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by Chris Marshall
19 May 2024
Picking up the Pieces: Time is against John Swinney as he attempts to reunite the SNP

John Swinney has welcomed Kate Forbes back into the Cabinet | Alamy

Picking up the Pieces: Time is against John Swinney as he attempts to reunite the SNP

“The fresh leadership has just arrived,” John Swinney told the Scottish Parliament as he took part in First Minister’s Questions for the first time since standing unopposed to become the SNP’s new leader. Whether it was scripted or an off-the-cuff remark – and the latter feels more likely – it was a comment which led to what MSPs often disapprovingly refer to as chuntering from a sedentary position. Met with belly laughs from the Labour benches, Swinney couldn’t resist a little chuckle himself. “And I’m right here to deliver it,” continued the man who last fronted his party 20 years ago, leading the SNP to a disappointing election result in 2003 before quitting the following year. 

If the atmosphere in the parliament that day was slightly surreal, the mood a bit hysterical, then it’s little wonder. Scottish politics is currently having a moment, a recalibration after a year which has felt like a fever dream and one in which under the leadership of Humza Yousaf very little was achieved. Even the nature of Yousaf’s departure was strange. After initially promising to fight a vote of no confidence, he seems to have belatedly realised that he had torched his own career. He meekly exited the stage, making way for his successor but not before delivering arguably his finest speech about the honour of being Scotland’s first-ever first minister of colour. 

Aside from that achievement, Yousaf’s lasting contribution to Scottish politics may well be the thing that caused his own undoing. By ending the Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Greens, the former first minister has helped bring about a much-needed reset at Holyrood, ushering in a new era of minority government and cross-party working while also allowing for his former leadership rival Kate Forbes’s return to the front bench. 

But if the SNP has lanced a boil, then it is yet to cure itself completely of its current malady. The party remains divided just as its main rival is on the ascendancy in the run-up to the general election. “I have to accept that my party is not as cohesive as it needs to be. This has to change,” said Swinney as he launched his candidacy for the leadership earlier this month. Yet time is against him, with a general election just a matter of months away and a Holyrood vote in two years’ time. 

If there was any doubt about the scale of the challenge facing the SNP recent polling should help focus minds within the party. A survey by Savanta on behalf of The Scotsman found Labour on course to increase its number of Scottish MPs at Westminster to 28 – just one shy of an overall majority of Scottish seats. The party currently has just two Scottish MPs. According to the modelling, the SNP could lose as many as 25 seats. 

And yet it is the Holyrood voting intention that is likely to be a bigger worry for the SNP’s new leader. The same poll predicted a fall in the party’s share of both the constituency and list vote, which would see it overtaken by Labour as the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament with 47 seats to the SNP’s 37. Analysis of the data by Ballot Box Scotland suggested Yousaf and his predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon, could be among those to lose their seats, assuming they don’t stand down at the election. 

If the party’s slide accelerated under Yousaf, then the seeds of decline were undoubtedly sown under Sturgeon. The former SNP leader is now a much-diminished figure who left both her party – and the country – more divided than when she took office. The reasons for that are varied, not least her failure to advance the cause of Scottish independence, which upset the party faithful, and the damaging deal with the Greens which secured a parliamentary majority but left those on the right of the party feeling alienated and ignored. 

Perhaps chief among the reasons for that division was the row over gender reform – a debate Swinney now desperately wants to put behind him. The legislation was passed – and subsequently blocked by the UK Government – while Sturgeon was still first minister. Under Yousaf the Scottish Government mounted a legal challenge but lost after judges at the Court of Session ruled Scottish Secretary Alister Jack had been acting appropriately when he effectively vetoed the reforms, which allowed for gender self-identification.


Asked last week whether he believes a trans woman is a woman, Swinney said: “I believe a woman is an adult female born as a woman, and I also accept that transgender women are defined as women.” It was a lawyerly form of words which although no doubt long deliberated over, is unlikely to please anyone. And the vitriol is still there for all to see. During a debate in parliament about implementing the recommendations of the Cass Review, which examined gender services for young people, Green co-leader Patrick Harvie spoke of a “toxic culture war” as he confirmed his party would vote against a Conservative motion. Earlier in the debate, Tory MSP Murdo Fraser had told the chamber Sturgeon should feel “shame” over her dismissal of concerns about gender reform.

The following day at FMQs Harvie was on his feet again. Newly shorn of any government responsibilities, he is now free to speak up from the backbenches once more. He used his opportunity to launch an attack on Forbes, who would later be formally voted in as deputy first minister. 

