How John Swinney survived again

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Holyrood heaved itself up from its low-grumbling torpor yesterday to roar like a real parliament.

The opposition stood no chance of withdrawing confidence in John Swinney after Patrick Harvie marshalled his Scottish Greens into their regimental role as human shields for the SNP. The arithmetic gave the proceedings an air of futility, but if the stakes were low the raw emotions were towering. 

Five months of coronavirus has worn temperaments thin. Everyone needed to let off a little steam, but what came out was an eruption of pent-up anxiety. That amphitheatre of inadequacy at the foot of the Royal Mile burst into angry life and it was the best accounting it has given of itself in a long time. 

Ruth Davidson began with a panegyric to Swinney for his contributions to party and parliament, but soon enough the dagger was wet. ‘The scale of this failure is of such a degree that it prompts the question: if this is not a resignation matter for one of her ministers, what is?’ she begged. Praying in aid Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a Labour education minister to go for lesser errors, Davidson queried: ‘Where is that Nicola Sturgeon now?’

Johann Lamont was pure, righteous fury. The teacher turned Labour politician is a socialist in the best sense of the term, an irreconcilable force when met with unfairness or cruelty. Her speech was unshowy, and all the more impactful for it; unsentimental, and all the more moving for it. Lamont is capable of the cutting put-down of an educator who has the mark of a bright but lazy pupil. ‘All too often he has chosen belligerence rather than trying that listening thing,’ she remarked of Swinney. 

There were two very good speeches from the SNP benches, as unalike in tone as is possible. Angela Constance told MSPs that ‘whether in good times or bad, in fair weather or foul, John Swinney is a man of integrity’. She was sticking up for a pal, of course, but she did so in plain terms. 

‘While exam outcomes in other parts of the UK might be informative and might be of interest to some,’ the former education secretary ventured, ‘they have never for me been the barometer for performance from what I expect of this government, or indeed a defence for the Scottish Government.’ Her party’s attempt to oust Sam Galbraith in 2000 ‘exemplif[ied] exactly why the then SNP parliamentary group at that time was sitting in opposition’.

Given Nicola Sturgeon had just cited performance in England and was a key speaker in the Galbraith debate, Constance’s remarks weren’t so much pointed as javelin-like. Still, she maintained, no one could rebuke Swinney more for his bungle than he was doing himself, and so he should stay. 

Mike Russell quoted his favourite authority on all matters, Mike Russell, and explained why his three-pronged resignation test for other ministers didn’t warrant the removal of his colleague. He dismissed Lamont and Gray as ‘blinded by bitterness at their own political failures’ then, without a hint of dissonance, proclaimed: ‘Let us aspire to something better than bitterness and bile.’

What he lacks in self-awareness, he makes up for in rhetorical brutality. He orates like a welterweight who’s made it halfway through a quotable Oscar Wilde, wounding with barbs swung like fists. As such, he commands the chamber in the vein of a better-read Alex Salmond and, had the runes fallen differently, might have found himself in Bute House.

Iain Gray rounded off with a takedown so forensic all that was missing was a quick dusting for fingerprints. ‘We cannot have our education system run on climbdowns and U-turns,’ he admonished the government. ‘We cannot have an education secretary who is good at apology but bad at policy.’ 

From the man who had roused friends and foes so violently, there was only stony silence. John Swinney is a survivor and, when the votes were counted, survive he did.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:


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