It was what one commentator quipped, the ‘Day of the Long Sgian Dubhs*’, parodying PM Harold Macmillan’s infamous “Night of the Long Knives” reshuffle of 1962, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took the axe to her Scottish Government Cabinet.
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In what was the bloodiest and most sweeping reshuffle of devolution as she changed half her Cabinet, including close friend and beleaguered health secretary, Shona Robison, who has been the focus of much criticism over her handling of the NHS.
There was no accident of course in the timing, with paper headlines dominated by the reshuffle rather than the controversial Education Bill, which had been set on ice and minds set to the allure of summer holidays.
It was a case of out with the old and in with the new, and the dramatic clear out saw the departure of three Cabinet Secretaries and three ministers and the promotion of five new faces to an expanded top tier of government. This now sees 12 Cabinet Secretaries, an increase of two, reflecting the bigger workload arising from Brexit as well as ensuring the crucial running of the £300 million social security system.
In addition to Shona Robison, Keith Brown leaves his role as Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, to focus on his recently elected SNP Deputy Leader post, associated with policy development and building the case for independence. Angela Constance has also left as Cabinet for Communities, Social Securities and Equalities.
There are five new faces joining the Cabinet: Shirley Anne-Sommerville, formerly Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science becomes Social Security and Older People Secretary; Aileen Campbell, formerly Minister for Public Health and Sport becomes Communities and Local Government Secretary; former Labour Special Adviser, Jeane Freeman, who was Minister for Social Security, becomes Health and Sport Secretary following widely applauded work on Scotland’s new Social Security system. Humza Yousaf, formerly Minister for Transport and the Islands becomes Justice Secretary, replacing Michael Matheson, who had come under some criticism of his handling of Police Scotland controversies. Mr Matheson becomes Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity Secretary.
Derek Mackay, who formerly held the Finance and the Constitution portfolio has seen the Constitution aspect pass to Brexit Minister, Michael Russell in a new role as Government Business and Constitutional Relations Secretary. Mr Mackay has seen his role take on the Economy and Fair work responsibilities held by Keith Brown in a role as Finance, Economy and Fair Work Secretary.
John Swinney remains as Education and Skills Secretary, as well as being Deputy First Minister; Fergus Ewing remains as Rural Economy Secretary, Fiona Hyslop as Culture, Tourism and External Affairs Secretary, and Roseanna Cunningham as Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Secretary.
- First Minister – Nicola Sturgeon
- Education and Skills Secretary (and Deputy First Minister) – John Swinney
- Justice Secretary – Humza Yousaf
- Health and Sport Secretary – Jeane Freeman
- Social Security and Older People Secretary – Shirley-Anne Somerville
- Communities and Local Government Secretary- Aileen Campbell
- Finance, Economy and Fair Work Secretary – Derek Mackay
- Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity Secretary- Michael Matheson
- Rural Economy Secretary – Fergus Ewing
- Government Business and Constitutional Relations Secretary – Michael Russell
- Culture, Tourism and External Affairs Secretary – Fiona Hyslop
- Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform – Roseanna Cunningham
Some changes to Ministerial appointments were announced, with the rest expected later today, today but we already know that Alasdair Allan, Annabelle Ewing and Maureen Watt have left their positions as Ministers for International Development and Europe; Community Safety and Legal Affairs, and Mental health respectively.
- Kevin Stewart will remain in post as Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning and Joe FitzPatrick will become Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing.
- Maree Todd who was appointed Minister for Children and Young People in October last year will remain in her post.
- Paul Wheelhouse will take on a new role of Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands – reporting to the new Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity.
- Jamie Hepburn will take on the new role of Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, reporting jointly to the Education Secretary and the new Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work
Ms Sturgeon can hardly be described as being ruthless, but her Cabinet reshuffle was built on an understanding that there required to be dramatic action if the Scottish Government was to maintain some credibility in tackling the challenges the nation faces, particularly around health and education. In these areas in particular it has been seen to be struggling and improvement is needed.
While the Bute House door opened for some and closed for others, it is important to note that the problems still remain and the proof of the pudding will be to see how the new Cabinet and ministers deal with these. The First Minister has demonstrated that she is no slouch in wielding the axe if required.
What the First Minister has delivered is a team she believes are up to the challenge and which she hopes to keep in place until the 2021 election, when the SNP will be seeking re-election for a fourth term, as well as delivering a mandate for a second independence referendum. A tall order indeed!
*A ‘sgian dubh’ is a small, single-edged knife (Scottish Gaelic: sgian) worn as part of traditional Scottish Highland dress along with the kilt.