Shades of green

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The platform thrashed out by the SNP and the Scottish Greens is dangerously vague, argues Hamish Macdonell

It’s all in the detail. Or, rather, in the case of the SNP-Green deal, perhaps it isn’t.

The coalition that isn’t, announced last month, was hardly unexpected. It had been trailed for weeks as the two parties conducted an elaborate dance, partly in the public glare and partly away from it.

But it was only when we got to see the actual text of the deal that it was possible to work out what it could mean and this is where the detail – or the lack of it – is so important.

There is almost one whole page in the agreement devoted to aquaculture and another focused on protecting the marine environment.

Much of the language is of the “motherhood and apple pie” variety. Take this, from the opening paragraph on aquaculture, which it says “must operate within environmental limits and with social licence and ensure there is a thriving marine ecosystem for future generations”.

It would be difficult to find anybody who wouldn’t agree with that. However, it is so vague and so open to interpretation that it allows the Greens to pursue one agenda while their partners in government pursue another. One parliamentarian’s “thriving marine ecosystem” is another parliamentarian’s missed opportunity.

And what are the environmental limits that salmon farmers should operate within? Our farmers already work within probably the tightest and most robust regulatory regime in the world. Is this sufficient or does this line allow the Greens to pursue even tougher regulation?

It is simply not clear – but perhaps that was the aim. After all, when a deal of this sort is done between two parties with divergent views on aquaculture, there has to be a fudge and that’s what’s happened. The language has to be so vague that both parties can sign up to it.

The problem is that this vagueness creates gaps and potential avenues that some of the more vociferous and fanatical Greens could exploit.

Highly protected, highly uncertain

Take the next section, the one on marine protection. At the heart of this part is a commitment to establish “highly protected marine areas” (HPMAs) where no aquaculture or commercial fishing will be allowed and that will cover 10% of the seas around Scotland.

Again, there is a crucial absence of detail. If that 10% area is made up of oceanic sites, well off the coasts or is mainly focused on the north and east coasts of Scotland, then there will be no clash with salmon farming.

But what if the politicians decide to designate areas where there are already salmon farms as highly protected areas? Do the salmon farms have to move? Will they have to be closed down? Will alternative sites be found for them?

The reality is that we just don’t know.

There is detail in this agreement and the detail comes from the SNP end of the deal. There is a clear commitment to implement the regulatory reform agenda for planning consents that the SNP championed in its election manifesto.

The agreement also includes a promise to bring forward a response to the Salmon Interactions Working Group, which is hardly a surprise as that has been on the cards for months.

An ambiguous agreement

What appears to have happened here is that the SNP has gone into negotiations with a clear, thought-out agenda for salmon farming that has been worked up over months. It is an agenda designed to deliver a salmon farming sector that is both sustainable and successful, growing in partnership with the remote rural communities it sustains.

The Greens, in contrast, went into the negotiations with an extraordinarily vague and ill-informed manifesto commitment to end all open-pen salmon farming in Scotland and a demand that regulations be tightened.

The result is the agreement itself, a text that is in some parts tightly focused and in others vague; both precise and woolly.

The precise bits came from the SNP, the woolly bits from the Greens but the danger for Scotland’s salmon farmers is that there is now so much ambiguity in the agreement that some Greens may be able to drive through an anti-salmon farming agenda, even though this is not what the SNP want.

After Labour and the Liberal Democrats first entered into coalition talks back in 1999,
Donald Dewar (the then Scottish Labour leader) admitted that he had been hideously ill-prepared for the talks.

He had a few ideas scribbled down on the back of an envelope, the Liberal Democrats came with a clear platform of ideas, all backed by their members and all signed, sealed and laminated for the negotiating team.

Needless to say, it was the Liberal Democrats who got most of what they wanted.

This time round, the Greens have gone into the negotiations with a few ideas (at least as far as aquaculture is concerned) scribbled on the back of an envelope and it is to the SNP’s discredit that the Greens appear to have got most of what they wanted.

They wanted vague, open-ended commitments to improve environmental protection and tighten regulation, without anyone spelling out what that could mean or why this might be needed.

Much has been written questioning this deal. Why did the SNP do this when they already had Green support for a second independence referendum and other policies besides?

Politically, it appears to be a bad deal for the SNP, a deal that will see the Greens emerge with the credit for any environmental improvements and the SNP attacked for everything that goes wrong in traditional departments.

However, having talked to senior figures in the SNP administration, it is clear there was an overwhelming weariness with minority government. They had had enough of fighting for every vote, every policy, every parliamentary decision. They wanted the stability of a majority. Indeed, they wanted it more than anything.

All we can hope is that the decision to favour stability and security in government does not result in any unintended consequences, which could tie our sector up in so much red tape it will be difficult to ever extricate ourselves from it.