Orcadian Column, 6 April 2023

11 Apr 2023

Bob popped along to Holyrood last week and seemed entirely unfazed by the political drama unfolding around him as MSPs went about the business of electing a new First Minister and confirming a host of ministerial appointments.

Bob’s unflappability may have had something to do with the fact that he is made out of recycled materials and forms part of an art project undertaken by pupils at Dounby Primary School focusing on the importance of protecting our environment. After a whistle-stop tour of the country, including his brief visit to the Scottish Parliament, Bob will now re-join Trashy, the main element of the art installation, in an exhibition that is due to open at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh later in the summer.

For me, it was nice to have a meeting that did not immediately descend into speculation about the likely make up of the First Minister’s ministerial team, the future prospects of the SNP-Green coalition, or the chances of Humza Yousaf healing the deep divisions within his own party.

For any self-respecting politics watcher, however, ministerial reshuffles are irresistible ‘cat nip’. And when the final line-up did emerge on Wednesday evening, there were a few ‘coupon busters’ that would have defied the predictions of anyone laying bets. Even accounting for the usual rewards for loyalty, there were some whose previous ministerial track record, or relative backbench inexperience should have seen them excluded.

Worryingly, despite creating more ministerial posts than ever, there appeared no place in Humza Yousaf’s super-sized team for responsibilities such as tourism or social security. Transport, meanwhile, has been relegated out of the Cabinet, and the formerly ‘dedicated’ mental health minister will now be expected to cover a range of additional policy briefs: a.strange decision in the midst of mental health crisis.

Of course, it was Humza Yousaf’s spectacular mishandling of negotiations with his main leadership rival, Kate Forbes that dominated the headlines and conversations around parliament early in the week. Offering her the Rural Affairs portfolio was described by even some of Mr Yousaf’s own supporters as ‘cack-handed’. Despite trying to ‘spin’ her inevitable rejection as a sign of a desire to spend more time with her family, the First Minister and his aides were left looking ridiculous when Kate Forbes’ side confirmed she would have happily stayed on as Finance Secretary.

Her departure further weakens a Cabinet already struggling to deal with the loss of Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney. Having more talent on the backbenches than the frontbenches is never a great look for any government.

It also further reinforces the perception that the Greens are calling the shots in Humza Yousaf’s administration. Whether or not this is true, it’s certainly an impression gaining credence amongst a growing number of disgruntled SNP MSPs, and not just those who backed Kate Forbes and Ash Regan. It could see plans to centralise care services and introduce a poorly-conceived deposit return scheme put on hold with rebellions, previously unthinkable in the SNP, becoming a regular feature of the rest of this parliamentary session.  

On a positive note, I was pleased to see my friend and fellow Burrayman, Neil Grey promoted to the Cabinet. Neil is very able and in his Economic Wellbeing role, ideally placed I believe to lead in discussions with Orkney Islands Council over the replacement of our internal ferry fleet.

By contrast, the creation of a Minister for Independence is a ludicrous decision that has been greeted with widespread astonishment and no little anger. It is a ‘non-job’ that represents a complete waste of money and undermines entirely Humza Yousaf’s claim to want to reach out beyond his base and be a First Minister for all of Scotland. He may feel that he is offending all the right people with this move, but even many SNP supporters will see this as a stunt in the absence of any coherent plan or prospects for delivering independence.

Such is the lack of substance to the role of Minister for Independence, Humza Yousaf might as well have appointed Bob. That said, unlike the Minister for Independence, Bob makes good use of waste rather than just creating more of the stuff.