The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Mackay’s downfall is another step in the slow but inevitable decline of Sturgeon EUAN McCOLM
IT’S 2024 and, after defeat in a second independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon has stepped down as leader of the SNP and, by extension, First Minister. The Nationalists are deflated but remain the largest party at Holyrood. If the pro-Yes minority can be kept onside, they stand to win the next – their fifth – Scottish parliamentary election.
Fearful of the impact of a bruising leadership contest, Ms Sturgeon’s closest allies throw their weight behind the chosen one.
After a brief campaign in which the only other candidate is a crank councillor from Inverclyde, Derek Mackay is named leader of the SNP with 94 per cent of the vote.
Two days later, he is sworn in as First Minister. Later the same evening, Mr Mackay settles back in bed at his official residence, Bute House, powers up his laptop and visits the Facebook page of a 16year-old schoolboy. He clicks on the message window and types: ‘Hi!’
The stomach churns at the prospect of where the grim story of Scotland’s former finance secretary might have gone had he not been driven out of frontline politics last week by revelations he had bombarded a teenage boy with messages, urging him to meet up.
Until this scandal broke, Mr Mackay was seen as the safe bet to become the next leader of the SNP.
Now he faces calls to resign as an MSP. Should he resist these calls, he will have to win as an independent in 2021. Mr Mackay’s career is over, damaged beyond repair by his appalling behaviour.
Despite being popular across the debating chamber, he was an unimpressive Minister. Those who rated him may, I think, have been making the mistake of comparing him with his Cabinet colleagues, each of whom is more mediocre than the last. Yes, he looked pretty good when you considered the likes of Michael Russell or Fiona Hyslop – but there is a world of difference between being competent and being the best of a bad lot.
But lack of talent be damned. What Mr Mackay had going for him was that he could speak relatively clearly and was a loyal adherent to the Sturgeon approach to independence.
As a younger man, he was on the SNP’s firebrand, fundamentalist wing, but as his career progressed through local government and into Holyrood, he moved away from the Nationalists’ fundie fringe and into the mainstream.
SNP sources say that when former leader John Swinney was challenged by Dr Bill Wilson in 2003, Mr Mackay voted for the new broom. Yet, only a few years later, he was in the Scottish parliament, where he swiftly became Mr Swinney’s protégé.
When Ms Sturgeon reshuffled her Cabinet, moving Mr Swinney from finance to education, Mr Mackay’s promotion to one of the most powerful roles in government marked him out as the anointed one.
Working closely with Ms Sturgeon and Mr Swinney, he had a wobbly start as finance secretary.
In one particularly excruciating appearance in front of Holyrood’s finance committee, he was asked by Tory MSP Murdo Fraser whether he shared his former leader Alex Salmond’s belief in the Laffer Curve economic theory.
This theory, which suggests that taxing too much can lead to a fall in government revenues, is hardly obscure in the world of economics – yet Mr Mackay had to admit he had no knowledge of it.
But the SNP leadership team of Mr Swinney and Ms Sturgeon are able to work only with the raw materials available to them and
Mr Mackay, for all his weaknesses, was willing to learn. And, yes, he did improve, growing more confident in his role, even winning the respect of some opponents.
But as we learn more about Mr Mackay’s behaviour behind the scenes, both alone and among party colleagues, a question emerges. Did the First Minister ever have any doubts about his fitness to hold such a senior position?
It has been reported that Ms Sturgeon had previously banned Mr Mackay from drinking with delegates during social events at the SNP’s annual conference because of concerns about his behaviour. We are entitled to ask whether a man considered unable to survive a karaoke evening without disgracing himself was ever fit to oversee the nation’s finances.
We like finance ministers to be steady, risk-averse, cautious.
Mr Mackay, we now know, is none of these things.
The Scottish Government denies allegations it tried to place obstacles in the way of publication of the details of Mr Mackay’s behaviour.
Well, the Scottish Government would, wouldn’t it? A demand that the newspaper preparing to break the story provide it with the identity of the 16-year-old who had been repeatedly messaged by Mr Mackay, and also that it submit a public interest justification for pursuing the matter, certainly look like attempts to intimidate.
What if those government spinners had succeeded and the truth had remained buried? There’s nothing to suggest Mr Mackay would not have continued to be the next-in-line in the SNP hierarchy.
He would have maintained this position despite, remember, the belief of his party leader that he could not be trusted to attend a cheese and wine party in a function room at the conference hotel.
Much has been said in recent years about the SNP’s remarkable record on discipline.
A party that was once riven – seemingly hopelessly – on the matter of how independence might be achieved has enjoyed 15 years of relative harmony.
Aside from the occasional blip – a demand from a crowd-pleasing MP for an independence referendum ‘plan B’, say, or a rattle over the knuckles on strategy from a former cabinet secretary – the Nationalists have run a tight ship.
