He may have once been the youngest SNP councillor, the youngest group leader and the youngest head of a Scottish council, but Derek Mackay says he and the party have come of age
At a recent government meeting Alex Salmond laughingly referred to his newly appointed Minister for Local Government and Planning as precocious. Derek Mackay looked around the table at his ministerial colleagues and laughed nervously before going to check a dictionary to see whether the FM was praising him or cutting him down to size.
As it happens Salmond was simply joining in the friendly banter that has stalked MacKay throughout his meteoric political journey and the FM was complimenting his minister and convener of the party on the enthusiastic but perhaps slightly premature way he closed the party conference when he told members to much foot stamping and applause that he was going to ‘whip them up before closing them down’.
Anyone watching Mackay on stage at that recent conference in Glasgow’s SECC saw a consummate political professional who knew how to work the audience, keep order and inject a sense of playfulness while still stamping his authority. He was completely at ease, completely at home and completely in his element. And age didn’t come into it.
Mackay is sometimes referred to as a child of the SNP and in some ways it’s true. The still youthful, despite the odd grey hair, Mackay, is the embodiment of the SNP’s more recent political history as it transformed itself from a broad church mix of independence supporters into an electable and credible party of government. He is that new breed of SNP; young, positive, professional, not lacking in ambition, absolutely sure of the direction of travel and on message. He oozes that new found positivity that the party credits for its electoral successes.
We meet up just ahead of the local government elections in the newly refurbished Renfrew Town Hall, a massive building repair project, which, when leader of the council, he instigated and one which he is terribly proud of, believing it reflects a newfound respectability for Renfrew Council – which not so long ago was still known as ‘Rowdyshire Council’ not least for the number of times the police were called to break up council meetings that had become a little over-excited.
Mackay was elected as an SNP councillor for Renfrew at just 21, having walked out of the University of Glasgow without completing his degree in social work. Perhaps rather untypically studentlike, he was already involved in the local community council and vice chair of his crime prevention panel in Renfrew, the town where he was brought up and still lives, and says he simply came to the conclusion that he wanted to be ‘doing politics’ rather than just studying it.
Mackay’s interest in politics began, like everything else in his life, early. As a prepubescent 12-year-old, he remembers two seminal events; the by-elections in Paisley North and South in 1990 and at the same time a locally orchestrated campaign against a proposed waste incinerator.
He says that it was the media from all over the UK descending on Renfrew for the by-elections that made him realise how powerful a tool politics could be (interestingly, Tom Harris, now MP for Glasgow South, had just been appointed by Labour as their first full time press and publicity officer and was responsible for the by-election media strategy at the time, which was instrumental in lighting Mackay’s political touch paper) and, at a more pedestrian level, almost every house in Renfrew had a poster in its window protesting about the plans for the incinerator.
“I think that politics had very immediate impact on my life with both those events and I recognised quite early that politics at all levels made a difference and you should know about it and be involved in it.” His own family weren’t particularly political although he says there were a couple of Labour councillors ‘somewhere in the background’. He grew up in a council scheme, Kirklandneuk, where people tended to vote Labour but while he did recognise some sharing of political values, Labour didn’t offer him all he was looking for.
“My home community would have traditionally said ‘this is a Labour area’ and back then it would have been normal to have been Labour but I think I looked at my own community and how it voted and asked myself that if Labour was that party of caring and sharing why was the community I came from still powerless and still living in houses that weren’t of a good enough quality.
“Labour values, as they seemed to be at the time, about caring and sharing and equality and looking after the working man were clearly things I shared so I felt an affinity but also there was also a strong connection to environmentalism for me following on from the toxic waste campaign and that feeling that people didn’t have all the power they should in my area.
“I didn’t see the point of the Lib Dems particularly and the Conservatives seemed quite a selfish party to me. I could relate to it all but I believed fundamentally in independence and that without it I felt Scotland would not work, not reach its potential, so ultimately I felt very comfortable and at home in that left-of-centre element of the SNP.
“Independence for me is quite black and white, you either get it or you don’t. Labour couldn’t have been a bit more Scottish or a bit more along the devolution spectrum and that would have been OK. Scotland, for me, is a nation and we should be independent, normal, equal to any other nation so Labour could not have moved far enough along that road without becoming pro-independent.” “In truth, I just got caught up in the SNP and politics and that’s where I wanted to be,” he says. “I became involved in the university’s Scottish Nationalists’ Association and the focus on politics just took over and I got to the stage where I wanted to do it not study it so I dropped out and stood for election.
