Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet reshuffle is an object lesson in making a very limited talent pool go a long way. John Swinney, who has been education secretary since 2016, has been shifted into a new brief in charge of the Covid recovery. Swinney’s tenure at education won’t be fondly remembered, presiding as he did over the SNP’s fundamentally flawed Curriculum for Excellence, a stubborn attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils, a long-running teacher shortage and the 2020 exams fiasco.
Any other minister in any other government would have been sent on his merry way long ago but Swinney is too valuable an ally for Sturgeon, having proved his political worth most recently in the Holyrood inquiry into the Sturgeon-Salmond affair. He remains deputy first minister and minister for Scotland Tonight, the Holyrood equivalent of minister for Newsnight. Swinney is not a terribly adept minister but he is a skilled tactician with a gift for verbal thuggishness that comes in handy with the Scottish parliament’s easily cowed opposition parties.
The education brief goes to Shirley-Anne Somerville, hitherto in charge of Sturgeon’s stalled plans to gut the Gender Recognition Act in favour of the self-declaration model that removes medical experts from the process and is favoured by trans activists. Meanwhile, Humza Yousaf has been moved from justice, where he spearheaded the authoritarian Hate Crime Bill which will soon see Scots at risk of prosecution for remarks uttered in the privacy of their own homes. Yousaf has solid patter but might be a more accomplished minister if he spent more time with his briefing papers and less with his Twitter account. His appointment to the health brief is unlikely to further his leadership ambitions.
Sturgeon is the only health minister since devolution to become First Minister and only then because she got out in time. Yousaf will be responsible for the reopening of the NHS post-Covid; a forthcoming public inquiry on the handling of the pandemic; tackling the worst drugs-deaths rate in Europe; rolling out the proposed National Care Service and abolition of dental fees; addressing shortages of GPs, doctors and nurses; and meeting long-missed waiting times targets. If Yousaf has any sense, he’ll get out in time, too.
Replacing him at justice is Keith Brown, the SNP’s deputy leader. A former Royal Marine who served in the Falklands War, Brown is a political bruiser who previously held ministerial roles on the economy, infrastructure, transport and skills. Popular among the party’s grassroots for his unapologetic nationalism, Brown’s return to the fold suggests Sturgeon is mindful of the need to keep her impatient activists on side even if she can’t give them the second independence referendum she’s been promising for almost seven years. Brown’s new title is cabinet secretary for justice but his more important role will be as Nicola Sturgeon’s ambassador to her party’s membership.
Another political resurrection is that of Shona Robison, a personal friend of Sturgeon who was forced to resign in 2018 amid near-universal criticism of her management of the health brief. She takes on the social justice, housing and local government portfolio. If she fails again, it’s unlikely Sturgeon will be so forgiving a second time, even if she is a mate. Transport minister Michael Matheson remains in post, though his title has been rejigged to ‘net zero, energy and transport’. He will take forward the SNP’s plans to nationalise the ScotRail train franchise, address the ongoing island ferries row and achieve net-zero emissions by 2045. Matheson is the invisible man of the cabinet and, though having no discernible achievements to his name, has survived so long by being blandly forgettable. It’s hard to get the sack when even the First Minister would struggle to remember your name and what you do.
Kate Forbes stays on as finance minister and assumes the economy role too, a sign of Sturgeon’s confidence in the 31-year-old. Forbes has proved a safe pair of hands in the job but discontent is growing in the business sector over the SNP’s prioritising of a second referendum, delays in passing on Treasury Covid cash to small firms, and a general lack of economic direction. While the bulk of fiscal and economic policy failings either pre-date Forbes’ tenure or should more properly be laid at her boss’s door, it falls to the Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP to rekindle business confidence and encourage the economy in a pro-growth direction.
A fellow member of the 2016 intake, Mairi Gougeon, is bumped up from public health minister to cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the islands. Gougeon has largely kept her head down and put the work in, particularly in her earlier posting as a junior rural affairs minister, and her promotion should be seen as a reward for living up to the faith Sturgeon showed in her in 2018, when she found herself a minister after just two years at Holyrood. It is telling, perhaps, that the two ministers who have shown the most capability each have only five years as MSPs.
The generation who became involved in politics at a time when the phrase ‘SNP government’ was barely computable have a decidedly mixed record in ministerial office. The generation for whom government by any party other than the SNP is just as unfathomable so far look more impressive. Successful parties typically attract more capable politicians (plus a tonne of dreck, careerists and chancers) and it will help sustain the SNP longer in power if that trend holds up.
Rounding off Sturgeon’s gender-balanced cabinet (because of course) is Angus Robertson, the former Westminster leader of the Nationalists who lost his Moray seat in 2017 to Douglas Ross, who is now the Scottish Tory leader. On May 6, Robertson got into Holyrood by winning Edinburgh Central, which had previously been held by Ruth Davidson, who is no longer the Scottish Tory leader. Robertson will be constitution, external affairs and culture secretary, even though the first two of those are reserved powers. The way devolution works is that Holyrood unilaterally makes policy on Westminster matters and when Westminster eventually notices and objects, Holyrood accuses it of a ‘power grab’.
Robertson’s role will come into play when Sturgeon decides to fire up the independence juggernaut again but until then expect more of the routine undermining of the Union, including internationally, which the Scottish government doesn’t even bother to do quietly anymore.
Among those getting the boot are rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing, a right-winger (in SNP terms) accused of, though denies, bullying civil servants, and Fiona Hyslop, the Nicola Murray-esque economy, fair work and culture secretary who has been a cabinet minister for 14 straight, inexplicable, years. Noticeably unpromoted are Europe and international development minister Jenny Gilruth and public finance and migration minister Ben Macpherson, neither of whom has caused any headaches deserving of a snub.
Overall, this is less a reshuffle than a meh-shuffle. Even though major portfolios are changing hands and big-ticket policies are in the offing — a National Care Service, rail nationalisation — there just isn’t enough talent at cabinet level to get excited about. Plus, few if any of these ministers are likely to be judged on any failure to deliver. The SNP has a death-grip on the 40 or 45 per cent of Scots who want independence and are willing to look the other way on health, education and economic outcomes until they get it. There is no incentive for improvement when, in all likelihood, you’ve already won the next election anyway. Sturgeon’s new cabinet is a B-level team for a B-level government, but B-level is what the public keeps voting for.