John Swinney: No more Mr Nice Guy?

At last year's autumn conference Swinney receives warm applause from Nicola Sturgeon, who relies heavily on her Deputy First Minister. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
At last year's autumn conference Swinney receives warm applause from Nicola Sturgeon, who relies heavily on her Deputy First Minister. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
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JOHN Swinney is not a man with a lot of enemies. Talk to those who know and work with him across the political spectrum and reactions range from gushing fandom to reluctant ­admiration. “Affable”, “straight­dealing”, “principled”, “engaging”, “in command of his brief”, “a shrewd ­negotiator” and a “formidable opponent” are endorsements any politician would be happy to plaster over an election leaflet, especially given some of them come from rivals implacably opposed to his policies.

Sure, there are those who see the ­Deputy First Minister as a bit staid; he has never quite lost his “Bradford and Bingley” image, but his decency appears to be accepted as a given. Ditto his steel and determination. Though as party leader he was often perceived as “too nice for the job”, there are few now who would question his strength or resolve. He has demonstrated his gift for the scathing put-down when standing in for Nicola Sturgeon at FMQs, and is – by all accounts – the member of the cabinet the First Minister keeps closest to her. He is also well-liked in his constituency of Perthshire North. In the 2007 Holyrood election he won more votes than any other candidate in Scotland, but he is respected by non-SNP voters too.

Now, however, Swinney’s reputation and popularity are being put to the test. His budget, with its swingeing cuts to local government funding, and his assertion that any local authority raising council taxes in defiance of the ongoing Scottish Government-imposed freeze would lose out on millions of pounds, have caused underlying resentments to bubble over. The announcement on 16 December that local authority funding was to be cut by 3.5 per cent (or £350m) came as a shock to those councils that had based their draft budgets on a smaller hit and had to go back to the drawing board to find more savings. Cosla has called the offer “an affront to local democracy” while the Scottish Local Government Partnership – which represents Aberdeen, Glasgow, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire – says councils are being “held to ransom”. Even if the local authorities’ threat of legal action is grandstanding, the animosity is real, with those who have dealt with Swinney in the past insisting the way he has handled the situation is both uncharacteristic and unnecessary.

“Councils were prepared for the same kicking they got in previous years and there wouldn’t have been the same stooshie if that’s what had happened, but Swinney went one stage further and cut them even more,” says one Unison source. The insider insisted the anger was not confined to Labour-led councils, but was shared by increasingly vocal SNP administrations.

It is not just the funding offer itself that is causing the resentment but the perception that, by laying down the law on issues such as the council tax freeze and teacher numbers, Swinney is pulling power to the centre and turning councils into administrators. “I think there is a feeling that Swinney started off being an enabler, but has moved to the dark side,” says the Unison source.

The friction has been heightened by Kezia Dugdale’s announcement that Scottish Labour would introduce a 1p rise in income tax – a policy broadly similar to the Penny for Scotland policy Swinney backed in the 1999 Holyrood election, but now opposes. Swinney may insist he rejects the tax because of the impact it would have on low-paid workers (the same argument Scottish Labour advanced last time round) but it has allowed rivals to present him as standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Tories when it comes to austerity.

Add to all this a row during negotiations to construct a fiscal framework for the implementation of the Scotland Bill (Scottish Secretary David Mundell said Swinney was “chancing his arm” with his proposal to protect Scotland’s budget in the event of Scottish population growth falling behind the rest of the UK) and it is clear the Finance Secretary has had a rough week at the office.

In a party brimful of converts, Swinney – like Sturgeon – is a long-term disciple. He joined the SNP at the age of 15 after being irritated by the way TV commentators spoke about Scottish swimmer David Wilkie (that whole Scottish if losing, British if winning thing).

Fellow students at Edinburgh University, where he studied politics, remember him as charming and sought-after. “Even then, though, he would often be seen pounding the doors of Pollock Halls of Residence drumming up support for his cause,” says one. His nationalist sensibilities and profile were such that Edinburgh punk band Nocturnal Vermin wrote an irony-laden song called “John Swinney, We Salute You” in his honour.

Swinney rose rapidly through the SNP ranks, becoming national secretary of the party shortly before he sat his finals. By then a strategic planning principal for Scottish Amicable, he stood successfully as MP for Tayside North in the 1997 election, then as MSP for the same area in 1999. (Like all those who found themselves with a “dual mandate”, he stood down as an MP in the 2001 general election). Unlike Sturgeon, who comes from a west coast, working class background and is on the left of the party, Swinney is widely seen as on the right, fiscally if not socially. He played a key role in ­promoting the SNP as a business-friendly­ party.

