Three weeks ago, the SNP-run Scottish Government and the Scottish Greens announced that the they had reached a historic power-sharing agreement. With this deal, the two parties firmed up the previous session’s informal and ad-hoc arrangements with a comprehensive joint policy programme, and the Scottish Greens’ co-leaders were handed new junior ministerial posts. While its scope exceeds a typical confidence and supply arrangement, the deal falls just short of a coalition government de jure, with the Greens retaining the ability to distance themselves from certain Scottish Government policies. An agreement of this nature is unprecedented in the context of British politics and it remains to be seen whether this “I Can’t Believe it’s Not a Coalition” pact, with all its caveats, can be comfortably reconciled with the norm of collective ministerial responsibility.
The arrangement does, however, make a great deal of political sense from the perspective of both parties. The SNP fell one seat short of achieving a single-party majority after May’s election. This necessitated continued collaboration with the Greens, the only other group at Holyrood in favour of Scottish independence. For the SNP, tying their junior partners to a pre-agreed programme and giving them a stake in government cements the legislature’s pro-indy majority and minimises the scope for friction when it comes time to pass budgets and other key legislative measures. It also burnishes their environmental credentials ahead of COP26. From the Scottish Greens’ perspective, the deal hands them increased legitimacy and a direct say in decision-making for the first time ever, giving them an opportunity to shape Scottish Government policy from the inside and nudge Holyrood’s enormous, heterogeneous SNP contingent to the left in some areas – not that the nationalists need much encouragement.
All that said, this is not a bargain without risks. While the parties have broadly similar aims and priorities, the Scottish Greens are certainly more radical than the SNP on paper. For example, the party advocates for economic degrowth, supports the decriminalisation of sex work and opposes the creation of new road network capacity. The pact has attracted ire from some commentators for this reason, with gnashing of teeth around the involvement of such “dangerous extremists” and their “fringe wish-list” manifesto in the day-to-day affairs of government. Just how much of a gamble is this deal for the two parties involved? In this post, we use SES data to assess the possible pitfalls.
Whether or not you agree with the aforementioned views of the Scottish Greens and their policy programme, there are a few reasons to believe that pundits have overstated the risks the power-sharing gambit poses to SNP support. While the aforementioned Scottish Green policies and more – not least their hostility to the domestically important oil industry – may well be anathema to “middle Scotland”, the party does not have anything like enough power or leverage to force this agenda onto the statute book. It is politically impossible for the centre-left pragmatists of the SNP to get behind many of the Greens’ redder policies even if they largely agree on the direction of travel.
In other areas there is, in any case, no daylight between some of the parties’ more “out there” or controversial positions. Shortly after the election, the leadership of both parties sided with Glasgow street protesters who spontaneously blocked a Home Office immigration enforcement van from deporting two Indian nationals in a dawn raid. The two parties also share some relatively radical policy commitments, such as their common intention to implement rent controls nationwide in spite of the broad consensus among economists that the measure is self-defeating and throttles housing supply. On the long-running, much-debated issue of Gender Recognition Act reform, meanwhile, disproportionate press coverage of gender identity issues (self-reported trans people comprise just 0.57% of the 2021 SES sample) and fierce opposition to changes in the law among some activists and commentators have made seemingly little impression on the wider public.
Ultimately, then, the SNP-Green deal changes little about the ideological bent of a Scottish Government which looks increasingly comfortable embracing international liberal-left causes du jour and which, for five years already, has made the occasional concession to the Greens in exchange for support on important votes. In other words, it is not news to anyone that Scotland has a left-wing, pro-independence government. The SNP have for many years attempted to define the cause of independence as the only means of national escape from right-wing, English, Conservative rule, and if anything they are attempting to entrench that notion more deeply than ever.
They have been largely successful in this endeavour – Scotland’s political centre of gravity has been pulled to the left since devolution, and the further left someone is the more likely they are to vote for independence. The figure below shows the share of Scottish Election Study respondents who support independence (undecideds excluded) along a self-reported 0-10 left-right scale i.e. the x mark shows the proportion of voters located at each point from 0 (left) and 10 (right) who said they would vote Yes in a second independence referendum. The vast majority of left wing respondents support Scottish independence, while, conversely, the vast majority of right wing respondents oppose it, with there being a fairly linear pattern between the extremes.
The apparent break in the pattern at the value of 9 is simply down to the small number of respondents located there. This is demonstrated in the figure below, which shows how all respondents are distributed on the left-right scale. 96% of respondents fall between 0 and 8, with the most common value being 5. The second most common value is 3, on the centre-left, followed by 4 and 2. Indeed, approximately 63% of respondents place themselves between the values of a 2 and a 5. The mean value across the whole sample is 4.4 and among Yes supporters it is 3.3. The centre of gravity in Scottish politics, especially on the pro-independence side, is firmly to the left.
Furthermore, as we showed in a previous post about indy-supporting parties, SNP list voters place their own party and the Greens very closely together on the same left-right scale. They even, on average, locate themselves slightly nearer the latter. The previous post also shows that SNP list voters have a relatively favourable view of one of the Scottish Greens’ leaders, Patrick Harvie. Mainstream pro-independence voters, by and large, do not perceive the Scottish Greens as ideologically beyond-the-pale. But that’s not to say all pro-indy voters share this attitude, and we turn now to potential difficulties.
