Swede dreams of power for Scottish Greens

Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party Photo: PA

Power or influence? That is the fundamental dilemma for the Scottish Greens as the party looks ahead after its conference at the weekend.

In other words, should the Greens continue as they have been doing since the last election, using their six MSPs to influence the minority SNP administration?

Or would they achieve more by forming a formal coalition, should the opportunity arise, join the government and take up ministerial office?

One very clear answer to those questions came at the weekend from a Green politician with experience of both government and opposition.

Per Bolund, the Minister for Financial Markets in the Social Democrat-Green coalition in Sweden, was unequivocal: you achieve more in power.

Per Bolund, Minister for Financial Markets in the Government of Sweden Credit: PA

In an interview with me for tonight's Representing Border Green conference special programme, he accepted that joining a coalition involves compromise.

But Mr Bolund was speaking after outlining to Scottish Green delegates a wide range of policies the government he is part of are planning to implement.

It included everything from creating a fossil fuels-free energy supply to attempting to redesign the financial system to make it more environmentally friendly.

The Greens in Sweden had been in opposition for 30 years, Mr Bolund told me. They were far more powerful in government.

Now, up until now I had thought that this approach was something which the Scottish Greens eschewed, preferring the purity of opposition and using the opportunities when they arose to influence ministers.

It seems I was wrong. In an interview with me for the same programme the party's co-convenor, Patrick Harvie, told me he agreed with his Swedish colleague.

Mr Harvie outlined the stages through which he says the Greens have gone, and hope to go: first as effectively a lobbying group, then a presence in parliament, then influence using their numbers in Holyrood.

And finally, he hopes, power by being in government.

Now, Mr Harvie did not specify exactly when this would happen, and there is no guarantee that it will. For now anyway.

There is no sign Nicola Sturgeon is going to make him and his party an offer of ministerial jobs they can't refuse.

Nonetheless it is interesting that the Scottish Greens are thinking in these terms. They are serious about power and what you can achieve with it, even if that does involve compromise.

The question is do all Scottish Greens take the same view?

Mr Harvie's co-convenor, Maggie Chapman, made reference in her speech to the party rejecting an offer to join a coalition after the 2007 Holyrood election.

Maggie Chapman, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party Credit: PA

There was also a further pointed comment in her speech about Scottish Greens not being interested in 'ministerial baubles' and sticking to their principles.

A difference of opinion, or a difference of emphasis?

It will be fascinating to see how that debate develops in the party, but also whether the opportunity ever arises for Greens to take up ministerial jobs, presumably without taking up ministerial cars, or at least not fossil-fuelled vehicles.

More immediately, the party has a conundrum in terms of its influence. A condition of their support for the SNP government's budget will be an above inflation pay rise for public sector workers.

I pressed Mr Harvie on how much that would cost, including whether it would amount to more than the £330m the Greens tax plans - essentially lower taxes for lower earners, higher taxes for higher earners - would raise.

He did not have a figure for the cost of his plans but he did say union pay demands of up to 5% were reasonable.

It was up to the Scottish government to provide the details on tax plans and then opposition parties would decide what to do when it came to voting on them, Mr Harvie added.

With finance minister Derek Mackay arguing Westminster constraints limit his scope for ending the pay cap, it is hard to see how the Greens can at this stage support whatever the SNP government comes up with.

There are, of course, detailed negotiations to come between the parties once the SNP has published its options on tax.

Only once we see those, and the Scottish Greens respond, can we tell just how much influence the party has and ponder whether they might have more were they formally in power.

You can see my interview with Patrick Harvie, Per Bolund and a full conference report on Representing Border tonight at 10.45pm.