Labour's chance to beat Tories will motivate more Scottish voters than SNP's heir apparent John Swinney – Brian Wilson

Nicola Sturgeon’s performing seal, John Swinney, is a zealot for his only real cause – independence

Would Scotland have elected a devolved government led by Humza Yousaf? Would it have voted for a nationalist-Green coalition? Does it now want a Swinney administration, dependent on Green endorsement?

Alas, we will never know the answers because Scotland was never asked and that shows no sign of changing. Government is the property of the party; not of parliament or people, so the party does what it likes. Then a day of reckoning comes for this proprietorial approach to democracy. If the nationalists doubt that, before anointing this year’s messiah they might look south where the Tories were again punished for the same conceit.

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Folk are sick of them and weary of their failures. The overwhelming view is they have been too long in power and treat it as an entitlement. The same deadbeat cast will change nothing for the better. On each of these charges, the accused are interchangeable – Tories and SNP.

Labour leader Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria Starmer leave after voting in the London mayoral election on Thursday (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)Labour leader Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria Starmer leave after voting in the London mayoral election on Thursday (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Labour leader Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria Starmer leave after voting in the London mayoral election on Thursday (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Dusting down John Swinney to be proclaimed the shining star of Scotland’s future deserves to be treated as risible. Is there anything in his career, other than the survival instincts of an apparatchik, which commends him for this role? Is there a single reform or idea with which he can be associated?

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Instead, we hear an endless parade of the same nodding donkeys who gave us Yousaf telling us that Swinney is a man of great wisdom and integrity, without being required to adduce evidence. The public record around various inquiries and committees, from Edinburgh trams to Covid, tell a different story of habitual economy with the truth and a deep aversion to transparency.

He was principal obstructor when a Holyrood committee was trying to investigate the Salmond affair. Time and again, in spite of parliamentary votes, Mr Swinney refused to hand over crucial legal advice on which the pursuit of Alex Salmond was founded. When Mr Salmond now dismisses Mr Swinney as “an old lag”, there is irony as well as bitterness.

The former nationalist MSP, Dorothy-Grace Elder, recalls the nickname “Sneaky Swinney” who was “ruthless in his pettiness” with “Sturgeon nebbing him like a woodpecker at a tree stump”, which sounds about right. The more surfaces are scraped, the less likely are the lazy clichés to withstand scrutiny.

For example, Mr Swinney’s term as Education Secretary was an unmitigated disaster with Scotland falling to unprecedented lows in international league tables and attainment gaps widening. “Safe Hands” Swinney was in charge of the ‘named person’ legislation which was put out its misery in the Supreme Court. More recently, he was hand in hand with Ms Sturgeon’s “gender recognition” agenda which met the same sticky end.

Despite his record, Mr Swinney pitched himself this week as the “unity” candidate in terms of his own party and also of Scotland. He implied that there is some duty incumbent upon his opponents to work with him when he “reaches out”. Again, this is very much at odds with past behaviour and demeanour.

My abiding Swinney image is as a desk-banging, clapping seal at Ms Sturgeon’s side and the more partisan her barbs, the more wildly the seal clapped. Anyone who fails to recognise Mr Swinney as a zealot for his only real cause – independence – has not been paying attention. That’s fair enough but he should not be surprised when nobody believes a word of his conversion to inclusivity.

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I’m sorry Kate Forbes, having been bullied into submission, has opted to be part of this. Listening to the somewhat hyperbolic praise which Mr Swinney showered upon her may have given Ms Forbes a slight touch of the boak, given his behaviour in last year’s leadership contest when the woodpecker was doubtless pecking at his stump.

Mr Swinney’s endorsement of Mr Yousaf was critical in ensuring the continuity candidate of 2023 narrowly prevailed over Ms Forbes. “We now need to choose an SNP leader who will complete our journey to independence,” he declared, “and I believe that person should be Humza Yousaf” as a force for “progressive change”.

Just in case anyone doubted the significance of the endorsement or who he was, his statement added: “So for me, John Swinney, it has to be Humza!” The corollary of course was that it must not be Kate who had been monstered for declining to sign up to the officially decreed definitions of “progressive change”.

Just 14 months after Mr Swinney’s “it has to be Humza” clarion call, the Greens are gone from government but still in power, holding the choice of the SNP’s First Minister in their hands. Mr Swinney will be acceptable to the Greens on their own terms while Ms Forbes would be unacceptable on any terms. So it will continue, which puts her in a very odd position. She would have been better to stay out of it.

For Scottish voters, the essential choice at the general election remains the same. The likelihood is that Labour will form the next government of the United Kingdom. Does Scotland want to abet that outcome and play a major role, as we used to, in that government? Or is it now our fate to occupy the role of permanent opposition at Westminster, moaning about everything and delivering absolutely nothing?

Do Scottish voters want to be part of delivering change for the whole of Britain, and getting the Tories out, or do they want to throw Mr Sunak a Scottish lifeline by returning MPs who would be at least as hostile to a Labour government as they are to a Tory one?

In these immediate contexts, it is irrelevant who leads the nationalists. The English local election results confirm Britain is on the cusp of political change that Scotland needs to be part of. That tangible prospect will motivate far more Scottish voters than are likely to be impressed by a John Swinney coronation.



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