Tom Peterkin: Swinney's spinning plates with Fringe-like panache

EDUCATION secretary has his hands full with his education and named person juggling act, writes Tom Peterkin

What with rescuing the named person legislation, dealing with the historical childhood abuse inquiry and bidding to narrow the educational attainment gap, John Swinney has his hands full. Picture: John Devlin
What with rescuing the named person legislation, dealing with the historical childhood abuse inquiry and bidding to narrow the educational attainment gap, John Swinney has his hands full. Picture: John Devlin

Taking a stroll down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile at this time of year is an exhausting business. Bustling along the ancient thoroughfare from Castle to Holyrood Palace are all manner of street artists, musicians and tourists.

An attempt to dodge the Fringe performers thrusting their flyers at passersby is likely to lead to a collision with a stilt walker, unicyclist or fire eater.

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As buskers hammer out ragtime jazz, puppeteers bang drums and men dressed as wizards test your grasp on reality as they perform gravity defying optical illusions. Missing, however, from this happy throng is perhaps the most thrilling act of them all.

With the sort of panache that would grace any Fringe venue, John Swinney is currently involved in a political plate spinning exercise that would test the most accomplished acrobat.

Quite how Mr Swinney does it, nobody knows. And quite why he should have to deal with so many spinning plates begs another interesting question. Is there no-one else in Ms Sturgeon’s government who is capable of dealing with the really tricky issues?

The Deputy First Minister has become a victim of his own competence. There can rarely have been a spell in Scottish politics where one man has assumed so much responsibilty for so many precarious government policies.

As far as Nicola Sturgeon is concerned, the spinning plate of the utmost importance is that of the education brief. Nowhere was Ms Sturgeon’s desire to make Mr Swinney her trouble-shooter in chief more obvious than when she made him education secretary.

Under two previous SNP governments, the attainment gap that sees rich children outperform poor children had stubbornly refused to close. In the last government, Mr Swinney’s predecessor, Angela Constance, had failed to shine. Having staked her own reputation on closing the gap, Ms Sturgeon then asked Mr Swinney as her most able minister to sort things out in this most demanding of briefs.

Today Mr Swinney will be reminded just how tough his job has become when the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities hosts an “extraordinary” meeting to register its alarm at the reforms Mr Swinney will introduce in an attempt to meet Ms Sturgeon’s demands.

Mr Swinney will have to deal with irate councillors who believe his plans to give more money and control directly to headteachers undermine the role of the local authority.

He will be confronted by those who argue that bypassing local authorities make schools less accountable to the public and will swamp headteachers in red tape.

Mr Swinney, however, is used to run-ins with the local authorities. In his previous role as finance secretary, he played hard ball with councils when it came to getting them to accept budget cuts. The pragmatist in him knows his education reforms are supported in principle by the Conservatives, so he will be able to get them through parliament – no matter how unpalatable an SNP/Tory alliance will be for some of his supporters.

Mr Swinney’s epic multi-tasking takes in his stewardship of Scotland’s historical inquiry into childhood abuse.The English experience has shown just how challenging setting up such an investigation can be. It was just a few days ago that Dame Lowell Goddard became the third inquiry chair to quit south of the Border. Scotland’s own investigation into these troubling episodes has seen similar controversy. Susan O’Brien QC resigned, claiming she was being undermined by the Scottish Government. Her departure came after the resignation of Professor Michael Lamb, a member of the inquiry’s three person panel who left in protest at what he described as Scottish Government interference in the investigation. With abuse survivors deserving answers – not to mention compensation – bringing this sensitive process to a successful conclusion will require all of Mr Swinney’s political skills.

As if that was not enough, his juggling act includes sorting out the mess of the Scottish Government’s named person legislation.

After months of defiance, Mr Swinney this week accepted that the legislation had to be paused while more work is done to make this deeply unpopular scheme compatible with human rights law. The UK Supreme Court decision that the scheme breached human rights was a grievous blow and one which he will have to work hard to recover from. But Mr Swinney is nothing if not canny. Despite calls from the Tories to scrap named persons, Mr Swinney will amend the legislation to make it compliant with the European Convention of Human Rights. The revised version then has to go through Holyrood.

As a veteran of the sort of cross party negotiations that were required to pass budgets when he was finance secretary in Alex Salmond’s minority administration, Mr Swinney will be confident he can secure the support of enough MSPs. The support of the Greens should be enough to overcome the opposition of the Conservatives and Lib Dems and whatever reservations Labour has. Then Mr Swinney could turn around and say the scheme in one form or another had been passed twice by Holyrood.

Even so, balancing these plates – all of which contain a dog’s breakfast – will prove enormously challenging. One wonders how many of them will have come crashing to the ground by the time next year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe rolls around.