Single Deck Shuffle

Last week First Minster Nicola Sturgeon announced a major reshuffle of her Cabinet, extending it from 10 to 12 ministers. The unfortunate rammy over some ill-judged remarks made by Gillian Martin before she became an MSP derailed her appointment as Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science . This event illustrated the fineness of the behavioural mesh that all public figures are required to pass through. Ms Martin now accepts that blog posts she made in 2007 were “inappropriate” but the real irony may be that she was railing against excessive political correctness. That, and the fact that media turnover-boosting darlings like Boris Johnson and President Trump get away with it by already being famous, and therefore not so expendable.

Even more unfortunate was that red-top rags devoted themselves to excoriating Nicola Sturgeon so venomously that sober analysis of the major reshuffle was confined to more serious publications like the Spectator or Guardian. But even they failed to get under the skin of what is actually going on, After the departure of Wur Eck, the SNP was run by a tight-knit quartet: Nicola, backed by husband Peter Murell, as Chief Executive and with deputy Stewart Hosie MP, Westminster Leader and husband to Health secretary and Nicola’s close friend Shona Robison. This cosy arrangement fell apart when Stewart was caught having an affair. For Shona, this, a health scare, losing both parents and vicious attacks by opposition health spokespeople, put her under intolerable pressure. Shona is a decent and hard-working sort but was in the thick of it all 19 years, the last 11 in the Cabinet. Her resignation deserved plaudits and gratitude for her service. But politics is a dirty business.

Nicola is a doughty leader, handling herself well in parliament and press. She has not managed to shake off her ‘nippy=sweetie’ sobriquet from earlier times and not quite managing to achieve the engaging ‘cheeky chappie’ appeal of her predecessor. Her leadership is unassailable; a reshuffle now makes eminent sense. Yet the the reshuffle shows how how thin the available deck is. The pool of experienced talent in which she  can draw is shallow. There are basically four types of colleagues she can draw on:

  1. Old Guard who have mostly  held senior spokespeople since 1999
  2. Time Servers whose pqrty profile put them high on regional lists
  3. Technocrats whose work for MSP/MPsMEPs found reward
  4. Young Turks mostly swept in with the stunning 2016 intake and WFI

The previous Cabinet was Old Guard, with  junior ministers drawn from Time Servers. All parties reward blind loyalty; the SNP is no exception. This, however, was time for change, as progress on anything of significance has become rare.

Old Guard lost from the Cabinet are no real loss.  Angela Constance has a good heart but little traction. Annabelle Ewing was lazy, contributing none of her mother’s charisma or dynamism. Keith Brown did carry his weight but is not lost; he’s taking on the un-sexy but vital campaign organisation brief, just in time to get serious about elections in 2020. But some Old Guard cling like leeches: Fiona Hyslop has tried (and failed) several jobs; former colleagues at Standard Life are unsurprised at this. Roseanna Cunningham displays all the people skills of the Berlin Wall and Fergus Ewing wasted more time than his sister to prove himself a toom tabard (why he should replace the quietly competent Richard Lochhead is a puzzle). All three remain on the strength of their party base alone but are overdue their jotters because the Cabinet (especially) can’t afford passengers.

John Swinney stays at Education, despite reneging on his much-touted Bill. He always was a steady pair of hands, with his bank manager stability. The trouble is that he was steadier (and far more credible) at Finance than Derek Mackay. Derek is a capable amalgam of youth, presentation, manipulation and ambition. That makes him tactically astute but strategically myopic. Adding Keith’s economic brief spells weakness and trouble for the Scottish economy. Long-term goals and infrastructure will be sacrificed to short-term headlines. On the plus side is the re-appearance of Michael Russell. He may have an ego the size of a planet but he sounds, looks and acts like a senior politician, a combination in short supply across the Parliament—especially among Labour.

As for the rest of the Cabinet, Young Turk Humza is a pretty boy yet to show depth, which means he will struggle at Justice—especially with Kenny MacAskill’s messy legacy.. He swaps Transport with Michael Mathieson. This brief gets passed around like a bad-smelling fish supper: i.e. a career graveyard,  Another Young Turk Aileen Campbell shows promise but has yet to develop depth and capability,  suffering a touch of the “Kezias” = promoted too fast too soon. The most promising of the Time Servers is Shirley-Anne Somerville, still young but a campaign veteran, with a capable “nippy-sweetie” demeanour reminiscent of the younger Nicola herself. She takes over the tough Social Work brief from the very capable Jean Freeman at Health and Sport. Jean is just the kind of straight-talking, clear-seeing, hands-on stable-cleaner the struggling, high-profile NHS needs. How she performs will be pivotal.