“Clearly, it was a hard decision because it was three years of education and while obviously I had got something from it, I would not get a degree and I wondered whether that would disadvantage me, but I wanted to channel my energies into politics and I wanted to stand for council and thought that is what I would be doing for the rest of my life – so in some ways it was a bit of a no brainer. My mum was always supportive of any decision I made but I am sure she had her concerns like I would about my children. But I was too obsessed with politics and what was happening in my own home community to really consider doing it differently. I was already involved in the community council, was vice chair of my crime prevention panel and I just thought I can do this, I can win this and this is where I will channel my energies.
“It absolutely was not a career choice for me, just a passion and a belief that ultimately led to a success that in many ways was way beyond which I could ever have dreamed of. In truth, I thought if I get into the council and if I worked hard then I will do OK.” So, in that politically historic year of 1999, as the first MSPs were being elected, Mackay won his first council election and became a councillor for Renfrew.
“I was elected in 1999 at the same time as Wendy Alexander was elected for the area to the Scottish Parliament because the elections were coupled at the time. It felt doubly exciting because we had the Scottish Parliament even though for those of us in the SNP there was also a worry that it was a trap and we could never progress to independence – that is clearly not the case now – but in the early days we thought the polls were very good and we could emerge as the largest party and that didn’t happen that year so it was a mixture of excitement at the Scottish Parliament being created, mixed with the disappointment that we hadn’t made more progress there and with the excitement of my own personal journey in being elected as a councillor at 21. To be honest, I think the people counting the votes were as shocked as me but I had worked hard on a local campaign and was obviously delighted at the result.” At the time he was Scotland’s youngest ever councillor, although that title has since been taken by even younger SNP members in other council areas. Eight years later having won three successive ward elections, he was leader of Renfrew, having taken the SNP from opposition to control for the very first time in the area. He has been credited with transforming Renfrew into a professional, well run and efficient local authority that has won more COSLA Excellence awards than any other council in the history of the awards themselves. He was the SNP group leader within COSLA and a respected figure within local government.
He says change in Renfrew happened because he made a very conscious decision to not only change his own modus operandi but that of his council colleagues in Renfrew too and that was not without its pain.
He says that some within the local party objected to the way he wanted to take the SNP forward, which meant purging the party of some of the more ‘toxic’ elements. He received hate mail in the post and the local papers were filled with letters objecting to things he was planning for the council and questioning his motivations.
“It was tribal,” he says “It was, and still is, a close battle between the SNP and Labour in Renfrew and you do see a real bitterness, but the really toxic behaviour has gone from what was here before and I would like to say I played a part in that – but I suffered from tackling some of that poison.
“The bad behaviour was from all sides and all parties fell into that trap but there came a point when I think everyone recognised we needed to change and when I took the leadership of the SNP in Renfrew I wanted it to be more positive. The Labour leadership was pretty ruthless and they did bring the police in to take away protesters and meetings were particularly rumbustious. But basically I inherited a council that couldn’t meet the Scottish housing quality standard, one with no plan B, no investment plan for schools, one with a leisure estate that was falling apart and roads investment wasn’t particularly good.. A council that was toxic.
“Some people, yes, in my own party, would just think about hating or disliking people because they were in other parties and I always felt that wouldn’t convince anyone of our politics. Things did need to change and it did include tackling some of that toxic behaviour in my own party locally – and you make enemies – but I am sure it put us in a place where we became more credible and electable and in a position where you could work with others as we did with the Lib Dems.
“Some of it was difficult and there were tough challenges where I had some elements of the party that were causing inordinate amounts of trouble and it was quite personal. You would get anonymous mail in the post and vicious attacks in the letters pages – basically a campaign of intimidation but let’s just say that some of the more poisonous elements of the party left and the acrimony was gone, we won the elections and we did become the big happy party that we are now. But it did come with a price.
“With leadership comes responsibility… I think that was a Spiderman quote,” he laughs.
“With leadership, you have to challenge bad behaviour, you don’t shirk responsibility, and it meant I became the target for some nastiness but for those that believe in the SNP and believe that independence is solid then if you do things in the best interests of your people and your community and your party then you are respected for that and it is worth it.” I ask him whether his view of independence is now more of a shade of grey given the way the party has moved on certain issues?
