Holyrood in the balance
John Finnie is one of many MSPs who are standing down at next month’s Holyrood election and I will be sorry to see him go.
That is because he has been the only Green MSP in the Scottish Parliament I have come across who has been prepared to have a proper dialogue and discussion with Scotland’s salmon farmers.
As far as the rest of the Green parliamentary group is concerned, I couldn’t get meetings, indeed I could hardly get responses to emails when I tried to engage with them on behalf of Scotland’s salmon farmers.
In environmental terms, that always struck me as odd. After all, fish farming evolved to help save wild fish stocks in our oceans and farmed salmon have a low carbon footprint, low water use and great feed conversion rates. If ever there was a green protein production industry, it is salmon farming, so why wouldn’t the MSPs want to meet us to discuss this?
But politically I felt it was an odd decision too. For MSPs to refuse to meet with a sector they don’t like showed a narrowness of vision and a prejudice that, I suspected, could easily come back to haunt them.
Not only that, but as far as our sector is concerned, they now appear blinkered, inflexible and intolerant – except, of course, for Mr Finnie – pursuing an opposition to salmon farming which seems based more on dogma than rationality.
But that is why the latest polls should worry us. Under some current forecasts, the Greens could get as many as 11 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament after May’s election.
Not only would that represent a bigger haul of Green MSPs than ever before but, with the SNP likely to struggle to get anywhere near a majority, those Green MSPs could provide Nicola Sturgeon with a lifeline.
Get those Greens on board, she will be urged, and the road to another independence referendum will be secure. She will not need telling that the best way to tie the Greens in is with a formal coalition deal, an SNP-Green government. If that happens, there will be Green cabinet secretaries, Green ministers and possibly even a Green Deputy First Minister.
Ms Sturgeon’s SNP administration has been hugely supportive of Scotland’s salmon farming sector. The government has long recognised the huge economic importance of salmon farming, particularly to remote rural communities and has backed it. Ministers have been critical too: they have demanded improvements and they have got them with the sector and the administration working well together.
But what will happen to that support if the SNP administration is not just tinged with green but has a Green Party vein running right the way through it?
Many observers saw the sudden emergence of Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party as a big blow to Green aspirations with independence-supporting non-SNP voters now more likely to be tempted more by Mr Salmond than Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie. But I’m not so sure it is as clear cut as that. There are some SNP voters who were intending to vote SNP on the first vote and Green on the second and who might now be tempted by Alba, but this number will not be large.
I also do not believe there is much crossover between Green voters and supporters of Mr Salmond. The former First Minister’s approach to politics has been simple and flexible: he will always back any policy that furthers the independence cause, even if that infuriates the SNP’s more radical, fundamentalist base. This clashes with the Green approach, which is about principle over practicality, every time.
What seems likely is that Mr Salmond himself will get elected in the North East of Scotland, where he still has a residual personal vote, but that Alba will be lucky to get any other MSPs elected.
It is also distinctly possible that the feud between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond will succeed in driving some voters away from the SNP and Alba altogether, leaving them with little choice but to support the Greens. If that happens, then the decent clutch of seats the Greens crave will not be out of reach for the party.
It is also worth factoring in the context of an exhausted government; a party that has been in power for 14 years; a First Minister wearied by the pandemic and the feud with her former mentor; and a rival party worn out by these last five years in opposition.
One SNP insider told me the atmosphere at Holyrood had become “toxic” with no party trusting anything any other party said and all trying all sorts of dirty tricks to undermine their opponents.
It was this, he said – more than anything – that made the prospect of another term of minority government seem so unappealing. That is why an SNP-Green coalition is still a strong possibility and it is one that should worry Scotland’s salmon farmers.
The lessons from around the world, in British Columbia in particular, are clear: salmon farmers cannot afford to lose the backing of the governments where they farm.
That is why the SSPO will be making sure that every candidate in the areas where our members farm knows how important this sector is, not just in economic terms but in community terms and through the whole supply chain too.
We want discussion, we want debate: we want to tell everyone about the great environmental story we have to tell. We want to explain the successes and explain why our critics are wrong.
One way of doing that is through face-to-face meetings with MSPs and parliamentarians but, if they won’t engage then we will find other ways of doing that.
I really hope Mr Finnie enjoys his retirement but I also hope that, if he is replaced with new Green MSPs, they adopt his open, accommodating and consensual approach to dealing with our sector. Otherwise, it could be a very long four years until the next election.