John Swinney has the golden ticket, but he'll find little sweet in Scottish politics

7 May 2024, 19:07

John Swinney, Scotland' new First Minister, contemplates the challenges ahead
John Swinney, Scotland' new First Minister, contemplates the challenges ahead. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

In his speech accepting his win in the election - among MSPs - to be Scotland's next First Minister, John Swinney could not have been any more overt in admitting that he has a battle on his hands to get anything done in Holyrood.

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For he did not come to Holyrood to bury opposition parties today in the wake of becoming the latest SNP FM - but to heap praise upon them.

He poured syrup on the current Conservative benches, telling them they "under the leadership of Annabel – now baroness –Goldie, can look back with great credit on the constructive way they often approached opposition, and they certainly helped me with a budget or two."

He doled out the candy to Labour and Lib Dem MSPs, saying they should "take pride in governing Scotland through the difficult early years of devolution, when much of the debate was about the cost of this building rather than about what we could do with the powers invested in it."

He even found a spoonful of sugar for the Greens, still smarting from the medicine they had to swallow from Humza Yousaf when he terminated their Bute House Agreement. They had, Swinney said, "brought a distinctive voice to our politics and became the first Greens to serve in government in the United Kingdom."

Read more: John Swinney elected new first minister by Scottish Parliament after becoming SNP leader

Read more: John Swinney hails 'new chapter' for SNP and vows to unite Scotland as he pays tribute to Humza Yousaf in victory speech

John Swinney promises ‘new chapter’ for the SNP and Scotland

All the sweetness must have turned the stomachs of many SNP members and supporters of independence. But then Swinney knows that he is going to have to do some serious wooing in the coming months if he's to get any legislation passed. There will have to be a bag of sweet policy offers for the opposition if he is going to get budgets through.

Which is why he also declared himself to be a "changed man" when it comes to the barracking of his opposites in the chamber. The shouting must stop. There will be less heckling, more harmony, he pledged.

This is not a happy place for many current SNP Cabinet ministers to be. They are unused to having to compromise with Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem MSPs. They prefer dealing with the Greens where the constitution is not a sticking point in negotiations.

Swinney on the other hand has been here before. He was Alex Salmond's finance secretary during the first minority SNP government - hence his comments today about working well with Goldie on getting his budgets through.

John Swinney confirmed as new SNP leader and likely first minister

Times have changed though. Years of bitter entrenchment have set in since 2014. It will be difficult for Swinney to win over the opposition party leaders - especially the Conservatives, even with Kate Forbes in his Cabinet, as seems likely.

But his words will also discomfit the Conservatives and Labour. They will have one eye on the forthcoming General Election and feel compelled to ignore any cross-party working as a result. Another eye though will be the 2026 Scottish Parliament elections and on potential policy gains to be made at budget negotiations.

They have had years of not being able to achieve much of anything after being shut out as a result of the Bute House Agreement, and so may be tempted by Swinney's toffee apples.

Meanwhile the Greens for their part still say their door is open on a case by case basis, but they know their influence has already ebbed away.

The general public, not so tribal overall, may well feel that this is how things should be in Scottish politics. The question of independence aside, they want their politicians to work together for the benefit of all Scots. A focus on the economy, cost of living, jobs and the health service, and tackling child poverty will feel to them the right place to be.

What we are seeing now in Holyrood is the realpolitik of proportional representation back in the chamber. The minority SNP government needs to build bridges with all the other... whisper it... unionist parties. And right now, it is they who hold the keys to the chocolate factory.