Mark McDonald: support parents and start early

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 22 November 2016 in Inside Politics

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years talks to Holyrood about the importance of family

Mark McDonald - credit Rory Raitt/Holyrood

When Mark McDonald was elected to be a councillor for Aberdeen City Council in 2007 at the age of just 26, he was the eldest of a group of four SNP candidates all under 30 to be elected to the council that year.

McDonald was joined by John West, who at 18 was the youngest councillor to have ever been elected, West’s sister, Kirsty (now Blackman), 21, who was elected in a neighbouring ward and 22-year-old politics graduate Callum McCaig. 

And twelve days in, just as the newbies were finding their feet, they were all appointed to high-profile posts as part of a coalition deal struck between the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. 

The baby of them all, West, became Aberdeen’s depute provost, his sister was named as education spokeswoman, McCaig was appointed convener of the licensing committee, and McDonald as vice-convener of the housing and environment committee as well as being appointed the deputy leader of the SNP group on the council.


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The election of a teen and three twenty-somethings was precisely what Scottish ministers envisaged when they put in place a raft of measures including lowering the age limit for prospective councillors from 21 to 18, paying a package of ‘golden goodbyes’ to veteran councillors and introducing a system of proportional representation to the elections to transform the face of local government. Up until that year, Scotland’s 1,200 councillors were predominantly male (79 per cent), with an average age of 55 and with less than one per cent of them under the age of 30.

And although the baby-faced councillors were a welcome change from the usual male and stale demographic, their election was predictably met by consternation in some quarters, with one newspaper headline screaming: ‘Here are the kids running your city’, alongside a picture of the four looking, to be fair, impossibly young.

Those ‘kids’ – bar West who did not seek re-election to the council in 2012 and went on to study civil engineering at the University of Edinburgh – have since used the experience as a springboard to greater political success.

Blackman was elected to Westminster in the 2015 general election as the MP for Aberdeen North. She was joined in the House of Commons by McCaig, who during his time at the council rose to be the leader – the youngest ever of a local authority in Scotland – before winning the seat of Aberdeen South in the general election, and now sits as the SNP’s energy spokesperson at Westminster.

Meanwhile, McDonald was elected to the Scottish Parliament as a list MSP in 2011, before successfully winning the constituency seat of Aberdeen Donside left vacant by the death of the SNP’s Brian Adam in 2013, and then retaining it in the 2016 election in May with the biggest majority held by an MSP in the Scottish Parliament.

He was subsequently elevated to the ministerial team by Nicola Sturgeon with his appointment as Minister for Childcare and Early Years this year.

McDonald says if there had been a free pick of ministerial roles, the one with the early years focus is the one he would have chosen for himself. It is also a brief that is at the core of Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge to reduce the attainment gap and tackle inequalities. It contains, too, one of the more contentious policies still to be resolved - the named person. McDonald will also be the minister responsible for delivering on the ‘baby box’ pledge.

“Essentially, those early years represent the point at which so much of what happens in a child’s future is determined,” he says. 

From insipient councillor to a minister responsible for the future direction of a child’s life; it is, by any measure, a monumental journey. But nine years on from that historic council election, has McDonald been able to shake off the negative legacy of just ‘being too young’? 

“It’s true,” says McDonald. “We faced quite a lot of negativity at the outset all because we were seen as too young. But I was 26 and married by then and yet still there was this media portrayal that somehow we were too young and too wet behind the ears to make important decisions. 

“I was 26, for goodness’ sake. I could have been a doctor by 26 and nobody would have been asking what was this guy doing operating on patients or looking after the health of the nation, nobody would have batted an eyelid at that, but somehow politics was seen as this kind of area that was the preserve of people who had a hinterland, if you will. 

“It felt very patronising but I’m quite fortunate that I have a very strong circle of friends outside of politics, guys I grew up with, you know, through school and all the rest and they keep me grounded, so it was something to laugh about in the pub.

