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Scottish Government Reshuffle – What has happened

Posted: 17th February 2020

In a low-key announcement this morning, the First Minister confirmed the following changes to the Scottish Government’s ministerial team:

  • Kate Forbes is Cabinet Secretary for Finance (previously Minister for Public Finance and the Digital Economy)
  • Fiona Hyslop is Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture (previously Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs)
  • Mike Russell is Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (previously Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations)
  • Fergus Ewing is Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (previously Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy)
  • Ben Macpherson is Minister for Public Finance and Migration (previously Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development)
  • Jenny Gilruth is Minister for Europe and International Development (no previous ministerial role)

What this means

A new next-in-line?

Unlike the UK Government’s reshuffle last week, this “mini-shuffle” was not long in the planning, only becoming necessary on the evening of February 5th with the resignation of Derek Mackay as finance, economy and fair work secretary. We are therefore unsurprised at the limited nature of Nicola Sturgeon’s reorganisation.

The headline winner is clearly Kate Forbes, who passed her audition for the job by presenting a near £40 billion budget to Holyrood at incredibly short notice and answering detailed questions about it, doing so with poise and calm. Only 29, she has moved from a possible next-but-one SNP leader to a more serious contender if a vacancy were to become available in the near future.

Reward for long-time loyalists

Beyond the big news, there are some intriguing changes and mash ups. The economy brief is once again separated from finance, the amalgamation of the two in 2018 being a reminder of just how powerful Derek Mackay was. Fiona Hyslop’s appointment is something of a surprise, given her last major post was as Education Secretary between 2007-9. The combination of economy and culture is an unusual step, but potentially a powerful one given the growing importance of the creative sectors to the future economy.

Hyslop is an ally of the First Minister and is not without business experience, having worked in the finance sector before her political career. Separating the finance and economy brief will concern some in business and it will be up to Hyslop to provide the drive, energy and imagination that her brief requires, given the tepid state of the Scottish economy.

The addition of “tourism” to Fergus Ewing’s Rural Economy job suggests a revised effort to maximise the economic potential of Scotland’s landscape, and may provide the cabinet secretary with positive announcements to offset some of the challenges he faces with rural broadband.

Migration, migration, migration

Moving beyond the cabinet, we are intrigued to see that migration has undergone a complete departmental revamp. Moving the issue away from the “Europe” and “international development” brief and into “public finance” sends a clear signal that the Scottish Government plans to embed it as a key issue in regard to fiscal and economic policymaking. It also anticipates that further responsibility for migration may be devolved from Westminster at some point, an idea that enjoys cross-party support in Scotland.

With an exit from the EU now reality, this separation of responsibilities makes sense, and will allow Jenny Gilruth, who merits her promotion to government, an opportunity to shape the Europe and international development brief beyond short-term Brexit considerations.

Business Comment

Business Comment is the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce’s bi-monthly magazine. It provides insight on Edinburgh’s vibrant business community, with features on the city’s key sectors, interviews with leading figures and news on new business developments in the capital.
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