Everything you should know about Scotland’s possible next leader John Swinney

John Swinney has said he is giving the idea very careful consideration (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

At the climax of a very tough year for Scotland’s ruling party, the SNP, everybody seems to be talking about John Swinney.

Senior figures say they’re keen to replace outgoing First Minister Humza Yousaf with a leader who fits all the cliches for a party in crisis: a safe pair of hands who can steady the ship and guide it through the storm.

For now, it looks like a hefty portion of them have arrived at the same name.

So who is John Swinney, and why do some think he’s the ideal person to take charge of the SNP in the midst of its most troubled period since taking power in 2007?

John Swinney’s long history in the SNP

Here’s a fact John Swinney probably doesn’t like to ponder – he first joined the SNP six years before outgoing First Minister Humza Yousaf was born.

That was in 1979, when he was 15 years old.

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Since then, his life has been spent in the party. Swinney became the national secretary of the SNP aged just 22.

He continued to rise through senior roles until 1997 rolled around and he was elected to Westminster as the MP for North Tayside, a picturesque region north-west of Dundee.

John Swinney, left, with fellow members of the SNP old guard Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and Mike Russell (Picture: PA Archive/Press Association Images)

Two years later, he was among the first cohort elected to the Scottish Parliament after devolution, and he’s never left since. On Monday, he’ll mark a whopping 25 consecutive years serving in Holyrood.

The leader of the SNP at that point was a man you may have heard of: Alex Salmond. But in 2000, he resigned after falling out with several high-profile party members.

In stepped John Swinney, by that point already a 21-year veteran of the party. He spent four years as SNP leader at the dawn of the Scottish Parliament while a Labour/Lib Dem coalition led the country.

During his time in charge, the SNP did not enjoy much electoral success. Under pressure from his colleagues, he stepped down in 2004 and was replaced by… Alex Salmond, once again.

John Swinney was chuffed to be elected SNP leader at the turn of the millennium (Picture: Reuters)

Salmond then led the party to a roaring success in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2007, and appointed Swinney to be his finance secretary. After Nicola Sturgeon took over in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum, she picked Swinney as her deputy first minister.

So when he announced he would be standing down from that role simultaneously with Sturgeon following her resignation as first minister last year, it felt like a full stop on a decades-long career that included almost every major role in the Scottish Government and SNP.

Except first minister. But that could be about to change.

What are John Swinney’s values?

Unsurprisingly for a man who has been an SNP member for 45 years, John Swinney really wants Scotland to become independent.

But the way he approaches that target sets him apart from others in his party.

He doesn’t necessarily have the natural charisma of ex-leaders Salmond and Sturgeon, and in the past it has sometimes seemed as if he has been asked to deal with the press in potentially controversial situations due to his disinclination for saying something interesting.

Instead, he represents the cautious side of Scottish nationalism, aiming to give the impression that he is focused on the details rather than the flair.

Swinney was fiercely loyal to Nicola Sturgeon across her time as First Minister (Picture: PA)

This level-headed reputation might be a reason why he has been trusted with so many substantial roles – though he has come under criticism for his performances in the past.

In particular, opposition parties were scathing about his tenure as education secretary between 2016 and 2021, and he survived two votes of no confidence across those five years.

Who wants John Swinney to lead the SNP?

The list of people who want Swinney to take over as SNP leader and Scottish First Minister include a number of people who had also been talked about as potential successors after Yousaf stepped down.

Education secretary Jenny Gilruth and energy secretary Màiri McAllan have both said they’ll support him in posts on X, and reports suggest health secretary Neil Gray is also preparing to lend Swinney his support.

Some of the most prominent party figures in Westminster also want him to step up: Pete Wishart, the SNP’s longest-serving current MP; Ian Blackford, the former leader of the party in the House of Commons; Stephen Flynn, the current leader of the party in the House of Commons; and Stirling MP Alyn Smith.

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But it remains to be seen whether John Swinney himself is up for taking the leap. He has three kids with his journalist wife Elizabeth Quigley, who has secondary progressive Multiple Sclerosis.

Outside the Scottish Parliament today, he told reporters: ‘I’m giving it all a great deal of thought to make sure that I come to the right decision for my family, my party and my country.’

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