John Swinney makes me hopeful about the SNP for the first time in a while – Stewart McDonald MP

The leadership style of John Swinney reflects his personal warmth, pragmatism and openness

The first order of business after a political death is a post-mortem. Where did it all go wrong? What could have been done? When it comes to the end of Humza Yousaf’s time in Bute House, these questions seem particularly ill-fitting. From the political turmoil over Operation Branchform to the Bute House Agreement, Yousaf inherited trolleys of political baggage from his predecessor that bound his political horizon in a way that few other leaders have experienced – and fewer still would want. I want to first thank him for the way he negotiated such difficult circumstances and for his service to this country.

With the Bute House Agreement terminated, the next First Minister has the chance for a genuine political reset. While I hope that they will build on the foundation left by Yousaf, in particular his pathbreaking speech on industrial policy, the next First Minister will inherit a party and country that is crying out for a fresh vision – someone with that elusive combination of clear-eyed optimism and pragmatism to guide the country through the current period of turmoil. The best person for this job, by a Perthshire country mile, is John Swinney.

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At the risk of being accused of playing the role of hagiographer rather than politician, I want to briefly sketch out why. Swinney has years of experience in government, having held Cabinet positions under both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, and is held in high regard across Holyrood – even among our political opponents. His leadership style reflects his personal warmth, pragmatism and openness. He is committed to listening to the concerns and aspirations of the Scottish people, building consensus, and fostering a culture of open dialogue and engagement. He is ready to hit the ground running.

John Swinney launched his SNP leadership bid at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)John Swinney launched his SNP leadership bid at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
John Swinney launched his SNP leadership bid at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

I have heard the rumblings from certain quarters about the need for new faces and fresh voices in the leadership of the SNP and the Scottish Government. Keen-eyed readers of these pages will know that I made similar noises myself during the last leadership campaign. But Swinney’s hard-won experience and his ability to provide and build stability is exactly what we need just now.

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I know that he understands this. As a man who was practically raised in the SNP, Swinney, perhaps more than almost anyone else in the party, is in tune with the national membership and alive to their concerns. I saw this during the speech launching his campaign, which felt at times like it was written by someone who had taken a chisel to my cranium and peered into my brain – someone had seen any niggling doubts I may have had and set out to address them, line-by-line. We also saw this during his Newsnight interview this week, where he was refreshingly honest about where Scotland stands on independence: not, as the current First Minister said, “frustratingly close”. It felt like an adult walked into the room.

I was worried that we would have a temporary leader who would steady the ship until after the Westminster general election and set the stage for a fresh leadership contest. Scotland – like every other country in the world – cannot afford that. We cannot afford even a lost minute. That fear was allayed in the speech when Swinney explicitly pledged that he would not be a “caretaker” or “interim leader” but would “lead the party through the Westminster elections and lead us beyond the 2026 elections – two contests which I intend to win”.

I was concerned that Kate Forbes and the political tradition she represents within the SNP would be side-lined in favour of a Cabinet that might more easily agree with one another. That fear was also directly addressed, with Swinney stating that his would-be opponent is “an intelligent, creative and thoughtful person, who has much to contribute to our national life. And if I am elected, I will make sure that Kate is able to make that contribution.”

In his speech, Swinney also addressed internal problems in the SNP head-on, noting that “today I have to accept that my party is not as cohesive as it needs to be” and promising that “this has to change”. He also spoke about the SNP’s lack of a parliamentary majority and expressed a desire – in line with the argument I made in last week’s column – to embrace the spirit in which the modern Scottish Parliament was founded and listen, compromise, and work with all political parties that have been elected by voters across the country. This, he noted, is not just in the SNP’s interest but in the interests of the public and of good governance. Hear hear!

While I will happily see Swinney in Bute House, there is one issue that he, for obvious reasons, did not address in his speech. We in the SNP cannot continue to ignore the fact that a genuinely new generation of SNP politicians has struggled to emerge on the political stage during our long time in government.

As Swinney noted, he, like many in the party, needed a little nudge to get properly stuck in. If there is one thing Salmond did well as leader of the SNP, it was to identify talent from across Scotland – people he’d met at street stalls, branch meetings, public events – and push them to get involved in the party. Like his biblical namesake, John must also be a similar evangelist for the SNP and help bring in and elevate a new generation of leaders.

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Right now, however, Scotland needs a leader who can provide stability and build a new consensus around Scotland’s future from the centre ground – someone who can start the job tomorrow and sow the seeds for the next generation to reap. There is no better person for that task than John Swinney. For the first time in a while, I am feeling positive about my party’s future.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



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