John Swinney’s first week in office as First Minister reminded me of the great little poem by Hughes Mearns, The Man Who Wasn’t There, as queues form down the Royal Mile pleading for policies to be reversed.

Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today I wish, I wish he'd go away...

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Mr Swinney has a long past to be haunted by and there is no manifestation of his party’s record in government for which he is not accountable.

Even when the news is good, it brings back ghostly memories. Mr Swinney turned up at Ardersier to hail a joint investment by UK and Scottish government institutions in an assembly area for renewable energy components with hopes for manufacturing to follow.

In contrast, The Man Who Wasn’t There was also Deputy First Minister in a government which wasted two years railing against freeports before even its most obtuse members noticed that renewables investment was flooding instead into freeports in England.


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So we have put the word “green” in front of them and pretended they are different. Mercifully, “green” freeports were left outside the Bute House Agreement with the Greens, so let’s give Mr Swinney credit for that at least.

Not all drives for difference end so happily. Mr Swinney was the desk-banging, cheer-leading Deputy First Minister all the way through the Deposit Returns Scheme’s journey to the Lorna Slater Memorial policy recycling facility; a rather large turkey that is now coming home to roost.

As was inevitable, the waste contractor Biffa, which was led up the garden path, is wanting its money back with a bit of interest. In all, estimates for the Scottish Government’s liability are running at around £300 million. Who is to be held accountable? Certainly not The Man Who Wasn’t There!

This was a folly in slow motion from which the Scottish Government had multiple opportunities to retreat while, at the same time, delivering a prize that was well worth having. We could have been the first part of the UK to introduce a DRS and everyone would have been reasonably happy.

Instead, they concocted the fiction that a scheme without glass was not worth having and only the malevolence of the UK Government was obstructing its glorious delivery. It was utter nonsense as is now confirmed by the simple test of where the bills and writs are landing.

Fergus Ewing, who knows exactly where responsibility lay and repeatedly warned about costs, mischievously asked this week if Ministers “will consider suing the United Kingdom Government .. in light of its reported position that the UK Government is responsible for the scheme not proceeding in Scotland”.

The Herald: Lorna Slater was in charge of the ill-fated schemeLorna Slater was in charge of the ill-fated scheme (Image: free)

Strangely enough, there was no indication of enthusiasm for this option and the truth is that another huge bill is about to hit the Scottish budget. What useful purposes, one asks, could £300 million could have been put to instead of a posture doomed to fail?

Contrast the Scottish debacle with what happened in Ireland. There too they started out with glass included. Then they listened, recognised practical difficulties, decided to walk before they run and introduced a scheme with glass excluded – an option for the Scottish Government up to the last minute. Now Ireland’s up and running while we have nothing to show for a £300 million liability.

The Man who Wasn’t There will be happy to see the departed Ms Slater carry the can, so to speak. But she was never more than a junior minister who, self-evidently, was worth the watching. Where was her boss, the Sturgeon protégé Mairi McAllan, or indeed the Deputy First Minister while Ms Slater was hurtling towards this particular precipice?

Another story that caught my eye this week related to the ferry saga at Port Glasgow. This is certainly one in which the real Mr Swinney was involved from the outset, up to his oxters though there will be no such recognition from The Man Who Wasn’t There.

The story was that Caledonian MacBrayne have spent £3.5 million on crewing a ship that is still months away from entering service because they were told, completely inaccurately, in February 2022 she was within six months of being handed over. Six months is the normal period for crew familiarisation.

What interested me was the question of who gave MSPs, Ministers and CalMac that wildly wrong advice? Was it Tim Hare, a consultant hired on the strength of a telephone call with two civil servants to “turn around” the yard, of which he proved incapable, before departing with £2 million in consultancy fees. Meanwhile, the civil servants have risen without trace in the usual mutual back-covering operation.


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There are so many unanswered questions about this whole scandal that a “new broom” First Minister might see the sense of ordering a brisk public inquiry with full transparency to find how £400 million was wasted and island economies crippled. A Man Who Really Wasn’t There might have done that. John Swinney most certainly can’t afford to and so it goes on.

There are plenty more examples but allow me a wee word on behalf of Gaelic. I went to a reception at Holyrood last week to mark 50 years of Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college in Skye which governments of all complexions have supported. John Swinney turned up and made a very positive speech about Gaelic, which everyone applauded.

Some of us checked the record when the clapping stopped. During his16 years as Finance Secretary, Education Secretary and Depute FM, budgets of both Bòrd na Gàidhlig and MG Alba (the BBC’s partner in the Gaelic channel) remained frozen, and have lost 70 per cent of their value since the SNP took over.

Never mind. I’m sure that was the work of Am Fear Nach Robh Idir Ann (The Man Who Was Never There) and nothing at all to do with John Swinney for whom words and past actions are distant relations.