John Swinney, a seasoned politician and senior figure in the Scottish National Party, has recently been thrust back into the spotlight as Scotland’s new First Minister. Our public affairs team has taken a look at the career of the man who has been at the centre of Scotland’s administrations for 16 out of the last 17 years – and what his return to frontline politics will mean for you.   

Constituency record:

MSP for Perthshire North (Constituency) 2011 – present day

Former MSP for North Tayside (Constituency) 1999 – 2011

MP for Tayside North (1997-2001) 

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Born and raised in Edinburgh, Swinney worked in finance before entering politics, joining the SNP in 1979 at the age of 15. He rose through the party ranks, becoming secretary at 22 and forming close relationships with former leaders Gordon Wilson and Alex Salmond.

Swinney succeeded Salmond as SNP leader in 2000 but faced challenges during his leadership, with losses in elections and internal party strife. After stepping down as leader following disappointing results in the 2003 Holyrood and 2004 European elections, he continued to play a significant role in the party under the leadership of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

He has held various senior positions within the Scottish Government, notably as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth from 2007 to 2016. In this role, he was responsible for the Scottish budget and played a key part in promoting Scotland’s economic development and fiscal policies.

In 2014, Swinney took on the role of Deputy First Minister and in 2016 became Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, a testament to his versatility and senior position within the government. His tenure in education was marked by efforts to improve the Scottish education system, though he also faced criticism over educational policies and school assessments.

Swinney announced his resignation from government in 2023 when Nicola Sturgeon stepped down but returned to the limelight as a candidate for the SNP leadership following Humza Yousaf’s resignation.

 Since announcing his intention to stand, he has emphasised party unity as the best means to achieve independence and has rejected the notion he is a “caretaker” leader, stating his determination to lead the SNP through the upcoming General Election and 2026 Holyrood elections. 

Politically, John Swinney was a close ally of both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon and is considered to be on the party’s centre ground. A well-respected senior member of the SNP with a reputation for competence, he has expressed an intention to work with all parties on an issue-by-issue basis to pass legislation rather than simply rely on votes from the Greens.

Political Context

In assuming the party leadership and the office of First Minister unopposed, Swinney has secured the backing of Kate Forbes, his only likely challenger, in return for what is expected to be a significant cabinet role for Forbes. 

This unofficial pact may quell some of the internal discontent and division with the SNP – Swinney has explicitly stated that he believes the party is not as “cohesive” as it needs to be and has stated his intention to reunify different strands within it. 

Such an approach, and the return of Forbes to a front-line role, signals an attempt to combine Swinney’s stated centre-left credentials, and his declared mission of ending child poverty, with a renewed focus on economic growth.

It remains to be seen whether Swinney’s goal of reunifying the party will dampen expressions of internal discontent or lead to an improved polling position for the SNP ahead of the coming UK general election. 

Policy Positions


John Swinney has articulated a vision for Scotland’s economy centred on the concept of a wellbeing economy. This approach aims to transform the economy into one that not only grows but also serves the needs of current and future generations within safe environmental limits. He has emphasised the importance of a worker- and community-led just transition to a net-zero, nature-positive economy that prioritises equality, human rights, and fair work.

In his discussions and lectures, Swinney has also highlighted the need for Scotland to rebalance its economy to promote innovation and productivity. He supports using a comprehensive range of policy tools, including taxation, regulation, and public spending, to diversify Scotland’s industrial base and enhance manufacturing and productivity. As someone who adopts a gradualist, rather than fundamentalist approach to achieving independence, he sees devolution and independence as opportunities to implement policies that are aligned with Scotland’s unique strengths and challenges​.

In his leadership acceptance speech, John Swinney committed to an economic vision that involves tackling the cost-of-living crisis, supporting sustainable job creation, and improving essential infrastructure like housing and transport.  


As part of the Salmond and Sturgeon administrations he was involved in projects such as the opening of the Borders railway and the nationalisation of ScotRail.

