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Same old story?

June 01 2024
© Chris Bird © Chris Bird

The Scottish National Party’s John Swinney is Scotland’s new First Minister, replacing Humza Yousaf MSP. But his tenure may be more of the same, rather than a breath of fresh air, writes Liv Boyce

Humza Yousaf could never have predicted the end of the Bute House Agreement would mean the end of his tenure as First Minister quite as quickly as it happened. While he has taken responsibility for his own downfall, it clearly was not the end he predicted when on Thursday 25 April he insisted he would not resign as First Minister. Despite the premature end, his achievements of being the first Muslim and person of colour to be First Minister is certainly something to be celebrated.

However, the period of uncertainty does not seem over for the Scottish National Party (SNP). While John Swinney’s lack of opposition for party leader is being branded as a sign of unity within party loyalists, it appears that the party may not command the amount of popular support they once held. A recent poll showed that the SNP is set to retain just 15 of its current 43 seats at a General Election, with Labour expected to win 28. John Swinney’s quick coronation is designed to settle the nerves of voters in Scotland with an experienced politician at the helm. Although the opposition are quick to disregard John Swinney, his years at the top of politics might play out with the voters. But, the volatility of the SNP since Nicola Sturgeon resigned and the arrests as a result of Operation Branchform may have done too much damage for John Swinney to repair.

His years at the top of politics were not exactly drama-free however. As leader of the party in 2004, he jumped before he was pushed, after Alex Salmond persuaded him to step down to avoid senior party figures calling for his resignation after the results of a European Parliament election. After a few years as a backbench MSP, he became a minister again in 2007 when the SNP were in opposition. His most notable years were when Nicola Sturgeon was First Minister, under whom he was made Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and then Deputy First Minister. However, after suffering from two votes of no confidences due to a 2020 SQA exam controversy and the refusal to publish legal advice, Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement she was stepping down from frontline politics in 2022 gave John Swinney the perfect cover to duck and run. While it appears he might be the only man for the job, he seems to be a reluctant rather than a ready First Minister. Even in his acceptance speech, he admitted he had not envisioned his future as leader of the SNP.

John Swinney is seeking to rule on a unity platform, bringing together those dissenting voices from the SNP backbenchers, such as Fergus Ewing who lost the whip under Humza Yousaf, as well as repairing the hurt caused to the Scottish Green Party after the ending of the informal coalition arrangements. Ruling as a minority government means he’ll have to rely on cross-party support to be able to bring through a policy agenda. His pledge to bring Kate Forbes into government in return for not standing against him may well alienate those SNP supporters who feel her traditional views are not suited to the progressive government which once brought in the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill.

In his acceptance speech, John Swinney said he would continue to persuade people of the case for independence, but would also focus on the cost-of-living crisis, the NHS, public services and the climate crisis. He also said addressing the “intense pressure” on housing in rural areas such as Perthshire would be among his main priorities. As for tackling the country’s homelessness crisis, Swinney has spoken briefly about the need to repurpose empty homes for suitable accommodation. He has also made promises to replenish Scotland’s housing supply. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to achieve any of this, but if the SNP are aiming for any kind of electoral success, he needs to hope he can.