“Not in any way, shape or form,” he says emphatically. “However, where I have matured is that there are things that are less important like identity and what I mean by that is that things that were seen as British, I would previously have been uncomfortable with – like the Queen or marching beside the Union flag or the Olympic team; things that I thought were too British and I was rebelling against but now I am much more comfortable with all of that. Of course I want the Saltire flying above our buildings because I want an independent Scotland and I want us to have an independent government and promote things Scottish because I think that is positive but I no longer feel negative about the British side of things. That is how I have matured politically. I have also developed much more of an affinity for the armed services because I saw sacrifice and spent more time with ex-servicemen on becoming elected at the age of 21 and attending remembrance services and went to France to learn more about Victoria Cross recipients who came from Renfrewshire so that was about maturing politically.
Independence maybe used to be about identity and nation and political systems but now it is much more about people and the difference you can make and how I see barriers to progress because of the political system we are in. So it is more about people than identity and that’s what I mean when I say I have matured politically.
“There are some things that we don’t need to worry about and in terms of the SNP becoming more professional there are things that didn’t really matter, they weren’t sacred and maybe we came across as extremists when in fact we are [part of] mainstream Scottish politics. Maybe in the past we were sometimes associated with the wrong things.” I tell him that SNP party discipline is something that other parties envy and fear and ask him if they have all been silenced into submission because the goal of independence feels so close?
“Look, in terms of his delivery of the progress of the party Alex Salmond has been nothing short of Messianic but there is research to show that the SNP as a band and a party and with the strength of the Cabinet and the wider party membership is as strong or even possibly stronger than even the First Minister so this isn’t a one man band and we have debates and we have disagreements.
“Even I wouldn’t have always been seen as a loyal leadership type. For example I didn’t back John Swinney’s leadership campaign but now I work so well with him and can’t be more positive about him, he is absolutely incredible. That is the thing I have missed from telling you – it is about us being focused on an outcome but it is not a blind faith. I have challenged and at conferences in the past I have moved against party policy so I have criticised in the past. I am not slavishly loyal now because I accept anything and everything. I am loyal because I am confident we are on the right road and there is a self instilled discipline. If people thought we weren’t on the right road then they would speak out, believe me.” Mackay’s enthusiasm for the SNP is unbridled; he talks like a convert but one suspects that is because his journey now feels close to an end.
He remembers vividly the years of electoral disappointment for the SNP and while anxious not to be portrayed as a new generation SNP politician straight from central casting, he clearly believes in the discipline of being part of the team.
“We are playing the long game and if you absolutely believe in a political objective you work until it is done and in terms of independence we only need to win once so an election is not the end, just a setback or just a stepping stone, however you want to define it.
Far too often Westminster elections were just a roundabout of you needing to vote Labour or Tory or in Scotland you need to vote Labour to keep the Tories out. At the age of 13, 14, 15 and 16 looking in, I always thought that was so warped that you would vote for a party that you might not want but that would be better than the other lot that might win. That madness also led me to a conclusion around independence that meant that I saw every election as just a hurdle. I do recall count after count though when we thought ‘yes, we will do it this time’ and we didn’t, not in the regional elections of ‘94, or the unitary elections of ‘95 when I was convinced the result would set us on our way to independence. It never happened but within the party every election is seen as progress so the very next day you pull your socks up and start again and aim at the next time. It is a journey.
“I think the step change for the SNP and for me as a person too possibly was that positivity agenda pre 2007. It wasn’t about show business, it was about a genuine acceptance of that agenda and I have looked back at some of the material and it is where Labour is at now and all the antiindependence parties are now; knocking things down, being negative, criticising our record, having nothing positive to say and not knowing where you want to go.
“I think for the SNP before 2007 we were able to offer a critique of what was wrong with the Union, able to criticise voting records and all of the rest of it but now we are able to show what we can do, we have a record; what we want to build and we can be more positive about it.
Rather than just knock down your opponents, be positive about what you want to do. That is how I have delivered my politics since 2007 and in truth I was probably a cynic about this positivity but it’s not only made a difference politically, it has made a difference to me. I am a positive person and if you dwell on the negatives you never move forward and never make progress and the SNP has moved forward.” Clearly, the SNP has moved forward and last year it won an historic victory at the Scottish Parliamentary elections winning a majority government with 69 SNP MSPs. This time Mackay was one of them. Why did he wait until now to stand?
