This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

It all got a bit historical at Holyrood today.  

John Swinney may be the new leader of the SNP and barely a month into his time as First Minister, but he’s been around the Scottish Parliament a long time.

He casts a long shadow, having been a senior minister in government for 16 years and Deputy First Minister throughout Nicola Sturgeon’s time in charge.

And as one of the few founding MSPs from 1999 still around, there’s also an awful lot of Mr Swinney on the record.  

He’s pontificated politically for more than two decades, and that’s going to provide plenty of pitfalls for someone taking over the top job. 

And so his fellow leaders on the opposition benches (or more likely, their researchers) have surely been scouring the tomes of the official record to find gems they could cast back in the First Minister’s face in the hope of highlighting hypocrisy.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross thought he’d hit paydirt at First Minister’s Questions, as he regurgitated the latest development in the Michael Matheson iPad bill affair.

Long story short – the former Health Secretary received the heaviest punishment ever given to an MSP at Holyrood on Wednesday, being suspended for 27 days and losing his salary for twice that period. 

Read more:

UnspunIs it time for the Tories to ditch Douglas Ross?

This was after a data roaming bill of £11,000 was racked up on his parliamentary iPad. John Swinney’s party abstained from the vote, but an SNP amendment highlighting the party’s concerns that the committee which recommended the sanctions had been prejudiced, “thereby bringing the Parliament into disrepute”, was also passed. 

The amended motion criticised Conservative MSP Annie Wells for her “public pronouncements” on Mr Matheson ahead of his actions being considered by Holyrood’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee – of which she is a member. 

For the record, Douglas Ross and the Scottish Conservatives voted for that amendment, thereby kinda owning up to the allegation of prejudice, but the Tory leader was understandably keen to sweep that under the rug at First Minister’s Questions today.  

Instead, he cast his gaze back to an older, simpler time – a time when the then Scottish Labour First Minister Henry McLeish was under the spotlight for having claimed expenses on an office he turned out to be sub-letting.

(Mr McLeish did try and brazen the scandal out – calling it “a muddle not a fiddle” – but fell on his sword in the end).

The Herald:
Douglas Ross is probably hoping for a similar outcome from the iPad fiasco, as he summoned John Swinney’s pronouncements from way back then and cast them in his face.

He said: “Let’s just listen to what John Swinney had to say when it was Henry McLeish who claimed expenses, and then claimed them back. 

“John Swinney’s words, if the SNP members would like to hear: ‘People around Scotland will be staggered by the amount of money that is involved. Crucially, the bond of trust that must exist between Scotland’s First Minister and the people has been broken.’

“John Swinney finished by saying: ‘For the good of the Scottish Parliament, Mr McLeish must resign.’”

Mr Ross added: “What happened to that John Swinney? Where’s he gone?” 

Read more:

Unspun | The anatomy of a climbdown: Why the SNP let Matheson be banned for record time

John Swinney was right there, squirming in his seat. But he rose to join Mr Douglas in a race to the bottom, pointing out that the Conservative group – which the Tory leader was not a part of at the time, having resigned to take up a seat at Westminster – had failed to back the suspension of one of its own members who had fallen foul of the Standards Committee’s rules.  

He didn’t name the MSP, but the archives show a certain Annie Wells was sanctioned and suspended around that time for commenting in the press on an unpublished Equalities and Human Rights Committee report on prisoner voting.

“Mr Ross has no credibility whatsoever to come here and suggest that my conduct or my actions have been inappropriate,” Mr Swinney said. 

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar also delved into history for his attack lines on the First Minister.  

Managing the trick of conflating the Matheson scandal with worsening waiting times in the NHS, he accused Mr Swinney of being distracted by the affair and taking his eye off the ball.

Mr Sarwar then brought up the next anniversary of the founding of the nation’s health service on July 5th, which just so happens to be the day after the general election.

“In 1948 we created our NHS. In 1997, we rescued our NHS, and on July 5th – the 76th birthday of the founding of our NHS, we will begin the process of rescuing it again,” he said. 

But Mr Swinney had some archive material of his own to draw on. He said that Rachel Reeves, the Labour Shadow Chancellor, had announced spending plans for any incoming Labour government that would amount to “austerity on stilts”. 

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Furthermore, he quoted the Labour Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, who said this week his party would “hold the door open for the private sector in the National Health Service,” forming partnerships that go “beyond just hospitals”.  

Mr Swinney said: "Don't give me this stuff about the anniversary of the National Health Service. Labour's preparing to sell us out on austerity... and can't be trusted to deliver for the people of Scotland.”

Proving that he's not alone in being haunted by the words of the past.