Coalition is not new to Scotland but in truth it is not new to any mass democratic system. Whether coalitions are internal to a political party or externally agreed between political parties, almost all government is a compromise between differing views of what must be done and how.
The reality of the period between 2016 and 2021 in the Scottish Parliament is that there were five consistent if informal coalitions each deployed for different reasons and understanding these helps to explain the real purpose of the new SNP-Green ‘not quite a coalition’.
The best known of these de facto coalitions was a ‘Pro-Independence Coalition’ between the SNP and the Greens, but this is actually by far the least consequential of all as it related only to a very small number of votes and each of these turned out to be little more than symbolic.
Much more important was the ‘Budget Coalition’, also with the Greens. There is a consistent pattern of opposition parties always voting against the Finance Bill and so one of them must be sought as a partner to get it passed. The Greens’ policy wins and compromises were much more modest than they claim, but it is via the Budget Coalition that these were achieved.
The third coalition was the ‘Liberal Consensus’ coalition. This included everyone apart from the Tories and delivered quite a variety of votes from fairly important to worthy to virtue-signalling to authoritarian (so from embedding human rights and making some moves on period poverty through expressing outrage about something or other to greater restrictions on the population). In most cases it was probably as much about ‘as at least nominally centre left parties we can’t actually be seen to oppose this’. Indeed sometimes the Tories joined in.
The fourth coalition was really the most significant in policy terms, the ‘Power Coalition’. This was used a lot but gained surprisingly little attention. It was an SNP-Tory coalition and it was used repeatedly either to enact the wishes of the powerful or to inhibit regulation of them. So for example where the Greens would win a comparatively minor concession about a commission on Council Tax reform as part of the Budget Coalition, the Tories and SNP prevented the regulation of Air BnB properties or any real land reform.
But by far the most consequential coalition overall was the ‘Accountability Coalition’. This was a coalition of all the opposition parties and has been the only real means of holding the Scottish Government to account. This coalition is what gave the First Minister almost all her difficulties over big issues like education failures or the legal advice in the Salmond affair.
The Scottish Greens have just signed a gagging clause. That is what the coalition is really about.
It is weakened this term because a Green Presiding Officer means the remainder of the Parliament is split 50/50 but such are the crises ahead that closing down that coalition for the next five years is the real purpose of the agreement deal between the Scottish Greens and the SNP. We have seen the tactic before; when a range of new and independent voices developed during the independence campaign the SNP leadership recruited them to stand for Westminster and then made them sign what was effectively a ‘gagging clause’, committing them not to criticise any decisions made by the leadership. New voices were prevented from criticism.
The Scottish Greens have just signed a very similar gagging clause. The list of issues on which they are permitted to disagree with the First Minister has been codified and there seems to be a fairly clear statement that there will be no disagreement on issues not on this list.
That is very significant given what is ahead. Had the Greens been free to become a part of the Accountability Coalition again during this term they would have been likely to pass parliamentary motions on, for example, the need for a Judicial Inquiry into the Ferguson Marine debacle or to ensure a genuinely independent remit and chair for the crucial Covid inquiry.
The First Minister seems to have effectively closed off this potential for accountability and the Scottish Green Party seems to have complied with this move in return for two low-level government jobs. Whether this is good for the Greens we will see shortly but it is already pretty apparent that this is distinctly bad for Scottish Democracy.
Will this coalition hold? That may depend on how the First Minister deploys the other coalitions and in particular the Power Coalition. The most obvious gap in the Green-SNP deal is over ‘GDP Growth’ as this can easily cover all the subjects on which the SNP voted with the Tories during the last term.
It is hard to see how the First Minister will avoid doing this again this term. If there is to be free disagreement with the Greens she must find votes elsewhere and it seems unlikely she will gain them from Labour or the Lib Dems.
And yet if the Greens remain in a government which is continually passing right-wing, pro-growth policies in coalition with the Scottish Tories it may be too much of a humiliation even for Patrick Harvie to endure.
Sadly, it appears that permitting the cover-up of very major Scottish Government failure and potentially corruption (there have been allegations of criminality in relation both to the care home discharge policy and the Ferguson Marine affair) is a humiliation the Greens seem to feel they can endure.
There can be little doubt that this is the fundamental reason for the coalition deal that has been agreed because given the track record of promiscuity on the part of all parties over informal coalitions during the last five years mean it would have enabled the Scottish Government to pass all its legislation anyway. This leaves no credible alternative explanation for why this move has been made.