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Seeking Unity: Can John Swinney be the one to heal the SNP's divisions?

John Swinney launches his campaign with backing from across the SNP | Alamy

Seeking Unity: Can John Swinney be the one to heal the SNP's divisions?

In the days before Humza Yousaf announced his intention to resign, briefing against him was fierce. “There’s question marks over his leadership,” an SNP insider told Holyrood. “He’s just made mistake after mistake. I wouldn’t see him lasting the rest of the year.” “I felt really hopeful when Humza came in, but nothing’s been done differently and it’s actually worse,” said one of the party’s MSPs. “I would be begging John Swinney to come back,” said another.

And now he has.

“I could have stood back and hoped others would sort things out,” Swinney said, launching his campaign at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket Community Project, a social enterprise he said reflects his values. “But I care too much about the future of Scotland and the Scottish National Party to walk on by.”

A couple of hours later, the only other potential runner ruled herself out of contention. “It is now clear from this morning’s statement that in John Swinney we have someone who not only understands that need for reform, but has now committed to delivering it,” said Kate Forbes, the woman who lost the last leadership race against Yousaf by just four percentage points.

Swinney – who denounced Forbes last time round after she said she wouldn’t have voted to legalise same-sex marriage if she had been an MSP in 2014 – had stood before an audience that was a ‘who’s who’ of the SNP across Westminster, Holyrood and councils, and praised his former finance deputy. “She is an intelligent, creative and thoughtful person who has much to contribute to our national life and if I am elected I will make sure that Kate is able to make that contribution,” the veteran politician said. 

Bringing Cambridge graduate Forbes back into government is part of an effort to unify the SNP, Swinney said, and follows a period in which she was isolated among the parliamentary party with few public allies. Swinney’s pitch is to “unify” his party and end what he calls the “polarisation” plaguing it. “My party is not as cohesive as it needs to be. This has to change,” he said, vowing that he is “no caretaker” or “interim leader”. “I am offering to lead my party through the Westminster elections and to lead us beyond the 2026 elections – two contests which I intend to win.”

The speech came one day after the Scottish Government survived a vote of no confidence, and three days after Yousaf said his time was up.

He’d made the Scottish Greens see red after axing the Bute House Agreement that had brought them into government under Nicola Sturgeon, a move that saw them refuse to back him in a vote of confidence in the first minister tabled by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross – who saw Yousaf’s vulnerability and took his chance. Yousaf turned to Alba’s Ash Regan – the woman he’d described as “no great loss” to the SNP when she defected – for a life raft. Talks about a deal that would see her vote to save his job were still open on the morning of the day when he would announce the jig was up. 

Nominations for candidates opened later that day and where Yousaf has led, it seems few want to follow, with the entirety of his cabinet having ruled themselves out of running. All of those to declare a preference went on to back Swinney. While wildcards may yet emerge, the tight seven-day window did not lend itself to much deliberation and it’s commonly expected that Swinney, pending the support of the Scottish Parliament, will take the top job.

And so Scotland faces the appointment of another new FM who will be voted in not by the public, but by the parliament, and Labour, despite failing to oust the Scottish Government, is poised for an election. With summer recess fast approaching, the minority SNP administration has just seven weeks to regain the sense of stability, authority and purpose that its critics say it lacks. 

“The SNP as a political party is so chaotic, divided and dysfunctional that it can’t deliver competent government and is failing Scots every day,” Labour’s Anas Sarwar told MSPs as he presented his vote of no confidence in the Scottish Government last week. “I don’t believe changing the face at the top is going to change that.” 

The push failed when the Scottish Greens voted against it. The “best option” for stable government ended with the axing of the Bute House Agreement, said Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie, but “minority government can work” and opposition parties were seeking “chaos for the sake of chaos”.

As Yousaf stood to defend his administration, Swinney, Forbes, and Sturgeon watched on, each sitting directly behind the other. And indeed, it would be possible to draw a line between the three – the trio were Cabinet colleagues until last year, with Forbes coming so close to succeeding Sturgeon and now ceding any leadership ambitions to Swinney.

