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Friday, 4 May, 2001, 10:09 GMT
John Swinney: SNP Leader

By News Online Scotland's Mick McGlinchey

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.

He will perhaps look back on his so far brief tenure with a large degree of satisfaction

Now it is up to 37-year-old Mr Swinney to carry the torch for Scottish independence and, while not standing as an MP, he will be spearheading the nationalists' Westminster campaign.

It was never going to be easy succeeding a charismatic and influential leader like Mr Salmond, who took the SNP into the foreground of Scottish politics during his tenure.

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 background in recent months.

The party will point to signifcant gains in Westminster by-elections and Mr Swinney has overseen a successful policy review.

Swinney and Salmond
Following Alex Salmond was a challenge
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.

Mr Swinney has long been a key thinker and strategist within the SNP

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.

Lasting damage has been difficult to inflict on Westminster Labour, with its sizeable majority, but at Holyrood the nationalists have seized on every opportunity to unsetlle Henry McLeish's party and their pact with the Liberal Democrats.

Interestingly, it was left to former leader Mr Salmond to carry out the mopping-up operation in the fishing debate.

John Swinney became leader last year
Despite his relative youth - Mr Swinney joined the party at the age of 15 and was elected national secretary at the age of 22 - he 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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