Patrick Harvie suggests Scottish Greens will back SNP budget at party conference

  • WATCH: Patrick Harvie suggests MSPs will back the government at the next budget. 

To govern is to choose, as the old adage has it. And the Scottish Greens have discovered that choosing to govern in coalition with the SNP has led to uncomfortable choices for them as a party. 

In the past year, they've been forced to abandon the deposit return recycling scheme which Lorna Slater, one of two Green ministers in the Scottish government, was in charge of.

They have had to go along with the Scottish government abandoning other policies aimed at protecting the environment, for example creating highly protected marine areas (HPMAs) around Scotland's coastline.

Now the most difficult choice lies ahead - what to do about the First Minister's surprise decision to freeze council tax? It was one of the key issues debated at the Scottish Greens annual conference in Dunfermline at the weekend.

A motion passed by the delegates gave their official verdict on the idea.

It said: "Conference believes that freezing council tax is a regressive policy which will entrench economic inequalities, deprive local authorities of essential revenue, and put public services and council budgets under further avoidable pressure. "Conference recognises the need to reduce cost of living pressures but does not believe that a council tax freeze which reduces investment in public services is an effective way to do so."

That could not be any clearer. 

However, two amendments to the motion, one calling on council tax to be excluded from their deal with the SNP and another calling on Green MSPs and ministers not to vote for freezing the council tax at Holyrood were defeated.

So where does that leave Ms Slater and her party co-leader Patrick Harvie, who is also a Scottish government minister? In a difficult place.

Under the so-called 'Bute House Agreement', named after the First Minister's official residence where talks were held leading to Greens and the SNP working together at Holyrood with two junior ministers joining the government. Essentially forming a coalition.

As part of that, they also agreed they would support each other in any Holyrood confidence votes on ministers and, crucially in this context, on budgets.

Some Scottish Green activists at the conference argued, with good reason, that the SNP had broken the 'Bute House agreement' which contained the commitments to work together and a "no surprises" clause.

The council tax freeze came as a complete surprise, and Mr Harvie was only told about it a matter of hours before the First Minister announced it.

Scottish Border Council's only Green councillor, Neil MacKinnon, told me that he was "completely against" the freeze, as it would hit the poorest hardest.

Other activists argued that the SNP had thrown the Scottish Greens "under a bus" and their parliamentarians should not go along with the policy.

When I spoke to Mr Harvie after the debate he was clear in completely agreeing with the official party policy, as spelled out in the motion, that the council tax was regressive.

He was less clear about what he and his MSPs will do, though he strongly suggested they would back the SNP budget which will contain the council tax freeze, though he pointed out there will not be a separate vote on it.

He argued Greens in government had already made a big difference to policy - he mentioned funding for warmer homes and rent controls among other things -  and should be at the table to argue their case, including on fully funding" the freeze, the detail of which has not yet been clarified.

Mr Harvie said it was a "small minority" of the party who had argued at the conference they should walk away from the 'Bute House agreement', something he said would be "appalling". He wasn't prepared to walk away from the deal, given how much, he said, had been achieved by Greens.

I pressed him several times on whether he would actually say they will support the budget including the council tax freeze which they officially oppose, as the Bute House Agreement commits them to?

He told me: "We want to achieve a budget we can vote for in good conscience, and is good to Scotland."

That was as close to a 'yes' as he would go, though if he is committed to the 'Bute House agreement', Scottish Greens have to vote for the budget when it is tabled.

We do not know for sure what they will do next month, when the budget comes to MSPs, but it appears likely Green MSPs support a policy they officially do not believe in, though they hope the proposals will contain concessions which they argue for to help local government.

No one ever said that going into government would be easy. As the first Greens in power in a UK administration Patrick Harvie and his colleagues are learning that the hard way.

And the longer they stay in office the debate sparked by the council tax freeze plan - which boils down to how far to compromise your principles for the sake of power - is not going to go away.

 Catch up on Representing Border 30.10.23

On tonight's Representing Border - we are in Dunfermline to bring you the highlights of the Scottish Greens Autumn conference. 

Leaders say the party is succeeding in government despite setbacks over key green policies and members show their disapproval over the SNP's surprise announcement on council tax. But Patrick Harvie suggests MSPs will back the government at the next budget. 

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