7 August 2022
The SNP-Green Cooperation Agreement in Review
Anthony Salamone on the impact of the SNP-Green cooperation agreement on the independence debate and government accountability
With the first anniversary of the post-election cooperation agreement between the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Greens approaching, the timing is opportune to the reflect on the impact of the agreement on Scottish politics and democracy. From its inception, the arrangement has been framed by its proponents as a democratic innovation representing a “different kind of politics” (in that regard, presumably meaning more progressive, respectable and enlightened). In reality, it is an unconventional experiment which tests established constitutional norms and which demands close scrutiny – arguably far more than it has received to date. Its context and rationale merit review, along with its connection to the independence debate and its implications for government accountability.
The cooperation agreement institutes a new hybrid governing model in Scotland: neither a coalition nor a confidence and supply arrangement. Under the deal, the Scottish Greens do not form part of the Scottish Government. Indeed, the agreement is between the “Scottish Government” (that is, the SNP) and the “Scottish Green Party Parliamentary Group”. Yet the two Green co-leaders (both members of the Scottish Parliament) became government ministers, with dedicated special advisers. The deal includes confidence and supply, a shared policy agenda and ministerial positions – but the junior party has not joined the government in the traditional sense. In a political system in which all ministers are parliamentarians, it is distinctly strange for a political party to take ministerial roles without joining the government. Whatever the terms of the agreement, the Scottish Greens cannot be in government and opposition at the same time – and a Green MSP cannot be a quasi-minister.
However, the provisions of the cooperation agreement do not extend to all areas of government policy. Those on which the parties have divergent positions, and which might cause them difficulties in working together, are simply excluded from the deal. According to the agreement, such “excluded matters” include economic principles, aviation, freeports, international relations (except where included) and private schools. Green ministers are bound by collective ministerial responsibility – but not on excluded matters. On those issues, any interventions which they make ostensibly do not represent the Scottish Government. In consequence, the agreement effectively creates selective ministerial roles for the junior party – in which the office holders are only sometimes responsible for the government’s actions and only sometimes aligned with government policy. That selectivity undermines the spirit of collective responsibility, since any minister should always be accountable for the policies and decisions of the government. All told, the cooperation agreement adds substantial complexity to Scottish governance. The logical question is whether that complexity is warranted.
Rationale for the cooperation agreement
The best means of testing the rationale for the SNP-Green cooperation agreement, as it is designed, is to consider whether a democratic head of state would have sufficient cause to approve the arrangement. The British monarch has no democratic legitimacy and has therefore little standing to challenge such decisions, for Scotland as part of the UK or an independent Scotland which retained the monarchy. However, if an independent Scotland were a republic, would its president approve this agreement? At last year’s election, the SNP won 64 of 129 seats (one less of a majority). Before then, the party had governed continuously since 2007 as either a majority or minority government. It was able to conduct the business of government throughout that period. The cooperation agreement is manifestly not necessary to ensure government stability. Moreover, the parties did not first try to form a coalition, but fail to do so. The cooperation agreement is not the successor to exhausted coalition negotiations, but the intended outcome from the beginning. It is clearly not a last resort to provide a functioning government. In fact, the cooperation negotiations lasted for several months (from May to August), which seems excessively long, given that the actual agreement is only nine pages in total (plus a policy agenda). During that time, the Scottish Government operated as normal, not in a caretaker capacity, demonstrating that the deal is not required for its stability or functioning.
Accordingly, the cooperation agreement is an entirely optional arrangement. Its discretionary quality must be balanced against its inherent complexity. Indeed, the hybrid structure of the agreement breaks with the precedent of coalition government in Scotland (which existed from 1999 to 2007). The SNP and the Greens could have formed a coalition. Instead, the cooperation agreement attempts to maximise their respective benefits from government while avoiding the difficult compromises of coalition. The central premise is that the SNP and Greens will work together, through government, where they agree, yet still oppose each other where they disagree. The implicit argument made by the parties in announcing the deal is that they could only have formed a coalition if they had agreed on every or nearly every policy matter – that policy harmony between parties is the prerequisite for a coalition. In reality, coalition partners often disagree on many points – that is normally why they are separate political parties. Nevertheless, they resolve to govern together, strike a coalition agreement and allocate ministerial portfolios, all while upholding a common responsibility for the policies and actions of the government. Concessions are made with the aim of establishing common purpose for the government, despite the differences between the parties. Governing is not selective or part-time.
