Who is John Swinney?: Scotland's new pro-independence prime minister

Sweeney said today that he believes Scotland can become independent from the UK within the next five years

by Sededin Dedovic
Who is John Swinney?: Scotland's new pro-independence prime minister
© Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Scotland has got a new prime minister. John Swinney, with glasses and mild manners, is not a political thief, writes Al Jazeera English. The new leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) officially took the oath on Wednesday as the seventh First Minister of Scotland.

Swinney today stated that he believes Scotland can become independent within the next five years. "I think independence can be achieved within that timeframe because the arguments for it are compelling," Swinney told Sky News.

He assessed that Scotland is facing increased living costs and the consequences of Brexit and that these are "significant strategic factors causing serious economic and social damage to Scotland due to bad decisions made in Westminster." A veteran politician who served as Scottish finance secretary and deputy first minister in previous SNP administrations, and who led the SNP between 2000 and 2004 during years in opposition in the decentralized Scottish Parliament, described his ascent to Scotland's highest office as a "surprise." Lawmakers confirmed his appointment on Tuesday following the resignation of Humza Yousaf last month.

"When I left the post of deputy first minister in March last year, I believed it would be the last high office I would hold in politics," Swinney told lawmakers. However, senior figures in the SNP turned to the 60-year-old Swinney when Yousaf (39) was forced to resign after he collapsed the SNP's power-sharing agreement with the Scottish Green Party in April.

"Not much has changed in 20 years" SNP, which made international headlines a decade ago after nearly achieving independence from the British state in the 2014 sovereignty referendum, has recently become a besieged force.

Scandals, including the 2020 trial and acquittal of former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond on charges of abuse, and last month's decision by Scottish police to charge Peter Murrell, husband of former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, with SNP funds embezzlement, go hand in hand with the party's declining ratings in polls.

With the new Labour Party in London threatening to break SNP dominance both at the UK Westminster level and in the Scottish Parliament, is Swinney the man to turn around his party's fortunes? "Those who had sympathies for Swinney during his early political career continue to see him as a good backstage organizer, but accept that he failed because the public neither liked him nor trusted him," said James Kelly, who runs the Scot Goes Pop blog advocating for independence.

"The problem is he hasn't changed much in 20 years. His communication skills are still workmanlike and not in the same league as Salmond and Sturgeon." Kelly admitted that "not all popular leaders are conventionally charismatic," adding, "The fact that he's older and that the public has seen his competence in government over many years will make him more popular the second time around."

First Minister of Scotland John Swinney and his deputy First Minister Kate Forbes talk with the media as they attend his inaugur© Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Scotland's new First Minister promised that tackling child poverty would be a priority of his premiership.

But his four-year tenure as leader was seen as unsuccessful - the SNP suffered a poor result in the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections. After the independence-seeking party defeated Scottish Labour in 2007 under Salmond's leadership, Swinney was appointed Cabinet Secretary for Finance.

John Swinney served as deputy First Minister from 2014 to 2023 under Nicola Sturgeon's tenure. He resigned when she did. He led the SNP from 2000 to 2004 when the party was in opposition. Some opposition members accuse the SNP, in power since 2007, of prioritizing independence over citizens' everyday lives, but Swinney promised on Monday to focus on "the economy, employment, cost of living," as well as healthcare, education, and the climate crisis.

He also emphasized his desire for Scotland to become independent. However, such ambitions are currently at a standstill after the UK Supreme Court ruled at the end of 2022 that only the UK Government can grant permission for a new referendum.

The last referendum in 2014 failed. As Scotland's First Minister, he will have to juggle responsibilities - at home, he has his wife Elizabeth, who has multiple sclerosis, and deal with the daily demands of leading a minority government in a parliament where SNP opponents are eager to break the party's dominance in the next 2026 Scottish Parliament elections.

Some SNP voters say they believe Swinney will weather the political storms - and steer the party into calmer waters. "Swinney will be an excellent First Minister for the people of Scotland," said SNP supporter Angela Kerley, a university lecturer who believes his "calm manner and experience" will reunite the party, which now has its third leader in just 14 months. The SNP's ultimate goal is an independent Scotland, which polls suggest has the support of around 50 percent of Scots.