DCSIMG

George Kerevan: The seal of cabinet approval is still to be validated

The SNP Government fields a strong team in their new administration but the path ahead offers real challenges

TEN years after the Act of Union, George I gave up attending the regular meetings of his chief ministers and let them get on with running the country. And so, because a king could not converse in English, the modern cabinet system of government was born.

Yesterday, Alex Salmond, re-elected First Minister and Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland (I suspect he prefers the latter title) announced his new cabinet. It will be - he hopes - the group of men and women who bring about the long cherished goal of Scottish independence.

In 2007 when he set up his first administration, Salmon opted for only six cabinet secretaries (including himself). The 2011 election result - in particular, the vote of confidence by the business community - suggests this was an inspired choice. However, it leaves Salmond with a dilemma.

In personnel, his Mark II cabinet looks exactly like the Mark I version. Indeed, how could it be otherwise given the fact the SNP ran on its record in government? Minister for minister, it remains a strong team - far, far stronger than the opposition parties can field, even collectively. But time, media boredom and ministerial exhaustion can undermine even the best of administrations.

Nicola Sturgeon is back as Salmond's deputy, health secretary and political heir apparent. She's already survived four years in the health job - usually a poisoned chalice - and positively flourished. But if she's going to be leader some day, she needs to be tested in an economic portfolio.

John Swinney is finance secretary yet again, a job he seems born to do. His huge brief has been expanded to put a greater emphasis on job creation. This is understandable as the SNP government will stand or fall on its ability to promote economic growth - not on independence. But he will need good junior ministers to deliver.

Michael Russell is the safe pair of hands in any Salmond administration. He's back at education where, hopefully, his radicalism - normally kept on a leash by Mr Salmond - might finally get a chance to emerge.

Back as justice secretary is Kenny MacAskill. He can be stiff in formal presentations but MacAskill is well-respected by the bobbies on the beat - not something the UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, can claim.

Richard Lochhead returns as the rural affairs and environment secretary. He has proved a star turn with Scotland's farmers - not bad for a Paisley boy with a degree in politics.If there's been any criticism of Lochhead, it has come from some in the climate-change movement who think he has concentrated too much on the agricultural side of his gigantic brief, and not enough on environmental problems.

The new cabinet has increased to nine members, reflecting the SNP's majority and the economic crisis. Time will tell if the increased personnel alter the cabinet's delicate dynamics. The more people, the more room for dissent usually.

Promoted to cabinet rank for the first time is the pugnacious Alex Neil, a former ally of Jim Sillars and never a favourite of Mr Salmond. It is to Salmond's credit that he brought in Mr Neil as housing minister in 2009. With his usual boundless energy, Alex made the housing brief sexy.

An economist with a flair for communicating, Mr Neil has the skills to succeed in a portfolio covering infrastructure and capital investment (though the title is designed to send you to sleep). Therein lies the challenge for Mr Neil: he is now the political lightning rod for the cuts. On the upside, Mr Neil also wins the transport job - an area that needed representation at the cabinet table.

Also new to the cabinet is Bruce Crawford, but that obscures the fact that he was one of the most powerful figures in the previous SNP minority administration. As minister for parliamentary business, he was Salmond's "enforcer", responsible for getting a majority for John Swinney's budgets and keeping backbench MSPs voting the correct way. He is the living embodiment of Teddy Roosevelt's political maxim: speak softly but carry a big stick. Mr Crawford keeps his old role but now earns a cabinet title as a reward. I'd advise new SNP MSPs to be on best behaviour.

The third additional member is Fiona Hyslop, whose existing portfolio of culture and external relations is upgraded. Ms Hyslop was sidelined as education secretary in December 2009, forestalling a motion of censure by the opposition parties. Some will see her return as proof of Mr Salmond's indulgence plus the need to obscure the obvious lack of women in the cabinet.

Does Mr Salmond run a risk in reappointing so many weel kent faces? It means the cabinet will hit the ground running but history suggests that it is all too easy for a successful team to become inured to change.

Another potential weakness in Salmond's cabinet is the lack of anyone with a first hand knowledge of local government. To date, SNP councillors have been fantastically disciplined when it came to obeying orders from St Andrews House. But with local elections next year and tough cuts on the way, that could change. Even Alex Salmond has to remember that - ultimately - all politics is local.

Beyond the Cabinet, junior ministerial posts are announced today. With a phalanx of new MSPs, another test of Mr Salmond's second administration will be his willingness to offer junior posts to fresh faces as well as old friends.Unlike Labour, the SNP has much backbench talent to draw on. Yet, as a party, the Nats are aging visibly. Youth will only be attracted to the SNP if it is given responsibility early.

Watch out for Humza Yousaf, Joan McAlpine (Salmond's speechwriter and a columnist on this paper), Annabelle Ewing and John Mason (victor of the Glasgow East by-election in 2009).

The Keeper of the Great Seal will set out detailed plans for government next Thursday. At which point we will see what his new cabinet has in store for us.

 
 
 

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