Winnie Ewing is a remarkable woman: intelligent, compassionate, combative. Long before she reconvened the Scottish Parliament, she made her mark upon the history of Scotland and the SNP.
She declared: “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.” Further, she noted that she did not become a Parliamentarian to settle down, but to settle up. In short, to pursue Scottish independence.
Therein lies much of the contemporary anxiety of some Nationalists. They fret that the SNP leadership may indeed have settled down into government, with limited emphasis upon that objective of settling up.
To be clear, this is not solely confined to Alba defectors. There are those in the SNP who fear that the party has lost its zeal for overturning the established order; it has become, indeed, the Scottish establishment.
I understand the sources of this anxiety. These internal critics look upon the works of the mighty in their party and despair. They see little progress towards the goal of independence and little sign of impatience at the top.
For myself, I do not buy this analysis. I believe that Nicola Sturgeon continues to yearn for independence. If she is timorous, it is because of the real, hard obstacles in her path, not least the immediate focus upon Covid, this hideous plague.
When the pact with the Greens was announced, there was much rash talk to the effect that it would increase the pressure upon the UK Government to concede a referendum on independence. I do not believe that to be the case, nor do I believe it to be the primary purpose of the pact.
Rather, I think it lies in the First Minister’s desire for a little order and stability after the dystopian turmoil of the previous Parliament, including the challenge posed by her predecessor. She faced a vote of no confidence. As did her deputy, John Swinney, with, at one point, a serious prospect of defeat. The deal with the Greens should obviate such problems.
Further, there is a commitment in the pact that the two parties will vote together on agreed topics at each legislative stage, including on amendments.
Rival parties are complaining that this will hamper the prospect of altering bills on a cross-party basis. That it is about control.
Precisely. Just as was the case with coalitions at Westminster and Holyrood. The SNP and the Greens insist they will continue to listen to good ideas from across the spectrum. Difference is they will not be obliged to give way.
Will the deal be endorsed by the Greens in a party vote? Some in the party will be fundamentally opposed to compromising ecological principles. Others may regard the SNP’s economic approach as too neo-liberal, despite Ms Sturgeon’s changes.
However, the Green leadership will deploy the ticking clock. They will say that, if time is truly running out for the planet, it would be foolish to sidestep the possibility of making a real difference within government.
So I expect that, next week, the co-leaders of the Greens, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, will be mandated to mount their ministerial tandem and pedal off in search of environmental progress.
However, there are limits. They will not be in Cabinet. Secondly, they are to work across departments which can be a source of diffuse power, or of unstable weakness.
Thirdly, the agreement is deliberately imprecise on some aims. There is talk of persuasion, of pursuit. The document, in that sense, is a masterpiece of subtle obfuscation, reflecting differing perspectives.
The most manifest example of this is on the economy. The Greens distrust growth as measured by GDP. They prefer to measure well-being, without, as yet, any precise definition. SNP Ministers will cling to measuring GDP growth, perhaps keeping their findings secret for fear of upsetting their new chums.
Indeed, Kate Forbes, the Finance Secretary, made a point this week of stressing the need to increase economic prosperity in order to fund public services. One can only wish them all loadsaluck in coping with this conundrum. Business will be watching, with a degree of apprehension.
But back to independence. Does this deal bring a referendum measurably closer? The short answer is no. As is the long answer.
I hear it said that Westminster, being a creature of tradition, will be more inclined to pay heed to a verdict which emanates from a governing pact, rather than one comprising disparate rivals.
Intriguing, I agree, but ultimately unpersuasive. The Greens were always going to vote for referendum demands at Holyrood. So, in practice, nothing has changed. The pressure upon the PM is unaltered and, for now, he persists in resistance.
Both the SNP and the Greens readily concede that they cannot approach this topic with any degree of intent while Covid continues to blight and end so many lives.
For the SNP in particular, there are many more challenges. They need to construct answers on the currency under independence, on relations with rUK should Scotland rejoin the EU and thus create a challenging border, and on the wider question of the economy and public spending.
For now, though, the issue does not arise. Partly through Covid but also through the refusal of the UK Government to countenance an agreed referendum. That obstacle may land in the courts.
Meanwhile ,UK ministers, without in any way conceding a referendum, are quietly mulling over some innovative ideas, should the issue resurface.
There is talk that the question of whether to hold a referendum might be tested in consort with an election; that voters might be asked to support or reject the proposition through the ballot box, while simultaneously choosing parliamentarians. There is also a feeling in UK Government circles that the rules governing a referendum would require tighter definition, that the Edinburgh Agreement which led to the 2014 ballot was too loose.
In particular, it is suggested that any further referendum should be final or, at the very least, that there should be defined (and very high) trigger points for any subsequent ballot. No more unspecific talk of “once in a generation”.
To be clear, from the UK standpoint, this does not presently arise. For now.
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