After being re-elected by the Scottish Parliament the previous day, on May 19th, Nicola Sturgeon announced the Cabinet Secretaries in her slimmed-down Cabinet tram. She likes to run a tight ship, but has realised, as many such leaders do, that a supine chorus may do your bidding, but it doesn’t get things done. In this (only), she resembles Stalin, who, in the early stages of the Great Patriotic War thought that loyal yes-men like Pavlov or Budyenny could do the job. With German panzers in the suburbs of Moscow, he realised the error of his ways and brought into his supreme command (Stavka) the likes of Zhukov and Voroshilov—professionals who thought for themselves and could get the job done. Let’s run through Nicola’s new Stavka.
Four who had previously held Cabinet posts stepped down as MSPs (Roseanna Cunningham; Jean Freeman; Mike Russell; Aileen Campbell). Of these, only Mike represents loss of real experience. These departures made a reshuffle inevitable. But it was more extensive, removing two Cabinet secretary posts and four post-holders (Fiona Hyslop; Fergus Ewing; Kevin Stewart; Joe Fitzpatrick). The final composition was:
- Nicola Sturgeon—First Minister
- John Swinney—Deputy First Minister, responsible for Covid recovery
- Kate Forbes—Finance, with Economy brief added
- Shirley-Anne Somerville—Education & Lifelong Learning
- Humza Yusef—Health & Social Care
- Shona Robison—Social Justice & Local Government
- Keith Brown—Justice, with responsibility for COP20
- Michael Matheson—Transport responsible for Net Zero
- Mairi Gougeon—Rural Affairs & Islands
- Angus Robertson—Constitution
This choice of team is a lot more than window-dressing and maintenance of gender balance. It would appear to be a re-thinking of Cabinet, not just to deal with Covid and the economic recovery from it. This is s team that will need to contemplate not just an independence referendum, but the visionary arguments to be deployed to win it and lay the foundations of a government capable of running the country upon success.
In truth, the previous Cabinet had not been a success. The main reason this had not made a more damaging impact on the May the election result appears to be that no effort by ether Tory or Labour opposition appeared to dent the SNP’s and especially Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity and consequent ratings. But even cursory examination of results showed serious flaws.
Jean Freeman had been uncomfortable in her brief on Health and was saved largely by capable staff work and general NHS Scotland competence. John Swinney had made a far less effective fist at Education than he had at Finance. To be fair to John, the difficulties inherent in teaching unions, Education Scotland and the SQA, which predecessor Fiona Hyslop had failed to weld into a team made this task tough and barely suited to the bank-manager-ish ‘safe pair of hands’ that is John’s forte. Also barely missed will be Kevin Stewart, who did little with the Local Government brief but follow orders and alienate the bulk of CoSLA and cash-strapped councils, despite his own council background. Joe Fitzpatrick failed to make much impact in the high-profile role of reversing the rise in drug deaths. Fergus Ewing, despite his famous name, had had over a decade with the Rural Affairs and Islands brief, losing much of the ground his predecessor Richard Lochhead had made. Though it could be argued that, by removing them, experience was being lost, but it was not experience leading to much progress.
Though the new Cabinet is ten instead of twelve, it is likely to be more effective. Remember, the fist SNP Cabinet in a minority government was only six strong. But t paved the way to the 2011-16 majority which unlocked the 2014 referendum.
The three ‘newcomers’ are nothing of the sort and will stiffen competence in government. Shona Robison held down the Heath brief with some distinction and is known to be a resolute and unpretentious worker. Her Dundee background and long experience with the party faithful will stand her I good stead. Keith Brown is another solid performer, having implemented the EGIP rail electrification programme while he held the Transport brief. A former Marine and Leader of Clackmannan Council, he is at home in tough spots and knows how the machinery of government works at all levels. Not as abrasive as Kenny MacAskill, who once held the Justice brief, Keith is just the sort of lead necessary to make the showcase COP20 a success in Glasgow this November.
The most powerful new face is Angus Robertson in the Constitution brief. He is only new to Holyrood, having been in senior posts and a most effective Leader of the SNP at Westminster, where he was far more effective holding David Cameron’s and Thersa May’s feet to he fire than Ian Blackford seems to be with the slippery BoJo. Taking over the Constitution brief from a retiring Mike Russell, Angus is just the man to weave cogent arguments for Scotland, as well as another referendum that even constitution-less Westminster will find it hard to argue against. He us urbane, articulate, persuasive, with an international outlook far beyond Brexit-crippled Britain.
The new Cabinet has balance, with a wealth of talent drawn from across the SNP. With uncompromising egos like Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill self-isolation politically in Alba and Nicola seasoned enough by her handling of Covid, with Kate Forbes outshining anything her disgraced predecessor Derek Mackay achieved in the pivotal Finance and Economy role, look for a political fireworks showing up Douglas Ross and his girning opposition —and goading such talent as Labour and Tories do have into some visionary ideas, even if they are about the Union.
We might find this Stavka parking its tanks on the Westminster Reichstag’s lawn.