Winning the parliamentary nomination for first minister on 28 March 2023 – almost exactly 13 months before he would announce his intention to relinquish the position – Yousaf told MSPs he detected a “shared appetite across the chamber for a politics that is slightly less polarised and a bit less confrontational”. “I want to work with you,” he told fellow parties. “I believe that there is a willingness for that in the chamber and a desire for it across the country.”

First Minister Humza Yousaf | Alamy

In part, it was the failure to achieve that cross-party cooperation beyond the Greens that was his downfall. When Yousaf left himself exposed to Ross’s challenge with 63 MSPs to the opposition’s 65 in the fall out with the Greens, he had no other friends across the chamber to spring to his defence. “I didn’t intend to make them as angry as they clearly are,” he said of the Greens. But it was too late.

Yousaf’s moment of weakness followed bruising months of furore and fankle as a policy programme inherited from Sturgeon and enshrined in the Bute House Agreement – gender recognition reform, highly protected marine areas, the deposit return scheme – was felled by legal challenge and public outcry. And it came after Yousaf, who’d promised more respect for local government by signing the Verity House Agreement, squandered the political capital he’d garnered with that move by blindsiding town halls with a council tax freeze they’d never heard of, let alone agreed to, before its announcement. Other policy commitments from the Sturgeon era – the dualling of the A9, the delivery of CalMac ferries – remain unfulfilled.

There was more, too, during what became a torrid year for the new leader: the U-turn over XL bullies; the defections of both Ash Regan MSP and Lisa Cameron MP; the arrest of Yousaf’s brother-in-law, Ramsay El-Nakla, who has been charged with abduction and extortion. 

When Yousaf did flex his leadership muscles successfully it was on Gaza, where his in-laws became trapped after the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel. His calls for a ceasefire drew international attention and his visit to Newton Mearns Synagogue, where he embraced the mother of Scotsman Bernard Cowan, who was killed in the Hamas attack, revealed a leader with a keen sense of humanity. “Your grief is my grief,” he said, earning plaudits from across the political spectrum. That message, and his emphasis on unity between communities, earned him respect and the image of the young Muslim FM with the half-Palestinian wife sitting in solidarity with Scotland’s Jewish community was powerful. And when his wife’s parents returned home to Dundee, following the sharing of tearful video messages in which they had said goodbye to loved ones as Israeli rockets fell, social media was awash with good will and good wishes for Yousaf and his family. Privately, Scottish Government figures felt this moment could be the making of Yousaf. It was not to be.

And yet even as they laid into his performance as FM, opponents praised him as personable and compassionate. “I have always found him a very warm and generous individual with a great smile and a sense of humour,” former Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said. Yousaf “rightly gained huge respect for speaking out for and, in many cases, humanising the people of Gaza,” Harvie said. “For that, and for a great deal more, Humza Yousaf is due respect and thanks, and he is due all of our thanks for his service to the country.”

Prior to the resignation move, the criticism came, too, from within the ranks of his own party. “I’ve got a lot of time for Humza; I think he’s a decent man, it’s just there are a small group of people with too much influence and I just think we are losing the public,” said one insider. “It’s a terrible combination of arrogance and immaturity.”

John Swinney listens to Kenneth Gibson MSP | Alamy

Swinney has said he believes in “Cabinet government” with “ministers who are absorbed in their individual responsibilities but making the links across responsibilities to tackle our biggest challenges and ministers contributing to the common good by their participation in open, substantive cabinet discussion”. Many within his own party will be watching to see if that is delivered.

If a challenger to Swinney emerges and a ballot is called, it is expected to open on 13 May and close two weeks later. If not, the next SNP leader could be confirmed as early as this week, with parliament then voting on whether or not to adopt that person as first minister.

For Swinney, who so recently ended his nine-year run as deputy first minister, success will mean entering his second term as leader of the SNP, having served in the role from 2000-04. And it will come in the knowledge that his former finance deputy Forbes is more popular with voters than he is. Polling by Ipsos put the Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP six percentage points ahead of her Perthshire North counterpart. Appearing before reporters, Swinney said he has changed since 2004, becoming a “stronger character who has done a lot of tough stuff”. 

