If the horsemen of the Apocalypse rode in, he’d still tour the TV studios to bleat on about independence

‘HONEST John’ Swinney has a reputation as a moderate in a party where the bar – admittedly – is low.

The SNP is split between the gradualists and the fundamentalists, though to the untrained eye they’re all pretty radical.

Over many years, Mr Swinney built up an image as a mild-mannered middle-ranking executive, more Reggie Perrin than Che Guevara.

All of that changed on Sunday when – as the Covid death toll mounted – Mr Swinney insisted that the battle against coronavirus shouldn’t put a stop to plans for another independence referendum.

In fact, he described it as an ‘essential priority for the people of Scotland, because it gives us the opportunity to choose how we rebuild as a country from Covid’.

As if that hole wasn’t deep enough, he kept on digging, concluding that ‘it would give us an opportunity to decide on our constitutional future and to determine the nature of our economy… it’s a critical response to Covid’.

It was a seminal moment in the coronavirus story – a senior minister was struck down with an entirely new and hitherto undetected symptom: a catastrophic loss of judgment and perspective.

This is the man currently presiding over a spell of home learning which was plunged into disarray yesterday – on day one – after IT glitches caused chaos for teachers and pupils.

He’s also the minister who authorised the use of an algorithm which at a stroke downgraded the results of thousands of pupils after exams were ditched last year – before executing the sharpest of U-turns.

And he’s the politician who championed the Orwellian Named Person scheme, denouncing its many critics, before scrapping it (but only after it had cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds).

Yet he also professes to believe that another bout of constitutional navel-gazing, accompanied by the psychodrama of a second referendum, is an appropriate – indeed necessary – response to a public health emergency.

So much for moderation: this is the kind of hardcore nonsense usually churned out by the SNP’s acolytes on Twitter, which has become the world’s largest therapy group for keyboard revolutionaries.

But it’s also straightforwardly sick: imagine the mindset required to prioritise a vote on splitting apart the UK at a time when a deadly virus is sweeping across the country, claiming hundreds of lives.

And it exposes as a lie the claim made repeatedly by senior figures in the SNP, most notably Nicola Sturgeon, that they’re laser-focused on containing Covid.

If you genuinely hold the view that a referendum can be considered a critical response to coronavirus, you can’t be concentrating all of your energies on saving lives.

Donald Trump was ridiculed for his endorsement of bleach as a potential Covid remedy, but Mr Swinney’s suggestion that independence might be just what the doctor ordered is arguably in the same league of wackiness.

It’s not bleach that he’s prescribing, but Kool-Aid: this is several stages beyond barmy and requires urgent intervention – at the very least Professor Jason Leitch should be drafted in to apply a cold flannel to the Deputy First Minister’s forehead.

Nationalists defended Mr Swinney by pointing out that the UK Government forged ahead with Brexit in the midst of coronavirus – but it was a process which won a democratic mandate and was instigated long before the virus arrived on our shores.

Privately, of course, SNP strategists don’t loathe Brexiteers, they idolise them: they did what the separatists have failed to achieve: winning round a majority of voters to their cause.

Vaccination is – or should be – the primary ‘critical response’ to Covid, protecting the most vulnerable and giving us some hope of a return to normality.

Consigliere: but is Swinney Reggie Perrin – or Che Guevara?

Who cares about secret oilfields and new currencies when your granny is still waiting to hear about getting her dose of the precious vaccine that could help to keep her alive?

While she waits, she has to read about people in the same age-group south of the Border getting the jab at their GP practice.

Meanwhile, Mr Swinney is touting his party’s obsession with constitutional division at all costs in television interviews – in between news bulletins about the seismic human impact of a disease that has caused global carnage.

For her part, Miss Sturgeon maintained yesterday that she wasn’t ‘distracted’ by the Salmond inquiry, and her old mentor’s extraordinary campaign against her.

That’s hard to credit – and in any event she’s the one who said there may well be a referendum later this year – assuming the SNP wins a majority at the election in May (and assuming that it goes ahead) – about as colossal a distraction as you could imagine.

It’s a time when she needs her trusted adviser more than ever, and she can be in no doubt of his commitment to their shared goal.

As her right-hand man, Mr Swinney is in charge of the remit for the standards inquiry into his boss, which aims to determine whether she broke the ministerial code over the Salmond affair.

Mr Swinney is unlikely to cave in to growing pressure to widen that remit, to look specifically at whether Miss Sturgeon misled parliament, though he insists the former prosecutor leading the probe has the freedom to expand its work.

While this drama unfolds, Miss Sturgeon’s deputy makes the odd cameo appearance – he’s normally wheeled out to make particularly toxic announcements, like the ban on Halloween guising, and was lucky to hold onto his job after last year’s exams shambles.

Yet, for as long as he has responsibility for the framework of the crucial investigation that could decide Miss Sturgeon’s fate, Mr Swinney, who knows where all the bodies are buried, is more of a human shield than a consigliere.

And he may be bullet-proof while he serves that purpose – after all, Cabinet members are rarely judged on something as trivial as performance.

Now the rhetoric is being ramped up because they’re spooked, knowing that the vaccine will or should spell the end of lockdown hell, and attention will return to the SNP’s dismal record in office – and to the pivotal question of whether or not Miss Sturgeon misled MSPs.

Let’s face it – even as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse rode over the horizon, Mr Swinney would be touring TV studios to bleat on about tearing apart the UK.

But perhaps none of the members of this ham-fisted cabal with their dangerously muddled priorities could have foreseen the emergence of a fifth horseman, in the form of Alex Salmond – who remains, against all odds, the movement’s spiritual leader.

His vendetta could be the ‘critical response’ Unionists have long craved – ending the Sturgeon regime and any immediate hope of another referendum.

In the meantime, not even Covid can stop her gang of radicals from pursuing the only things they’ve ever cared about: political survival, and independence.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on January 12, 2021.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper