BLOG: Budget puts Greens in the spotlight

Patrick Harvie was at the centre of the heated exchanges. Credit: PA

After today's budget deal there are two views of the leader of the Scottish Greens, Patrick Harvie.

He's a politician of principle say his colleagues, an opinion shared by SNP ministers from Nicola Sturgeon down.

In their view he put aside tribal party loyalty, compromised on his demands, won some concessions, and kept the government show on the road.

While he was at it, by doing this deal he averted the prospect of a second Holyrood election, which would have happened if it had been no deal, rather than deal.

But there's another view. His opponents say he's shown himself to be a "cheap date" for the Nationalist administration - to use a phrase Mr Harvie himself once coined of the Lib Dems.

Tory finance spokesperson Murdo Fraser has in a previous debate even called the Greens leader a SNP "patsy", a word Mr Harvie took exception to as offensive.

Principled or patsies? Credit: PA

To bowldersie the bard, his opponents believe the Greens leader has been bought and sold for SNP gold, and not that much of it either.

And that is the nub of this Scottish budget deal, which has been done by the SNP minority government and the Scottish Greens led by Mr Harvie, winning an extra £160 million for local government.

The Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were this afternoon falling over themselves to attack the Greens for doing the deal.

Perhaps the most stinging attack came from the Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, who accused the Greens of forsaking their "lofty progressive ideals" and providing the "figleaf the Nationalist desperately need".

There was much more of that kind of thing, including from Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, who said Mr Harvie's party had gone from being "green and bold to grey and timid".

Derek Mackay speaks during the budget debate. Credit: PA

So where are the facts in amid all this rhetoric? Well, Mr Harvie can claim that he and his party have mitigated some of the cuts that were due to hit local government.

For example, Dumfries & Galloway get an extra £5.1 million, Scottish Borders get £3.8 million - both sums not to be sniffed at - though Labour MSP Colin Smyth, a D&G councillor, says it is still a cut.

Over all the councils' umbrella body the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) say the £160m is welcome but councils still face a £200 million cut across Scotland.

More broadly, do the opposition charges of the Greens leaving their principles behind stack up? Well, perhaps there is a clue to this in Mr Harvie's budget speech today.

The Greens co-convener, to give him his formal title, accepted that in terms of taxation the Scottish government had given far less ground "than I think they should or could have".

His party had, after all, proposed a 60p top rate - the additional rate - and generally far higher taxes for those on higher incomes.

But Mr Harvie argued that in gaining the £160m extra his party had done more in one budget than Labour had in ten years of opposition.

And then there is the constitution. There is always the constitution in Scottish politics.

Labour claim that there is a bigger picture here - that the Greens and the SNP want to remain united ahead of a second independence referendum, where they will again be on the same side.

The Greens, of course, say this is nonsense, that they are just doing their best, responsibly and reasonably, by compromising to help local communities threatened by cuts.

Meanwhile, the Tory attack this time was rather different, with Mr Fraser claiming that the SNP had fallen for what he called the Greens "hard left tax agenda".

Mr Fraser said the budget meant Scotland had become the highest taxed part of the UK.

You can bet your bottom dollar - or your bottom pound Sterling - that this will be repeated again and again and again in the run up to May's local elections. And beyond.

The Scottish government respond that fewer than 1% of Scottish taxpayers - those earning above £170,000 a year or so - will pay more tax.

Those below that will not face a tax rise. Higher rate taxpayers (the 40% rate) just will not get a tax cut promised under the last UK budget - making a difference north and south of the Border for higher rate taxpayers of about £400 a year.

Today's budget debate roused passions seldom seen or heard at Holyrood. It got heated at times, with the Greens being the target of much of the heat.But that is as it should be.

The whole point of giving the Scottish parliament powers over tax rates and bands was to increase accountability to the Scottish people.

If that means that feelings run high, then that is no bad thing. Voters will see that this matters, that what their politicians do has a direct effect on their lives.

As to the Greens, in the end it will be the electors who judge whether they are principled or patsies.