SNP leadership contest is going so badly there's already talk of another next year – Jackie Baillie

So goodbye John Swinney, the SNP’s deputy leader has decided to abandon the nationalist ship before it inevitably hits the iceberg.

Swinney has been a key figure in the SNP, an elected politician for three decades, a minister for every day his party has governed and someone who should be saluted for his public service. But do not mistake the farewell sweep of the arm by the first mate of the SNP Titanic for anything else. That was not Swinney waving, it was the SNP drowning.

Don’t blame me for the iceberg analogy, it was Alex Salmond who likened the first week of the SNP leadership election to the Titanic heading for the iceberg at full speed. I don’t think he meant the type of lettuce which outlasted Liz Truss’s premiership.

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Since then things haven’t improved much. Swinney walking out the door in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s departure is another big blow that marks the end of the 25-year project to use Scottish devolution as a platform for breaking up Britain. When historians look back on the SNP’s custodianship of the Scottish Government they will conclude that the nationalists never believed in devolution and certainly never made devolution work.

In Belfast, where they built the original Titanic, the joke about the ship is that “she was fine when she left here”. It is not a claim that Sturgeon or Swinney could make about the political vessel they piloted from one crisis to another over the last 15 years. Apart from a short spell on the bridge, Swinney laboured largely below deck for years. But instead of stoking the engines of the economy, he choked off growth and public services.

As Finance Secretary, he has presided over some of the most swingeing cuts local councils have experienced this century. Council services have all but been destroyed while his own Scottish Government budget remained mainly unaffected. In education, his ‘steady as she goes’ attitude led to a steady decline in standards and a widening of the attainment gap.

Warnings from Scottish businesses about the state of the economy and councils about the fraying public services were ignored. The SNP’s handling of the ship left Scotland holed below the waterline but Swinney and Sturgeon carried on posing on the prow like the DiCaprio and Winslet of the SNP movie heading for the far shore.

Now he and his boss have taken to the lifeboats, perhaps because from their lofty positions they could see what is coming. Amid the struggling passengers left on board, a fight has broken out over who should get to use the broken oars they have been left with.

John Swinney's resignation is a sign that the SNP is in trouble (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)John Swinney's resignation is a sign that the SNP is in trouble (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
John Swinney's resignation is a sign that the SNP is in trouble (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Some people have not had time to dress for the abandon-ship drill. Peter Murrell, aka Mr Sturgeon, was still in his pyjamas last weekend when he answered the door to reporters who had come to question him about the £600,000 allegedly missing from the SNP’s accounts.

Perhaps that was not the knock on the door the chief executive of the SNP was expecting. The water is more than lapping around his ankles when it comes to an examination of his running of the party. Appearing to step back from running the contest to replace his wife as party leader, then lounging about in his PJs waiting for the doorbell to ring, is perhaps what fills Murrell’s days.

He could, from an appropriate distance, tune in to the travelling end-of-the-pier show that the SNP leadership hustings have become. Of course, none of us would have been able to see or hear the potential next First Minister tear lumps out of their colleagues if it had been left to the SNP. The party wanted to ban the press from reporting on the events, and when you do tune in for five minutes you almost wish they had succeeded.

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The loudest applause at the SNP hustings always seems reserved for the person who launches the most frothy-mouthed attack on the media for actually scrutinising the case for independence. It is as if they have forgotten that journalism is what exposed Boris Johnson’s Partygate scandal, sealing the fate of the Tory government, the same as it was media scrutiny which first brought to light the SNP’s missing half million.

While the fanbase might cheer, what is more shameful is that not one of the three candidates appears to have had the courage to defend a free press in a democracy. They all want to wear progressive credentials on their sleeves but if you need a glimpse into the deeper instincts of the nationalist party look no further than the proposed media ban on covering the race to be the next First Minister of Scotland.

Perhaps they wanted a cover-up because what is being exposed at the hustings is the sheer lack of credibility of the nationalist cause. Hands up who wants Ash Regan’s independence thermometer attached to the Scott Monument on Princes Street? Who, even in the hall, really believes Kate Forbes when she suggests she could stage a referendum three months after a general election? Who, even in the hall, believes Humza Yousaf about anything?

In contrast, it seems that Swinney’s greatest strength was his plausibility. With his mild-mannered approach, everywhere except in the debating chamber, he maintained the delusion that the ship was not on course to hit the iceberg. Now passengers and SNP crew can see a looming disaster regardless of who wins this month. The talk is already of another leadership election next year.

Jackie Baillie is MSP for Dumbarton, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader and her party’s spokesperson for health



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