Orcadian Column, 9 May 2024

9 May 2024

As the Scottish Parliament elects a third First Minister in 14 months, it seems we’re o’er blessed to live in interesting times.

Former SNP leader and Nicola Sturgeon’s long-serving Deputy First Minister, John Swinney takes the reins, promising a ‘new chapter’, though it does feel more like a case of ‘back to the future’. Either way, his SNP colleagues will be desperately hoping Mr Swinney can bring some much-needed unity to a fractured and fractious party and government.

It won’t be easy, of course: minority government seldom is. He does, though, have experience to draw on, most recently from working with the Greens in the last parliamentary session. Before that, back in 2007, Mr Swinney played a pivotal role when Alex Salmond’s administration found common cause with Annabel Goldie’s Conservatives. Mr Salmond and that deal with the Conservatives are now air-brushed from SNP history, but John Swinney and Bruce Crawford, then Minister for Parliamentary Business, were crucial in working across parties while Alex Salmond adopted his more confrontational style.

Despite this track record, however, Mr Swinney was anointed as SNP leader on Monday under a slogan of ‘unified for independence’, making it difficult to see how he might find common cause with opposition parties. The slogan, of course, is a response to divisions within Mr Swinney’s own party and across the independence movement, after weeks of SNP, Green and Alba members cheerily knocking lumps out of each other in the media and online.

All of which underscores the conundrum facing the incoming First Minister. As my colleague, Willie Rennie put it last week, after the collapse of the Bute House Agreement, Mr Swinney can either heal the divisions with the Greens or with the country, but he’ll struggle to do both. As he moves to trim the size of his ministerial team while also finding a senior Cabinet role for rival, Kate Forbes, Mr Swinney may also sow seeds of discontent on his own backbenches.

As an aside, whatever happens, Mr Swinney must avoid a repeat of last year when Nicola Sturgeon resigned and the newly-established Ferries Task Force with OIC effectively ‘downed tools’ for six months. At Transport Questions last week, I reminded the Minister that reaching agreement on replacing Orkney’s ageing ferry fleet is now beyond urgent and we cannot afford to see the task force stuck in dry dock again for months on end.

When Mr Swinney unveils his ministerial team, it’s unlikely Humza Yousaf will feature. After a uniquely difficult year for him and his family, no-one should begrudge Mr Yousaf time out of the spotlight and free from the demands of ministerial office. As First Minister, he was certainly unlucky but guilty too of playing a poor hand badly, most spectacularly at the end. Only he will know why on earth he thought there would be no consequences from so publicly evicting the Greens from Bute House, humiliating their co-leaders and tearing up the Bute House Agreement. I spoke to a couple of senior ministers later that day who were in disbelief at what had happened and absolutely seething.

As a minister, he insisted his “door is always open”, an offer that drove his officials to distraction. More problematic was his apparent inability to say ‘no’ to anyone making demands of him in various government roles; a characteristic that is even more disastrous in a First Minister.

On a personal level, though, it’s hard not to warm to Humza Yousaf, who is affable and very sociable. I recall, as Islands Minister, he visited Orkney and during a tour of KGS was introduced to my sons, Calum and Tom. Later the same day, having a coffee in the Fossil Centre Café in Burray, he met my wife, Tamsin. Ever since, he has delighted in reminding me that I’m only his fourth favourite member of the McArthur household. Despite that, I look forward to welcoming him back to the ranks of the Holyrood football team in due course.

With so much going on in Scottish politics, I’ll just have to leave Alistair Carmichael to update you on the recent English local elections which saw Liberal Democrats leapfrog the Conservatives into second place in number of councillors. Now that really is a ‘new chapter’.

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