Working to make government more effective


SNP leadership: How was John Swinney selected as first minister of Scotland?

How did the SNP elect its leader?

Newly elected leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) John Swinney delivers his acceptance speech
Newly elected leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) John Swinney delivers his acceptance speech.

On 7 May 2024, John Swinney replaced Humza Yousaf as first minister of Scotland. After ending the SNP’s cooperation agreement with the Greens, Yousaf faced the prospect of defeat on a no-confidence motion. On 29 April 2024 he announced his intention to step down as leader of the SNP and first minister after just a year in office. 

How did the SNP elect its next leader?

The SNP’s national executive committee decided upon a timeline for the leadership election. Nominations opened on 29 April at 11.59pm and closed on 6 May. 31 Douglas Dickie, ‘Key date emerges in SNP leadership race as party establishment slashes timescale for nominations’, Scottish Daily Express, 30 April 2024, retrieved 30 April 2024,

Potential candidates needed 100 nominations from members in at least 20 local branches.

John Swinney was the only candidate to stand to be SNP leader, and was therefore confirmed as the new leader on 6 May 2024 by the SNP’s national secretary. 32 Libby Brooks and Severin Carrell, ‘John Swinney becomes SNP leader after rival drops out’ The Guardian, 6 May 2024, retrieved 7 May 2024,

Where leadership elections are contested, all party members have a vote, and the election uses a preferential voting system. MPs or MSPs do not have a special role in this process. Members need to have joined the party before a leadership election is announced (so before the previous leader resigns) to be eligible to vote. In the 2023 leadership contest, most votes were cast online, with a small number of postal ballots dispatched to members without an email address.

The SNP had 69,235 members at the end of December 2023, down from 72,186 members who voted in the 2023 SNP leadership contest, and substantially below the figure of 104,884 in December 2022. 33 Kirsteen Paterson, ‘Exclusive: SNP membership numbers fall again, new figures reveal’, Holyrood, 9 February 2024, retrieved 29 April 2024,,exclusive-snp-membership-numbers-fall-again-new-figures-reveal.

What was the process to elect a new first minister?

The Scotland Act 1998 and the Scottish parliament’s standing orders govern how the first minister is formally appointed.

Following the conclusion of the SNP’s leadership election, Humza Yousaf submitted his resignation as first minister to the King on 7 May 2024. 34 Katrine Bussey, ‘Yousaf thanks King for ‘counsel and kindness’ in resignation letter as FM’ The Independent, 7 May 2024, retrieved 7 May 2024,  The Scottish parliament was then asked to recommend whom the King should appoint as new first minister.

Any MSP can stand for election as first minister as long as they receive the backing of one other MSP: when John Swinney was nominated as first minister the leaders of the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats also put their names forward.

All candidates for the post were able to set out their case before MSPs voted for their preferred candidate. Swinney received the backing of the 63 SNP MSPs and 1 Alba MSP. The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders received the backing of their party’s MSPs, while the seven Scottish Greens abstained. As Swinney won more votes in this vote than all the other candidates combined, there was no need for a second or subsequent rounds of voting, and Swinney was confirmed as the Scottish Parliament’s nominee.

An Institute for Government chart showing the Scottish parliament vote to nominate a first minister, 7 May 2024.

After the Scottish parliament’s nomination vote, the presiding officer formally recommended Swinney to the King for appointment as first minister. A royal warrant was then issued appointing him as first minister.

Who stood to succeed Humza Yousaf?

John Swinney, previous deputy first minister and party leader, was the only candidate to stand to replace Yousaf. Swinney had confirmed he would stand to be leader on 2 May. He did not stand in the 2023 contest, saying at the time that it was time for a ‘fresh perspective’. 44 Lukanyo Mnyanda, ‘‘Fresh perspective’ needed to revive Scottish independence, says John Swinney’, Financial Times, 17 February 2023, retrieved 29 April 2024,

Kate Forbes, runner-up in 2023, confirmed she was not standing on 2 May, and was subsequently appointed as the new deputy first minister to John Swinney. The other unsuccessful candidate in 2023, Ash Regan, defected to Alba in October 2023. 