The Mackay situation will do nothing to help maintain that.
With him removed from the playing field, others who might have been happy to back him as a future leader will now be considering whether, in fact, they might be next to carry the torch.
Looking at the potential candidates – yesterday’s men such as Michael Russell and newer MSPs like Humza Yousaf – no obvious figure emerges as someone likely to unite the membership.
The prospect of a divisive leadership contest when, inevitably, Ms Sturgeon goes, now seems all the greater. The disgrace is Mr Mackay’s but the First Minister cannot avoid its taint.
She championed her former finance secretary, despite her own concerns about his behaviour.
Making Mr Mackay such a senior figure of her team was a risk she was willing to take.
The SNP rose to power promising competent government. The party was so persuasive on this matter that, among those who vote SNP in elections, are many who oppose the party’s independence plans.
The Mackay scandal is another heavy blow to the idea that the SNP has a grip on things.
The Nationalists have difficult times ahead. In a few weeks, the trial of former leader Alex Salmond on serious charges – all of which he denies – will commence.
Already, this is a matter that has exposed splits in the party. Things stand to get much worse before they get better.
At a time when the First Minister needs her members to be at their most disciplined and loyal, serious questions about her judgment have emerged.
The sudden downfall of Derek Mackay is yet another step in the slow but inevitable decline of Nicola Sturgeon.
Did the First Minister have doubts about her finance secretary? The scandal is another blow to the idea the SNP has a grip on things
FIRST Minister’s Questions is usually a spirited affair. If not actually raucous (although, depending on which iteration of Presiding Officer the chamber is on, it can be), then easily boisterous, loud, provocative, bad-tempered or rowdy. Sometimes all in the same day.
It is rare for questions to be heard in complete silence.
In almost eight years of asking first Alex Salmond, then Nicola Sturgeon, about the most pressing issues of the week, I’ve maybe heard the chamber silenced on three or four occasions – discussing the baby ashes scandal; a murder of a young woman; and a terrible health failing, when the family of a let-down patient were in the gallery to watch.
When Conservative interim leader Jackson Carlaw stood on Thursday to read out the NSPCC definition of ‘grooming’ in relation to Derek Mackay’s pursuance of a 16-year-old boy, the chamber was gallows quiet.
One Left-wing journalist noted: ‘No one was seeking to score points. There was human empathy here.’
Another writer – a personal friend of Mr Mackay – summed up: ‘As Jackson Carlaw so powerfully pointed out by reading the definition of child grooming, this is what Mackay has done, and there are no words strong enough to condemn it.’
In truth, Mr Carlaw will have found Thursday’s FMQs script as hard to deliver as many of us found it to hear.
A father of two boys himself, Mr Carlaw has known Mr Mackay for years and has spent the best part of a decade gently joshing him in public about his ambitions to lead the SNP.
The reason the chamber was so quiet on Thursday and the reason so many members blanched at hearing how a child is groomed online – and what that grooming is usually intended for – is because Mr Mackay was so well known and well liked across the various aisles.
I’ve seen a lot of criticism on social media aimed at anyone showing even a modicum of thought for the smoking ruins of Mr Mackay’s life, career and family. As if somehow acknowledging how much he has lost at his own hand diminishes the damage he caused to a schoolchild.
It is to misunderstand the nature of shock, incomprehension and guilt doing the rounds.
If you consider someone is one of the good guys, irrespective of party, and it comes out he has done something as depraved and calculated as this, what does that say about you?
The questions Ms Sturgeon answered in the chamber don’t even start to scratch the surface of the answers Mr Mackay’s victim – or the country – needs. However, even those questions may need to be revisited.
On Thursday the First Minister was asked if there were any other instances of Mr Mackay using social media to shower unsolicited and unwanted attention on young men.
WE’VE already seen an SNP activist come forward to say Mr Mackay spent four years sending him messages that made him uncomfortable, but he felt powerless to address it due to the former finance secretary’s standing in the party.
Allegations from a former staff member have come to light, too, suggesting Mr Mackay’s behaviour at party conference caused enough concern for the First Minster to have allegedly cracked down on his drinking and partying. But one of the most disturbing things to have emerged are the reports from the paper that broke the story of the way in which the SNP Government tried to stop it running.
That it wanted to be told the schoolboy’s name and identity and demanded to know what justification the paper had for publication ‘given the intrusion into private and family life, and correspondence including digital communication’ of Mr Mackay.
There is nothing mitigating or redemptive in what happened.
No excuses regarding Mr Mackay’s tough upbringing or the fact the boy was over 16.
It is a tragedy. For the young man coming to terms with Mr Mackay’s unwanted advances and grooming, for the partner and children of Mr McKay, and for a man whose weakness, hubris and predatory behaviour has just burned his whole future to the ground.
And unease for the rest of us who simply didn’t see it coming.