We’d have more to talk about if yesterday’s movements in the Scottish Government actually were a proper reshuffle. But the changes in Cabinet and Ministerial personnel were all part of a plan – or mostly, anyhow.
The only unplanned move was Bruce Crawford’s. Bruce has been a most faithful lieutenant since entering Holyrood in 1999 and has been a vital cog in the SNP’s team. And like many who fill behind the scenes roles, there are probably folk, even on his own side, who are unaware of the extent of the role he has played in the SNP’s electoral success in recent years. Had the first four years of government been filled with pitched battles over every bill and policy, with the party being defeated in Parliament, filling the headlines for all the wrong reasons, there are few voters who would have considered them competent enough to deserve another go.
Bruce Crawford, a straight man if ever there was one, made Parliament business happen by being affable, approachable, fair but also tough when he had to be, sharper than a tack and always one step ahead of everyone else. He has remarkable political acumen and his has been a vital contribution, not only to the smooth running of business as usual, but also the strategising and tactics of the chess game over the referendum procedure. Alex Salmond will not have wanted to lose him now but Bruce has decided, for the most poignant but also the most appropriate reasons, to take a step back from the frontline of politics. He will be missed.
Especially now that the First Minister has effectively decided to split his role between Joe FitzPatrick who will take care of parliamentary business – and with fifteen chunky bills to deliver, he will have plenty to do – and Nicola Sturgeon, the Depute First Minister. She is taking on the government strategy role and I think this is a mistake.
Which is not to suggest that she is not capable and will not do an effective job. But the First Minister should have kept someone in the role of marshalling Scottish Government business, for what Bruce Crawford did so well, was keep the big personalities in line. He stood up to them and because he had no ministerial portfolio, he could stand back from the fray and take an overview on direction and action. The First Minister now has no one to do this and there is a risk that a sense of coherence around the day to day business of government begins to unravel, exactly at the point when the SNP needs it to knit together.
The Depute First Minister might hold the title of head of government strategy, but this is absolutely about referendum strategy. And this shift is completes the jigsaw of key personnel in key positions for the battle ahead. It was always planned that at some juncture, Kevin Pringle would move out of government and back into a key party position, with Nicola Sturgeon reshaping her role in government.
Her role has not diminished, indeed her portfolio just got a whole lot bigger, putting her front and central to the forthcoming referendum campaign. Partly it’s about succession planning, partly it’s about putting a woman to the fore, but mainly this is about the team whom Alex Salmond trusts best to deliver a historic yes in 2014. And it is absolutely testament to Nicola’s political skills. Not only does she exude calm and quiet confidence as a leader at crucial times, but she is a shrewd negotiator who sees every angle and corner of a proposed move long before others. Moreover, she is by nature, a cautious political creature: she won’t allow emotion or risk-taking to jeopardise the goal.
Those who reckon she is off to a lesser policy brief should perhaps read the small print. Michael Matheson just lost a chunk of his portfolio as Minister for Public Health: much of the communities brief – poverty and welfare – left with the Depute First Minister. Between him and his new Cabinet Secretary, they have been left with health, community care and equalities. The new Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities not only inherits Alex Neil’s old responsibilities but has new ones to deliver too. And again, this reshaping has been deliberate and I’d suggest, designed by the Depute First Minister herself.
[UPDATE: I got it wrong. The Depute First Minister always held the welfare brief with the Minister for Public Health occasionally covering it, so it simply travels with her into her new role. And reading the above paragraph back, it suggests that the new Health Secretary and his team have less to do. They don’t. There’s the Self Directed Support bill to see through to the end of the process and a new on on integrating health and social care for adults to steer from the beginning. And, of course, a whole host of initiatives designed to tackle our poor health outcomes as well as the day to day stuff. I doubt they’ll be enjoying long lunches anytime soon. Apologies and happy to correct my analysis.]
There is always something depressing about pre-shuffle speculation. Perhaps because it is mainly boys who indulge in it, the names that are always talked about in the frame are usually always boys’ ones. Margaret Burgess didn’t rate a mention and her appointment prompted cries of who before the pack moved on. Which shows what they actually know about things.
Long, long ago, in another blogging place, I tipped ten newbie MSPs to watch. Margaret Burgess was one of them. Why? Because Margaret Burgess brought an important hinterland with her to the role of MSP, having spent at least twenty years as a Citizens Advice Manager in Ayrshire. There is nothing she doesn’t know about the impact of deprivation and poverty, about debt, housing, homelessness, social security and welfare.
Lasr year, the Scottish Government and Parliament took a brave and just political stand against Westminster in refusing a legislative consent motion on some aspects of the UK Government’s pernicious welfare reform measures. The consequence of that is we now have to create our own policy and approach to delivering these aspects. Moreover, the impact of welfare reform is something many are trying to gauge but few can get a handle on. It is a social policy tsunami heading our way, with the potential to sweep tens of thousands into real poverty and destitution while lashing other services and resources. At least now, the Scottish Government has someone in charge of the brief who gets it.
But welfare reform is also a political opportunity and it is one which Nicola Sturgeon grasps and will exploit to the max. What the Tories are doing to welfare – reforming it beyond recognition and turfing out its founding principles – is a great example of the sort of ties which no longer bind us to the UK. Opting for independence will enable Scots to take control of such areas of policy and do things different. Taking the welfare brief with her fits well with her strategic referendum role.
Finally, on a personal level, with such a big brief, Nicola Sturgeon needed to bring in a minister she can trust implicitly. Margaret Burgess is the MSP for Cunninghame South – Irvine and the impoverished, de-industrialised part of North Ayrshire – which is where the Depute First Minister hails from and interestingly, where her mother is now Provost and the SNP lead the council. They have known each other for decades.
The other ministerial promotions are also well deserved (I tipped Paul Wheelhouse and Humza Yousaf too) and while this reshuffle was all about the next phase of the referendum campaign, it afforded an opportunity to freshen things up, replacing old and rather tired faces with bright, young (ish) things.
The jigsaw is complete, a new team is in place, and there are only two years left in which to deliver independence for Scotland. Plenty to get on with, then.