“I didn’t stand for parliament at the beginning because I was way too young and I had to politically mature. Some people have described me as a child of the SNP and I think I was and I have taken time to mature politically.
“I was also so immersed in local politics that I was convinced I could make more of a difference locally and I continued to think like that as a councillor and as a leader. I have managed to achieve some fantastic things and projects, so I wasn’t drawn by a career ambition to go to the Scottish Parliament but the reason I stood this time round was I felt this was the parliament that would make the difference in the constitutional debate about where people want Scotland to be and I wanted to be part of that and with the best goodwill in the world that was not going to be in council chambers in Renfrewshire, that was going to be in the Scottish Parliament.” Clearly, Mackay has done things at some speed and while the ‘young’ prefix that seems to attach itself to his name whenever it is mentioned may become a little wearing he has undeniably approached life’s milestones with some degree of prematurity. He is now at 34 not only married and the father of two sons but has run a council with a budget of over £400m, been the SNP leader within COSLA, been elected as an MSP and is now a Scottish Government minister.
Does he feel age has been a barrier?
“I am not the youngest minister, of course,” he laughs. “Aileen Campbell is. Look, I spent most of my life wanting to look older and now I have grey hairs I want to look younger. It’s not been an issue for me and it has been in some ways something of a USP for me because if my age has meant I stood out then it has been a bit of a positive. Even before I was a political leader I would walk into a room and people couldn’t believe I was a councillor never mind a leader.
So, young councillor, young leader, relatively young MSP and young minister but not youngest and it’s not a challenge for me because I have done the job, so for anyone that doubts me then look at my record. I’ve never lacked confidence because of my age.” As he says, he is a man not lacking in confidence yet admits that at school where he was described in report cards as ‘pleasant but easily distracted’ he was so nervous about speaking in public that he would volunteer to go first during classroom debates, just to get the ordeal over and done with. Volunteer to go first?
Mackay is the oldest son of three children and when we probe a little deeper we get to what might be at the root of his political precociousness. His parent’s marriage was not a happy one and without over-analysing things, the young Mackay probably had to grow up quite fast on the domestic front.
“Yes, I think there probably is something in that…I think there is a mixture of being supportive to a mother in a difficult marriage, coming from a poorer working class background where I was surrounded by good people and a good community that had to rise to the challenge of difficult times and that gave me the skills required to go on and do what I have done.
“There were problems with my parents for a while but it was when I was about 13 and interestingly enough at about the same time that I was becoming politically active when the problems really began to emerge… and I thank you for the analysis, doctor [laughs] but I think you are right that I got a resilience coming from a difficult home life. Being supportive to my mother gave me the skills to get through, to be focused, to get by and the confidence to communicate, socialise and work with people sometimes much older than myself. I also found a great political home in the SNP which was in some ways an escape as well.” Escape or not, Mackay’s personal political journey has allowed him to make a tangible difference to his own community and I wonder now that he is an MSP and on the eve of the council elections, whether he feels councillors are underrated?
“Absolutely. I think local government is terribly undervalued and while the status of being an MSP is huge, it is actually local councillors that can get things done at the coal face and get things done on local projects that even backbench MSPs can’t deliver. Obviously I am delighted with the ministerial role but I have to say the most exciting period for me apart from this was being the leader of the council and that was hard to give up. On the council I had a £400m budget, 9,000 members of staff, delivered key policies, fulfilled all manifesto commitments and to leave that and some of the work that was ongoing was quite difficult to let go of.” From day one of the new SNP-led Scottish Government, along with Humza Yousaf, Mackay has been tipped as one to watch but the speed of his promotion shocked even him, when after a mini-reshuffle just before Christmas he got the metaphorical tap on the shoulder from the First Minister and was asked to take up the post of Minister for Local Government and Planning.
“It is like it appears in any political drama I have seen. I got a message that the FM was looking for me and I thought it could only be one of two things; I had either done something really good or really bad. He called me and invited me to join the Government and I said I would be delighted and whilst apparently my name was being bandied about by some, I was busy promoting other names… I genuinely thought others would be appointed before me – after all I had only been in the Parliament for about six months but if you were to ask me what my ideal parliamentary post would be, then I am in it.
“I am living the dream; I’m in the Parliament that will determine independence and in the post that I have spent the previous 12 years of my life working on in local government. I am living the dream.”