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banner Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
Tussle for the top
Brian Taylor SNP graphic
The contest for the leadership of the Scottish National Party is a two-horse race - John Swinney v. Alex Neil.

BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor looks at the issues behind September's election.


The Scottish National Party is facing its first leadership contest for a decade after the decision by Alex Salmond, who succeeded Gordon Wilson in 1990, to step down.

The contest will provoke a debate about policy and - more significantly - strategy within the nationalists.

It is the first leadership election within any party since the establishment of the devolved Scottish Parliament.

  • What's the job?

Strictly speaking, the post is national convener of the SNP. The incumbent chairs the national executive of the party.

That reflects the earlier days when the nationalists had no parliamentary representation.

The job then was as much chairman of the party as figurehead leader.

The national convener need not be a parliamentarian, either at Westminster or in Edinburgh. (William Wolfe led the SNP before Gordon Wilson yet did not hold one of the party's newly gained seats at Westminster.)

Political reality dictates, however, that the leader of the SNP for the future will be a parliamentarian.

The shift in the nature of Scottish politics also dictates that the parliament in question will be the Scottish Parliament, not Westminster.

This is an election, therefore, for the person to lead the SNP at Holyrood, throughout Scotland and in the wider public perception.

  • Who picks the leader?

The new leader will be chosen on the final day of the annual SNP conference in Inverness.

The new name will emerge on Saturday 23 September alongside the elections for other office-bearers.

All office-bearers - including the leader - are chosen by delegates who represent SNP branches, constituencies and affiliated organisations.

It is estimated that some 700 delegates will have the right to vote. Larger branches will have several delegates with voting cards.

Delegates are commonly mandated in advance by branch and affiliate meetings. Consequently, for the candidates, hustings around the country are vital between now and September.

  • Why did Salmond quit?

The cynical speculation following his announcement broadly split into two fields.

One, that the party had no serious prospect of political advancement.

Two, that he was getting out before an upcoming confrontation over the party's finances.

Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond: 10 years at the top
The official version is that he chose the right moment - while at the top of his powers and popularity - to hand over the leadership for the next stage of the drive towards independence.

The straightforward explanation, commonly heard within the party, is that he went because he became weary and fed-up with the leadership: or, to use the more expressive Scots word, scunnered.

Ten years is a long time to lead any party let alone the frequently fractious beast which is the SNP.

Salmond has 10 had 10 years of entrenched opposition politics, first at Westminster, now at Holyrood.

During that time, he has fought two UK General Elections, the Scottish Referendum campaign and the Scottish parliamentary election - plus umpteen by-elections and council election contests.

He has had to face semi-permanent sniping from those in SNP ranks - commonly characterised as fundamentalists - who fear that the party is backsliding on its commitment to independence.

One or two have, mostly privately, questioned his performance in the Scottish Parliament against Donald Dewar and, latterly, Jim Wallace.

In addition, personally, he has had to contend with occasional ill health in the past such as a nagging back problem. Plus, his wife Moira is considerably older than the 45-year-old leader. Part of his thinking is to spend more time with her.

Daily Mail front
One newspaper's version of his departure
All these elements contribute to what I believe is a "cumulative scunner factor" for Alex Salmond.

He always said he would review his position after a decade as leader.

He has done so - and concluded, on balance, that he prefers another path.

A skilled and experienced economist (previously employed by the Scottish Office and the Royal Bank), he could self-evidently seek a job in the financial sector - although he is stressing that he remains determined to represent his constituents and to help the party in whatever role is assigned to him.

The departing leader's friends say that he is on "sparkling" form in the immediate aftermath of his decision.

Salmond insists the SNP is destined for success - and that now is the time for a new leader to see through that protracted period of progress.

Cynics say that the SNP faces an extremely difficult UK General Election - and a tough Scottish parliamentary road after that.

Ian Blackford
Ian Blackford: Dispute with Salmond
The financial row is more complex. The SNP's treasurer Ian Blackford - who works for an international bank - was suspended on the orders of the party's national secretary following internal disputes over the extent of the SNP's deficit.

Blackford will take his case to the annual conference in September - but has already attacked Alex Salmond, accusing the departing leader of undermining his professional reputation at a meeting of the party's executive in June.

