Minister for everything, interview with John Swinney, by David Scott

6 Mar 08
John Swinney has achieved the impossible twice in his first nine months as Scotland's finance secretary. But can the former Scottish National Party leader score a much-needed hat trick? He talked exclusively to David Scott

07 March 2008

John Swinney has achieved the impossible twice in his first nine months as Scotland's finance secretary. But can the former Scottish National Party leader score a much-needed hat trick? He talked exclusively to David Scott

It's hardly surprising that John Swinney is smiling. Scotland's finance and sustainable growth secretary has just managed to do what some of his critics thought was impossible: persuading local authorities of all political persuasions to freeze council tax.

His ability to do this – and to win parliamentary approval for the Scottish National Party's first budget, against the political odds – is the culmination of a highly successful first nine months in one of the top jobs in Holyrood.

Swinney has a formidable range of responsibilities, including the economy, the Scottish budget, public service reform, local government, enterprise, energy, climate change and transport policy. But he has thrived on the challenge.

His first big test was convincing the sceptics that the SNP could implement its manifesto pledge on council tax. He was frequently warned that it was up to individual councils to decide their own tax bills in accordance with their democratic rights, and that his party would find it impossible to guarantee that all councils would co-operate.

'One commentator said that if I could deliver a council tax freeze then I could deliver anything,' he says. And of his success in implementing that pledge, he jokes: 'I'm not contemplating walking on water – yet. The tax freeze was the product of the way this government does business. We created an environment that encouraged local authorities to come with us and deliver a freeze.'

Swinney certainly knows how the SNP ticks. He's been a member since he was 15, and in 1997 gave up his day job with a major insurance company to become MP for Tayside North. Post-devolution he was elected Tayside North MSP and then deputy leader of the SNP, before taking over as leader in 2000. But he was seen by some as lacking the necessary charisma and as failing to galvanise the party into making electoral advances. He stood down in 2004 and former leader Alex Salmond – now first minister – took the reins back. But Swinney has no regrets.

'It was a great privilege to become leader of the SNP. I didn't expect that to happen. This [his present post] is a great deal more fulfilling than the hard graft of being leader. I did enjoy the leadership but I stood down at the right time and I'll not be going back to it.'

Asked if he's enjoying his current job, he responds: 'I think enjoy is an understatement. I am loving it. I'm having the time of my life. I shall never do anything in my life that is more fulfilling than what I do now.'

He believes that when he joined the SNP in 1979 – the year Margaret Thatcher's government came to power – there could not have been a worse time for anyone to become politically active. 'To end up as a government minister in the Scottish Parliament is just an inexplicable and inexpressible pleasure and privilege.'

Swinney's ability to handle such a wide range of responsibilities effectively has impressed people in other parties, in local government and the media. So, too, has his success in pushing through some of the SNP's main election manifesto commitments, although the party has just 47 seats out of 129.

Peter MacMahon, former Scottish government editor of The Scotsman, and now the paper's business editor, describes Swinney as 'one of the stars of the new SNP government'. He says: 'As the “minister for everything”, he has demonstrated that he is the master of his wide-ranging brief. I cannot remember a time when Swinney has been caught out on a point of high policy or small detail.'

MacMahon, who was at one time media adviser to former Labour first minister Henry McLeish, adds: 'Many observers, including me, were sceptical over whether he could persuade councils to freeze their council tax but, with the help of extra money and the ending of most ring-fencing, he did it. And he also played a blinder in getting the minority administration's budget through.'

However, Swinney's handling of the £30bn budget has not been universally praised. Arthur Midwinter, a former adviser to Holyrood's finance committee, says he is 'deeply disappointed' that the minister has signed off a budget manifesto for the election that was 'clearly both under-costed and made promises that couldn't be delivered'.

Midwinter, who is visiting professor at the Institute of Public Sector Accounting Research at Edinburgh University, adds: 'Since becoming finance minister, he's had to revise that position by reducing the spending commitments by more than £1bn.

'I'm also disappointed with his performance in producing what I regard as the most regressive budget since devolution, with its combination of tax cuts and reduced charges mainly for people who can afford to pay these.'

To get his budget through the Parliament, Swinney had to win support from a rival party due to the SNP's lack of an overall political majority. So he reached out to the Conservatives and offered to amend his budget to comply with some of their demands. These included increasing the number of police officers and speeding up a reduction in business rates.

