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by Mandy Rhodes
05 May 2024
This is not government from the SNP - this is managed decline

John Swinney is expected to be named new SNP leader this week | Alamy

This is not government from the SNP - this is managed decline

There’s a well-known phrase in historic conservation circles that can be applied to Kinloch Castle on the Isle of Rum – it is ‘managed decline’.

It is a pink sandstone, extravagantly crenellated, early 20th century monument to the past profligacy of an uber-wealthy landowner. 

But for all its opulent beginnings, it now lies in a state of total disrepair as the government agency responsible for its upkeep wrestles with how to find a sustainable solution to its seemingly inevitable demise.

It’s a dilemma. A building of its time, with a history that talks to much of Scotland’s fractious past. An extraordinary piece of architecture that should surely be preserved for future generations if only as a testament to our nation’s strife. 

But saving it appears delusional. There are no deep pockets, no big plan, no energised new owner on the horizon, and yet still the arguments go on about how best to patch it up when it is broken to its very foundations.

It was this analogy that was put to me last week by a very senior SNP parliamentarian in the context of what next for their party’s future. For without the recognition that this isn’t just about filling in a few cracks, then managing decline is all that the new leader can hope to inherit.

The malaise is evident. Neither of the two front runners originally touted to be the next first minister of Scotland, John Swinney and Kate Forbes, sits in the Scottish Government, which seems an extraordinary reflection on the talents of that current crop. How can the country have confidence in a government when even its ministers don’t have any in their own abilities to lead?

And with John Swinney – whom I like and respect – now the most likely successor after Forbes ruled herself out, there surely is some discomfort that he is also possibly the only choice. 

He joined the party at 15, was first elected to Westminster in 1997, was in government in Scotland for 16 of the SNP’s 17 years in power, and at the heart of the Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon projects, led the party from 2000 to 2004, presided over some poor electoral drubbings before being outed by the men in grey kilts, and previously told me that he would not relish a return to leadership.

Indeed, Swinney retired to the backbenches just a year ago, saying it was time for the next generation to come to the fore, that he was the past and not the future. No matter what Swinney’s experience, achievements and good grace, is this really the best the party can do?

And so, we are, with Humza Yousaf’s short time as first minister ending, where it all began just over a year ago: with a debate about how a party that has been in power for so long, enjoyed such incredible electoral success, and luxuriated in having some of the most astute political minds at its helm, yet has ignored that most basic of business needs – a succession plan.

Even after the last leadership contest revealed serious schisms and, in its wake, a trail of acrimony with one candidate left battle-bruised, demonised and ostracised by the very people she will be expected to work with in a Swinney government; another so disillusioned that she left the party to join Alba; and the winner so ill-equipped to deal with the travails of office that he had to stand down after his own misjudged attempts to deal with an evolving crisis in government led to his own inevitable end, no lessons have been learned.

The fact that there is no obvious running slate of talented individuals – the brightest and the best – all jostling for position to lead, is, frankly, a damning indictment of the party Swinney has been at the heart of for 40 years. There is clearly a vacuum at the centre of the SNP project and its politics.

Yousaf was never the long-term answer. I suspect even he knew that. He was the continuity candidate, and unsurprisingly, the chaos continued. A people pleaser who ended up pleasing no one, not least himself. But it would be naïve in the extreme to believe that the manner in which the Greens were ousted from government was all down to him. For one, it doesn’t fit with his modus operandi. He likes to be liked.

And while the ferocity of the scorned Greens might not have been predicted, surely even he didn’t think they would thank him for being given the sack?

To go in a flash from First Activist to Prime Arsonist is almost inexplicable. And while his clumsiness in ending the Bute House Agreement was fairly typical of Yousaf’s inability to get it right, what of the expensive bunch of advisors or the so-called council of elders, the party grey beards, who were there to offer advice?

Yousaf may have been left holding the grenade when it blew up in his face, but others need to take responsibility for helping to pull out the pin. And crucially it is those forces that are likely orchestrating what happens next.

Swinney wants unity and yet on one of the most divisive issues around – of the difference between sex and gender – which has now helped bring down two SNP first ministers, he has already swerved the question. I would venture he will need to be able to spell out exactly where he stands if he doesn’t want to be a third.

And what of Kate Forbes? My advice was always for her not to stand. This is not the right time. And while she could easily have won, it could have been a short-lived and career-ending move.

If I was Swinney, I would make her finance secretary, throw in some economy brief, maybe make her DFM. It gets her much-needed talents and public popularity back in the fold, would put fear into the hearts of the opposition, and at the same time send a very strong message to the rest of the ministerial team and MSP group that the days of dismissing rational argument and opposing views with accusations of bigotry and fanciful allegations of alt-right contamination have no place in grown-up politics.

Scotland has suffered enough from a lack of attention to the bread-and-butter issues that make a nation tick. That, in one fell swoop, could help bring the unity that Swinney says he wants, and Scotland surely craves.

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