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What could John Swinney and Kate Forbes working together mean for the Highlands?

By Scott Maclennan

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Fergus Ewing, John Swinney and Kate Forbes at the Convention of the Highlands and Islands in Inverness.
Fergus Ewing, John Swinney and Kate Forbes at the Convention of the Highlands and Islands in Inverness.

Kate Forbes made it clear what she thought about some Scottish Government policies over the last few years in her statement supporting John Swinney as the next SNP leader.

In it she said that Mr Swinney understands “that economic growth and tackling poverty must again be key priorities, and that a just transition to ‘net zero’ must work with, and not against, our communities and businesses".

That seems to reference the Greens who were accused of policy-making that damaged business and communities as was the case with the deposit return scheme (DRS) and Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs).

She followed up by saying: “John is clear that he is determined to return the SNP to governing from the mainstream” and consequently “we share a powerful common purpose for the country”.

So how does that translate into action, into workable policies and what problems could get in the way of the Scottish Government achieving that?

First and clearest there is an issue of how “continuity won’t cut it” which Ms Forbes raised in last year’s SNP leadership election and how different it was then between Mr Swinney and Ms Forbes.

Then he said he “profoundly disagrees” with her views on gay marriage and then questioned whether that made her an “appropriate” candidate sparking a biting response from Ms Forbes’ spokesman.

He said: "The prime minister is a Hindu, the mayor of London is a Muslim. So many will wonder why the deputy first minister believes a woman holding Christian views should be disqualified from holding high office in Scotland".

Mr Swinney must also have wondered the same because today he offered her a “significant” job in government because he said she is an “intelligent, creative, thoughtful person who has much to contribute to our national life".

He seems to have followed the advice of people like Alex Salmond’s much respected former right-hand man Geoff Aberdein to get Ms Forbes into government and ditch the policies that “matter very little to the public”.

Ms Forbes touched on that in her statement today too when she said it was time to “reach out to those who feel disempowered and reinvigorate the independence movement".

The last phrase in the Highland context must surely refer to mending the SNP’s broken relationship with rural Scotland in a bid to start persuading people that independence is the best option for them

They have ample opportunity to do that because in a phrase used often during Brexit debate, rural Scotland has become a “rule taker not a rule maker".

Take the ban on wood burning stoves which was revealed by a company that sells them rather than the Scottish Government who overnight changed the guidance for new build homes.

If the SNP does choose to actually get out and about – something Humza Yousaf tried – then there are few MSPs in the party better suited to connecting with rural Scotland than Swinney and Forbes who both represent rural constituencies.

What they would find is not pretty. Caithness still lacks maternity care as well as other health services for women, Highland Council languishes at or near the bottom of the league tables for results and has the worst school estate in Scotland.

Previously, Ms Forbes said that Highland Council should be broken up as it is too big and too unwieldy – so is a long overdue reform of local government and council (announced in 2007) in the offing? Time will tell.

Ms Forbes’ support for the dualling of the A9 has been clear, and she may well have delivered a new programme faster than Humza Yousaf had she won, but there is a new plan there. Any drawing down of that and the ball will land in her court.

But it will also land in Mr Swinney’s because he is the MSP for Perthshire North which still requires large sections of the road to be dualled – in this there should be some security for the A9.

If this is a political partnership then it could prosper but it will never last. Blair/Brown and Salmond/Sturgeon both hit the rocks in spectacular fashion but they have two years before the next election to try.

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