Every convenient time period I'm shuffling

21 Sep 2012

Two weeks ago saw two headline-grabbing cabinet reshuffles. I say headline grabbing, but one could easily be forgiven missing the changes in the cabinet in the Scottish Parliament. This is not to say that these changes are not worthy news, for the Scottish cabinet is in fact a rather different beast to its Southern counterpart, particularly since the SNP’s elevation to power in 2007. For those unfamiliar with the Scottish cabinet, allow me to enlighten you in a manner that is hopefully not too astoundingly dull.


The Scottish cabinet is altogether somewhat smaller, as might be expected, than its Westminster equivalent. Particularly notable is how few cabinet secretaries there are within the fold. People in these positions have only been known as such since 2007, with Alex Salmond making the change perhaps in line with his decision to rebel against the orthodoxy of past Scottish Labour administrations and began to refer to his team as the Scottish Government, as opposed to the label of “Scottish Executive” previously favoured by Labour. At the same time, Salmond made a deliberate choice to assemble a smaller group, reducing the number of senior ministers (and chief allies) to only six. The chief Scottish cabinet team now stands at the slightly larger number of ten.

You may be asking why these facts matter. Well, the reason being that the First Minister has not been previously known to conduct significant cabinet reshuffles. Within the Salmond administration, a vast majority of ministers tend to hold their post throughout an entire term of government, and exceptions to the rule are usually a choice of job reassignment in reaction to controversy or as a result of resignation by the minister themselves. Examples of such include Stewart Stevenson, who resigned from Transport following the widely accepted mismanagement of travel conditions throughout Scotland’s exceptionally cold winter of 2010-11 and Education Secretary Fiona Hislop’s demotion after failing to deliver class size promises. Another mark of the SNP’s style of governance can be seen in the Finance and Justice cabinet secretaries John Swinney and Kenny MacAskill. These men have remained in their positions since the SNP came to power in 2007. This is not to suggest that they’ve been without their own public misdemeanours either. MacCaskill was lambasted by many sources for his release and repatriation of the dubiously convicted Lockerbie bomber on the grounds of terminal illness, but the First Minister defended his colleague and kept him in his position. One might say that this style of governmental management places more emphasis on expertise, allowing cabinet members to remain in positions owing the knowledge and status they are allowed to develop in that role. This is until two weeks ago, a reshuffle that defied all we thought we had known about the First Minister in this area and provided a wealth of ammunition to his opponents.

See, in this government of expertise, there was perhaps no-one more exemplary of this notion than Deputy First Minister and Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon. Like Swinney and MacCaskill, she until two weeks ago, had kept her jobs since 2007. As Health Secretary, Sturgeon accumulated bountiful know-how presided over a substantial number of flagship projects including the abolition of prescription charges.  It’s relatively safe to say that she was well-regarded by public and professionals alike in what is arguably one of the most important positions in the cabinet. However, two weeks ago Alex Salmond made two moves that suitably rocked followers of Scottish politics. Firstly, he was embarking his first ever formal cabinet reshuffle and secondly, Nicola Sturgeon had been moved. 

The first potential negative commentary may have been scrutiny of her replacement. However, despite evident downfalls such as a lack of background in Health, Miss Sturgeon’s successor Alex Neil has avoided any major swipes regarding his appointment. Rather than this being amounting to approval of his capabilities, it is more that the national media have been somewhat distracted by the nature of the role Sturgeon has been moved into. The specific job title that she now occupies is that of “Cabinet Secretary of Infrastructure, Investment and Cities”, but unsurprisingly journalists have been more interested in the new subtitle to her Deputy First Minister role. She is now not only the Deputy First Minister, but the Deputy First Minister (with responsibility for Government Strategy and the constitution.)  For those unable to decipher for themselves, this means that Sturgeon will take perhaps the most senior role directly regarding the legislative behemoth that is the Independence referendum.  It could be suggested that in some ways this is not a surprise change.  The government requires a figure to take charge in the running of the referendum and the First Minister was assumedly keen to have the person not be himself, ever keen for his party not to be seen as a “one man band.” He has instead, appointed Sturgeon both because of her evident previous experience in the area, her comparable lack of negative political baggage, and her close relationship with the First Minister himself. Quite tellingly, she has already been assigned to serious work in the post, attending vital discussions with UK Government Scottish Secretary Michael Moore on the 13th of September.  However, readers will likely have noticed that to be bestowed this title, Salmond was not required to remove Sturgeon from her place in Health. It’s quite possible that he could have added the subtitle to her Deputy First Minister post and have that be that. On the contrary, he is perceived widely as having moved Sturgeon to a less high-profile and demanding cabinet post so that she is able to concentrate on the intricacies of the referendum. This has been judged for several reasons by opposition parties and journalistic sources alike. They feel that by doing this Salmond is compromising the cabinet posts of both Health and Infrastructure. The former owing to his promotion of a relative newcomer to a primary government department, and the latter because of the implication that Sturgeon will be paying improper amounts of attention to her managing of infrastructure and investment. It’s rather obviously extremely dangerous politically to be seen to putting a role so intrinsically linked to the economy on the back seat. This also provides ripe political ammunition for those who already claimed that the referendum is an obsessive and distracting preoccupation of the SNP that disallows them to focus on the correct running of government. Salmond is sure to have known that this would be the case, but is seemingly undeterred by such remarks. 

However, time will tell if commentator’s concerns turn out to be true. The SNP still face smaller numbers in favour of independence and their polls have suffered slightly since winning the 2011 election. One mustn’t catastrophise and prophesise that these possible failures are enough to cost them power altogether, instead I will ask the First Minister to tap somewhat more back into his trademark astuteness and keep in mind what won them elections in the first place. Every piece of research on this matter will tell you that these reasons decidedly did not involve a focus on Independence, and Salmond knows it.

Backbench Secretary of State for Scotland

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