John Swinney: Why the SNP leadership frontunner says he is the man to unite party after Humza Yousaf's resignation

The former deputy first minister John Swinney launched his leadership campaign in Edinburgh

If John Swinney’s leadership launch felt a bit like history repeating itself, the SNP will hope it turns out to be neither tragedy nor farce. God knows, the party has had quite enough of both.

“I believe I have the experience, the skills, and I command the trust and the confidence of people across this country,” the former deputy first minister told a packed, slightly sweaty hall near Edinburgh’s Grassmarket.

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Two decades after stepping down as SNP leader following a series of poor election results, Mr Swinney insisted he is the man to unite his party and turn its declining fortunes around.

John Swinney is set to become the next First Minister of Scotland (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)John Swinney is set to become the next First Minister of Scotland (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
John Swinney is set to become the next First Minister of Scotland (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“I could have stood back and hoped others would sort things out,” he said. “But I care too much about the future of Scotland and the Scottish National Party to walk on by.”

Mr Swinney has been buried under an avalanche of endorsements from SNP big-bitters in recent days, and several senior ministers were present at the Grassmarket Community Project to cheer him on. He was introduced by economy secretary Màiri McAllan, who paid tribute to “a friend, a colleague, a mentor”.

Barring an unforeseen development, the Perthshire North MSP will almost certainly be sworn in as Scotland’s seventh First Minister as early as next week. Kate Forbes, his only rival, confirmed she would not run just hours after his campaign launch. She said Mr Swinney had her support.

A few things stood out about Mr Swinney’s pitch on Thursday morning. The first was his insistence that he would not be a “caretaker” figure. There had been speculation the 60-year-old could take over as leader on an interim basis in order to steady the ship, before passing the baton on to someone else.

John Swinney launches his leadership bid. Jane Barlow/PA WireJohn Swinney launches his leadership bid. Jane Barlow/PA Wire
John Swinney launches his leadership bid. Jane Barlow/PA Wire

"I am offering to lead my party through the Westminster election, and to lead us beyond the 2026 [Holyrood] election,” he said. “Two contests which I intend to win.”

Then there were his comments about Ms Forbes. He said he wanted her to play a “significant part” in his top team. She would be offered a “very involved, senior position”. His deputy? “We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves,” he told journalists.

It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that Shona Robison, the current deputy first minister and finance secretary, was notably absent from his campaign launch. Had she seen the writing on the wall?

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“It is now clear from this morning’s statement that in John Swinney, we have someone who not only understands that need for reform, but has now committed to delivering it,” Ms Forbes said in a statement sent to journalists at 1.45pm. “I look forward to playing my role in making that happen.”

Ms Forbes was absent from Holyrood after her daughter, Naomi, had a minor accident which necessitated a hospital visit. It meant she avoided some of the chaotic scenes earlier in the week, when journalists followed her through the Scottish Parliament, bombarding her with questions about the leadership race.

Speculation is rife that those close to Ms Forbes, such as the MSPs Michelle Thomson and Ivan McKee, will also be offered ministerial positions.

Insiders are breathing a sign of relief as the SNP now looks set to avoid another damaging leadership contest. Ms Forbes was only narrowly defeated by Humza Yousaf last year, but faced intense scrutiny over her socially conservative religious views. Back then, Mr Swinney had questioned whether her stance on gay marriage made her an “appropriate” party leader. "Kate is perfectly entitled to express her views, but party members are equally entitled to decide if someone who holds those views would be an appropriate individual to be SNP leader and First Minister,” he had said. Water under the bridge, presumably.

At his leadership launch, Mr Swinney insisted he was a different, stronger character from the man who led the SNP between 2000 and 2004. That wasn’t a particularly happy time. “Some of us remember John Swinney when he was SNP leader, and he wasn't really that good at it," Professor Sir John Curtice said recently.

For many in the SNP, Mr Swinney seems to be something akin to a comfort blanket. He is a reassuring and stabilising presence; a “safe pair of hands” with decades of experience. His commitment and loyalty are apparent for all to see.

But can he reverse the party’s slide in the polls, or win voters over to the independence cause? His speech on Thursday acknowledged more people need to be convinced. “I want to focus my efforts on reaching out in Scotland, with respect and courtesy, to address the obstacles in the way of winning the case for independence,” he said.

Again, Prof Curtice is worth listening to. “John as a deputy leader is absolutely brilliant because he could say nothing in more words than anybody else could ever string together,” the polling guru said earlier this week. “Fantastic at it. But what you need from a leader is an ability to say something really resonant in as few words as possible, and that's not John's skill.”

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For my part, I couldn’t resist asking an obvious question. What does it say about the SNP that Mr Swinney has emerged as the man of the hour, rather than one of the party’s younger, fresher faces?

"I am concerned that a representative of such an august journal is being very ageist about me,” he joked. Sir Keir Starmer, he pointed out, is older than him.

Mr Swinney said the SNP should choose a leader “who is right for the moment”, adding: "My party’s not as cohesive as it should be. I think the central question for the SNP to answer is, who is going to bring the SNP back together? And I think the answer to that is John Swinney.”



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