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8 May 2024

What Kate Forbes’ return means for the SNP

John Swinney’s choice of Deputy First Minister is a rebuke to the Scottish Greens and his party’s ultra-progressive wing.

By Chris Deerin

If John Swinney wants to send a message that the SNP has listened, and will change, the appointment of Kate Forbes as Deputy First Minister is the right way to go about it.

Forbes was opposed to the ill-advised gender reforms that have done the Scottish government so much damage. She takes a Blairite approach to reform of the public services, believing that “what matters is what works”. She is a champion of wealth creation and business innovation as a means of expanding the tax base, providing resources to fund public services, and tackling poverty.

And Forbes is popular with the public – certainly more popular than she has been with the self-declared “progressives” in the SNP, who are understandably infuriated by her prominent new role.

As well as becoming Deputy First Minister, Forbes has also been given the the economy brief, placing her main policy passion in her hands. Forbes is no fan of the SNP’s high taxes or its disdain for enterprise. Let’s see what she does, but Swinney has effectively stuck a big sign on the SNP that says “Under New Centrist Management.”

In one fell swoop, therefore, Swinney has returned the SNP to what it used to be – a broad, umbrella movement for those who believe in Scottish independence but might disagree on other policy areas. Like The Monkees, they all have to live with each other in the same house. It is an amusing rebuke to the Scottish Greens, the SNP’s erstwhile coalition partners who have repeatedly attacked Forbes as representing reactionary, right-wing forces. They richly deserve it – all the right people are booing – and the Deputy First Minister is a more complex and interesting thinker than her opponents seek to portray her as. 

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The appointment is also an embrace of competence. As finance secretary, Forbes was well-liked by her civil servants, and drove them hard. She was behind many of the government’s most innovative economic policies, in areas such as technology and helping women entrepreneurs, and a careful steward of taxpayers’ money. She is admired by business leaders. Her intelligence and intellectual curiosity usually leaves a positive mark on those she interacts with. Whitehall found her the most productive of its devolved interlocutors – she was, as one London civil servant put it to me, able to “get to yes” when it came to tricky, cross-parliament negotiations.

In the end, this is also about electoral performance and self-interest. The SNP has been sliding in the polls due to its seeming disconnection from the concerns of mainstream voters. It has pursued projects, from gender reform to the hate crime bill to the named person plan, that have left much of the electorate scratching its collective head. As school performance has declined and NHS waiting lists have grown, the Nat leadership has at times appeared wired to the moon.

As he appoints the rest of his cabinet, Swinney will no doubt seek a balance between SNP progressives and conservatives. This will be in some contrast to the Sturgeonite-heavy administration run by Humza Yousaf, which only delivered more of the same failing agenda that his predecessor had.

The handing of such an influential post to Forbes tells voters that the Scottish government intends to use the two years before the Holyrood election to focus on the big, important policy areas that make a difference to most voters’ lives. Scottish Labour, which increasingly appeared as if it was on a glide path to Bute House, will be unnerved, and will have to respond.

There is no guarantee of success, of course. Swinney will still have to set out a practical agenda that delivers on the symbolism of his appointments. As the leader of a minority government, he will have to construct parliamentary majorities for his bills. And almost two decades into power, the SNP is weighted down by long years of policy error as well as electoral success. Many Scots are simply tired of the same old faces and want change.

Nevertheless, along with Swinney’s measured early speeches about refocusing on a mainstream, centre-left approach, the appointment of Forbes sends a signal that this will not be a continuity administration. It might not be enough to avoid defeat. It certainly won’t be enough to deliver independence. But it can unite most of a warring movement, and should give voters pause for thought. 

Smart deal-making, Mr Swinney. That’s not nothing. In fact, it’s quite promising.

[See also: Jason Cowley’s interview-profile of Kate Forbes: The Rooted Nomad]

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