John Swinney: 'Political leadership is not a tea party'

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 21 May 2018 in Inside Politics

Interview: the Deputy First Minister speaks to Mandy Rhodes about the glue that has kept the SNP together as a formidable electoral force

John Swinney - David Anderson/Holyrood

It’s 15 years to the day since the SNP fought a Scottish Parliament election that its then leader would perhaps prefer to forget, but here am I with the deputy first minister, John Swinney, reminding him of that torrid time.

In May 2003, the SNP, under Swinney’s leadership, lost eight seats in the second Scottish parliamentary election, reducing its number to just 27 MSPs – which to put it in its current context, is four less seats than the Scottish Conservatives hold today. Swinney soon faced the inevitable calls to resign. 

The MSP for Tayside North had taken over the leadership in 2000 when Alex Salmond unexpectedly stood down and returned to Westminster after 10 years at the helm and amid some acrimony over party discipline and finances. 

At the time, however, the party was still riding high in the opinion polls, with 30 per cent of Scots predicting they would vote SNP in the next general election. But from the off, Swinney faced ongoing snarking from disaffected party members over his wholehearted acceptance of the concept of devolution.  

He, like Salmond before him, maintained that independence could only be achieved by increasing the power and influence of the party within the Scottish Parliament, but many from the fundamentalist wing claimed the party should maintain its objective of total independence – and nothing less.

And despite Swinney’s attempts to modernise the party and demonstrate its ability to govern Scotland, support for the SNP tumbled. In the 2001 general election, the party returned just five MPs, one less than in 1997 and in 2003, it lost eight seats in the Holyrood elections.

There had been a bruising selection process ahead of that election which had seen MSPs such as Andrew Wilson, Michael Russell and Margo MacDonald shoved so far down the list that it could only be interpreted as the party wielding punishment and this only added to the growing disquiet post the poor showing in the poll.

And after months of sniping about Swinney’s lack of charisma compared to his predecessor, a little-known SNP activist, Bill Wilson, challenged Swinney for the leadership, accusing him of ignoring the grassroots party membership and claiming the party had failed to adequately fight for independence.

Wilson ran a campaign attacking Swinney’s proposals for party reform which he claimed would centralise power and impoverish local branches. He further claimed this was the ‘New Labourization’ of the SNP.

Ultimately, it came down to yet another fight between the party’s fundamentalists and the gradualists and while Swinney won a decisive victory against Wilson – 84 per cent of the vote – substantial damage was done to the party’s standing, with open hostilities and internal backstabbing being so publicly aired.

However, Swinney not only won the leadership contest by a country mile but also won significant policy battles and while membership changes had been a key issue of attack from Wilson, the contest was the last SNP election to use the delegate voting method, with Swinney’s reforms ensuring that future elections – indeed, the next leadership contest would come less than 12 months later – would be based on a one-person-one-vote postal vote system.

And the new constitution boldly affirmed independence rather than the more ambiguous ‘self-government’ as the party’s core aim.

While these reforms were, arguably, the foundations from which the SNP would later secure phenomenal electoral success, it was a hollow victory for ‘the nice man of politics’ who resigned as leader just nine months later following further poor election results – this time in the European elections in which the SNP lost 7.5 per cent of their vote and while maintaining second place behind Labour, were just two points ahead of the Tories.

Indeed, some argue that had there not been a 6.6 per cent vote for UKIP, the Tories would have overtaken the SNP which was left with two MEPs after scoring its worst share of the vote at the 2004 European poll for almost 20 years.

Pressure on Swinney, an SNP member since 1979, to make way for a “more charismatic leader” had grown among factions in the party who claimed his “safe-hands” approach had failed to ignite the imagination of voters. 

There were reports in the media that Swinney had lost the confidence of 11 of the party’s 26 MSPs and more than half of its 41 branch convenors. And while Swinney himself may have been determined to stay on as leader and see the SNP through to the 2007 election, scathing criticism from senior nationalists such as Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of the party, made his position seem untenable. Writing in this magazine at the time, Mike Russell predicted that you could not lose three elections in a row and not expect a visit from “the men in grey kilts”.