There was talk of Blackford lodging a writ for defamation but nothing emerged as the treasurer opted to pursue internal party avenues of redress.

The criticisms have been completely dismissed by Salmond and it should be said that Blackford appears to have relatively little support among the leadership of the party although he claims grassroots sympathy.

It is unlikely that the financial row determined Alex Salmond's future but it may have contributed to his belief that it was time for a change.

  • The Contest

The leadership will be a contest between John Swinney, the present deputy leader and spokesman on enterprise and lifelong learning, and Alex Neil, the party's vice-convener for policy and social security spokesman.

Both are serious figures within nationalism and both have financial expertise. Swinney once worked for a Glasgow economic consultancy run by Neil.

Both endorse the SNP's position as a mainstream, moderate left-of-centre party.

Neil is to the left of Swinney - and there have been efforts by individuals within the Neil camp to claim that Swinney would pull the SNP to the right. But this is no "Benn/Hattersley" contest.

Swinney has flattened suggestions that he wants to focus exclusively on middle-class Scotland. Neil describes himself as a European social democrat, rather than using the term socialist.

SNP door
Neither camp likes the labels
In any case the differences between them owe as much to strategic emphasis as to policy.

However, these strategic differences are important and, to a large extent, they summarise the continuing debate within the SNP.

The convenient shorthand version is that Swinney is the gradualist (viewing devolution as a stepping stone on a steady path towards independence) - while Neil is the fundamentalist (largely distrusting devolution as a device to placate the Scots and demanding all-out independence now).

Neither camp welcomes the use of these particular terms and it is important to stress that the divisions within the SNP are neither simple nor uniform nor even permanently entrenched.

More broadly, the SNP is beginning to confront the debate over the definition of independence in an interdependent Europe and over the strategy necessary to achieve its goal, however defined.

Scotland in Europe flags
Europe is a major issue for the party
Should an independent Scotland pool currency, fiscal, defence and diplomatic powers within an enlarged EU?

Is there any role at all within SNP thinking for Britain or the British Isles (including Ireland)?

Should they pay any heed to those urging that Scotland should settle for enhanced devolution: for greater powers for the existing parliament, for a Catalan-style sectoral politics?

It is important to stress that the SNP has not abandoned independence as its aim nor is it about to.

The fear of the fundamentalists, rather, is that the party becomes so embroiled in the day-to-day work of the devolved parliament that the case for independence is neglected: that the nationalists, in short, become institutionalised to devolution.

The gradualists say the people of Scotland will reward the SNP for showing that it can work hard and effectively within the existing structure.

  • The Contenders

John Swinney was elected Westminster MP for Tayside North in 1997, ousting Tory Bill Walker.

He won the same constituency at the Scottish Parliamentary elections and, like every nationalist with this dual mandate, has chosen to stay in the Scottish Parliament.

He was elected deputy leader of the SNP in December 1998.

Born in Edinburgh in April 1964, he is a politics graduate who pursued a career in Scotland's financial sector before entering parliament.

He was latterly a strategic planning principal with Scottish Amicable.

Despite his relative youth, he has long been a key thinker and strategist within the SNP.

John Swinney and a supporter
John Swinney and a supporter
He joined the party at the age of 15 and was elected national secretary at the age of 22.

Swinney will make considerable play of his deep roots within nationalism during the course of the leadership campaign.

More recently, Swinney is particularly credited, along with Salmond, with tailoring the party's economic policy to a growth and business-friendly approach.

He convenes the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee.

He has said that the party needs to ensure that its approach is broad enough to encompass "middle Scotland": business and home owners, in other words, as well as the deprived council estates.

But he ridicules any suggestion that he would be the middle class leader. The SNP, he says, must argue for all of Scotland, pointing out that he drafted the "Penny for Scotland" policy by which the nationalists promised to reverse for Scotland alone a UK tax cut of one per cent on the basic rate and to divert the cash to social need.

Future tax policy, he says, will be settled at the time of future elections.

Euro coin
Swinney is keen on the Euro
Swinney is pro-European, believing that it would be in Scotland's interests if the UK were to adopt the Euro currency at the earliest possible opportunity.

