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The Guardian view on John Swinney’s Scotland: a new start but also more of the same | Editorial

The Guardian view on John Swinney’s Scotland: a new start but also more of the same | Editorial
The Guardian view on John Swinney’s Scotland: a new start but also more of the same | Editorial

Scotland’s new first minister is an experienced and unflashy politician who can read the public mood. Almost everything that John Swinney has said and done since replacing Humza Yousaf this week shows he grasps the palpable wish – south of the border as well as north – for more effective government that is led by more sensible politicians who do not spend their time playing to the gallery. The question, after 17 years governing Scotland, is whether any SNP leader can now deliver this.

Mr Swinney’s election speech on Tuesday and his debut at first minister’s questions at Holyrood on Thursday were each designed to show that he gets it. On Tuesday, after accepting that cross-party parliamentary cooperation would be necessary under the minority government he now leads, he perambulated through the chamber to shake hands with other party leaders. It was a small gesture, of a kind that newly elected leaders sometimes make before things get more serious, but it was a good start nonetheless.

At first minister’s questions, Mr Swinney had a much harder task. He had promised to be straight with the public about Scotland’s difficulties and he said that he was offering fresh leadership. But Scotland’s current problems come on the SNP’s watch and Mr Swinney is the embodiment of SNP continuity. He has sat in Holyrood ever since it resumed in 1999. He held senior ministerial jobs under both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. He offers not freshness but familiarity.

Mr Swinney therefore owns Scotland’s current problems. The proof lay in the eagerness with which both the Conservatives and Labour attacked him on Thursday – Mr Swinney is both a former education and a former finance secretary – over Scotland’s educational decline and its acute teacher shortages this year. It also lay in the difficulty Mr Swinney had in answering their charges. He took refuge in blaming inflation and UK austerity, as the SNP routinely does, but refused to admit that the SNP was re-elected in 2021 pledging to recruit 3,500 new teachers and has failed to do so. There was nothing fresh about that approach.

Mr Swinney’s new cabinet is familiar too. Most of its members are doing the same jobs as under Mr Yousaf. But there are two resonant differences. The first is the return of Kate Forbes, the socially conservative Highlander who is popular with voters. The Greens, who were effectively in coalition with the SNP until last month, launched a strong personal attack on her on Thursday. Mr Swinney’s claim to be a unifying leader who governs “for everyone” is likely to face many more such attacks in future.

The other striking change is Mr Swinney’s decision to scrap the minister of independence post created by his predecessor. If nothing else, this signals the end of the Building a New Scotland discussion papers – 13 of them at the last count – produced under Mr Yousaf. It may also imply a new approach to the government’s controversial spending and civil service work on separating from the UK.

The big question is whether there will be any tacit downplaying of independence itself. Mr Swinney knows Scottish voters are focused on the cost of living and public services. He needs to focus there too, and seek cross-party cooperation for what he calls his centre-left agenda. But independence is always the SNP’s overriding raison d’etre. Mr Swinney is steeped in it. He will struggle to find much willingness to cooperate, especially as the UK general election draws closer.

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