Other rumoured candidates such as Shona Robison (deputy first minister and finance secretary), Jenny Gilruth (education and skills) and Neil Gray (health and social care) swiftly confirmed they would not stand, and both Gilruth and Gray backed John Swinney. 45 Craig Meighan, 'John Swinney 'considering' running for SNP leadership as key figures back him' STV news, 29 April 2024, retrieved 30 April 2024, 46 Neil Gray MSP, Tweet, 30 April 2024, 47 Jenness Mitchell, ‘Who could replace Humza Yousaf as Scotland’s first minister?’, Sky News, 29 April 2024, retrieved 30 April 2024,

What does Yousaf’s resignation mean for the SNP’s independence strategy?

The Supreme Court ruled in November 2022 that the Scottish parliament could not hold a referendum without Westminster approval. Sturgeon’s declared ‘plan B’ was to use the next general election as a ‘de facto referendum’ on independence.

Under this approach, the SNP would define the next UK general election as a de facto referendum on independence. If the SNP and other pro-independence parties received over 50% of the vote, the SNP would “consider that a mandate to enter negotiations with the UK government to secure independence”. An alternative version of this strategy would use the 2026 Holyrood elections as the de facto referendum instead.

Humza Yousaf initially distanced himself from this strategy, saying “there’s no magic wand that can deliver independence” and argued that “the route to independence is by growing popular support”. 48 Financial Times, ‘No ‘magic wand’ for Scottish independence, warns SNP leadership candidate’, However, as first minister he stated that independence would be on “page one, line one” of the next SNP manifesto. 

In October 2023, delegates at the SNP conference voted in favour of an amended strategy, that if the SNP win the majority of Scottish seats at the next UK general election the Scottish government has a mandate to negotiate with the UK government on either a referendum or independence itself. 49 Johnson S, ‘Humza Yousaf changes independence strategy for third time in a year’, The Telegraph, 15 October 2023,  Swinney has confirmed that he will retain this strategy. 50 Hamish Morrison and James Walker, ‘John Swinney backs Humza Yousaf's Scottish independence strategy’ The National, 6 May 2024, retrieved 7 May 2024,

How have previous first ministers of Scotland been chosen?

Swinney is the seventh person to become first minister since devolution began in 1999 and the fourth from the SNP. 

Timeline of first ministers of Scotland, May 1999 to April 2024, by party

The first Scottish first minister was Scottish Labour’s Donald Dewar who, after forming a coalition with Scottish Liberal Democrats, received the backing of 71 members and was nominated as first minister. 51 BBC News, ‘UK Politics: Dewar wins top job’, BBC News, 13 May 1999, retrieved 29 April 2024,

After Dewar’s untimely death in 2000, he was replaced by Henry McLeish – after a period in which deputy first minister and Liberal Democrat leader Jim Wallace served as caretaker leader. 52 BBC News, ’ McLeish wins first minister title’, BBC News, 26 October 2000, retrieved 29 April 2024,  McLeish himself lasted just a year, resigning after an expenses scandal. His successor Jack McConnell then led Labour and the Scottish Government for six years, with the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition being renewed after the 2003 election.

At the 2007 election, the SNP became (very narrowly) the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the first time, winning 47 seats to Labour’s 46. SNP leader Alex Salmond became first minister, leading a minority government until 2011, at which election the SNP won an outright majority of 69 out of 129 seats.

Salmond served as first minister until the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014, stepping down after the defeat for the Yes campaign. He was replaced by Nicola Sturgeon, who was unchallenged in the SNP leadership contest. Sturgeon was re-appointed first minister after the 2016 and 2021 elections.

Sturgeon resigned in 2023, and Humza Yousaf was elected as SNP leader on 27 March 2023, defeating Kate Forbes and Ash Regan in the party’s first contested leadership election since 2004. He received 48% of first preference votes, with Forbes receiving 41% and 11% for Regan. He was subsequently elected after Regan’s second preference votes were reallocated, narrowly defeating Forbes by 52% to 48%.

United Kingdom
Political party
Scottish National Party
Devolved administration
Scottish government
Institute for Government

Related content

02 MAY 2024 Project

Local and mayoral elections 2024

On Thursday 2 May, voters across England and Wales headed to the polls in a major set of mayoral and local elections.