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A Bute House Divided

Craig Dalzell

The Bute House Agreement has ended. Earlier this month, the Greens notified members that there would be a vote on whether or not to continue the cooperation deal with the Scottish Government within the next few weeks. This morning, stealing the march and despite saying just 24 hours earlier that SNP members didn’t need a vote because they’d certainly back the agreement, Humza Yousaf unilaterally terminated the deal. The Greens have been booted out of government and Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater are no longer ministers.

Regardless of the merits or demerits of the deal (I argued and voted against it when I was still a Green member and I believe that my warnings have mostly been upheld) there is a substantial democratic deficit in how the deal has ended. It came about after a democratic vote of both SNP and Green members (albeit SNP members only getting that vote after kicking up merry hell in the press and even then it was only “advisory” rather than the binding vote the Green members enjoyed) but the deal has ended precisely to prevent such a vote. Members of both parties have not been able to guide their parties.

On a Parliamentary level, the SNP have willingly sacrificed their majority and returned to minority rule. When the agreement was signed, the Parliament was exactly balanced and, unlike the 2017-2021 Parliament, it was possible for the other parties to jointly prevent the Government from passing a Bill by forcing a draw in the votes (which the Presiding Officer would likely break by voting in which ever way did not endorse a change, usually by voting against the Bill). But with various changes over the years since – notably the defection of Ash Regan to the Alba Party – it is now possible once again for the Parliament to take control of the agenda and potentially win votes despite opposition from the Government. The SNP must now look to others to pass their agenda and cannot count on an agreement whipping their votes into line. That is, if the Parliament don’t use their power and the Greens’ outrage right now to test the waters with a vote of no confidence and an earlier election…and right as I’ve been writing this column, one has been lodged by the Conservatives. The SNP need at least one vote from an MSP out with their party and if it doesn’t come from the Greens the next most likely candidate is Ash Regan. The only other option is if someone, somewhere abstains

Assuming that vote fails then I would urge Parliament to consider its role right now. In times of majority government there is a disturbing tendency for the party (or parties) of government to descend to becoming just one vote better than their opposition – why try harder when you’ll win just the same? And when the opposition cannot win, they tend to decline too – why try harder when you know you’ll lose just the same? Years of weak opposition in Holyrood had contributed to the decay in the ability of government.

But it’s clear (just as it was when the Agreement was signed) that internal coalition compromises aren’t sufficient either. The SNP and Greens both agreed their shared policy platform on climate, for instance, but neither the SNP vision for climate transition nor the slightly stronger Green vision for climate transition was sufficient to meet climate targets nor did their respective visions for a National Care Service present something that would result in what we actually need to sort care in Scotland. If neither vision was good enough then no compromise position between the two was ever going to be enough either. In any case, the actual result was that the Government fell short of both visions in both areas.

When it comes to the climate especially, we need a sense not of compromise and give-and-take policy trading but we now need collegiate competition, of various parties trying to one-up each other (more than just “one”-up really). We need politicians to take the lead with ideas and challenge others not just to follow but to surpass them. We need a race to the top, instead of the bottom.

I’m not hopeful we’ll get there in the wake of this collapse – there will be the temptation to retrench and build defensive walls and, of course, the “radical pulling forces” aren’t just all on the progressive left. A large chunk of the collapse of the Bute House Agreement has come from the right wing of the SNP after all. So we do need to ask if Scotland has the kind of political culture able to take advantage of that kind of collegiate politics.

Westminster certainly isn’t. It is specifically designed around the “two swords apart” adversarialism draped in polite velvet traditionalism. The First Past the Post voting system specifically encourages and rewards not just “1st place wins” but “2nd place loses everything”. Ideas from the other side aren’t just to be ignored but actively scorned.
Scotland may have a little more in the way of a proportional voting system but it is still anchored by that winner-takes-all attitude of the First Past the Post. Contrast this, for instance, with my conversation on the podcast this week about the politics in the Basque Country where parties are more willing to acknowledge their shared policies in one area while debating strongly on others.

Fundamentally, even in completely proportional politics, the limit is the party structure itself. Whenever a politician is willing or is forced to set aside their personal conviction or the needs of their constituents to meet a party whip, democracy loses. We need to see parties much more willing and able to allow debate and dissent within their ranks – from that, good ideas will emerge. And if it won’t come from the parties themselves, this is where groups like the trade unions, third sector orgs and, yes, think tanks like Common Weal show their strength. We have a strong track record of pulling together cross-party coalitions on issues and policies because disparate sides can point towards us instead of making rather more rude gestures to each other. So if you want to support our policy-making, our campaigns and our coalition-building, please consider donating and we’ll show you how much more we can do.

Times of change can also be times of opportunity. Maybe it’s time for folk elected in Holyrood to take this opportunity to decide who they plan to stand for. Themselves? Their party? Or All of Us?

Image Credit: Scottish Government CC-BY 2.0

3 thoughts on “A Bute House Divided”

  1. I was enthusiastic about the SNP-Green deal at the outset. Unfortunately the reality has increasingly felt like the government is constantly pushing unpopular and divisive policies rather than focusing on building on ‘majority supported policies’ as part of building a majority for independence. The final straw for me was the suggestion by the Greens that independence was not a red line for them and they could imagine a future coalition with Labour. I’m now glad they have been booted out of government and hope it gives the SNP the opportunity to start governing better in the lead up to the General Election.

  2. Hi Craig,

    Given that politicians the world over are breaking commitments to Climate and Loss and Damage pledges and still talking about keeping 1.5 alive when it has evidently been gone for over a year, what are your thoughts on the proposals to make Cop 30 in Brazil a Peoples’ CoP with no vested interests allowed anywhere near it? How could this be supported and their recommendations implemented? Can you please put your brain power to this. By the way, it’s thanks to Roland that I have heard about this and she knows more about it than me.
    See this:
    https://www.edie.net/guiding-compass-to-1-5c-cop29-presidency-unveils-plans-for-global-climate-action/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=edie_daily_news_alert_26-04-2024&utm_content=edie_daily_news_alert_26-04-2024+CID_ec19dbbec6817259cc43ce5b7db1b95f&utm_source=campaign%20monitor&utm_term=Read%20more

  3. Ian Davidson

    Most politicians have a different mindset from those who vote them in to office. They are obsessed with the continuity and progress of their own party careers rather than what is achieved or not in the real world. We need to reduce the stranglehold of the party system; more non aligned folks like Andy Wightman. The party system is a corrupting influence; it does not exist for our benefit. We need power sharing to be baked in to Devo and also to indy constitution. If one third of Scots consistently vote for centre right parties/policies, then that should be accurately reflected not only in the number of such MSPs, but also in government office. If, as in NI, politicians refuse to participate, their salaries and other perks of office should be reduced or even fully suspended. We need more elections, more citizen assemblies, more cross party conventions; right of recall of miscreant msps; we need real democracy and engagement. A Holyrood GE, with more non-aligned candidates standing; with inter party strategy co-op on use of second/list vote; with a return to 4 year max terms; with a clear role for local government etc is something to be welcomed, not feared. The job security and career plans of individuals is not our concern; politicians exist to serve us, not the other way round.

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