“But it did make me think about how people who might come to me for help might feel. Would they feel they would be less likely to receive a good service because we were too young? There were basically two ways it could go: one, it could demoralise us, or we could take the approach of ‘we’ll just show them’, and that’s basically the stance we took as a group. We just rolled up our sleeves and demonstrated that we were good enough to do this and given three of us are now elected parliamentarians, I think we demonstrated that we were more than capable of doing a good job for the people that elected us and that’s what matters.

“There’s got to be a blend, there’s got to be a mix but I think if we want politics to be truly representative then young people have got to be part of that mix as well and young politicians have just as much and just as important a contribution to make.

“The thing is, everybody always talks about experience in terms of what was your job before or what jobs have you had and at the end of the day, life experience is more than just what you have done for a living. Everyone comes from a background of different experiences, of approaches to life, and some of us will recognise the circumstances our constituents come to us with and some of us will not, and that will be the same regardless of background. 

“Maybe some people did see me as too young to know what I was doing but I was 26 when I got married and I got elected the month before my 27th birthday. That may be young by modern standards, but not in my family. My mum was 20 when she married my dad and 21 when she had me and my dad would have been all of 23 and he had already been married previously in his teens so maybe doing things early is just in the McDonald genes.”

It is clear that family is McDonald’s bedrock. He was born and brought up in the north east and still lives there with his wife, Louise, who he met at university in Dundee, and their children, Malcolm, seven, and Eilidh, five. His parents, Abbey and Shirlee, and his brother, Neil, all live within two minutes of each other in the village of Dyce, where McDonald has lived since he was two.

Ask him to talk about his childhood and he starts by saying there’s not much to tell. He paints a picture of an ordinary, stable and happy upbringing with a consistent thread of parents who were simply willing to work hard to support their sons in their best endeavours. 

His mother was a stay-at-home mum before going back to work nightshifts as a nursing assistant, and then latterly was a full-time carer for McDonald’s grandparents until the death of his granny, who suffered from dementia. His father originally trained as a baker when he left school, but following an industrial accident – he’d been told by a supervisor to put his hand further into a slicing machine to clean it – which resulted in him losing fingers, he not only saw that job end but it also put a lid on what was potentially a promising career as a goalkeeper.

He then held down a variety of jobs including setting up a fibreglass business which didn’t succeed, before settling into a role in supplies and services within the oil and gas industry then starting a second business with more success and which is still going to this day. It is clear from McDonald’s description that life can’t have always been easy but what is also obvious is that any hardship was shielded from McDonald and his younger brother.

“We always came first and my dad would basically be juggling jobs to support us,” says McDonald. “They just gave us constant support and they never told us that we couldn’t go down a certain path, and that applied as much to the choices we made in terms of academia as it did in terms of pastimes. For instance, I’m rubbish at football but my dad would doggedly take me to play for football teams because it was what I wanted to do.

"Eventually I ran for the local athletics club. I was actually quite good, and my dad would take me down to Glasgow for the indoor championships where I might win medals, but equally he would take me to some of the other places where I would finish last, depending on what the field was. He was just this constant source of support. Always there for us, no matter what.

"In terms of academia, I had a very different career in mind when I was 14 or 15. I wanted to be a PE teacher or a physiotherapist but I failed my Higher Biology and that meant I had to re-determine what I was going to do with my life. I had to totally change my courses for sixth year and I ended up going to university initially to study English and then changed to politics. My parents didn’t question it, they were always supportive, no matter what. They always said that whatever route we chose to go down they would support us, and that has been the approach they have taken throughout.

“I try to follow the same principles with my two children, Malcolm who is seven, he’ll be eight on the 24 November and Eilidh who is five and will be six in February. Although with Malcolm, because of his autism, it’s a lot more challenging for him to articulate his choices but we are trying our best to give him as many experiences as possible.”

McDonald is someone who, perhaps as a result of being afforded the security blanket of a loving home, can wear his heart, a little, on his sleeve. He talks openly about his family, including his son’s autism, and during one parliamentary debate on euthanasia, he made reference to his own grandmother’s death and made the comparison that as a society we sometimes offer dogs more dignity in death.