Beyond the framing of the cooperation agreement as a different kind of politics, the party leaderships assuredly pursued the deal because they believed that it would advance their respective interests. On the face of it, the SNP gains significantly more from the deal than the Greens. With the SNP having been in power for 14 years at the last election, the arrangement gives the Scottish Government a new look without a change of party or leader. It has gained a parliamentary majority (of a kind) and it has locked in Green support for the budget and confidence votes, as well as for the shared agenda. In the previous parliament, the need for ad hoc negotiations (mostly with the Greens) on confidence and supply was the principal source of uncertainty for the SNP, which has been removed. In short, the SNP has secured nearly all the benefits of a coalition while avoiding one. The Greens have junior ministerial posts, influence through the shared agenda and their first opportunity to exercise some government power. Nevertheless, they would surely have benefited more from a coalition, in the form of one or more cabinet posts and a joint role in all government decisions (giving the party greater institutional advantage). In sum, given that the cooperation agreement is not necessary for government stability or functioning, breaks with the coalition precedent, challenges the norm of collective responsibility, favours one party over the other to a marked extent and introduces complexity to governance with the specific aim of avoiding a coalition, the president would not have sufficient cause to approve the agreement and, provided the powers existed to do so, would instead likely reject the agreement.
Connection to the independence debate
In pursuing the cooperation agreement, a central claim made by both the SNP and Greens is that the deal enhances the case for an independence referendum. The two parties each pledged in their respective manifestos for last year’s election to hold a referendum during this parliamentary term. Nearly one year later, that claim should be assessed against any appreciable change in the two levels of the procedural debate on a new referendum: the presence or absence of consensus in Scottish politics and the dispute between the Scottish and UK Governments. In fact, a lack of Scottish political consensus on the issue persists and the intergovernmental dispute remains unresolved. Of the parties in the Scottish Parliament, only the SNP and Greens support a referendum (that is, a vote is only backed by those who are pro-independence). None of the pro-UK parties in the parliament has changed its opposition to a referendum because of the election result or, more to the point, the cooperation agreement. In similar fashion, the UK Government has remained steadfast in its refusal to discuss or endorse a referendum. By all accounts, the cooperation agreement has made no impact whatsoever on the UK Government’s approach to the referendum issue or its decisions in relation to it. Indeed, if the cooperation agreement had significantly changed the calculus on the procedural debate on a referendum, as the SNP and Greens contended, the Scottish Government would likely not have felt compelled to pursue the high-risk, majoritarian referendum strategy now in motion.
Moreover, the main democratic tests normally argued in Scotland for an independence referendum are a majority of the Scottish Parliament and a majority government (in the Westminster sense – that is, one party with a majority of parliamentary seats). A parliamentary majority for a referendum has existed since the last election (and it existed in the previous parliamentary session). The cooperation agreement does not alter that fact. The SNP did not win a majority of seats, so it cannot form a majority government by the Westminster definition. The cooperation agreement does not create a single-party majority government, or even a coalition government – only a selective parliamentary majority. If the two parties had been motivated solely to establish the strongest and clearest possible governing position for an independence referendum, a coalition government would have been the logical choice. In truth, it is unclear how the cooperation agreement bolsters their referendum case. The Greens already supported the SNP on independence-related matters, including by voting for the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020, and surely would have continued to do so without the agreement. Instructively, in her independence referendum strategy speech to the Scottish Parliament in June, Nicola Sturgeon made no reference to either the cooperation agreement or the Scottish Greens.
Implications for government accountability
It is a basic democratic principle that government should be accountable to the legislature and to the people. An essential aspect of government accountability is clarity – who is governing, how decisions are made and who is responsible. When only one party is governing, that clarity is normally easier to establish. When more than one party is governing (or, in this case, partially involved in governing), it is inherently more difficult. Sound institutional architecture can facilitate that clarity. The SNP-Green cooperation agreement is a hybrid arrangement and a novel model to Scottish politics. Both dimensions increase the potential for public confusion on who is actually governing in Scotland. The deal itself is complicated: the Scottish Greens have not joined the government, but Green ministers have been appointed; Green ministers are collectively responsible for government decisions, but not in excluded areas; on excluded matters, the SNP and Greens can pursue completely contradictory policies. The cooperation agreement unquestionably introduces complexity to Scottish governance – arguably where it is not warranted – without adequate corresponding measures to promote clarity. The result is that, even if government decision-making has not become more opaque in practice as a consequence of the agreement, that complexity hinders public understanding of government.
Since the first days of the cooperation agreement, the Scottish Government has been cited variously in the media as the “the SNP government”, “the SNP-Green government” and “the SNP-Green coalition”. Obviously, these labels cannot all be correct at once. At the same time, it is unsurprising that most find it too complicated to use its full name: “the SNP government in cooperation with the Scottish Green Party parliamentary group, except in excluded areas”. Where Scotland’s governing arrangement is so complex that what it is called varies based on the predisposition of the speaker, that situation should be cause for reflection. Indeed, it is vital to ensuring its accountability that the composition of the government is clear and straightforward. Since Scottish politics is so prominently shaped (or distorted) by the independence debate, it is certainly possible that many voters may assess this government at its conclusion (for both the SNP and Greens) through the constitutional prism. Nevertheless, the health of Scotland’s democratic system depends on transcending the dysfunction caused by the omnipresence of the independence question and assessing the suitability of the unusual and confusing model of governance created by the cooperation agreement.