Incidentally, you may wonder why a parliament of only 129 members would need a Cabinet  of 12, with 11 other ministers. That’s 37% of the 62 SNP MSPs with a ministerial job but Westminster has 118 ministers, giving them a similar 37% of 316 Tory MPs.

As for Junior Ministers, we now have a mix of Time Servers and Young Turks. Kevin Stewart, Joe Fitzpatrick, Christina McKelvie and Graeme Dey are still at their posts, having done little but nurture their party base and deliver rent-a-quote questions on cue at FMQs. Only Paul Wheelhouse has shown promise, but his Borders base is weak in SNP terms, giving little leverage within the party.

The balance are almost all Young Turks—unknown quantities first arriving in 2016. This means they owe little to sclerotic party structure beloved of the Old Guard and Time Servers. Here is where Nicola’s hope must lie. Her Government is still popular but running on air. The Parliament is seen as increasingly irrelevant by even politically savvy Scots. For years few debates or laws have grabbed headlines, let alone sparked imaginations. Scoring points in the Chamber has become irrelevant. If  Young Turks decline to be satisfied with business-as-usual that could be a game-changer.

Ash Denham (along with Jean Freeman) showed promise in the Yes and WFI campaigns such that she won Kenny MacAskill’s old seat.  But her brief of Community Security and a stint working for Fiona Hyslop may blunt that promise. As Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation, Ivan McKee holds a key brief and comes closest to qualifying as a Technocrat. Given his head, his business and international experience could light some economic fires. But whether the career-canny Derek Mackay will permit that and whether the good people of Glasgow Provam re-elect him are major unknowns. The spirit of the much-missed Margo Macdonald still stalks the Parliament. But whether these two or any other Young Turk becomes infused with it will take guts—neither Nicola Sturgeon nor Johm Swinney could abide her free spirit. But the punters loved her.

The one thing that this reshuffle highlights is the shallow nature of the talent pool into which Nicola can dip. Alert readers will have noted scant mention of Technocrat—people offering deep knowledge and/or experience of key fields: business, education, finance , technology, etc. Such as the party once had were sidelined by ambitions Old Guard and Time Servers. This reshuffle could do nothing about redressing that. But this must change—not only to widen vision with fresh ideas to deserve power, but to find the far more visionary ones necessitated by independence.

For reference, Cabinet members, Ministers and their respective posts are listed below.


The Cabinet is the main decision-making body of the Scottish Government. It is made up of the First Minister, all Cabinet Secretaries, Minister for Parliamentary Business and Permanent Secretary. The Lord Advocate may also attend in his or her role as the Scottish Government’s principal legal adviser. Cabinet meetings are held weekly during Parliament in Bute House, Edinburgh, and may also be held at other times in locations throughout Scotland. The Cabinet consists now has 12 members, still gender-balanced:


Cabinet Secretaries are supported by Ministers. Responsibilities and biographies of Ministers, including the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General (who are also the principal legal advisers to the Scottish Government), are below.

  • Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veteran
  • Paul Wheelhouse MSP Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands
  • Ash Denham MSP Minister for Community Safety
  • Maree Todd MSP Minister for Children and Young People(Awaiting Appointment) Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science
  • Kevin Stewart MSP Minister for Local Government, Housing and Plannin
  • Jamie Hepburn MSP Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills
  • Joe FitzPatrick MSP Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing
  • Clare Haughey MSP Minister for Mental Health
  • Ben Macpherson MSP Minister for Europe, Migration and International Developmen
  • Christina McKelvie MSP Minister for Older People and Equalitie
  • Ivan McKee MSP Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation
  • Kate Forbes MSP Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy
  • Mairi Gougeon MSP Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural EnvironmenJames
  • Wolffe QC Lord Advocate
  • Alison Di Rollo Solicitor General

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
This entry was posted in Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s