Eight days after the European poll and in a five-minute resignation statement in Edinburgh, Swinney said: “I have come to the view that the SNP cannot make the electoral progress I believe is possible, if our vital political message is communicated through an endless debate of my leadership. As someone who has devoted all of my adult life to the cause of Scottish independence, that is something I cannot allow to happen.”

He said: “I am proud to have played my part in the transition from party of protest, to party of government.”

But he admitted the party was “not yet seen as a government in waiting”. He said: “We have not yet answered their [the voters’] key question – ‘why independence?’”

A question that, inevitably, we will return to later in this interview and in life.

Swinney, now 54, joined the SNP when he was just 15. He has lived and breathed it ever since and given he was under personal attack from within his own ranks, I ask him how difficult that post-2003 period was for him. 

“I have reflected long and hard on that time and I suppose it taught me a number of lessons,” he says. “One is that you can have all the criticisms of your opponents, you can marshal them all, and I think we marshalled them all really quite effectively over that period.

"In fact, we used to have a big wall in the office up at the top of the Mound with copies of all these front pages where we’d sensationally held the then government to account. But it didn’t turn into votes for us and what that said to me was that you’ve got to get the balance right between your positives and your negatives, and we were far too negative and not positive enough.

"Second thing I learnt about it, which was a very hard personal lesson, was that some of that front-of-house leadership requirement maybe doesn’t sit quite comfortably on my shoulders. That’s a reflection on how I am made up. I think that probably shone through to an extent within the election campaign, and I think thirdly, we had not got ourselves sufficiently organised and cohesive enough to appear to the public like an alternative administration.

"Essentially, that was my focus, that we must operate from a position of power to get into power and you must get there by appearing as a credible alternative and we hadn’t quite got there.

“I think there was a certain amount of cohesion amongst the folk who were trying to work purposefully in a team to try to get us to a winning position in the election but that wasn’t shared broadly because there were disagreements of strategy, and of personality, and of tactics that existed at that time and I think we, and I tried my level best in that context to resolve those questions, and to resolve them in a way that would enable us to be stronger as a consequence but I don’t think I got to that point.

“The turning point, I think for the SNP on that journey, was essentially when we actually undertook the reforms of the party that I did a year later and which required the party to look outwards. The whole theme of those reforms was about getting the SNP away from essentially being an organisation that was very internally focused to making it externally focused, to reaching out, to getting new supporters, securing new members, to expanding the party, growing it, and those reforms were essential to enable that to happen.

"We later saw the fruits of that work because people in the SNP, instead of being essentially almost held back by an internal discussion, had to look outside. When they looked outside, the engagement was better with the wider public. 

“When I look back on that time now, I think that the steps that I took, of saying to the party that we must face up to be a coherent alternative to the incoming government, which means thinking about the things that matter to me, like budgetary control and discipline in our arguments and the relationship between that and our policy arguments, about being organisationally cohesive to win and so on, I think I took the SNP on a significant distance which then enabled my predecessor and my successor to build on, so in that respect, I think there was significant success achieved during my time as leader but I know that the 2003 election was not a successful election for us. And that was ultimately down to me and my leadership.”

What is always striking about Swinney is that despite his self-deprecation and his characterisation as the mild-mannered bank manager, the slightly dull but safe pair of hands, it is his unbridled burning passion for the SNP that shines through. He tangibly puffs up with pride when he talks about the progress the party has achieved and beams when he describes the friendships he has made along the way. It’s difficult to see where the party ends and Swinney begins.

He laughs: “Yes, it’s true, the SNP has been a very, very significant part of my life. It has dominated my adult life and yes, there’s no easy way of separating me from it. That’s the way it has been for, well, forever.”

Swinney is one of the party’s longest-serving politicians. He was first elected to Westminster in the 1997 general election and is only beaten in his continuous political longevity by Roseanna Cunningham, who was elected in a by-election to that place in 1995 before they both took seats in Holyrood in 1999.

“I didn’t join the SNP with the idea of a career,” he says. “I joined it because in the aftermath of the referendum in 1979 and the general election, I cared about the idea, I cared about Scottish independence and I sort of felt if you care about this, you better do something about it because the country was clearly in a bad way. So, you know, I joined it in that context but if you think the 1999-2003 period was tough for the SNP, 1979-1984 was tougher still. Very, very tough.

