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2 May 2024

Can John Swinney be more than a caretaker leader?

The SNP front-runner will seek to unite his warring party by bringing Kate Forbes back into the fold.

By Chris Deerin

John Swinney is a modest, mild-mannered man, but when you’re running to be SNP leader and Scotland’s next first minister it doesn’t pay to be too modest or too mild-mannered. So, when he launched his campaign today, he brought the swagger.

This was John “Wayne” Swinney. He was, he boasted, a “strong, reassuring, experienced, skilled individual” who would “command the trust and confidence of people across this country”. The 60-year-old, who has been posited as a stop-gap leader for the struggling SNP, before making way for a younger model, was having none of it. “I. Am. No. Caretaker,” he said, sounding quite cross at the very thought. If he won the Holyrood election in 2026, he would serve the entirety of the next parliament as first minister.

At this point, had he been wearing a Stetson, he would have tipped it back and fixed us with a cold stare. Things had not been going too well for the SNP, he conceded, but there was about to be a new sheriff in town. “There’s going to have to be change. We just cannot go on as we are today… I’m stepping up to the plate to sort that, to make sure we deliver the change we need to… I care too much to walk on by.”

Perhaps. But Swinney has form. He was a pretty unsuccessful leader of the SNP from 2000 until 2004, before he was finally forced out by the men in grey kilts. He had an answer to this, too. “I’m a different character to what I was back then. I’m a stronger character who’s done a lot of tough stuff.” 

I wasn’t convinced by this tough-guy act, to be honest. What authority Swinney has comes from his perceived decency and reasonableness. It’s always risky to run against what you actually are. At times he came across like a genteel Edinburgh accountant who had wandered into the wrong Glasgow bar, and all I could think of was Ed Miliband’s ill-fated, meme-compliant “hell yes, I’m tough enough”.

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Perhaps that matters less than what Swinney would actually do as first minister. Indeed, when he said he would “operate with courtesy and patience to pursue respectful dialogue and achieve common ground with others” he sounded more like himself.

The message was clearly that the SNP, without their erstwhile coalition partners the Scottish Greens, wanted to get back to mainstream business. It would stand in the “moderate centre left”, Swinney said. “My goals will come straight from that tradition – economic growth and social justice.” His ministers would be “focused on delivering services on which the public depend, on health, education, housing and transport so people see their lives are getting better”. This might sound obvious, but it is very much not what the Nats have been doing for the past couple of years at least.

Swinney’s campaign slogan – not that he needs one if there is to be an anointment rather than a campaign – is “uniting for independence”. Again, much hinges on the delivery rather than the rhetoric. No one expects the SNP, which exists solely to pursue the break-up of the UK, to stop talking about it. But the relentless, aggressive nature in which the goal was chased by Nicola Sturgeon and then Humza Yousaf ultimately did more harm than good. Swinney said he would “reach out with respect and courtesy to address the obstacles in the way of winning the case for independence. There is no better way than that to build the levels of support necessary.” If this means turning down the volume a little, and concentrating on running a competent government, so much the better, both for Scotland and for the independence cause in the longer term.

Swinney will seek to unite the warring independence movement, too, by bringing the rebel leader Kate Forbes back into the fold. It looks like a deal has been done, and Forbes will receive a big cabinet job in return for not standing for the leadership. “I want Kate Forbes to play a significant part,” he said. “She is an intelligent, creative, thoughtful person who has much to contribute to our national life. If elected I will make sure that Kate is able to make that contribution.”

We’ve grown used to SNP leaders promising much and delivering little. Will John Swinney prove to be any different? Scotland – and who can blame it? – will reserve judgement.

[See also: George Robertson: why Russia fears the European Union]

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