SNP seeks safe pair of hands in party veteran Swinney

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When John Swinney emerged as the frontrunner to lead the Scottish National party in the wake of Humza Yousaf’s resignation as first minister, critics asked what the political veteran could offer.

On Thursday, the MSP for Perthshire North laid out his response at a community enterprise project in Edinburgh’s historic Grassmarket: his ability to unite a party in disarray after 17 years in power.

In a campaign launch, Swinney presented a centre-left policy platform that he said would reunite a party that had been heading into “tough times” and guide it back on to the road towards independence.

“I have steered the SNP government through some pretty tricky waters in the past,” he said. Recalling scepticism of his ability to pass a budget when he became finance minister for a minority SNP government in 2007, he quipped: “Well, I got 10 budgets through the Scottish parliament.”

Swinney’s path to the SNP leadership was cleared on Thursday when his main potential competitor, Kate Forbes, stepped aside. Now the man who previously led his party in opposition will try to shore up a government that has been shaken to its core in recent weeks.

“We’ve had great success and also very difficult times — he has the muscle memory of someone who has been through that journey, the experience and gravitas to be a unifying force,” said Kaukab Stewart, SNP MSP for Glasgow Kelvin.

Swinney, now the longest serving parliamentarian in Scotland, entered the bear pit of Holyrood politics as an MSP in 1999, two years after being first elected as an MP at Westminster.

In 2000, he was appointed SNP leader when the nationalist party was still an emerging force that had never governed in Scotland. He had joined the party as a teenager.

He stepped down in 2004 without reaching the first minister’s office after poor showings in elections. But when Alex Salmond returned as party leader and led the SNP into government three years later, Swinney was given a position in cabinet as finance secretary.

The astute political survivor was a prized member of Nicola Sturgeon’s close-knit “kitchen cabinet”, which dominated decision-making in her centralised administration from 2014.

Sturgeon and the SNP’s reputation has been tarnished since she resigned in the midst of a police probe into SNP finances. Her husband and former party chief executive, Peter Murrell, has been charged in connection with the investigation.

Swinney has not been implicated but he resigned as deputy first minister when Sturgeon exited, returning to the backbenches after 16 years in cabinet. Critics have characterised him, derisively, as the SNP’s “continuity candidate 2.0” after Yousaf, another close Sturgeon ally.

John Swinney, when deputy first minister, with the first minister at the time Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood
John Swinney, when deputy first minister, with the first minister at the time Nicola Sturgeon at Holyrood © Peter Summers/Getty Images

The trim 60-year-old lives in Highland Perthshire, an ideal backdrop for his hobbies of hill walking, running and cycling. He sat out last year’s leadership campaign that elevated Yousaf, saying he wanted to spend more time at home with his family, including his ill wife.

His long years in government have blemished parts of his record. Last year, a report by Lord Andrew Hardie from an inquiry into Edinburgh’s trams criticised Swinney’s role, as finance secretary, in the delayed, over-budget transport project, including his “lack of candour” — a charge denied by Swinney.

In parliament earlier this week, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross was forced to apologise for referring to Swinney as “not so honest John”.

Swinney said on Thursday he would seek to build bridges across the parliament as he tries to build a working majority for legislation, calling on parliamentarians to conduct themselves with “good grace”.

He added that he was “slightly pessimistic” about being able to work with the Tories.

The SNP has 63 MSPs, just short of a majority. It previously governed in coalition with the Scottish Greens until Yousaf collapsed that power-sharing deal. The next election for the Scottish parliament is not scheduled until 2026.

Swinney will need to persuade some from other parties to at least tolerate his ascension to first minister until then. His next task will be to staunch the loss of SNP MPs as Labour tries to pick up Westminster seats at the upcoming general election.

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