Magazine article Public Finance

Minister for Everything

Magazine article Public Finance

Minister for Everything

Article excerpt

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: 1 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 j ust 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. …

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