‘It’s the right choice’: John Swinney reflects on ‘mentally taxing’ last eight months
The SNP MSP, and former party leader between 2000 and 2004, has served in the Scottish Parliament since its inception in 1999, and has held various Cabinet positions across his lengthy career in front line politics.
Swinney announced his decision to stand down following Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation press conference in February and saw tributes paid to him across the Chamber during his last week at the helm.
Speaking to the Sunday National in his ministerial office in Holyrood on Thursday, Swinney said that he had found the last eight months, whilst juggling the roles of Deputy FM, Cabinet Secretary for Covid-19 Recovery, and interim Finance Secretary (while Kate Forbes was on maternity leave) “really hard going”.
He told the Sunday National one of his proudest achievements was bringing “financial credibility” to the SNP, and that he hoped that the legacy of the Sturgeon administration is that Scotland is a “better place to grow up for young people”.
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“I am going to miss it”
Reflecting on a long career, Swinney admitted he was struggling to relinquish control after many years at the top levels of the Scottish Government.
“I am going to miss it, I’m going to miss it enormously,” he said.
“I’ve just had a meeting with officials about ongoing issues, because I’m still working, it’s not stopped.
“Inevitably in that conversation, there’s loose ends that need to be followed up on the things I really care about. I’m now beginning to kind of come to appreciate the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do those things.
“I’m really feeling quite sad about the fact that all the things that I would ordinarily have been able to just influence and make happen, and put my weight in behind them, which I’m gonna have to do in a different fashion.”
Swinney added that he was “acutely conscious” that it would take him time to adapt to his new life as a backbencher, but insisted that it was “right for him to step down”, revealing the toll the last stretch of his term had taken on him.
He explained: “I’ve found the last eight months really hard going because I have been probably the most stretched in my physical and mental capacity.
“I’ve been Deputy First Minister, Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, in the midst of rampant inflation, etc.
“I have been working phenomenally long hours for the last eight months while I’ve been in the interim financial role.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Swinney chaired his last debate as DFM on the transition to a wellbeing economy, with MSPs paying tribute to his contributions in a moving session.
He added: “A lot of generous things have been said about me, and colleagues have set out how influential I’ve been in this Parliament.
“I hope to be influential, but in a different way, I’ll always be constructive. I’m an SNP man through and through so in all circumstances, I work to promote the interests of my party.
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“So that’s what I’ll continue to do, but there will be other issues in which I’m sure I’ll want to say my piece.”
After almost two decades in government, Swinney had a swathe of achievements he told the Sunday National he was proud of, from getting the SNP’s first Budget through Holyrood in 2007, to the child poverty action plan, and the creation of the Redress Scheme for survivors of child sexual abuse.
He hoped, however, that his defining legacy would be the “financial credibility” he brought to the party, following that first Budget under Alex Salmond’s inaugural administration.
He explained: “I would venture to say that before 2007, the SNP didn’t have much financial credibility.
“But by coming into government and having, I’m the longest serving finance minister in Scotland, and I delivered financial credibility for my party.
“It is perhaps one of the biggest gifts I think I’ve given it and it has led to an ongoing financial discipline within the government.”
On the Sturgeon-era’s legacy, Swinney argued that the long-term work done to combat child poverty and reduce the attainment gap was beginning to “bear fruit”.
He added: “I think that the big legacy of the Nicola Sturgeon era is that Scotland is a better country for children to grow up in,” he added.
“What the government has put in behind and that covers a multitude of different areas, it’s either about the very direct attack on poverty, at a time when the UK government is moving in the opposite direction and making it worse, we are running towards the fire of child poverty, and we’re trying to put it out.”
The Perthshire North MSP said that was “fundamental” to the future of the country, for young people to be an “engaged participants in our economic journey”.
The last few weeks
Reflecting on the leadership contest, Swinney said there were unedifying moments he “did not like”. During one TV debate, contender Kate Forbes was criticised for attacking Humza Yousaf’s record in government, prompting anger amongst some party activists and politicians for “trashing” the SNP’s reputation.
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He added: “I hope whatever happens, our successors build on the really strong record the SNP government has developed.
“I profoundly believe we’ve got a record to be proud of, that’s made Scotland a better country as a consequence of our actions.
“I hope our successors build on the record and the foundations that we have laid.”
Swinney’s top tip for the incoming leader was to listen to the advice given by civil servants, and to create “bold ambitions for the country and movement”.
As his time in front-line politics draws to a close, Swinney said he was keen to take up running again, after picking it up again during the lockdown and managing to run the length of a marathon each week.
When the Sunday National pointed out that didn’t sound like a relaxing retirement, Swinney said: “That’s actually relaxing for me.
“My family, we’re going away for a few days to North Uist in April, and we shall be in a pod.
“We’ll be walking on beaches and we will be standing paddle boarding, and I’ll be doing a bit of running.”
Asked if he would be asking Sturgeon for any book recommendations for his upcoming break, he joked: “She has got a good library, and I follow her tips from time to time.”