With apologies to Rumplestiltskin
ONCE UPON A TIME in Scotland there was a First Minister who promised the people they would all live happily ever after if they left the United Kingdom.
But the people weren’t convinced by fanciful arguments that constitutional change should be a priority for its leaders. A plague had recently swept the land and they wanted respite and recovery from it instead. So they told the First Minister to go away and think of ways to spin gold for the whole of Scotland.
The First Minister was despondent. She had spent years trying her hardest to grow the economy but instead only record casualties from boils, drugs, alcoholism and homelessness were visited upon her people. She had little else to show for her toil. What could she do? The people of Scotland were growing impatient.
Then one day she was visited by a little green man who saw she was upset and asked how he could help. “The people want economic recovery” the First Minister cried. “Yet my own party only really wants to break up the Kingdom. If I don’t achieve either, my personal popularity will plummet and my dreams will be over.”
A cunning look entered the green man’s eye. “Don’t worry”, he said. “I will strike a bargain with you but I will need something in return.”
So the First Minister agreed. She would have a guaranteed majority in the Scottish Parliament and she would please her party with suggestions that this would deliver their heart’s desire: another referendum on breaking up the Kingdom.
In return, the First Minister would agree to pretend they had not entered a formal Coalition agreement so that both sides could avoid taking responsibility for collective failures in government. They would have their fairy cake and eat it.
The little man was overjoyed because under the deal he received what he craved most: power to implement policies very few people in Scotland had actually voted for. “Now I have a seat at the big table, everyone will do as I say and I can have a legacy at last!” he exclaimed.
However the people of the Kingdom were worried. Its merchants in particular noted the green man saw wealth creation as a problem rather than a blessing. They noted a record public spending deficit in the past year worth more than £36 billion which could only be reduced if wealth could be created anew through the merchants’ toils.
They despaired that recovery from the recent plague would be postponed indefinitely while the green man and the First Minister carved up power between them rather than help the merchants spin gold.
Soon the people got fed up with the deal. There were more rats, more pot holes and more windmills across the land. They felt betrayed by the First Minister and her green ally. They wanted a coherent plan for post-plague economic recovery, not a half-baked scheme to deliver a referendum.
But their complaints fell on deaf ears until eventually the First Minister and her friend thought of a cunning new bargain to strike with the people of Scotland.
And so the riddle of the government’s true name was conceived.
“If you can guess the true name of the deal we have struck” they said to the people of Scotland, “we will stop planning an IndyRef2 and focus on economic recovery.” Sure that everyone had been confounded for the time being, they got on with fomenting their referendum recipe.
The people of Scotland were stumped. They said to themselves: “Surely this is flaming obvious. The answer is ‘Coalition’. If it looks, sounds and smells rotten, then ‘Coalition’ must be the answer.”
But others pointed out this couldn’t possibly be the case. Both the First Minister and the little green man had denied there would be a Coalition between the parties. Surely they would not lie? Indeed the man was adamant that while he was now a government minister he was also somehow a member of the opposition anyway. This, he stressed (with a straight green face), must be true as he still received opposition funding and parliamentary time.
“And anyway”, others pointed out, “isn’t it clear from the last decade of politics in the UK and across Europe that junior coalition partners get a drubbing at subsequent elections after voters blame them for reneging on promises in the name of compromise? We trust the little man and he wouldn’t put his party through that, would he?”
So the people held their tongues and didn’t give a name for the agreement because they were actually more interested in seeing whether it would deliver anything good like jobs or better run public services without boils and pot holes. The First Minister and the little green man pressed on. They judged the riddle would be forgotten over time.
The pair focussed as never before on the constitution of the Kingdom while opportunities to create wealth slipped away. The little green man was especially pleased because after years of trying to influence from the sidelines he finally had the chance to cast his spells through a team of civil servants and the use of a new ministerial electric vehicle.
Yet the people took note of what had happened and had not forgotten the riddle of the name. The law of the land maintained that they must be asked at least every five years what sort of government they wanted. And when that happened again the man panicked.
“Remember” he appealed to the people, “this was a ‘Co-operation Agreement’, not a Coalition! You can’t blame me just because the country I helped run is falling behind in international comparisons in everything from education to productivity and inward investment!”
The people were having none of it. Finally someone struck up the courage to say: “No, this has been a Coalition all along. That’s its true name and it delivered five years of chaos. We are not voting for you again. Go away please.”
The little man was furious; so furious he stamped his feet and wept but nobody noticed because the people had stopped listening. He was duly trounced at the ballot box.
Confused, he turned to the First Minister, whose vote had held much better. “What are we to do?” he asked. “The people have turned on us. How can we rule together in future if they won’t trust either of us again?” But the icy cold First Minister looked away, pretending not to notice. The little man had outlived his usefulness. The people blamed him for their joint failure and that was what mattered.
So the little green man and the riddle of the Coalition bargain passed into fairy tale folklore; a story that travelled slowly along road networks that had sorely lacked investment, told by eerie candlelight because the government had failed to capitalise effectively on new industrial opportunities during the shift to net-zero.
And the First Minister, with the little green man gone, was left to get on with pursuing her nightmare to break up the Kingdom alone.
Exactly as she had planned all along.
Photo of Patrick Harvie by Scottish Government – Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights – CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=109521556