Making John Swinney leader may be the SNP’s smartest move in years | Dani Garavelli

John Swinney’s accession to the leadership of the Scottish National party has been called a “coronation”. Yet the smooth handover of power that took place yesterday was not a given. That the party avoided another acrimonious battle – like the one last year between his predecessor Humza Yousaf and former finance secretary Kate Forbes – was down to his deft handling of would-be rivals.

After her defeat last year, Forbes, a social conservative who opposes same-sex marriage, became a rallying point for internal disaffection. Had she stood again, as she clearly intended to, the SNP’s divisions – between left and right, between opposing views on trans rights – would have become further entrenched. Instead, Swinney persuaded Forbes to throw her weight behind him by promising her a senior cabinet position – a masterstroke that also brought her most vocal backers to heel.

Just days later, Swinney had to see off a second contender: “serial disruptor” Graeme McCormick, who claimed to have reached the nomination threshold of 100 signatures from party members. Yet McCormick also chose to support Swinney after a “lengthy and fruitful conversation”, during which Swinney persuaded the SNP activist his leadership could mark a “fresh start”.

Thus, even before he was appointed, Swinney was demonstrating his capacity to unite his party in the run-up to a general election in which it is predicted to haemorrhage support to a resurgent Scottish Labour.

This need for reconciliation was also at the heart of his acceptance speech. In it, he said public discourse had become too polarised, the SNP too split and the parliament too adversarial. He promised to reach out to those pro-independence factions that have felt ignored, as well as to other parties whose support he may need now that the coalition with the Scottish Greens has been jettisoned and his minority government is stuck building vote-by-vote alliances.

Swinney’s rapid takeover (along with his expected election as first minister today) does raise legitimate concerns. You could carp that the return of a veteran who has already served as leader, finance secretary, education secretary and deputy first minister proves the SNP is in the grip of a tiny cabal. Or that the lack of a leadership contest prevented new ideas from being aired. You could point out the hypocrisy of the party calling for a general election after Liz Truss’s resignation, but denying Scots a say on their new first minister.

Yet listening to Swinney, whose likability and powers of oratory have never been in question, it felt as if the SNP had made its smartest move in years. He also made positive noises about Yousaf’s continued contribution. What a coup it would be if he could bring Yousaf and Forbes back round the same cabinet table.

How long this unexpected detente will last is anyone’s guess. Many challenges lie ahead. Promising to focus on “bread and butter” issues, Swinney told reporters his top priority would be tackling child poverty. But tackling child poverty was Yousaf’s top priority, too. And Nicola Sturgeon’s. Though the Scottish child payment has gone some way to mitigate against Westminster’s austerity policies, child poverty remains intractable.

It is easy for leaders to get bogged down in party political sideshows and Swinney is no exception. He will have to take care that bringing Forbes into his cabinet doesn’t annoy as many people as it appeases. And his party’s fractured relationship with the pro-independence Greens will require great tact and diplomacy. He must convince disaffected gender-critical voters that the SNP is no longer at the mercy of the Greens’ perceived “wokeness”, without alienating that party’s seven MSPs to the extent they withdraw all support.

Ironically, the shared fiscal conservatism that will allow Swinney to work with Forbes is likely to prove a sticking point with the Greens. As for identity politics and their support for trans rights, he has so far hedged his bets, saying only that he would “consider the best way forward” on the ill-fated gender recognition reform bill that was passed by Holyrood but vetoed by Westminster, and that the Cass review into gender identity services should be taken “very seriously”. This may be fair enough so early in his leadership. But eventually, positions will have to be taken and the repercussions dealt with.

Finally, as always, there is the question of independence. Swinney’s last spell as leader, in 2000-04, ended because he failed to convince the party he had an effective strategy for achieving it. Today, the party is in power and the context is different. Polls show that support for independence has remained constant – at about 50% – though support for the SNP has fallen.

But they also suggest that, even among those who seek it, independence is not the most pressing concern. Swinney needs to reassure those worried about the cost of living and the NHS that the party’s pursuit of a second referendum isn’t getting in the way of good governance, while simultaneously convincing hardliners he has a route map to securing one. He is right that the only long-term solution is to win more hearts and minds; but that requires both a measure of stability, and a bold new vision.

Is Swinney the man to come up with a bold new vision? Probably not. But he is the man best placed to restore stability. He is the man most likely to minimise the damage inflicted by Scottish Labour and to steer the party towards the Holyrood elections in 2026. If the SNP holds on to power then, a fresher figure may emerge to lead it into a bright new era. But if it loses power, no amount of dynamism is going to help it deliver its central prize.

  • Dani Garavelli is a freelance journalist and columnist for the Herald

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