The Scottish Greens: The SNP’s Gardening Wing

The Scottish Greens promised ‘ecosocialism’ but in government they have delivered austerity, privatisation and deals with the fossil fuel industry – much like Green Parties across Europe.

The 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections left the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) two seats short of a Holyrood majority. Seeking a partner to help them deliver on the promise of a second independence referendum, only the Scottish Greens made sense. Backed by their membership, the party’s co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater took up ministerial positions in a coalition government.

For some on the left, the Scottish Green Party entering government alongside the SNP brought a sense of cautious optimism. Promising rent controls, a green national energy industry, and free bus travel for young people, there was hope that a party whose conference declared its support for ‘ecosocialism’ could avert the worst consequences of neoliberalism. Six months later, though, any faith has been extinguished after the Scottish Greens lurched to the right in an effort to attain political legitimacy. From celebrating the sale of public resources to multinationals to backing budget cuts, the Scottish Greens have reneged on their radicalism to the convenience of the SNP.

A Neoliberal Turn

One example of this process comes in the form of transport. Free, integrated, and publicly owned transport is integral to any serious climate strategy, but the rollout of free bus travel for under-twenty-twos has been so flawed that many young Scots have already given up on trying to access their ‘NEC Card’. As a principle, its provision is to be welcomed, but the failure of implementation demonstrates a lack of political conviction.

The abandoned plan for a national energy company is more illustrative. In June 2021, the Scottish Greens described a national energy company as ‘vital to Scotland’s green recovery’, and co-leader Lorna Slater wrote an article on Scotland’s ‘urgent’ need for publicly owned energy. This commitment was abandoned three months later: every Green Member of the Scottish Parliament voted against establishing a publicly-owned and not-for-profit energy company.

Justifying their volt-face, Lorna Slater told the Scottish Parliament that a ‘different approach’ to energy policy was required. What this ‘different approach’ will be remains to be seen. As soaring energy bills plunge thousands across Scotland into fuel poverty, little has been done to combat the cost of living crisis, aside from dishing out money to the middle classThe apparent conversion to market fundamentalism is in contradiction with the declared will of the party’s members, who denounced capitalism as ‘incompatible with a sustainable planet’ just months ago.

This is the consequence of charging a single-issue party to manage a crisis that demands systemic change. Addressing both the climate and cost of living crisis requires an understanding of, and firm opposition to, the root cause—capitalism. But because the Scottish Greens’ electoral base is so broad and its platform, beyond its ‘green’ issue, so undefined, it is unable to deliver on its rhetoric. 

This right-wing drift on energy policy is indicative of a more general drift to the right. Earlier this year, Crown Estate Scotland auctioned off the management of offshore wind to multinational corporations, including BP and Shell. The fossil fuel elite came away from the auction with control of far more energy capacity than was forecasted, paying far less than was expected for it. 

Far from denouncing this victory for fossil fuel giants, the Scottish Greens cheered the result as ‘the biggest industrial opportunity Scotland has had for decades’, enabling the ‘greenwashing’ of the oil industry, the outsourcing of jobs abroad, and the offshoring of profit—a ‘monumental’ result, in the words of one Scottish Green MSP. 

The Crown Estates auction also saw the Scottish Greens forgo the opportunity to mandate companies to recognise trade unions and invest in domestic supply chains. Were the party rooted in class politics, one imagines different decisions would have been made. Divorced from the wider labour movement, the Scottish Greens face no consequences for supporting actions antithetical to the interests of the organised working class. This cuts right to the core of the cause of the party’s capitulation. 

As a counterexample, take Labour’s ties to the trade union movement and the leverage the unions have within the party. The decision of some trade unions to slash funding to or disaffiliate from Labour entirely in response to Keir Starmer’s pivot to the right demonstrates how the trade union link means there are repercussions for abandoning the interests of organised labour. Green parties have no such link and, thus, have no mechanism to prevent their complete capitulation to the status quo. 

This lack of a counterweight helps explain why the green light was given to a consultation on the privatisation of Scotland’s publicly owned ferry company, CalMac—so much for ‘publicly owned Scottish National Infrastructure’—and why rail fares were hiked by 3.8 percent despite a pledge to cut the cost of travel by a third.

