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Tuesday, 20 March, 2001, 16:27 GMT
John Swinney

Less than a year into his job as Scottish National Party Leader and John Swinney is about to face his toughest test.

After gaining 35 seats in the Scottish parliamentary elections, the nationalists will be looking to continue that success in the general election and, if not defeat Labour, then at least ensure that they make significant progress towards that aim. That success at Holyrood was seen as the crowning glory for the previous leader, Alex Salmond, who announced his suprise resignation last year. Now it is up to 36-year-old Mr Swinney to carry the torch for Scottish independence. It was never going to be easy succeeding a charismatic and influential leader like Alex Salmond, who took the SNP into the foreground of Scottish politics during his tenure.

Independence

However, Edinburgh-born Mr Swinney will perhaps look back on his so far brief tenure with a large degree of satisfaction. Divisions over the party's strategy for gaining independence have, if not gone away, at least drifted into the backrgound in recent months and the party will point to signifcant gains in Westminster by-elections. A politics graduate who pursued a career in Scotland's financial sector before entering Westminster as MP for Tayside North in 1997, Mr Swinney has lost what some saw as a bookish image, which was perhaps a leftover from his former career. He has been in the not unpleasant position of leading a Scottish parliamentary party which has been revelling in the faltering progress of the Labour-led Scottish Executive. Perhaps his finest performance to date came in March as his party helped to inflict an historic defeat on the executive in a vote on the fishing industry. The executive forced another vote on the issue and won the following week but Mr Swinney will have felt that his party took the principled line in the face of Labour manipulation. Interestingly, it was left to predecessor Mr Salmond to carry out the mopping-up operation.

Strategist

Despite his relative youth - he joined the party at the age of 15 and was elected national secretary at the age of 22 - Mr Swinney has long been a key thinker and strategist within the SNP and will be looking to bring these qualities to bear on the natonalists' campaign. 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. He says the SNP must argue for all of Scotland and, while essentially fighting for the day when Westminster becomes a total irrelevance to Scotland, must still take the fight for independence to London if it is to succeed.

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