Will the Rebranded ‘Green’ Freeports Backfire for the SNP?

By Paloma Paige – Contributor

If you are anticipating the next round of local elections, due to be held this May, then I wouldn’t be surprised to find you rummaging through the newspaper archives right now.  Why? In search of coverage of the 2021 cooperative agreement between the Scottish Government and Scottish Greens.  

While the outcome of the local elections will have no formal bearing on the cooperative agreement, the perceived successes and failures of such ‘cooperation’ is important in the context of an election considered to be the first test after the Scottish parliamentary election last year.  And there is nothing like a public rift in politics to bring both perceptions of political leadership and conclusions about emotive issues together for the public to mull over as they queue at the polling stations.  We are witnessing the first such rift between the Scottish Government and the Greens since they entered into their cooperative agreement, that which concerns the so-called ‘green’ freeports now set to be established in Scotland. 

The debate over the potential risks and benefits of freeports has been a lengthy one, often conflated with debates about Brexit. Criticisms have included worries about money laundering, smuggling, and poor working conditions.  Notably, the SNP (like the Greens) publicly opposed them when the UK Government announced in early 2021 the establishment of 10 such ports across nations.  Implementation in Scotland was delayed until last month when Scottish ministers reached a compromise such that the Scottish freeports would be rebranded as ‘green’.  

The initial announcement was laced with tough language about the requirements companies bidding to take part would have to meet with regard to working conditions and contributions to the Scottish Government’s net-zero goals.  This language had to be watered down when it was revealed that indeed none of these ‘requirements’ would be legally binding.  Bids will be scrutinised against these criteria but there is nothing to force companies to carry out their promises once they start to operate in these ‘green’ free ports.  It is little surprise then that the Greens are calling foul and the Conservatives are branding it as a massive u-turn while downplaying any success the SNP gained from the ultimate agreement.   

 So will this come to anything for the SNP?

One might argue that the Greens are safeguarding a distinctive stance on environmental policy ahead of the next election. This would not be misplaced.  However, this shift by the SNP is less about environmental policy than it is about making sure freeports do not undermine its work in other areas.  Take devolution and the case for independence as an example; it was arguably necessary to distinguish Scotland’s freeports from England’s and from the UK Government since, if the former are successful, the Treasury can rightfully point out that it funded many of the tax benefits and monetary incentives.  Speaking of incentives, it is unsurprising for the SNP to seek a way of tempering the neoliberalism running amuck here.  Although not legally binding, placing additional requirements on companies taking part might be one way to ensure a degree of accountability and that the Scottish Government is folded back into a process which might otherwise be seen as companies simply being handed benefits for relocating (recall that only two ‘green’ freeports are being funded for Scotland).  To ‘greenwash’ the initiative, as the Greens have accused the SNP of doing, might have been the smartest move for a government which in practice could not have refused to implement the initiative outright.  Whether it is simply greenwash or will amount to real gains in the effort to reach net zero remains to be seen.

In May we will have an indication as to whether voters consider this pertinent to the debate around climate change and whether the rift between the parties on the issue of ‘green’ free ports materialise in any change in voter behaviour.  Importantly, we should be asking what else was omitted from the cooperative agreement since this is likely to be the subject of the next rift we see affect the Scottish Government.  Whoever is rummaging through those newspaper archives just now – I’ll certainly be joining you.

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