Maintaining the Status Quo

Even in areas of policy intrinsically linked to the Scottish Greens’ environmental priorities, then, they are incapable of standing up to the privatisation model which has so exacerbated the climate crisis. Rather than deliver on its radical promises, the Scottish Greens have been co-opted by the state to preserve the status quo. 

Such a reneging is convenient for the SNP, who have also succeeded in muzzling a potentially more radical alternative to their vision of Scottish independence. As they await the right time to initiate the campaign for a second referendum, they must ensure their hegemony is preserved. What better way to do so than by co-opting the green agenda, ensuring its radicalism is sanitised, and rendering the Scottish Greens politically impotent?

The Scottish Greens, meanwhile, excuse their shortcomings with the tired argument that with Westminster tying one hand behind their backs, they ‘simply don’t have the power’ to take radical action. In December, the coalition government passed an austerity budget condemned as ‘unacceptable’ by all thirty-two Scottish council leaders and subsequently blamed on Westminster. Were the government to use the full extent of its devolved powers, though, things would be different.

To begin to address the cost of living crisis, the Scottish government could freeze rents, reverse rail fare rises and plans to cut services, and enshrine the right to food in law. The argument that ‘they don’t have the power’ to change things does not stand, and it cannot excuse their inaction. 

This argument does, however, serve the SNP’s wider political project. The notion that the Scottish government is unable to act serves as a smokescreen to obscure responsibility for decisions taken in Holyrood and lays blame with Westminster. This helps secure the SNP’s political dominance and saves nationalists from having to undertake real leg-work in providing concrete answers to outstanding questions regarding independence.

A Political Vacuum

However, since entering government, the Scottish Greens have risen in the polls. This can be partly attributed to the increase in coverage which comes with being a party of government. More than that, though, they have filled a political vacuum created by a Scottish Labour Party moving to the right and a Scottish National Party at pains to defend its torrid record in government. In spite of their recent complicity, the Scottish Greens benefit from being the only party ‘talking left’ and the lack of challenges to their hollow rhetoric. 

Their capitulation also shouldn’t come as a surprise: it mirrors trends in Green party politics across Europe. In Germany during the eighties, the Greens in coalition saw the continuation of a damaging coal industry and restrictions on civil rights. Concerns over the German Greens compromising on climate and social policies have been echoed recently as the party entered again into a coalition. Their Austrian counterparts followed a similar path under the management of the now president of Austria Alexander van der Bellen, who has transformed the Austrian Greens into an undemocratic neoliberal party.

The total absence of radicalism from the Scottish Greens, then, should be understood within this context of trade-offs  for political gain, made possible by single-issue politics that, in attempting to appeal to everyone, abandons those who stand to gain the most from a radical green agenda. Wherever Greens take steps into parliamentary power to gain political ‘legitimacy’ alongside more conservative government partners, they inevitably sacrifice their radicalism. 

Like their European counterparts, the Scottish Greens find themselves divorced from the politics of class struggle on account of their broad electoral base. Without a core electorate with clear class characteristics, Green parties are free to capitulate and preserve the status quo because it is never entirely clear whose interests they have been elected to advance. They can throw their weight behind neoliberal policies when in power, because they are not held accountable by, nor do they represent, the people who their U-turns threaten the most. In the words of the co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, the Greens appeal to those living in ‘high rises’, but also ‘five-bedroom’ houses. In Scotland, things are no different. 

‘Green capitalism’ cannot solve any of our present crises. The Scottish Green Party have four years left to prove their critics wrong and make strides towards an eco-socialist Scotland; to present a radical alternative to a stagnant one-party nationalist movement. But as Chico Mendes famously put it, ‘environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening’and in power, the Scottish Greens have revealed themselves as little more than the SNP’s gardening wing: incapable of making change, devoid of backbone, and firmly under the thumb of their senior partner.

About the Author

Coll McCail is a Scottish climate activist. He writes for the Progressive International and represents young members on Scottish Labour’s executive committee.

Finn Smyth is a writer for the Progressive International, a member of Scottish Labour, and a student of history at the University of St. Andrews.