John Swinney was one of the best leaders of the SNP in decades.
Nothing will dissuade me from this view. Not the party’s mediocre electoral performance during his tenure (down one MP and eight MSPs). Not his failure to unite the gradualist and fundamentalist wings. Not even his role in the departure from the party of the Blessed Dorothy-Grace Elder.
No matter what you throw at me, I simply won’t resile. (I am, let us not forget, someone who still thinks Jim Murphy was a resounding success.)
This is in large part because Swinney was instrumental in overhauling the SNP from a party of protest – the SSP with Brigadoon on loop – to a credible alternative to Scottish Labour. He forged links with civic society and particularly the business world that continue to benefit the Nationalists today. Alex Salmond might have broken down the door of Labour’s tartan fortress but John Swinney jimmied the lock for him.
He is also a terrific parliamentary performer, something in evidence again during First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, where he stood in for Nicola Sturgeon. The First Minister is in the United States on a fact-finding mission, though her trip has been overshadowed by an ill-fated decision to go for a pricey cup of tea in a posh cafe instead of necking day-old Cup-a-Soup from an empty crisp poke underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
So it was left to her second-in-command Swinney to field questions from Scottish Labour’s Kezia Dugdale. The Lothian MSP has racked up a series of impressive performances at FMQs, cunningly needling the SNP on its increasingly mixed record on education and health. Today, she went on the North Sea energy sector, a field she has successfully drilled before and one where the SNP’s pre-referendum promises and projections have been found to be…optimistic.
During the independence campaign, the Scottish Government’s taxpayer-funded civil servants prepared oil and gas bulletins at the drop of a press release to show that there were oodles of petroleum under the North Sea. Fergus Ewing even claimed we’d be bathing in the stuff for a century and the SNP… voices in Alex Salmond’s head… Scottish Government White Paper trumpeted oil prices of $113 a barrel. It seemed the only question was how we would go about extracting the small deposits of water still left in this vast ocean of black gold.
After Scotland voted No in the referendum — honestly, it did; I was there — the oil price went down faster than a first-timer at Polo Lounge. The value of a barrel plummeted to $55 and still hasn’t nudged above $70 on Brent Crude in six months. But if the Aberdonian Irn-Bru hadn’t dried up, the Edinburgh government’s oil and gas projections certainly have.
“Once upon a time you couldn’t move for oil and gas bulletins,” Kezia Dugdale quipped. When would ministers put out another report? When the price is back at something vaguely respectable, Swinney didn’t say but was almost certainly thinking.
Why the radio silence on oil revenue, which accounts for 15% of Scotland’s economy? The fault lay — and you’re not going to believe this — with Westminster. Scottish ministers were still considering Chancellor George Osborne’s changes to the energy tax regime in the Budget. That’s the Budget announced in mid-March, since which time we’ve managed to hold a General Election, legalise gay marriage in Ireland, topple Sepp Blatter, and learn more than we could ever possibly want to know about Caitlyn Jenner. I’m not saying the deputy first minister’s excuse was weak but he might have been too hasty in dismissing “Please Presiding Officer, the dog ate my oil projections”.
Kez — can I call you Kez? — was having none of it: “This is less about North Sea oil and more about SNP snake oil.” A good line but it didn’t matter. Swinney is a master blusterer and got stuck into Scottish Labour over its disastrous electoral performance, which is a bit like kicking a man when he’s down. Actually, kicking Scottish Labour is literally kicking one man while he is down.
This is where Swinney’s parliamentary deftness comes to the fore. Some ministers fall into the trap of answering questions, which is not the point of FMQs. The point of FMQs is to have a good televised barney. Swinney knows this and is a skilled ducker of unhelpful questions. He has a rare ability to leave his opponents looking like they are their ones being evasive. That kind of debating nous can’t be taught.
So while Big Kezzy D (sorry, I’ll stop soon) had a damning report showing Scotland would need oil prices of $200 a barrel to balance its budget, the SNP had John Swinney and statistics don’t stand a chance against him. Even quoting his own MPs’ descriptions of full fiscal autonomy as “economic suicide” and a “disaster” did little to dent Swinney’s confidence that all the economic indicators pointed to Scottish Labour being pants.
He softened the braggadocio for his exchanges with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and later her colleague Liz Smith. For both raised questions about the SNP’s failures on education, namely falling literacy and numeracy rates and college cuts. Nationalists hate it when these problems are brought up, and they really hate it when it’s done by Tories.
But the Swinney Swing came back out and lamped Willie Rennie. The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, a party whose claim to the plural form is growing tenuous, echoed Kezia Dugdale on full fiscal autonomy. He told the chamber: “The Scottish National Party has been all over the place. It was in the manifesto, then out, then back in again and now the SNP’s MPs say, ‘Let somebody else decide.’ It started as the hokey-cokey and it’s ended as pass-the-parcel.”
This generously set up Swinney’s response in the same way Stan Laurel used to stand still for Oliver Hardy to smash a cream pie into his face. Swinney splatted: “The Scottish Liberal parliamentary group in the House of Commons could not play pass the parcel because it does not have enough members.”
Of course, Rennie — who still does a commendable job holding the government to account for the leader of a tiny party — was right. The SNP is a party in blind terror of its own policy, knowing that the economic pain that would accompany full fiscal autonomy would bury any hope for independence for a generation or two. What they want, in the short-term at least, are some extra powers that they can call fiscal autonomy without the mood-killing downside of the attendant economy realities.
This isn’t full financial freedom but it doesn’t have to be. The Nationalists are so popular now they could wave around a Greggs steak bake and call it full fiscal autonomy and the public would go along with it.
In fact, the public will go along with so much of what the SNP says that you can’t help but feel for John Swinney. He could have been First Minister, steak bakes and all.