Scottish politics became exciting and sexy yesterday. Sexy as politics goes anyway. The excitement is over the fact that the SNP have failed to persuade the Scottish Parliament to back its budget. Cue lots of finger pointing.
It’s the sort of thing that makes members of the public disdainful of politicians. I chose to listen to Radio Scotland for a short while following the budget vote. The first set of text messages to be read out, around 15 minutes after the vote had taken place, was practically an encyclopaedia of lazy Scottish political commentary. All the old chestnuts were wheeled out. One person blamed proportional representation. Another suggested getting rid of the Scottish Parliament altogether. A few more had decided never to vote for the Greens again.
But I can’t find it in me to blame the Greens for this one at all. Not remotely. Maybe I am allowing the fact that I am hugely in favour of their insulation scheme cloud my judgement. It is, after all, the only vaguely sensible thing I can remember hearing pass through a politician’s lips in years. That’s something to get passionate about.
But in seriousness, I struggle to see how the Greens can possibly be blamed for this. Their policy has been well-established. It was put on the table months ago. And it seems like a very sensible policy at that. The Greens’ proposal took up just £100 million of a £33 billion budget — just a third of a percent. It’s amazing to think that the SNP were unable to properly accommodate the Greens’ demands until literally the last minute. It’s even more incredible when you consider that the SNP are supposed to be broadly in favour of the scheme!
This all seems like sheer carelessness on the SNP’s part. Going by Patrick Harvie’s media appearances, his chief concern was not the fact that the SNP were unwilling to stump up the full £100 million. In this supposedly consensual Parliament, politicians should expect to make compromises. It may well be that the Greens would have taken what John Swinney put on the table were the Greens treated with a modicum of respect, with negotiations conducted properly. But the Green co-convener seemed quite livid at the apparently haphazard way the SNP conducted the discussions.
If half of what Patrick Harvie says about last-minute phone calls and faxes being delivered halfway through John Swinney’s speech is true, it makes the SNP look like an organisational basket case. Given that negotiations have been going on for weeks — months, even — it seems awfully careless for the SNP to sleep in like this. It’s hardly the slick operation that skilfully won the 2007 election.
It’s no surprise that the Greens should feel insulted. It looks like they were totally taken for granted — fobbed off with a half-baked scheme, and communicated to practically in grunts. The SNP must have calculated that they could get away with taking the Greens for granted. They might have got away with it when Robin Harper was in charge. Yesterday the Greens stood up for themselves, and rightly so.
It wouldn’t surprise me now if the new budget goes through unanimously, as Jeff suggests it might. I interpret the events of yesterday as a warning to SNP not to be too arrogant and that they can’t take the Parliament for granted. But politicians will surely know that they can’t take this game too far.
It won’t be popular with the public if we end up without a budget and — worse — having to trudge out to vote for this shower again. I’m sure every politician in Holyrood knows that. Nor, surely, can the parties really afford all the campaigning that would be involved. So they will be prepared to avoid that outcome. In the aftermath of yesterday’s events, all of the parties appear to be more willing to play ball.
That’s the risk the Greens now face though. Either Labour or the Lib Dems — or both — might like to make some political capital out of this by making some compromises so that they can go around the place saying they saved Scotland’s public spending. In that case, the SNP really would be able to take the Greens’ votes for granted.
In that case, the Greens will look like they have made a major strategic error here. But I still think they did the right thing yesterday. The Greens may not have been very pragmatic, but their principled stance is exactly what we need more of in politics.