This was immediately seized on by certain members of the media who made fun of him for his comments. This was painful, but even more so were accusations on Twitter, specifically from one of his political opponents, that he was using his own son’s autism as a tool for political advantage. 

In a rare moment of anger from McDonald who is generally pretty laid back, he says: “As politicians, we are generally very guarded about talking about how we feel, because there is a feeling that, essentially, if we talk about our emotions or our emotional state, we will be categorised as weak. But if you had known how long it took for the National Autism Society to persuade me that it was a good idea for me to be open in public about Malcolm’s autism and the experience we had with it in order to let other parents see there was somebody in parliament who understood and who got it, then you would understand how upset the criticism made me.

“Everybody complains that politicians can be robotic automatons until such time as they express opinion and show that they’ve had a history, or  talk openly about their personal experiences and then we get accused of looking for political advantage. So we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. 

“I was fortunate in that most people agreed what was being said was ridiculous and that the person responsible should apologise, which he did. However, it did make me lose a lot of respect for some politicians, specifically in the Labour Party, who chose to stay quiet about this. I find that quite unfortunate.”

Much of his own upbringing and his relationship with his parents undoubtedly informs how McDonald approaches his brief, from communicating with children to his views about selective education. He tells me that his own father’s experience of going to Aberdeen Grammar School, having passed his 11+ and basically giving up on school because he’d been separated from his friends, has made him consider the educational impact of being separated from a peer group that a child has had all the way through primary school. 

However, few people would have known when he gave his first speech as a minister during the debate on the named person policy that it was his father that was foremost on his mind.

“He had an abnormal growth on his face which he had initially put down to a bug bite that he might have got in Africa, where he had been working, but at the point they took a biopsy, I’d kind of prepared myself that it could be cancer. But you still think to yourself, they’ll be able to treat it, they’ll be able to find a cure, that people are catching cancer early enough to be able to treat it and things like that. 

“He was getting the biopsy results on the day of the debate but in typical dad fashion he had told me to speak to him once I had finished the debate. Then when he told me that not only was it cancer but there was no cure, that was a kick in the guts. That’s when it got real.

“But, look, they’d said he could have three months and we are now five months in, so we are taking it on the basis that every day we’ve got is a precious day and is to be celebrated and we are doing our best to spend as much time with him as possible. Obviously, I’ve got parliamentary responsibilities that I need to factor into that, but he has also taken the opportunity to go and see people he hasn’t seen, spend time doing things he has always wanted to do. That’s part of it too, he has that ability to just do things that he wants to do now that he knows he’s got limited time left but, you know, he’s only 60…

“I guess one of the things you don’t always recognise as you are growing up is the sacrifice your parents make to give you the support that they have and one of the things I have now said to my dad is that I am very grateful. I’m grateful for all of the support, all the sacrifices, because as a parent you have to make sacrifices for your children. Sometimes, it’s just that you don’t do something for you in order that you can do something with your children instead and you also sacrifice opportunities because it’s not convenient in terms of your family responsibilities, and I guess from that respect I appreciate and understand all the difficult decisions he’ll have had to make while I was growing up.

"For example, the fact that while having a son who was just going to university and another son who was just coming out of school, he started up a business and it was a business supporting the oil and gas industry at a time when the oil price was lower than it is now. That was a big decision he took, but it’s one that paid off, and he took that risk for us. 

“I think a lot of parents, the overwhelming majority of parents, are motivated first and foremost by that question of ‘how can I achieve the best for my kids?’ and I guess in my role it is my duty to make sure government is an enabler in that it supports parents and makes things as easy as possible for them and for their children to be the best that they can be.”

But can governments help make better parents?

“I think we can help parents feel more confident about what they are doing. I’ve been there myself, worrying that I am not doing the right things, and sometimes a bit of reassurance and support goes a long way. You don’t get a comprehensive instruction manual as a parent, and while the overwhelming majority of parents are devoted to their children, there can always come a time when they feel like they don’t know what the best thing to do is. That’s where the right advice and support can be so critical, and why we want to ensure, as a government, that our services are geared towards empowering parents and boosting their self-confidence.” 

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