His work in the parliament has also touched upon integrating public transport systems to improve accessibility and efficiency. This involves supporting initiatives that align with broader Scottish transport strategies, such as the enhancements of the Clyde Metro and strategic bus priority measures, which aim to bolster the public transport network and address issues like accessibility and regional connectivity​.   

John Swinney has been involved in discussions and developments concerning the A9 dualling project over many years, often expressing concerns about the project’s scope and financial implications. In 2008, Swinney, then the Finance Secretary, raised alarms about the significant costs and potential difficulties of the A9 dualling project. This occurred just before the formal announcement by then First Minister Alex Salmond, committing to the project’s completion by 2025​.  Despite these concerns, Swinney has also acknowledged the importance of the A9 dualling for enhancing road safety and  economic opportunities in the region. This suggests he may take difficult decisions if he believes they’re right, even when they could affect his own electoral prospects.   


John Swinney has expressed strong support for the tourism sector, recognising its crucial economic contribution to Scotland. In his address at the SNP conference in 2021, he highlighted the government’s financial support for the tourism industry, particularly in light of the challenges posed by the pandemic. This support included significant monetary allocations aimed at aiding the hardest-hit sectors of the economy, with tourism receiving £25 million to help mitigate the impacts of the crisis.


Generally, John Swinney’s policy is likely to align with the broader SNP stance, which balances the economic benefits of oil and gas revenues with a strong commitment to renewable energy and Scotland’s transition towards net-zero emissions. He has signalled in recent weeks that he wants to move away from some of the Green-led policies of the last three years, stating that the net zero transition must “work with and not against” Scotland’s oil and gas industry. Swinney has also discussed the inadequacy of UK energy support schemes for businesses without broader reforms to the energy market, suggesting that more substantial changes are necessary to ensure energy affordability and sustainability.

Environmental and Rural Affairs 

John Swinney has shown a strong commitment to addressing environmental issues and supporting rural affairs within Scotland’s government. He has been part of efforts to promote policies that ensure sustainable development and environmental conservation, recognising the intrinsic link between rural affairs and Scotland’s overall economic health. His approach typically emphasised the need for sustainable practices that support both the economy and the environment, aligning with broader government strategies aiming at a wellbeing economy that includes significant environmental components.


John Swinney has expressed a strong commitment to healthcare, emphasising the importance of increasing funding for the NHS, and oversaw an overall increase in health spending during his time as Finance Secretary.

In 2023, charities voiced concerns to John Swinney, then Acting Finance minister that the proportion of funding specifically for mental health services had effectively reduced in real terms.  

In his leadership acceptance speech, John Swinney highlighted a commitment to addressing challenges faced by the NHS among other priorities. He emphasised the importance of collaborative work across party lines to enhance public services like healthcare and improve the overall welfare of Scotland.


John Swinney has been engaged in addressing several aspects of Scotland’s housing crisis, throughout his time in government, particularly focusing on social housing and the broader challenges of the housing market.

Swinney has highlighted social housing as a critical area, expressing concerns about budget cuts from the UK government that could impact Scottish housing policy. He has urged for considerations that would prevent disproportionate cuts in Scotland compared to other parts of the UK, emphasising the unique challenges and achievements in keeping social rents low in Scotland​. 

Swinney has also been involved in discussions around fiscal policies impacting housing, advocating for the Scottish Government’s ability to design distinctive approaches to address these challenges, aligning with a vision of a fairer society. In his acceptance speech for the SNP leadership, he expressed a commitment to addressing the housing crisis in Scotland. He emphasised building more homes as part of a broader vision to create a dynamic and inclusive Scotland.  


John Swinney’s tenure as Education Secretary from 2016 onwards was marked by ambitious goals and varied results. He focused on improving Scottish education through strategies that aimed at both excellence and equity. A key pledge during his time was to close the attainment gap, a longstanding issue in Scottish education. Despite efforts and investments, including over £750 million through the Attainment Scotland Fund, progress in closing this gap has been mixed.

Criticism and support for Swinney’s policies have been mixed among educators and political figures. He was known for being open to dialogue, often engaging directly with teachers and educational leaders to discuss and refine his policies. 

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