The tough guy claim is despite a reputation, amongst the SNP at least, for being the Scottish Parliament’s nice guy; a responsible and competent pair of hands who commands respect and knows how to get the job done. And he has conceded that that job is in part repair work. “I want ministers to be focused on the delivery of services on which the public depend – on health, on education, on housing, on transport – so people see their lives are getting better as a result of the actions of their government,” he said, in a tacit admission that Yousaf’s administration has been viewed as less effective than its predecessors’. 

And Swinney has indicated his determination to work with other parties. “The SNP government does not have a parliamentary majority,” he said. “That means we must work to seek common ground in the Scottish Parliament in the interests of the public and of good governance. That means our approach in parliament will have to change; to listen, to compromise, to work with all other political parties.”

Indeed, Swinney is seen as a palatable option for the Scottish Greens. His working relationship with Ross Greer is known to be close, with Greer having referred to Swinney as his “work dad”. The relationship with that party will now be watched closely.

Ross Greer with Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater | Alamy

Yousaf may have considered the Bute House Agreement “worth its weight in gold” right up until two days before he cancelled it, but within the ranks of his parliamentary party, that feeling was far from universal. MSPs like Forbes, Fergus Ewing, Kenneth Gibson and Michelle Thomson had publicly suggested the deal should be reviewed, and behind the scenes the view was shared by many others. Some worried about the impact on good governance, while others questioned how it would affect voting in the next general and Scottish Parliament elections. “I’m really concerned about the Greens in government,” one SNP MSP told Holyrood prior to the power-sharing deal’s end. “Everything I thought might have happened has happened. There’s a real challenge for the SNP as a party in staying in it. I think we’re quite out of step with the public on the issues that the Greens are really fundamentalist about.” “On the doors, people have been saying to us, ‘we voted for you, not the Greens, but they’re in government’,” said another.

Discussion grew after Harvie called an extraordinary general meeting of the Green membership to vote on the continuation of the Bute House Agreement. That came in the wake of the publication of the Cass Review, which recommended “extreme caution” in the prescription of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones. When health bosses announced prescriptions of hormone treatments for under-18s would be suspended, members of the Rainbow Greens group called the Cass Review a “social murder charter” and orchestrated a petition to force a vote on the Bute House Agreement. There was backing, too, from members angry at the scrapping of the climate targets the Scottish Government was supposed to meet. Rather than wait for pressure to grow, Harvie announced the EGM for some time the following month. When no date was announced, unease within SNP ranks grew. “It’ll be a final humiliation if the Greens leave us,” said one MSP. “It’s like being dumped by some dweeb.”

But it was Yousaf who would do the dumping. At a press conference confirming the move, it was suggested to him that it was better to do the breaking up than be chucked yourself. “I wouldn’t know,” he quipped. But whatever Yousaf’s romantic experience, the manner of this break-up was described as “brutal” by SNP sources. The Greens were summoned to Bute House by text, told it was over, and sent on their way. A ministerial car was offered to take them back to parliament but they chose to walk past the reporters waiting outside and Slater accused Yousaf of having his hand forced by “the most reactionary and backwards-looking forces” within his party. 

Figures from across the SNP told Holyrood they backed Yousaf’s decision. But his handling of that decision was the source of real consternation, and many questioned who he was taking his advice from. “He’s been backed into a corner by advisers,” one ally said. “He’s listening to the wrong people.” “There had been discussions for months within the party about whether we were getting the best out of it, but this has just happened so suddenly,” said another. “There’s a lot of unhappiness in the party about how this has been handled.” “You can’t get near him,” said a third, “it’s like a royal court.” 

However, another party insider dismissed such commentary. “It doesn’t matter who has told him what,” they said. “Humza has done this himself.”

Yousaf has said he is “delighted” to see Swinney enter the race, but he has refused to back any candidate. Swinney will need all the backing he can get if he is to truly unify party and parliament.

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