Do the budget negotiations show the declining power of the Greens?
Writing: Rob Bazaral
Kate Forbes is certainly an engaging figure to follow in Scottish politics. Especially as her first budget as Finance Secretary was recently finalized, she has started her tenure as a young, ambitious, if not slightly precocious Cabinet member with what seems to be a win for both herself and the SNP.
While the disgraced Derek Mackay may have laid the groundwork for this budget, Forbes’s role in its finalisation and her achievement in getting it through Holyrood fairly quickly should not be disregarded. Especially as the Scottish budget has been approved before its UK counterpart, Forbes has suddenly become something of a celebrity for Scottish politics and somewhat of a beacon of hope for SNP devotees. But is her budget, which was introduced and negotiated so quickly, as effective and bold as it was promised to be?
This is certainly debatable: the first point of interest when the budget was unveiled was how few concessions were made to the Scottish Greens. The Greens, which have used their rather nationalist identity to find unity with the SNP, have often been able to get a number of concessions towards their goals. In the case of this budget however, there was very little in the way of items on the Greens’ agenda. Compared to 2018’s £150 million funding for councils, among many other concessions, Forbes appeared to initially unveil an extremely low £11,832.5 million. Even in budget debates in Holyrood, after the lack of funding for local councils and municipalities was heavily scrutinized, Forbes and the SNP eventually conceded extra increases to local authorities and police services as well as £45 million for low-carbon projects.
This is a major difference from previous years’ stonewalling of the budget over questionable demands, like the Employer Parking Levy, which would have made it so many employers made their employees pay for parking. It is possible that Greens’ leader Patrick Harvey is attempting to step away from the Greens’ reputation of trying to make a name for themselves by flexing their coalition with the SNP in favour of more consistent power for their party. However, on the surface, it looks to show Forbes’s deal-making abilities, achieving a win for the SNP that Mackay, who was well-regarded enough to appear as Sturgeon’s potential successor, often had to claw for.
Harvey’s reasoning for the deal being struck was largely because of a promise made by Forbes and the SNP to make buses free for under-19s, supposedly beginning in January 2021. This is a notable step towards Scotland’s goal of combating climate change; but there is little specification of how immediate the rollout for this program has to be, or how impactful on Scotland’s carbon footprint it would be for this one portion of the population to take public transportation. This has therefore been heavily scrutinised. While the budget does increase the funding allocation for environment, climate change, and land reform by £35.2 million to £461.8 million, this free bus service for under-19s seems a bit of a lackluster crown jewel.
Both Labour and Conservative MSPs bemoaned the cuts to local services, with Conservatives critcising the lack of funding for drug rehabilitation services and Labour criticising the cuts to infrastructure as well as the absence of bolder steps towards free buses for all. Both sides seemed to accuse Forbes of not seeing the larger importance of council funding in favour of broad initiatives.
Still, the budget was passed without much outcry. The Lib Dems continued to withhold support out of principle to the SNP’s larger goals of independence, and many Labour and Conservatives did the same. Only time will tell how effective it will be and it is far too early to declare Forbes the saviour of the SNP or the youth the party needs to keep its momentum and actually achieve victories for Scotland.
If anything this budget calls into question the dignity of the Scottish Greens, a party that heralds itself as the leader in environmental reforms, but settled for arguably measly concessions to keep together its alliance with a party that has stumbled time and time again with its budgets and its abilities to keep its promises. With Labour attempting to get bolder climate change legislation passed with its broader goals of public transportation and a more developed plan to better local services, managing this through stronger progressive taxation, it makes one question the purpose of the Greens in this day and age.
The SNP clearly still has the support of many Scots, whether that be to stave off Conservative influence or the residue of feeling let down; primarily by a Labour party which seems to fail time and time again and whose goals can never be truly taken seriously due to their unwillingness to collaborate with the SNP. Still, the SNP must not forget about Parliament if it wants to maintain the broader support of Scotland. If Forbes’ ideas don’t pay off, it may create an even more divided Scotland without a clear party to support its interests.