John Swinney: 5 things you need to know about Scotland’s new leader

John Swinney has just been formally nominated as Scotland’s first minister — and he’s got one hell of an in-tray.

The leader of the country’s ruling Scottish National Party is back for another go after months of turmoil in the pro-independence outfit.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament Tuesday, Swinney spoke of his “burning ambition for a better future” for Scotland, and pitched himself as a man able to “listen to other people’s perspectives” and heal divides. He’ll have to start with his own party.

Here’s POLITICO’s snap guide to the man entering Bute House as Scotland’s devolved leader.

Why’s Swinney taking over?

Swinney’s return to frontline politics comes just over a year after he stepped down from the second highest office north of the border — but what a year it’s been for the SNP.

The former deputy first minister replaces Humza Yousaf, who resigned after just 13 months in power following a botched conclusion to an SNP-Scottish Greens power sharing agreement, something Swinney will not reinstate.

A veteran politician, Swinney pitched himself as a safe pair of hands while offering a “new chapter” for the party.

But he’ll have to try and get pulses racing as enthusiasm for the SNP — now governing as a minority administration — wanes in the polls ahead of a general election likely to be held later this year.

Swinney took charge of a party Monday deeply divided on just about everything, from its independence strategy to its stance on gender reforms. It’s also subject to an ongoing police probe over its finances.

Second time lucky? 

Swinney, who celebrated his 60th birthday earlier this year, is no stranger to the trials and tribulations of party leadership. 

He steered the SNP ship between 2000 and 2004. But his leadership was widely criticized. The party went backwards in the 2001 general election and shed eight seats in 2003 elections to the Scottish Parliament. 

Despite winning a leadership challenge later that year, poor European election results in 2004 and a perceived lack of charisma saw Swinney ousted by party apparatchiks — dubbed the “men in gray kilts.

He’s been around the block

The new SNP leader has been immersed in politics for ages. He became the party’s national secretary at just 22 and served as then-SNP leader Alex Salmond’s deputy between 1998 and 2000. 

Elected MP for Tayside North during the 1997 New Labour landslide, he entered Westminster for just one term, before making the leap to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. 

He’s served in some big roles since then. Swinney was secretary for finance when the SNP entered government in 2007, and served for the whole of Salmond’s tenure.

That period covered the financial crash and Scotland’s bruising independence referendum — as well as a rapid ascent for the SNP in Scottish elections. 

He’s a Nicola Sturgeon loyalist — who didn’t want the top job last year

Swinney kept his job when Nicola Sturgeon succeeded Salmond, and got a grand promotion to Scottish deputy first minister. 

For five years he was education secretary during a tricky time which saw Scotland tumble down the rankings and two votes of no confidence over an exams controversy in 2020

When Sturgeon announced her sudden and dramatic resignation last February, Swinney joined her, leaving government and the SNP frontbench after 16 years.

He spoke about helping to “create some space” for a “fresh perspective” on Scottish independence by departing frontline politics. 

Sturgeon heaped praise on his time in office, saying she could not have wished for a “better partner in government.” That quiet life out of the spotlight did not last long. 

He’s no Scottish independence hardliner

Swinney comes from the gradualist tradition in the SNP, working alongside Salmond in the ‘90s to reform the party into a less urgent position on its ultimate goal of breaking up the United Kingdom and letting Scotland go it alone.

This school of thought prefers a push for more devolved powers for Scotland from Westminster, rather than immediate independence — with the thinking being this eventually translates into the end goal.

It’s at odds with the SNP’s independence “fundamentalists” — and the row came to a head for Swinney the first time he ran for leader in 2000, beating his more hardline rival Alex Neil.

Decades on, Swinney made clear he still believes in a gradualist approach.

“I will always seek, with respect and courtesy, to persuade people of the case for independence,” he said after being appointed leader Monday. “All I ask of those that oppose that vision, is that they also act with the same courtesy and respect.”