"That took quite a kind of binding commitment to remain involved and true to that cause, but it’s captivating. I am captivated. It is like a family.”

And Swinney has literally grown up in the SNP with a tight-knit group of politicians including Nicola Sturgeon, Mike Russell, Roseanna Cunningham and Fiona Hyslop, that have now governed Scotland for over 11 years. And it is that cohesion, that familiarity, that has been key in terms of the party’s success.

“If I was to trace the moment where the SNP’s journey into government started in earnest. it’s the Moray by-election in 2006 following Margaret Ewing’s death. I spent a lot of time there. Margaret was a very, very dear friend of mine and I wanted to make sure that we did the right thing and held her seat. Richard Lochhead is obviously a very close and dear friend of mine too and I wanted to make sure that we got Richard in, so I spent a lot of time there and had what I thought was a very good feel for the campaign and the constituency. I spent a huge amount of time there with Bruce Crawford and various others and had a very significant pancake-eating occasion with Fiona Hyslop and Bruce in Baxters in Fochabers, which was a wonderful departure from the campaign circuit.”

Why significant?

“Because, it was indulgent,” he laughs.

“I remember driving down from my last visit to the constituency and working through the numbers in my head and I couldn’t get the numbers to work out in a way that Richard would not exceed Margaret’s and I thought that would be a big symbol of progress and that’s exactly what he delivered. I remember watching the result come in on television and thinking, ‘wow’. That’s the moment where things started to begin to move and people began to think, ‘ah, maybe the SNP’s coming back a bit’. 

“The next moment was a gathering in the Apex hotel in the December 2006 at an election planning session. The first thing we had to do was to write down the number of seats we thought we would win in the election.

"Alex was in the chair and various other people were there helping us out. So, we all had to write this down and then show our bit of paper so, of course, we’d had 27 seats after the 2003 election so being sensible and cautious, I put down some number like 41 and we all went around and I’m not going to say what everybody else had written down, apart from Alex, who opened his paper up and it had 47.

"He looked around the room and said, ‘how do you expect to win the election if we don’t get 47?’ And at that moment, I thought to myself, he’s serious here. I would say that weekend had an incredibly focusing effect on all of us that we were going out to win, and of course, we did get 47 seats. And that came with a slight advantage, in that we had the team, we had the cohesion and obviously, we had very clear, purposeful leadership and that was a crucial element in getting over the line in 2007."

“When you come to the 2007 cabinet, Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, Fiona Hyslop, Richard Lochhead, Kenny MacAskill and me, I was basically sitting round a table with people who I had known for the best part of 20 years. So you know who’s who, you know where they’ve come from and we carried on in government the same way we’d spoken to each other before government, which was very open, said it as it was, and so on.

"I think that was a wee bit startling for the civil service because we addressed cabinet in the same style of openness, with no positioning, that we had always done. It was all for the common good, and that is crucial. 

“If you go back, one of the things that is really striking about us since 2007, is that you really can read very little in the public domain about the internal dynamics of our arguments – and naturally, there are some – but you read everything about the wars within the UK cabinet and that can only be coming from the players and we’ve been in the very fortunate position that nobody has ever behaved in that fashion in an SNP government. 

“I think it’s about loyalty to each other. It’s about realising that if you do, it is the shortcut to ruin, and that you will end up paying a big price for that. 

“I don’t know if I can put my finger on why it’s the case between us but I think it’s out of respect for each other, we treat each other in a respectful fashion and that’s a really important element of the internal code of how we operate towards each other. We respect each other’s perspectives, we respect each other’s contribution. 

“I think the interesting thing is that that cohesion has remained, even when there have been personnel changes. If you look at our parliamentary group now, it’s very different to the parliamentary group that we had in 2007. Yes, there are some constants but there’s a lot of differences, there is something that is consistent, though, and that is that team spirit that holds us together.

“I remember when Alex phoned me on the Saturday night after the 2007 election and he’d just spoken to Nicol Stephen [then leader of the Scottish Lib Dems] and there was no coalition deal and he phoned me up and said, ‘start preparing for minority government’. I was the points man and I put the phone down and thought to myself, ‘how’s that going to work?’

