John Swinney | The gradualist

The SNP leader takes on the role of First Minister of Scotland at a tremulous time, when the party faces internal divisions, frustrated allies and a weakened economy

Updated - May 12, 2024 10:16 am IST

Published - May 12, 2024 01:56 am IST

John Ramsay Swinney. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

John Ramsay Swinney. Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

On May 8, 60-year-old John Ramsay Swinney, a veteran of the Scottish National Party (SNP), was sworn in as Scotland’s First Minister. Mr. Swinney takes up the reins from Humza Yousaf, the former First Minister who stepped down following a threat of a no-confidence vote against him, after he ripped up his party’s coalition agreement with the Scottish Greens over climate change commitments. This left the SNP with only 63 seats in the Holyrood (Scottish parliament), that is, two seats short of a majority. Mr. Swinney was able to hold the party in power by winning the support of 64 members of parliament and by the abstention of the Scottish Greens (which gave no other candidate a majority).

Being the third First Minister since Scotland’s last election in 2021, after Nicola Sturgeon and Mr. Yousaf, Mr. Swinney said the appointment was “something of a surprise” but an “extraordinary privilege”.

Mr. Swinney has held many a political office in his long career. He was head of the SNP from 2001 to 2004 as opposition leader and has held Cabinet positions under Alex Salmond and Ms. Sturgeon. He also served as Deputy First Minister under Ms. Sturgeon, and is the longest serving member to hold the position. In 2016, he was appointed Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, a role in which he was widely criticised.

In 2020, he was subject to a no-confidence vote after he was accused of bringing in an exam system that unfairly penalised students from deprived areas. Even though he won the motion, in 2021 he stepped down as Education Secretary and took over the responsibility of post-COVID recovery. By 2023, Mr. Swinney had resigned from his Cabinet roles and taken a backseat in the party until the call for a new leadership arose. Reluctant to accept, he later stated that it was not ambition but a “profound sense of duty” which made him step up as First Minister.

Fight for independence

Mr. Swinney assumes office in the week that marks the 25th anniversary of the devolution of the Scottish parliament. Scotland has had a long-standing demand for independence from Britain, which rings strong to this day. It is out of this demand for self-governance that Scotland was granted devolved powers in 1999 after a nation-wide referendum. Devolved powers mandate that Scotland can form legislation on issues such as health, transport and education while the power to legislate on defence, foreign policy, trade, immigration, and currency is reserved with Westminster.

Mr. Swinney joined the SNP at the age of 15 for its aspiration of independence. While he started his parliamentary career at Westminster in 1997, he was also elected to the first Scottish parliament in 1999. Mr. Swinney is part of what is called the gradualist faction within the SNP, where he believes that independence is a gradual goal with devolution of powers being one of the steps towards complete autonomy. However, the other faction, known as the fundamentalists, are sceptical of devolution and consider it a smokescreen to deter and delay full independence.

Keeping in line with the gradualist tradition, Mr. Swinney has stated that efforts towards independence would be focussed on winning a majority in the forthcoming elections. He believes only through good governance and a strong economic policy will the public have faith in an independent Scotland divorced from the British Union.

He scrapped the position of Minister of independence, in charge of commissioning white papers on how Scotland will function as an independent nation, so that immediate concerns such as the cost of living crisis and the implications of Brexit can be given priority. Refuting allegations of undermining the goal of Scottish independence, the new First Minister reiterated that, “independence is going to be front and centre of our mission — it always has been — and the work will continue.”

Other than the divide on how independence should be achieved, the power-sharing agreement with the Greens and policies on gender affirming care have polarised members of the SNP much further. Furthermore, by no longer holding a majority in Holyrood, Mr. Swinney will have to whip up support for policies case-by-case, not to mention the fact that police investigations are ongoing into the government’s financial spendings after the former party chief executive was charged for embezzlement of funds last year.

While Mr. Swinney has pitched himself as a man able to “listen to other people’s perspectives” and heal divides, he has his hands full with a weakened party, a divided parliament and an economy reeling under inflation.

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