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30 April 2024updated 02 May 2024 1:02pm

A change of leader alone will not save the SNP

A panicked and confused party is attracted by the prospect of a unity candidate.

By Chris Deerin

The waters closed so quickly over Humza Yousaf so that within minutes of his resignation barely a bubble was visible. Scotland’s First Minister resigned on 29 April after spectacularly mishandling the dissolution of the SNP’s governing coalition with the Greens. But in truth, given the range and scope of his previous missteps, most in his party had moved on before then. For some time, it had been a matter of when rather than if he would go.

Yousaf’s speech was measured and generous – in contrast with 13 months in office defined by aggression, infighting, the regular deployment of victimhood, and general policy drift. Despite the brutal nature of his downfall, he said that he harboured no grudges, and nor should he. Few bore him ill will; it was simply obvious that the top job was above his level of political ability. Ultimately, the past year has amounted to a long, painful hangover from the Nicola Sturgeon era.

With the perfunctory matter of Yousaf’s exit sorted, attention quickly shifted to who will come next. It is clear that the likely answer to this question is the SNP veteran, John Swinney. If he wants the job of first minister, it’s his.

Swinney, 60, is already a failed leader of the SNP, however. He was at the helm between 2000 and 2004, during which the party performed poorly at the 2001 general election and in the 2003 Holyrood contest. After it failed to achieve its targets in the 2004 European elections, Swinney’s downfall swiftly followed.

When he announced his resignation, Sturgeon, then the bright young hope of the nationalist movement, was ready to stand. She seemed likely to win – until, that is, Alex Salmond decided he’d like to return from Westminster. From that moment, given Salmond’s reputation and experience, there was only one possible outcome, and he took 75 per cent of the vote in the leadership election.

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If there was an inevitability to Salmond’s victory then, the same seems true now of a Swinney return. At the time of writing, it’s not clear that anyone would dare stand against him.

There are several reasons for this. First, Swinney is by some margin the most well-liked politician among SNP members. They regard him as decent, reasonable, competent, experienced and committed to the cause. He has a sober, clerical air about him that 27 years on the front line as an MP and MSP has done little to taint.

Second, the traumas of recent years have left the party in a state of panic and confusion. Swinney’s steadiness and trustworthiness may well be what the SNP needs right now. He is best placed to reunite left and right, moderates and ultras, in a movement that has become dangerously divided.

Third, the only other candidate of any heft is Kate Forbes. Forbes is the most gifted SNP politician of her generation, but her social conservatism prevented her from beating the hapless Yousaf in the last leadership election. The party’s progressives retain an “anyone but Kate” view, and at this stage there isn’t anyone they can turn to other than Swinney: it is too early for young and largely unproven Sturgeonite ministers such as Màiri McAllan, Jenny Gilruth and Neil Gray. It is telling that all three have already publicly stated their support for a Swinney candidacy.

Given he is unlikely to serve beyond the next Holyrood election in 2026, Swinney’s leadership would buy them a couple of years to prove their worth. The same calculation is being made by the 35-year-old SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, who needs to find a Scottish Parliament seat if he is ever to take the top job. He has also endorsed Swinney.

The identity of the next first minister seems obvious, then. Allies of Forbes expect her to cut a deal in which she will stand aside, and in return be restored to the cabinet in a senior role. “It would be a mad decision for her to run against him,” said a source. “The party adores Swinney. She would lose and lose heavily.”

Yousaf’s departure will not be sufficient if the SNP is to recover in any meaningful sense. The party still faces humiliation at Labour’s hands in the forthcoming general election. And it has still been in power in Edinburgh for 17 years, and seems exhausted, self-indulgent and out of ideas. That does not bode well for the Holyrood election in 2026.

For all Swinney’s decency, is he the man to change that? His first stint of leadership hardly engenders confidence. He was also Sturgeon’s long-serving deputy and her chief consigliere, which means he bears significant responsibility for her errors (including the gender reform debacle and the botched independence plan). Critics will ask why, if he is so wise, did things go so wrong while he sat by the throne, whispering advice?

Nevertheless, Swinney’s likely comeback is giving heart to many in a traumatised party. “He’s held in high regard, is unflappable and knows government better than most,” a senior SNP figure told me. “I am more than a wee bit hopeful.”

What would this mean in practice? Scots are still waiting on the fabled “reset” the SNP has promised since Sturgeon’s resignation. The government’s obsession with progressive identity politics appears eccentric to voters alarmed by creaking, unreformed public services and an underperforming economy.

The phrase may have been ruined by its association with John Major, but senior Nats expect Swinney would adopt a “back-to-basics” approach. This option is straightforward following the ejection of the radical, demanding Greens from government, perhaps the only favour Yousaf has bequeathed his successor. “John will be very centre-ground,” an insider said. “He won’t be flashy. It’ll be government in the background rather than in your face… He should also be able to… [keep] independence [alive] for the party but not in a way that’s out of step with or alienating to the country.”

Swinney may be balm to an aching nationalist movement, but how he would be received in the country remains unknown. He has been around for a long time, and although he has retained his likeability, his one-time nickname of “Honest John” is seldom heard these days. The public may wonder why, after nearly two decades in office, the best the SNP can do in 2024 is offer up a repeat. Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney have been the independence movement’s main players since the 1990s, and somehow that still hasn’t changed. Scottish Labour would have liked Yousaf to remain in office for longer, if only because of the damage he was doing to his own side. Now, it must recalibrate. The party’s frontbenchers are already planning an anti-Swinney strategy based on his role in the Sturgeon administration. If the next SNP leader is to turn the party’s fortunes around, then the same old song from the same old people will not be enough. Change is no longer optional, it’s essential.

[See also: The SNP’s factional war has only just begun]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March