When Salmond stepped down as leader in 2000, Swinney fought Alex Neil to become his successor. Where Neil was a fundamentalist, Swinney was a gradualist, seeing devolution as a stepping stone to separation. Swinney won and later critics claimed he had diluted the party’s commitment to independence, but those who have worked with him say no-one should doubt his determination. “He is as zealous in his desire for independence as anybody,” says one Tory activist. “He comes across as pragmatic. The clichéd thing to say is he is cautious, solid, like a bank manager, but his zeal for independence is passionate, ambitious, unrelenting.”

Swinney’s four years as leader were the most troubled in his career; early doubts about his abilities were not assuaged by a poor SNP showing at the 2001 general election. Unable to escape Salmond’s shadow, he was soon being undermined from within. In 2003 he saw off a leadership challenge from Glasgow activist Bill Wilson, but the party lost eight MSPs in the Holyrood election and the criticism continued.

In April 2004, Mike Russell wrote a piece in which he warned that if the party did not fare better in the European elections, Swinney could expect a visit from the “men in grey kilts”. Two months later – after the party had recorded its worst result at the polls in 17 years – he stepped down, with commentators suggesting he lacked the mettle required to front the party. Others believe his contribution to the party at that time has been downplayed. “I guess there’s two essential elements of being a leader: firstly, everything that happens in the public domain – being leader of the opposition and holding the government to account – but secondly, and this is what John did well, there’s party organisation and modernisation,” says one SNP insider. “He brought in a lot of reforms that, frankly, made the SNP electable.”

If critics expected Swinney to fade into the background, they were to be disappointed. When Salmond reassumed the leadership, he appointed Swinney shadow finance secretary, a role at which he excelled. In 2007, when the SNP formed a minority government, he was credited with getting the party’s budget through parliament by offering last-minute concessions to other parties. These skills came into their own again during the Smith Commission as he bartered for more powers, even if, after it was over, he proclaimed himself less than happy with the deal he’d signed up to.

“What Swinney was very good at was picking off issues and then either using them as wedge issues or saying: ‘Well, if you are prepared to do this, why not also that?’ He would see the links between one thing and the next quite quickly and use them strategically to his advantage,” says a source close to the talks.

Today, Swinney continues to be highly rated within the party and the only person whom Sturgeon really confides in. “There is no-one apart from the First Minister who works harder than him – he is so assiduous, so dedicated,” another insider says. “He was always meant for the role of deputy because he is a safe pair of hands – you can trust him to get on with the job, to focus on the detail. He won’t walk away from a fight, but equally he is looking for a consensus on what’s the best way forward.”

The perception of Swinney as a man of integrity has been bolstered by the dedication he has shown in supporting his wife, BBC journalist Liz Quigley, who suffers from MS. The couple have three children, two from Swinney’s first marriage, and one with Quigley.

Rejecting the “right-wing-of-the-party” label, the source says: “He is motivated by what works – more than any other minister, he has been the reformer, the one who has been keen to find better ways of doing things, cheaper ways of doing things. He was one of the big advocates of preventative spend and investing in early years.”

Party insiders do not accept Swinney is pursuing a vendetta against the local authorities, nor that he is trying to exert undue control over the way councils raise or spend their funds. They maintain that if the Finance Secretary hadn’t intervened on issues such as safeguarding teacher numbers and the amount of time children spend in the classroom, their education would have suffered.

“The councils may feel he is personalising this, but he’s not, he’s just trying to protect public services,” says one. “The bottom line is he doesn’t trust their ability to make the right choices – they would slash and burn their two biggest expenditure areas because they treat it as a bottom line exercise – so classroom assistants go, additional support for learning goes and so on.”

Yet how can such a stance be perceived as anything other than a desire to centralise decision-making and strip ­local authorities of their power? “This has damaged Swinney’s credibility with the public sector,” says the Unison source. “They feel as if they are being persecuted.”

He maintains the stand-off could have a far-reaching impact because some SNP MSPs come from local government backgrounds and have their power bases there. “The party may be famed for discipline but it doesn’t mean those MSPs will be thanking Swinney for causing them grief back at the ranch.”

And then, of course, there’s the ongoing debate on the 1p on income tax backed by Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats who say it will raise £500m for education and other public services. The SNP continues to describe the proposal as a “blunt instrument”. Last week, former special adviser Alex Bell claimed Swinney was bounced into backing the Penny for Scotland policy in 1999. Determined not to be bounced into backing it a second time, the Finance Secretary said he was not prepared to penalise low-paid workers and placed the blame for the cuts back at Westminster’s door.

Hints of tax rises further down the line, when more powers to vary the bands and rates have been devolved, did not prevent opponents from portraying the SNP as an “anti-austerity” party unwilling to use its existing powers to fight austerity.

“The spat with the councils will be patched up, but the resentment will ­simmer on,” says the Unison source. “It will take a long time to rebuild the trust with Swinney, if, indeed, it is possible to ­rebuild it at all.”