“Is this the Scottish Government’s vision for the future of Scotland,” Harvie asked, “taking us back to the repressive values of the 1950s?” Later that same day, Harvie’s colleague Ross Greer used his allotted time to spell out why his party would not be voting for Forbes as DFM, despite Green ministers having served alongside her in government when she was finance secretary. Since then, Forbes has run for the SNP leadership, giving an interview which she may now forever regret in which she said she would not have voted for equal marriage had she been an MSP in 2014.

“I’m being asked to vote for someone who thinks there’s something wrong with me, not because of any views I hold but simply because of who I am,” Greer said. “I will not do that; the Scottish Greens will not do that.”

It’s not just the Greens who have been put out by Forbes’ elevation. It’s understood the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch has had a frosty reception from her new cabinet colleagues, most of whom were quick to back Swinney for the leadership at the point when she was still said to be mulling over whether or not to enter the race. Much of the unhappiness in the parliamentary party is said to originate from the last leadership race when Forbes trashed Yousaf’s record in government as a transport, justice and health secretary. 

When at one point Forbes looked to be Swinney’s only opponent to succeed Yousaf, the former deputy first minister made it clear there would be a role for his potential adversary in what he called “Team SNP”. “I want Kate Forbes to play a significant part in [my] team,” Swinney said. “She is an intelligent, creative, thoughtful person who has much to contribute to our national life.” But it was Swinney who had earlier driven a nail into the coffin of Forbes’s leadership ambitions when he last year backed Yousaf as leader, telling journalists that her views on equal marriage had nothing to do with religious faith. “I’m a man of deep Christian faith but I do not hold the same views,” he said at the time. “Kate is perfectly entitled to express her views, but party members are equally entitled to decide if someone who holds those views would be an appropriate individual to be SNP leader and first minister.”

When Yousaf announced his decision to quit last month, polling from Ipsos found Forbes more popular with the general public than Swinney. She was held in high esteem by colleagues when serving as a minister under Derek Mackay and then as finance secretary when her former boss resigned after being found to have repeatedly messaged a teenage boy. It’s emblematic of the position the SNP now finds itself in that the party’s most able candidate to be the next leader is someone that members of the current cabinet would likely be unwilling to serve under. Indeed, until Yousaf’s resignation, the party’s most capable politicians – Forbes and Swinney – were languishing on the backbenches. 

Now installed in Bute House, there is plenty to keep the new first minister occupied, from falling levels of educational attainment in Scotland’s schools to the crisis in the NHS. Last week saw the government declare a national housing emergency, while concerns have been raised about the number of both teachers and police officers. 

For too long Swinney’s party has promised the earth while delivering very little. Just as his predecessor did, the new first minister has pledged to make tackling child poverty his number one priority. But the state of the public finances is parlous, with cash-strapped local authorities now forced to cut services due to a council-tax freeze announced by Yousaf at the party’s annual conference. With more than 16,000 children in Scotland in households assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness, and around a quarter of all children living in poverty, Swinney has his work cut out if he is to deliver on what he sees as his defining mission. 

For Sturgeon the defining mission was reducing the poverty-related educational attainment gap, something she manifestly failed to do. At least the former first minister had the promise of independence to distract voters from her failing record of delivery. Since the Supreme Court ruled in late 2022 that Holyrood cannot legislate for a referendum without the consent of Westminster, the trail has gone cold. Despite Yousaf maintaining that Scotland could be independent within five years of him taking over as leader, talk of the constitution – which dominated Scottish politics for long enough – has been notable by its absence of late. 

While support has dipped slightly in recent polls, there has been enough of a consistent picture over the past few years to accept that roughly half of Scots believe the country’s future lies outside of the United Kingdom. But how many of those voters have given up on waiting for the SNP to achieve it? While recent polling by Redfield and Wilton Strategies found 55 per cent of voters supported Yousaf’s decision to quit, the figure was even higher (60 per cent) among those who voted for the SNP in 2021. The party will go into this year’s general election amid growing levels of dissatisfaction not only among voters but its own membership, while somehow still wedded to the idea that winning a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster is a mandate for another referendum.

Before then, however, Swinney can expect the publication of a standards committee report into the behaviour of former health secretary Michael Matheson, who belatedly resigned after initially expecting the taxpayer to foot an £11,000 data-roaming bill. And Police Scotland is expected to conclude its long-running investigation into the SNP’s finances, with former chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell already charged with embezzlement. The man who has promised to begin a “new chapter” for his party should be prepared for some unforeseen plot twists. 

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