“Nightmare on Downing Street” followed by “Independence Day” might sound like an entertaining evening’s viewing but in reality both reshuffles tell us very significant things about the Prime Minister and First Minister respectively. The first instalment of drama made it quite clear that David Cameron is insecure, fearful of his own party’s right wing but lacking the courage to take it on. It also provided evidence that he has all but given up on the positive rhetoric of coalition and that he’s parted company with his senses of reason and proportion, promoting the most undeserving to the top positions and abandoning the centre-ground of UK politics in advance of the 2015 General Election.
So what, if anything, did the Scottish reshuffle (or should that be scuffle?) tell us about Alex Salmond?
There can be no doubt that the key announcement is that Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will be moved from health to infrastructure and capital spending, with specific responsibility for directing the SNP government’s referendum strategy. On some levels, this makes perfect sense: who can be trusted to spearhead this than the Deputy First Minister herself? However, this also raises questions about Sturgeon’s political future as well as the wisdom of a straight swap which sees Alex Neil take on the health portfolio.
Sturgeon has been a pretty decent deputy for Salmond for the previous five years. In my view, she’s also been an effective health minister for that time – taking well to her responsibilities and forging positive relationships with professionals and interest groups. Unlike many health ministers, both in Holyrood and Westminster, she seems to know what she’s talking about and has been successful in projecting herself as someone who cares. Moving her away from a sensitive role she has managed with care and no small degree of skill is therefore potentially risky. Alex Neil is certainly capable, but I’m not necessarily convinced he is a “natural” health minister in the way that Nicola was. It’s understandable that opposition parties have complained that this reshuffle has been too centred on the referendum rather than the needs of Scotland, especially when the health ministry sacrifices such an able incumbent. It’s certainly an experiment that may or may not work for the SNP: will Neil be able to command the same respect as his predecessor, or have the same positive working relationships with key personnel?
I’d have preferred for Sturgeon to have stayed where she was, simply on the basis that what she’s doing is working reasonably well. This is in no small part down to her personal qualities: what impressed me most about her was the attention to detail she showed towards the kind of issues that people working in the health service actually care about. I’m also of the view, as is Orkney MSP Liam McArthur, that having handled the equal marriage matter so well to date it is regrettable that Sturgeon is now to be denied the opportunity to “pilot the bill through Parliament”. While I’m not suggesting the SNP is anything but committed to marriage equality, as a passionate advocate of equality I would have been far more confident of the right outcome if the matter was still being managed directly by the Deputy First Minister.
Clearly being handed responsibility for the referendum campaign speaks volumes about how Alex Salmond views his deputy. There can be no doubting that she is his preferred successor. However, the move also increases the pressure on Sturgeon to deliver the right result for the SNP. Should the “Yes” campaign (and therefore, by implication, also the SNP) fail in its quest to secure Scottish independence it is certainly possible that Sturgeon’s responsibility for the result will come under close scrutiny. That is not to suggest for a minute that I believe either Salmond or Sturgeon’s political careers will be necessarily ruined should the electorate reject independence, but there are certainly risks. That said, should the voters back independence it would be in all likelihood, and possibly rightly, be attributed in no small part to Sturgeon’s oversight – and will carry obvious long-term political implications.
Looking at other personnel changes, I was pleased to see that Humza Yousaf now finds a place in government. I have been enormously impressed with his style and political maturity to date, as have many other Liberal Democrats. He has such enormous potential that it was for me something of a surprise that he was only given the opportunity to prove himself at external affairs and international development. While it is never good to see someone like Bruce Crawford leaving government (resigning after the loss of both parents), I cautiously welcome the appointment of Joe Fitzpatrick as Minister for Parliamentary business and not merely because he’s openly gay (although that does say a great deal about the nature of the SNP government). He’s highly confident and by Holyrood standards quite experienced, so it was right of Salmond to take a chance on him and see if he can fulfil his obvious potential in a ministerial role.
Elsewhere Stewart Stevenson leaves to be replaced by Paul Wheelhouse as minister for environment and climate change. This seems a sound move. I’ve never been convinced by Stevenson, although I wasn’t one of those who felt he should have resigned as transport minister. I’ve never thought that he’s particularly got to grips with his brief, or that he even enjoys it. Given the SNP government’s proclaimed green agenda and focus on renewables, Stevenson has lacked the insight to outline a cogent and coherent strategy to facilitate the government’s ambitions to tackle climate change. Paul Wheelhouse is someone I know little about in honesty but I commend the First Minister giving him the opportunity to prove himself and hopefully work a little differently to his predecessor.
Keith Brown was moved to transport and veterans, with Margaret Burgess taking over at housing. And that, in a nutshell, is that. For all the hype surrounding the reshuffle, very few post changed hands. The main personnel are still in place – Swinney, Russell, McAskill, Hyslop, Ewing, Mackay, Cunningham. I might have considered moving Fiona Hyslop, who always seems to me like a weak link in an otherwise strong ministerial chain, but Salmond clearly realises the need not to overly unsettle his team.
The main difference between Cameron’s reshuffle and that of Salmond is that the Prime Minister’s has been more concerned with appeasing his party’s right-wing while the First Minister has recognised the importance of ensuring that the right people are in the right jobs. He understands that no business undergoes significant overhauls of its leading personnel simply to please the media or the public and therefore neither should a party of government. He’s opted for continuity where possible. He’s also been able to create a more diverse cabinet, including the likes of Yousaf and Fitzpatrick, and a good number of women – in stark contrast to Cameron.
All in all, this reshuffle was much ado about nothing – or at least much ado about very little. I’m not overly impressed with Nicola Sturgeon leaving health and have concerns with Alex Neil’s ability to perform to the level she did. I’m not entirely convinced that it should be the Deputy First Minister overseeing the referendum campaign but it does make sense to a point. Other than Sturgeon, I could have seen Derek Mackay or perhaps Mike Russell taking on that responsibility, but whether they would be able to balance this with other ministerial duties is another question.
Finally, I’ll address the criticism from opposition parties that the reshuffle was about independence. Well, of course it was – to a point (Bruce Crawford’s departure also necessitated changes). The referendum is going to happen, and it would be ridiculous for the party of government proposing it not to assign responsibility to someone to oversee its progression and the party campaign championing the SNP’s preferred option. That’s not an unreasonable thing to do. Whether this new appointment merited removing a highly capable health minister from a department that will surely be the poorer for her absence is something I would question, but I wouldn’t be quick to condemn a “reshuffle” that saw the vast majority of cabinet faces staying put. As for the accusation that the SNP government is obsessed with independence, I would suggest that Johann Lamont not only suffers from the same affliction but has no insight into her own condition. It seems to be all she wishes to talk about.
All in all, I didn’t see too much to get excited about. In a sense, it was an example in how to undertake a reshuffle responsibly. In spite of all the media hype, very little of substance has changed. It might have lacked the drama of “Nightmare on Downing Street”, but Scotland is all the better for it.