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I wanted a contest but I'll back John Swinney. Here's why.

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 03rd May 2024

If Kate had stood for the leadership of the SNP, she would have had my backing.  She has not and therefore I will fall behind the leadership of John Swinney. I should have liked to see a contest and a battle of ideas about the future direction of our party, the Scottish Government, and the cause of independence, but I understand the fear that the acrimony generated by that would not be desirable with a challenging General Election so close.

However, I will continue to argue for the reset that I believe the Scottish National Party needs, and to support Kate’s prescient words from the last leadership election campaign that continuity won’t cut it. If the events of Humza’s leadership have shown anything they have shown that Kate was right about that.

I am reasonably optimistic that given his long experience in politics John will see that this is correct and chart a new course for the party and the government. I was hugely encouraged by the tone of John’s speech. He and I come from the same moderate left of centre tradition, and it was so good to hear him reach out to Kate Forbes, acknowledge the divisions in the party and pledge to restore internal party democracy and respectful debate.

The ending of the Bute House agreement is a huge opportunity for the SNP to reset our agenda in government. Out with identity politics and virtue signalling. In with policies to tackle the bread and butter issues that our constituents bring up on the doorsteps. There were two reasons for the Bute house agreement. The first was that John Swinney was nearly brought down as a Minister in a vote of no confidence at the end of the 2016-21 parliament. Nicola Sturgeon wanted a majority so that neither she nor any of her ministers would face such a threat again. The second reason was to lock in a pro-independence majority at Holyrood.

Sadly, it has not proved possible to use that pro-independence majority to advance the cause of independence.   I had hoped it would be used to pass a bill paving the way to hold a second independence referendum, so that when the inevitable legal challenge came, the Scottish Government would be in a strong position both legally and politically to resist it and to turn legal defeat into political victory.   However, notwithstanding the body of legal opinion that such a competent bill could be drafted, choices made by the former first minister but one meant that instead we went cap in hand to the UK Supreme Court looking for permission that was almost certain never to be granted.  Then there was no political follow up strategy.

According to Lorna Slater independence is no longer a red line for the Scottish Greens. Instead, she and her colleagues insist that the focus must be on a “progressive agenda”. However, as my fellow columnist Shona Craven illustrated so ably in her column earlier this week the word “progressive” has been much misused.  I agree with Shona that “one man’s “progress” may be another woman’s step backwards.” A truly progressive agenda would be one which builds upon great policies like the child payment to alleviate poverty in our country and redistribute wealth, while at the same time creating wealth by supporting business to do that. Both John and Kate, as former finance secretaries, believe in economic growth and this is something they could work on together.

A truly progressive agenda would tackle the greatest challenge of our time, climate change, with a Green New Deal involving an industrial strategy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions while creating jobs, enabling the Just Transition, and tackling poverty and inequality. Schemes like deposit return would be delivered efficiently and cost effectively with stakeholders onside. A truly progressive agenda would reverse the current top-down policy approach favoured by the Greens, It would listen to, consult, collaborate and work in partnership with local communities to deliver on important decisions relating to the marine environment for instance as well as delivering comprehensive land reform.

A truly progressive agenda would not govern by headline grabbing announcements without doing the hard work to make sure they are delivered. It would not rely on the sort of faux progressivism that elevates the rights of men who identify as women above those of women, nor would it deny science and spread disinformation in the face of expert medical advice about the care of gender questioning children. A truly progressive agenda would recognise that equality, diversity, and inclusion extend to all the protected characteristics of the Equality Act. A truly progressive agenda would not tell women or same sex attracted people that their rights are conditional on accepting self-identification of sex.

A truly progressive agenda would not monster a woman for her sincerely held Christian beliefs just as it would not monster a man for his sincerely held Muslim beliefs.  A truly progressive agenda would not engage in double standards or hypocrisy. 
Earlier this week the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, launched an inquiry into the role of human rights in the UK democratic process. One of the things we will be looking at is the threat to democracy outlined in a major new report about Social Cohesion and Democratic Resilience by Dame Sarah Khan. The report identifies the phenomenon of “freedom restricting harassment” whereby 76% of those polled reported that they had restricted expressing their personal views in public, for fear of receiving such harassment.

In the last week we have seen Kate Forbes harassed for her religious beliefs in a way that was never done to her predecessor or other men in the SNP with the same religious affiliations as Kate.  Her treatment is reminiscent of the harassment endured by the brave women and men who campaigned against self ID and puberty blockers for children and whose concerns have now been vindicated by cases like that of Isla Bryson and by the Cass Report.

We need to draw a line under this sort of harassment.  I am optimistic that John Swinney as an elder statesperson of the party will feel able to do that.  I am also optimistic that he will bring Kate back into government where she belongs.

Finally turning to the central purpose of the SNP, in his resignation speech Humza said that independence feels frustratingly close.  That is not quite how it feels to me. However, I don’t agree with the unionist commentators who think it is dead for a generation or longer.  Lesley Riddoch has been very eloquent this week in pointing out the reality of the situation. Polls regularly show that approximately 50% of people living in Scotland want independence which means that the issue is unlikely to go away. However, there is democratic deadlock because, ten years on from the last independence referendum, there is no way people can have another say because of the democracy denying determination of the unionist parties to frustrate a second vote. This is not a sustainable situation.  The challenge for the SNP, no matter who leads us, is to find a way out of this bind.

I have known John Swinney since we were teenagers when together we set up the Young Scottish Nationalists in Edinburgh in 1980.  To suggest that he does not understand this challenge and will not seek to address it would do a disservice to a man whose life has been dedicated to the party of independence.