John Swinney could emerge as unlikely Superman who understands Scotland well enough to lead it to independence – Joyce McMillan

New First Minister must demonstrate competence in government while developing a new narrative about why Scotland could do better as an independent country

Edinburgh’s first warm day of the year and, outside the First Minister’s official residence in Charlotte Square, John Swinney and his newly appointed deputy Kate Forbes are facing the press. “What’s your message today to Scotland’s LGBT community?” asks one, referring to Kate Forbes’ controversial remarks over the years about gay rights and gay marriage.

Last year, when she was running for the party leadership, Forbes had a fairly good answer to this one; that equal rights for gay people is the law of the land, and that whatever her personal views as a member of the Free Church of Scotland, she will uphold and defend those laws.

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On Wednesday, though, she instead began to waffle about how the Swinney government would concentrate on areas of consensus, as if basic gay rights were somehow still a matter for debate. Her response was so poor that Swinney had to dive in, reaffirming that he would be FM for all the people of Scotland, including the LGBT community.

John Swinney, the quiet representative for Perthshire North, has a chance to become the unlikely Superman of Scottish politics (Picture: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images)John Swinney, the quiet representative for Perthshire North, has a chance to become the unlikely Superman of Scottish politics (Picture: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
John Swinney, the quiet representative for Perthshire North, has a chance to become the unlikely Superman of Scottish politics (Picture: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
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And any keen observer of Scottish politics could sense a shift in the wind, as even a few Forbes fans began to wonder whether it is such a good look, after all, for Swinney to appoint a Deputy First Minister some of whose views give new life to ancient fears and stereotypes about Scotland, as a pious and repressive Presbyterian backwater.

All of which raises some profound questions about where the fall of Humza Yousaf, and the surprise emergence of Swinney as Scotland’s new First Minister, leaves the cause of independence, which Swinney holds so dear. Apart from the elevation of Forbes, the main change this week was to abolish the role of minister for independence; and if the introduction of the role last year was largely a gesture to SNP members desperate for “something to be done” about their main cause, then its abolition may fairly be seen as a gesture to those who want the Scottish Government to focus, at least for now, on bread-and-butter priorities such as health, housing, and child poverty.

Yet those eager to declare the independence debate “dead”, or at least on the back burner for the next decade, would be well advised to show some caution. It is true that constitutional issues are rarely a top voter priority; in most people’s book, good politics is about delivering better lives and greater opportunities for the majority of the population, and constitutional arrangements – EU membership, independence, or the UK itself – are seen primarily as means to those ends.

When Nicola Sturgeon first became First Minister, for example, she was emphatic in declaring that she was not a fundamentalist nationalist, in favour of Scottish independence at any cost, but one who saw it as a means to building a 21st-century social democracy – green, inclusive and internationalist – that no longer seemed attainable within the Union.

It was on that position that she built her huge electoral success over almost a decade; Swinney, for so long her loyal deputy, has said repeatedly that he wants to govern from that same political position – centre-left, inclusive, and committed to climate action. And many SNP voters will immediately understand that he embraces those policies not as an alternative to campaigning for independence, but as a positive vision for Scotland’s future that can only be fully achieved with independence; not just “getting on w