John Swinney – 2024 First Speech as First Minister

The speech made by John Swinney, the Scottish First Minister, on 7 May 2024.

Presiding Officer

When I stood down as Deputy First Minister in March last year, I believed that would be the last senior office I would hold in politics. Having served then as a senior Minister for 16 years, I felt I had – to coin a phrase – done my bit. To find myself accepting office as First Minister of Scotland today is therefore – to utter a classic understatement – something of a surprise. It is however an extraordinary privilege and it is my honour to accept the office of First Minister, committing myself to do the best I can for Scotland.

As I navigated my way through the media pack in the corridors of this Parliament last week, prior to announcing my candidacy for the SNP Leadership, I tried to explain that I was taking my time to decide whether to stand because I had to be certain it was a decision that was right for my family. For me, that was not a stalling tactic or an evasive answer from an experienced politician. For me, it was the truth.

Members will know that my wife Elizabeth has multiple sclerosis. She is indefatigable in trying to make sure that MS does not get in the way of her living life to the full. But much to her frustration, she does often have to rely on her husband for support and assistance. I could not just commit myself to become First Minister without properly working out how we will be able to manage as a family. We have talked that through and we will manage. But I cannot let this moment pass without making clear to Elizabeth my profound gratitude for the sacrifices she is prepared to make to enable her husband to serve our Country as First Minister.

I am so pleased that my Father, my wife and children, members of my family and our dearest friends, are able to be here today to see this moment. My only regret is that my beloved Mother did not live long enough to see this day. As her Parish Minister wrote to me yesterday “Your Mum would have been (quietly) proud”. My Mother’s love of literature and poetry – which rubbed off on her two sons – would have prompted her to find some words that would sum up this moment.

Yesterday, I was asked what would be the single most important policy objective for my Government. I made clear it would be the eradication of child poverty.

So, in searching for some words to sum up this occasion, perhaps my Mother would have chosen these words from one of Scotland’s greatest poets, Hamish Henderson, who was born in Blairgowrie, in the very heart of my Perthshire North constituency. In his epic anthem, Freedom Come All Ye, which I heard Henderson sing from an open top bus in the Meadows of our great Capital City during a rally that demanded the establishment of a Scottish Parliament in the early 1990s, the poet wrote :

“So come all ye at hame wi Freedom,

Never heed whit the hoodies croak for doom.

In your hoose a’ the bairns o’ Adam,

Can find breid, barley-bree and painted room.”

If there was ever an anthem that railed against child poverty, those words from Hamish Henderson echo through the straths and streets of our diverse country as a call for us to act.

So I will be unapologetic about bringing to this Parliament the measures we can take to eradicate child poverty and I look forward to seeking the support of others to achieve that aim.

Because I recognise, that is how it is going to have to work. I am leading a minority Government. I will need to reach out to others to make things happen. To pass legislation. To agree a Budget.

To pass legislation. To agree a Budget. These sound like dry technical parliamentary terms. But what they mean in reality is if we want to fund our schools and our hospitals, if we want to give our businesses a competitive edge, if we want to take climate action, if we want to eradicate child poverty, if we want to change people’s lives for the better, we have to work together to do so.

This Parliament is intensely polarised at this time. I accept my part in creating that environment – whether that is by shouted put downs from the front bench or heckling from a sedentary position. I do promise Presiding Officer that will all stop – I have changed.

This is not the collaborative place it has been in the past, a collaborative place that has done much good to improve the lives of people in Scotland. As the Parliament marks its 25 year anniversary, and as one of the now relatively small group who have been here from the start, I reflect on the major developments that have taken place by collaborative work and agreement over that time. Major developments taken forward by the Labour and Liberal Executive such as the ban on smoking in public places, or Minimum Unit Pricing by the SNP Government, or the introduction of free bus travel for under 22s by the SNP-Green partnership.

I commit my Government to working to create that agreement across the Chamber. I hope there is the space and the willingness for that to happen in the interests of the people who sent us here.

It is hardly a surprise to anyone in this Chamber that I believe that this country could do more if we had the powers of a normal independent nation. Others in this Chamber take the opposite view. That is the essence of democracy – people free to hold and express and pursue different opinions. The question we face in this Parliament today however is a more practical one.

Does our disagreement on the Constitution prevent us from working collaboratively to eradicate child poverty, build the economy, support jobs, address the cost of living crisis, improve the health service and tackle the climate crisis?

I will give all of my energy, and my willingness to engage and listen, to ensure that is not the case. I invite others to do the same.

When I pitched up at Forrester High School in this City in 1979, at the age of 15 wearing my SNP badge, and my friends and teachers wondered why I had become involved in this fringe party, I could scarcely have imagined that my journey would involve becoming the First Minister of Scotland. It is an extraordinary privilege to hold this office and I thank Parliament warmly for the honour that has been given to me.

To the people of Scotland I would simply say this.

I offer myself to be the First Minister for everyone in Scotland. I am here to serve you. I will give everything I have to build the best future for our Country.