He also managed to get the backing of an independent MSP, Margo MacDonald, formerly a leading member of the SNP. The budget was approved by 64 votes to one, with Labour surprisingly abstaining at the last moment.

Swinney says: 'Many commentators said two things to us. First, the budget would be an impossible hurdle to get across and, secondly, that we would never be able to do it as a minority government. Not only did we get over that hurdle, we got the budget through with only a very minor change. It's a £30bn budget and, effectively, we had to change just £30m of expenditure, equivalent to what the government spends in one morning. We had to reach out to other political parties and I make no apology for that.'

On the eve of the budget, the SNP indulged in some political brinkmanship, with Salmond warning that the administration would resign if it were not approved. 'That was not an idle threat but a statement of fact,' Swinney recalls. He sees the winning of support for the budget as an enormous achievement and as a 'landmark moment in stability and security for the administration'.

Swinney has also developed a positive relationship with councils. Ministers and leaders of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities signed a concordat that guarantees councils a meaningful place in the governance of Scotland, strips away control such as ring-fencing and introduces outcome agreements aimed at ensuring the policies of the government and councils produce the intended results.

'I think, for the first time, we have an alignment of Scottish government priorities and local authority priorities. We're now focused on the same outcome and we'll try to deliver those outcomes in a different way in different parts of the country,' he says.

Swinney managed to swing the council tax freeze by offering a £70m incentive that even sceptical and non-SNP councils found hard to resist. But the government intended this as an interim measure while they prepared for the introduction of a local income tax. A consultation paper on the LIT was due at the turn of the year, but there is no sign of it yet.

'We're at a very advanced stage in developing the consultation paper and that will be published very soon,' the minister says. When it is suggested that the government seems hesitant about pressing ahead with the change, he admits that it won't be easy to get the required legislation through the Parliament.

'I have to go through these things with my eyes wide open. The parliamentary arithmetic is tight, to say the least. In every respect, we will have to build a consensus round it… we will need to reach out to our colleagues, the Liberal Democrats and others, to secure a parliamentary majority for this issue.'

While a big question remains over the abolition of the council tax, Swinney believes the SNP has already achieved more progress than it thought possible. He praises the civil service for responding to the demands of the new administration.

'I have to say that when we came into office we found a civil service that was, frankly, bored. But with a government coming in with a different and challenging agenda and with a real ambition for Scotland, the civil service just seized the opportunity to develop and deliver that change and I think we have made fantastic progress as an administration.'

While the new government appears to have gained increased public support, opinion polls continue to suggest that the majority of people do not want an independent Scotland. Swinney believes opinions have changed significantly since the government came in and brought a 'refreshing injection of new life and leadership'. He is convinced the momentum will eventually lead to outright independence.

In this, he is encouraged by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown's recent support for a review of the Parliament's powers, which has been agreed by opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament. Brown was reported as saying he believed there was a 'very strong case' for having a review, a comment that was interpreted as backing for the possibility of more powers – although he also raised the possibility of the return of some powers to Westminster.

'It's a marvellous piece of news that the prime minister has effectively done a complete volte face on this,' Swinney states. 'Back in May he said there wasn't a scintilla of a reason for the Parliament getting more powers. Now he's saying there could be more powers, so all I can say is that it is another achievement of the SNP government that we have motivated the prime minister to take this different view.'

Swinney is fully immersed in his wide-ranging responsibilities and admits that he doesn't have much time to pursue other interests. Neither does he see much prospect of the hectic pace of the past few months easing off.

But he emphasises the importance of spending time with his family. He has two children and lives in rural Perthshire with his wife, Elizabeth Quigley, a BBC Scotland reporter.

Swinney has enjoyed remarkable successes so far as a minister but faces some tough challenges in the future. MacMahon says: 'What will now be a test is whether he can wring real efficiency savings out of the public sector in Scotland and whether he is prepared to take tough decisions like, for example, mutualising Scottish Water.'

But his toughest test of all, in the longer term, is likely to be whether he can convince critics that a local income tax can work and win enough support to get the legislation through the Parliament. If it doesn't go ahead, the SNP will be accused of having been forced to abandon what was regarded as a flagship policy.

John Swinney is Scotland's finance and sustainable growth secretary. He is one of the keynote speakers at the annual CIPFA in Scotland conference, which is being held at Aviemore on March 13—14

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