"I looked at the list of people who had been elected and thought, ‘oh, there’s a few characters in here that are going to give us a bit of difficulty’. There were 47 of us and 46 Labour members and we were going to have to have all of these 47 on side every day, on every occasion! I admit that I thought we were going to have a job with that but we never did. 

“What happened was, we got in and nobody needed to have that conversation. We all knew we were in an utterly unique situation; we’d lost every election we’d ever fought since 1934 and we’d just won one by a small margin, by one seat, and it was now on us, on how we behave and how we act, so anyone that mucks about, plays a game, costs us all.

"Well, nobody did step out of line. That’s not a small group of six members of the cabinet, that was 47 members, but they all realised that the party would never have forgiven them if we hadn’t pulled together and done our level best. The reason for telling you all that detail is that that culture went into the 2007 group, into the 2011 group, and it’s now gone into the 2016 group, even though they’re all different. That culture of self-discipline and working together is really a very strong part of who we are.

“I think the glue is our belief in Scottish independence, and the necessity of running a government that has got a clear programme that’s supported by our party and by our team and it is our duty to make sure it works. 

“And if you look where we are today, we’re 11 years in government and we are still the commanding party of Scottish politics by a very, very significant margin and I don’t say that in any way to suggest that it’s all done and dusted. Of course, there’s challenges, but we command extraordinary levels of trust and support from members of the public and we work very hard to maintain those and I think we should continue to work very hard to continue those.”

Swinney has spent 39 of his 54 years within the bosom of the SNP. He has been an MP or an MSP for 21 years, been SNP leader, deputy leader and deputy first minister. He has helped take Scotland to the brink of independence. In all of that he has retained that reputation for being ‘the nice man of politics’ so I am a little surprised by his answer when I ask if he has any regrets. 

“I wish I had been a bit more tolerant of some of the characters around about me than I was. I wish I’d been a bit more tolerant of Margo [MacDonald] and just sort of shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘ah, that’s Margo’. You know, I wish I’d done that. But having said that, Margo and I enjoyed a wonderful relationship, particularly in my period in government. She was often a support to me but I suppose that’s symptomatic of me, I would probably have been better just being a bit more relaxed about things and not quite as uptight.  

“Most of my regrets are from my period of leadership. 

“Political leadership is not a tea party. You have to wrestle with some very tough stuff. I think what both Alex and the current first minister have, compared to me, is the ability to much more emphatically represent and communicate our point of view but I would hope that both of the first ministers that I’ve supported have felt well supported by my input, by my counsel, by my view of how we should proceed with things and I think the advantage they both have had is that they’ve known whatever I’ve said to them, it has not been because of any personal manoeuvring and was being genuinely offered for the right reasons.

“About the only bit of sympathy that I have for Tony Blair is how could he sit in front of Gordon Brown and take advice without thinking, ‘what is he up to?’ 

“And imagine being Theresa May having to sit round that cabinet table not knowing who you can trust, wondering constantly about what they are all up to…that’s no way to govern.”

Is it surprising, then, that support for independence hasn’t risen in such politically turbulent times?

“People are trying to work out what on earth will be the implications of Brexit and can’t quite get to the nub of it because we’re in such a fluid situation. When I look at the opinion polls for independence, the underlying position is fundamentally different to how it’s been most of my adult life. Support for independence is consistently in the mid-40s and for most of my adult life, it’s been nowhere near that. 

“People need to engage in that debate about independence and I think that’s not a period that we’re in just now. People have their minds occupied by Brexit and all else that’s going on, so the question of independence is not clearly in their minds and it’s not a choice that people have got to make right now. But we’ve got to that very high base point, which is higher than it’s ever been in any stage in my life, which I think is something that gives me a great deal of confidence that Scottish independence will be secured.”

When?

“I think that depends on how a whole host of different events play out but I think Scottish independence will be won sooner rather than later and it will rest on that fundamental argument that the people in the country who decide to live here are in the best place to decide what the future of the country should be.

"That’s a really simple, powerful argument which ultimately, people have to think through as they look at what this Tory government is doing about immigration, with Brexit or whatever it happens to be, on austerity, or welfare reform, and ask, ‘is this the best way we should be governed or is there a better way we should be governed with us deciding those things for ourselves? ‘Fundamentally, that’s the argument that all these debates come back to.”

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