NICOLA Sturgeon’s personal star may be in the ascendancy but the party as a whole faces questions, writes Tom Peterkin
Centuries before the phrase “wheel of fortune” was hijacked for television game show purposes, it referred to an ancient concept which was used to explain the capricious nature of fate.
Writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare found that the idea was a useful illustration of the vagaries of life where a rise is invariably followed by a fall.
Looking back, it would appear that the SNP’s wheel of fortune was at its zenith after last year’s general election. The party had returned 56 out of 59 MPs, membership was soaring in spite of – or more likely because of – defeat in the 2014 referendum.
Back then the SNP’s rise seemed inexorable. Since then, however, the wheel of fortune has only had one way to go. Allegations about the financial dealings involving Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry were denied by the two MPs, but the headlines began to push the wheel downwards.
The last couple of weeks have seen the wheel move again. Despite getting a hugely impressive vote, Nicola Sturgeon lost her majority.
This week there were the embarrassing allegations that Stewart Hosie, the SNP’s depute leader and husband of health secretary Shona Robison, and his fellow MP Angus MacNeil had been involved with the same woman.
The wheel of fortune had shifted again, to the obvious displeasure of Ms Sturgeon, who pointedly refused to say that she still had confidence in Mr Hosie.
So it was against that tricky background that the First Minister unveiled her new Cabinet as she attempted to get back on the front foot yesterday. Sure enough there was a big ticket headline-grabbing appointment. After nine years with his hand on the purse strings, John Swinney was moved from finance to education. Ms Sturgeon could not have sent a stronger message of her determination to finally sort out Scotland’s schools. Alongside Alex Salmond and Ms Sturgeon, Mr Swinney has been a key member of an SNP triumvirate who have masterminded the SNP’s rise and is regarded as an effective manager.
Ms Sturgeon must have lost count of the number of times she has staked her personal reputation on her government’s ability to close the attainment gap, which sees kids from rich backgrounds outperform their poorer counterparts in the classroom.
Putting her most trusted and effective colleague in charge of education is a big statement of her intent. It perhaps also poses a question about the talent at the top of the party. In her search for an education trouble-shooter, Ms Sturgeon felt unable to look beyond her erstwhile finance secretary.
Mr Swinney’s transfer was more surprising than her decision to shift Angela Constance, whose coat has been on a shoogley peg for some time. She has not been impressive, but remains in the Cabinet as secretary for communities, social security and equalities.
Her remit includes the delivery of welfare following the transfer of new social security powers to Scotland. This could be a poisoned chalice. Any failure to deliver on this would be seen as an assault on the most vulnerable. She will, however, be assisted by the new MSP Jeane Freeman, a former adviser to Jack McConnell who has been fast-tracked to be a junior minister for social security.
If Constance needs any reminder of the political consequences of failing to deliver cash to which people are entitled, the case of Richard Lochhead provides a salutary lesson. Mr Lochhead quit as rural affairs secretary yesterday. But his departure was inevitable given the cock-up made of CAP payments to farmers. This issue proved hugely damaging during the recent election and must account for some of the large swings away from the SNP in many rural seats.
Working his way up on his own personal wheel of fortune was the new finance secretary Derek Mackay, who has been promoted from transport. His star may be in the ascendancy now, but he has to deal with the challenge of trying to get his budget through parliament with a raft of new tax powers at Holyrood’s disposal. The dilemma of whether to seek support from the high-tax Labour, Green and Lib Dem parties or to enter a Faustian pact with the Conservatives falls to him.
The veteran Fergus Ewing has been promoted from energy to the rural economy, a move that takes him away from decision-making about fracking. Mr Ewing has been perceived to be open to the controversial technology. Fracking decisions will now be the responsibility of Keith Brown, who takes on the newly created post of economy secretary, and the new junior energy minister Paul Wheelhouse. Mr Brown is on the record saying he has “serious concerns” about fracking, so his appointment can be seen as a hardening of the line against it.
Also of note was the inclusion of land reform in Roseanna Cunningham’s climate change and environment portfolio. It was back in 2010 that Ms Cunningham’s enthusiasm for the right to roam led to her proposing that details of two paths on the Queen’s Balmoral Estate be included in a tourist map promoting rambling walks. Given her well-known republican sympathies, it made for an entertaining newspaper story, but did not go down well with Royal security. The appointment of an ardent land reformer means more action on that front can be expected.