He favours European co-operation over conventional defence forces. In line with long-standing SNP policy, he is completely opposed to the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Privately, Swinney recognises the potential dangers for the SNP in devolution: that the new parliament might become a cul-de-sac which blocks the road to independence.

But he insists he is a "friend" of the new parliament - and that devolution will swiftly become independence, provided the debate remains dynamic and the SNP convinces Scots that their economic and social interests are identified with further change.

Nationalist policy - which he strongly endorses - is to work for Scottish interests within devolution, rather than striving to undermine the devolved parliament.

The argument is that Scots will want more once they have seen devolution working.

Swinney describes devolution as "the greatest mistake the Unionists ever made", arguing that it will lead to the end of the union.

Swinney wants to "reconnect" the grassroots party with the "strong team" which has been built in the Scottish Parliament. He is the favourite to win - and some believe his victory would lead to efforts to marginalise the fundamentalists.

Swinney himself stresses the need to be inclusive although he has declined to guarantee a front bench post to Alex Neil - or, indeed, anyone else at this stage.

Swinney has taken steps to ensure that his political pitch is distinctive and not simply seen as a continuation of the previous leadership. For example, he decided against choosing Mike Russell as his campaign director.

Russell is a prominent MSP, a senior SNP strategist and the former party chief executive.

But he was a key Salmond aide - and Swinney feared his presence at the head of the campaign would look like political continuum, rather than a fresh start.

Russell, however, is helping the Swinney campaign - and could reasonably expect a leading role in a Swinney front-bench team. Swinney's campaign director is MSP Nicola Sturgeon.

Supporters say John Swinney is an intelligent, thoughtful, diligent and persuasive advocate for nationalism. Critics say he needs to project his personality more forcefully.

Alex Neil

He entered the Scottish Parliament on the top-up list, having failed to unseat Labour in the Kilmarnock constituency.

Born in Irvine in 1951, he is a former Labour activist and party office-bearer.

He quit Labour in 1976 to help found the breakaway Scottish Labour Party alongside Jim Sillars.

Alex Neil joined the SNP in 1985. (Sillars, of course, also joined the SNP and became deputy leader. He has since left active party politics).

Neil is privately aware that his background in Labour politics might count against him among the more fiercely partisan of SNP members.

Alex Neil
Alex Neil: Wants a "crusade"
He stresses, however, that he has been an SNP member for 15 years, far longer than his membership of the Labour Party.

An economics graduate, Alex Neil has run his own consultancy during a career in the financial sector.

Neil is regarded as being on the left of the spectrum within the SNP - while still remaining decidedly in the mainstream.

His differences with leadership colleagues - including Salmond - have centred upon strategy.

He says the SNP must make more of its case for independence. Rather than waiting for elections, he wants a "crusade" now, involving such tactics as an independence petition.

Neil describes himself as "in a hurry for independence".

Like Swinney, he says the SNP must link independence to a "radical but realistic" programme for economic and social reform: giving people a concrete reason to back independence, in other words.

Unlike Swinney, he is prepared to be sharply critical of the devolved Scottish Parliament (by contrast with the Lab/Lib Dem executive which both condemn).

The Mound
Neil: People "disappointed" with devolution
Neil says the people of Scotland are disappointed with the devolved parliament and that the SNP must align itself with that mood despite its advocacy of devolution in the referendum.

The SNP must say the reason the parliament has disappointed is that it lacks real financial and policy powers.

SNP members of the new parliament must "do the work" - the committees, the legislation, the constituency duties - but they should also spend half their time agitating for independence, in parliament and outside.

On Europe, his emphasis is again different from Swinney's. He says membership of the Euro is "unrealistic" at present and that Scotland needs the right to make that decision for itself in a Scottish referendum.

Joining at the present rate, he says, would destroy Scottish jobs.

He favours a confederal Europe where sovereignty resides with member states. He would be against pooling defence forces in any form of European army.

In line with SNP policy, he is utterly opposed to Trident.

He has already accused Swinney of "bouncing" the party into two key policy decisions: the Penny for Scotland tax plan and the promise that an SNP administration at Holyrood would hold a referendum in Scotland BEFORE moving to full independence.

