype.

This is why independence still matters, even if, like me, you assume it isn’t on the agenda in the present parliament. Everything the government does (like calling for Nato troops to stay in Afghanistan even after they have been roundly defeated), doesn’t do (like create a National Care Service), or does do but pointlessly (like create a circular economy and a ‘minimum income guarantee’) is justified by the spectre of independence. Should they refuse to advance that cause in a meaningful way, none of the other nonsense will be taken into account.

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