While it seems unlikely that the involvement of the Scottish Greens in government will put off most SNP voters, the nationalists are often described as a “big tent” or “catch-all” party. This is certainly true of the party’s elites, who are held together more by their shared commitment to Scottish independence and (to be slightly uncharitable) wielding domestic power than any particular ideological commonality. While the collaboration with the Scottish Greens is unlikely to upset many mainstream nationalists, could it alienate enough SNP voters to cause problems for the party or its (eventual) second campaign for Scottish independence?
While the SNP have no reason to be unduly alarmed, SES data suggest there are a few reasons for the party to be wary. The figure below shows how each of the four main parties’ 2021 list supporters are distributed on the 0-10 left-right scale. This is the same as the graph above, but broken down by vote among these parties. The plurality value for SNP list voters, like the wider electorate, is 5, i.e. dead centre. These centrist voters make up 26% of the SNP list voter coalition, with a further 11% lying somewhere to the right of the scale midpoint.
So, although nearly two thirds of SNP list voters would locate themselves on the left, a nontrivial share of the party’s supporters who don’t already vote Green on the list are centrists or right wingers. These voters are likely to be more uncomfortable with the new arrangement between the parties. This internal ideological diversity is reflected in the standard deviation of left-right scores among SNP list supporters, which at a value of 2 is notably higher than that for the other four Holyrood parties (all between 1.6 and 1.7).
Turning now to of attitudes towards the parties, SNP list voters are also substantially more lukewarm about the Greens than vice versa. This is perhaps unsurprising given that, according to SES data, 74% of Green list voters selected the SNP on the constituency half of the ballot (the figure is 94% for SNP list voters). This in itself shows that the Scottish Greens probably have little to worry about politically when it comes to moderating their policy positions.
The figure below shows average “propensity to vote” scores for the four main parties. After the election, were asked how likely it is “that you would ever vote for each of the following parties in a Scottish election?” on a 0-10 scale, where 0 means “very unlikely” and 10 means “very likely”. Scottish Green list voters, as one might expect, reported being almost as likely to vote SNP as they are Green. SNP list voters are, however, much less likely to reciprocate, with the average response sitting just above the scale midpoint. While the divisions evident among the two largest pro-union parties are much more significant, it does suggest that there is some aversion to the Scottish Greens among #BothVotesSNP types.
What accounts for this? We have some data to help us dig deeper here. In the first wave of the 2021 SES, we asked respondents a direct question on their feelings about parties. They were again asked to answer on a 0-10 scale, where 0 means “strongly dislike” and 10 means “strongly like”. The figure below shows how eventual SNP list voters were distributed on this measure. While the bulk of these voters are relatively favourable towards the Greens, or at least lukewarm, around 20% of SNP list voters had an unfavourable attitude. We’ll need to spend some more time picking apart exactly why these voters are ill-disposed to the Greens, since there is no immediately obvious reason.
Ups and Downs
There are two ways to slice this from each party’s perspective. For the SNP, this is a relatively small share of their overall electorate, and not the party’s core support. And, while SES data show that right-wing and anti-Green SNP list voters tend to be slightly less certain about their support for independence, they remain on average pretty strongly in favour. The figure below shows the mean score of SNP list voters across five ideological camps (groups based on the self-report 0-10 ideology discussed above) on a 21-point scale tapping “how certain” they are to vote Yes (-10) or No (10). While indy support declines as you go further right, only the tiny “far right” contingent are close to the scale midpoint. Centrist and centre-right SNP list voters are on the whole quite committed to their constitutional position – and given that most Scottish voters bring this preference into the ballot box, one suspects that the issue will keep them in the SNP’s big tent. On the other hand, any drop in vote share could cause electoral problems for the SNP – a modest across-the-board drop in the SNP’s constituency share could cost the party a number of seats. So it is important for the party to recognise that their voter coalition is a diverse one.
For the Greens, the right-of-centre/anti-Green element of the SNP electorate poses a pragmatic risk to their policy agenda. They are in no position to throw their weight around versus the nationalist Goliath in control of the Scottish Government, and hesitation about the Greens amongst even some SNP voters will make Scottish Government reluctant to go much further than they already have. However, generally speaking, the favourable light in which most SNP list voters see the Greens is good news for the party since it shows they still have room to grow. All of the Greens’ seats are won on the list, largely (as noted above) thanks to people who vote SNP in the single-member constituencies. Most SNP list votes are “wasted”, since the party wins so many constituencies its regional top-up vote shares are diluted to next-to-nothing in the count.
If Alex Salmond’s Alba Party are right about one thing, it’s that the route to an independence “supermajority” at Holyrood is for SNP voters to decamp to a different pro-indy party on the list. If the Greens can avoid paying the “cost of governing” often visited more harshly on junior coalition partners (which to all intents and purposes they are), they may stand to make further gains at the next Scottish election. SNP-supporting, university educated, left wing, socially liberal, pro-independence voters are the party’s bread and butter, and there are plenty of those left for the Greens to skim from the ranks of 2021 SNP list voters. And to the extent that political reality blunts Scottish Green ambitions, it may in fact benefit the party politically – indeed they already seem to be enjoying a moderate boost in popularity. From an SNP perspective, rather ironically, the deal’s big risk may be that they lose support to the Scottish Greens, rather than because of them.