New SNP cabinet – steady as she goes

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by Andrew Collier

WHEN everything changes, you change nothing. That has clearly been First Minister Alex Salmond’s ethos when it comes to putting his new government together.

It wasn’t as much a cabinet reshuffle as much as a quick spit and polish. No-one out; no jobs changed; and the only person removed from the top team during the first term, Fiona Hyslop, back in to take control of culture and external affairs, a portfolio she previously held anyway.

Even the junior ministerial team showed little by way of bloodletting, with only the children and early years minister, Adam Ingram, moving out to spend more time with his constituency. The low profile, unassuming Ingram, who was perfectly able in government, was probably just unlucky: someone had to go to free up a bit of elbow space for newcomers, and it turned out to be him.

It was pretty clear that Salmond was never going to change the cabinet names or portfolios. Put simply, he didn’t need to. The record-team-vision theme of the election campaign would have been rendered somewhat risible if he had started moving the deckchairs merely for the sake of it.

Every member of the outgoing cabinet proved to have a complete grasp of their portfolios in the last parliament, and all have ongoing projects and legislation they want to see through in this one. In re-appointing all of them, Salmond went for commonsense over surprise, and for caution over radicalism. At the end of the day, he opted not to try and fix something which clearly wasn’t broken.

The three new members of cabinet reinforce this steady-as-she-goes approach. Fiona Hyslop we have already mentioned. Bruce Crawford’s strengthened role as Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business and Government Strategy provides him with the clout needed in dealing with a group of 69 SNP MSPs and also gives him a major input into the independence referendum legislation.

Alex Neil’s promotion to Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment reflects his success as a junior minister in the last parliament with the housing portfolio.  But there is a much more interesting resonance to his appointment: Neil was once one of the fundamentalist big hitters in the SNP opposing Salmond’s now-proven gradualist approach to independence.

This is – with the possible exception of Jim Sillars, who isn’t an MSP and who also seems to be gently laying down olive branches to Salmond – the last big public reconciliation from the internal tribal warfare of the 1980s and 1990s. It represents the final laying of grudges, and presents clear evidence of a single team fully united behind Salmond’s independence-by-popular-consent strategy.

This discipline is going to be crucially important in the months and years ahead. Salmond’s job is actually going to be a dual one for most of this parliament: fulfilling the traditional First Minister’s role of leading the team which runs the country, and presenting a strategy for independence which will persuade the voters to back this option in the coming referendum, most likely in 2015.

Providing good governance is itself an exhausting, 24/7 job – probably the only recent politician who felt he could afford to give less than 100 per cent to the job was President Ronald Reagan, and look what happened to America under him. Salmond drives himself relentlessly, and expects no less of his colleagues. That, in part at least, is why the SNP has been returned with such a thumping majority.

Running a country may be time consuming enough, but he now has to shoehorn supervision of the independence referendum into his working days. And that, believe me, is going to be a big ask.

The truth is that the SNP has spent the last decade establishing itself as a credible force at Holyrood, first in opposition and then in government. Its success in this has been stunning. But it has taken all the party’s experience, skill and energy to get to the point where it is today.

This has led to an inevitable downscaling of work on its key policy of independence. Indeed, (barring the National Conversation, which was more public debate than policy planning and in any case has struggled to gain legitimacy) it’s probably fair to say that very little has been done on this since the early 1990s. In truth, a back-to-the-drawing-board reappraisal is needed which sets constitutional change in the context of where the world is today, not where it was 20 years ago.

Is full independence still appropriate? Inevitably there will be some sovereignty sharing with both the EU and the rest of the UK? But how much? And what are the social and revenue implications?

These are huge questions, requiring a complete stripdown and rebuild of the current strategy, and it is going to mean an enormous amount of work. If the referendum is to be won, then the SNP is going to have to present a convincing future to the electorate on everything from macro-economic policy to the future of rural post offices.

Any weakness or muddled thinking will be gleefully seized on by opponents; it would be amazing if the Westminster government does not attempt to create confusion in areas such as the demarcation of oil and gas resources, leaving the electors unclear about exactly what they are voting for.

Luckily, Alex Salmond has plenty of resource to draw on, starting with the 49 of his MSPs who have just been elected and are on the backbenches. Normally this size of a parliamentary group might create some concern – the gloss of victory soon wears off, and those without specific jobs to do can become bored and restive.

There is no need to allow this to happen. There is going to be enough work over the next five years to keep the entire parliamentary group and party busy. And there is no shortage of talent. New entrants such as Joan McAlpine, John Mason, Humza Yousaf and Jim Eadie are already making an impression and are likely to be the stars of the future.

Giving them, and others, central roles in the planning for the referendum would help provide the backbenchers with a real focus beyond the day-to-day parliamentary timetable.  Most importantly, they can be trusted to provide the detailed framework for a referendum which the party, and ultimately the people, will need.

Of course, unexpected events and wily opposition can always disrupt the smooth development of any political strategy: there are bound to be bumps and scrapes as we go through the parliament. And the workload will be massive.

But the First Minister is blessed with his own skills, backed up by the talents of others. He’ll not get much rest during the day but, for now at least, he can sleep soundly at night.


Andrew Collier is a writer, broadcaster and media consultant who has spent more than 30 years covering Scottish politics. He worked on the SNP’s media team during the recent election campaign. Contact Andrew: andrew @ colliermedia.com