Swinney insists both decisions involved full consultation.

Alex Neil's campaign team is led by MSP Adam Ingram and his supporters include those customarily identified with the fundamentalist wing of the party - although, to stress again, they dislike that particular term.

Supporters say he is a passionate but intellectual nationalist who would dispel any questions about the SNP's total commitment to independence.

Critics say he occasionally goes over the top in his public comments, recalling for example his speech which compared George Robertson to the wartime traitor Lord Haw-haw.

  • The deputy leadership

Swinney's decision to stand for the top job leaves a vacancy for the deputy leadership.

This will be contested by two MSPs - Roseanna Cunningham and Kenny MacAskill - plus one non-parliamentarian, Peter Kearney.

Both the MSPs are considered to be on the left of the party.

Along with Alex Salmond, both were founder members of the '79 Group, the organisation which sought to sharpen the SNP's message and focus its appeal more towards dissident Labour votes in the aftermath of the party's collapse in the 1979 General Election.

Both the MSPs are supporting John Swinney for the leadership although it cannot be said that there is any direct "slate".

Mr Kearney - who must be regarded as the outsider - is arguing for a greater role for the grassroots and is supporting Alex Neil for the leadership.

Roseanna Cunningham

MP and MSP for Perth. Like all her colleagues with a dual mandate, she has opted to remain in the Scottish Parliament and so will not contest the UK General Election.

She first won Perth and Kinross from the Tories at a high-profile by-election in 1995 following the death of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn.

Her victory in the redrawn constituency in 1997 was the first time an SNP by-election winner had held the seat at a subsequent General Election.

Roseanna Cunningham
Roseanna Cunningham: "Feisty" performer
Born in Glasgow in 1951, she was brought up in Australia after her family moved there. She returned to Scotland and practised as a solicitor then an advocate.

Before the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, she was renowned as a feisty, intelligent and modern proponent of nationalism.

She gained a reputation as a republican, describing the Royal Family as "the pinnacle of the class system" during her by-election campaign.

By common consent, she has performed well in the parliament, particularly as convener of the justice and home affairs committee which has the biggest legislative workload at Holyrood.

She is her party's spokesperson on justice, equality and land reform.

Among various distinctive traits, she is known as a fan of Star Trek - and displays a life-size model of Dr Spock in her flat.

Kenny MacAskill

A Lothian list member of the Scottish Parliament. He is his party's spokesperson on transport and the environment, pursuing both briefs vigorously and volubly at Holyrood.

In the past, he has been regarded as a fundamentalist - and a critic of the leadership.

But, over the last year, he has been careful to avoid being characterised as merely a dissident.

He has offered support to Alex Salmond at key moments for the party. Most notably, he agreed to stand in as interim treasurer after Ian Blackford was suspended.

Kenny MacAskill
Kenny MacAskill: Interim treasurer
Born in Edinburgh in 1958, MacAskill graduated in law from Edinburgh University and has practised as a solicitor in the city.

He has a reputation for forceful - even controversial - oratory, allied to a talent for grabbing the headlines on issues like fuel taxation and, previously, the poll tax.

But, more privately, he is a thoughtful and careful analyst of nationalism and his party's prospects.

His fervent support for the Scottish football team landed him with some unwelcome publicity in November 1999 when he was held in police custody for the duration of Scotland's match with England at Wembley.

Reports at the time suggested he had been held on suspicion of being drunk and disorderly - but he was neither cautioned nor charged.

The MSP himself played it down, saying there had been "a simple misunderstanding". The party backed him - and political opponents treated the incident with amused sympathy.

Peter Kearney

Does not have a particularly high profile, despite his role as the party's political education and training officer.

He is arguing for a greater say for the grassroots at a time when the focus for SNP activity has plainly moved to the Scottish Parliament.

He says his campaign is designed to counter the "stifling consensus" which he says is in danger of developing among the leadership of the party.

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See also:

04 Aug 00 | Scotland
Two-horse race for SNP top job
26 Jul 00 | Scotland
John Swinney: My message
26 Jul 00 | Scotland
Alex Neil: My message
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