Exclusive: Mark McDonald on his resignation

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 11 March 2018 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview with the former Minister for Childcare and Early Years on his resignation from the SNP

Image credit: Matthew Beech

In November last year, amid newspaper reports about the scale of sexual harassment and abuse in the Scottish Parliament, the MSP for Aberdeen Donside quit his ministerial role after reports he had sent a message to a woman containing a reference to a sex act.

Initially, he was backed by the government, and his party. The First Minister went as far as saying that his behaviour might not be considered by some to be a resignation matter.

But days later “new information” emerged and he was suspended by the SNP while it conducted an investigation. With the SNP giving no details, newspaper reports claimed that a complaint had been made by a young woman who said she had woken up in McDonald’s hotel room with no knowledge of how she had got there. The party said nothing other than to confirm no criminality was involved.

And then another newspaper carried what it claimed were the original text messages sent by McDonald which appeared to be much more innocent than the information that had originally been circulating.

The SNP’s probe into the matter dragged on for more than three months, with the party offering little information and that vacuum being filled with speculation, rumour and innuendo. Meanwhile, McDonald remained away from the parliament and did not speak to the press.

Last week, the day after finally being informed of the findings of the investigation at a meeting in a Perth Hotel with chief whip Bill Kidd and Ian McCann from party HQ, McDonald took matters into his own hands and resigned from the party. He will now return to Holyrood as an independent MSP.

McDonald agreed to an interview on the basis that there would be nothing which could identify any of the women involved.

I ask him whether he resigned from the SNP before he was pushed?

“There was an article appeared in the previous Sunday Herald which said that I was going to be invited to the SNP parliamentary group where I would have to account for myself and they would then be allowed to determine if I came back. That had never been communicated to me before that. I had been told that the national secretary would take delivery of the report from the investigation and would then decide what the next steps were and these would be communicated to me, but I was then told that it was always the case that I would have to go in front of the group.

“I was told that either an abridged version or a summary of the findings would be read out to them, possibly the same summary findings that were then published by the party after my statement. I would then be invited to give an account of myself and the group would be asked if they wished to have me back or not.

“I was given the very clear indication that there wasn’t really anybody looking to have me back and when I asked if that included the First Minister, was told it did. It was also to be a secret ballot of the group and to be honest, it just didn’t seem like I was offered much hope.

“I think the difficulty in all of this is that the position people would have would be based on preconceptions and on probably what they’d seen reported or even spoken about in the corridors during the time that I had been away.

“I’d been aware of comments that had been attributed to colleagues in the media, people stating they were furious with me, stating that I was portraying myself as a victim, when I’m not a victim and I don’t want anybody to think that I view myself in that way.

“In taking the decision to resign, it was a question about essentially thinking this process had gone on for too long – I’ve not been in the parliament now for a third of a year – and it seemed like it could drag on even longer and still have the same outcome.  Basically, if the position being outlined to me at the meeting was accurate then the First Minister wouldn’t have wanted me to be a SNP MSP anyway.”

So why stay on as an independent MSP?

“I am seeking to demonstrate that I have learned from my mistakes. That I have owned my mistakes but that my mistakes should not own me. This should not be seen as the sum total of who I am and if the argument is that because of what I have done and what I have apologised for, I must also resign as an MSP, the question I think that could be argued is where does that put the bar? And given the results of the Holyrood survey, are there going to be other individuals who will be identified who do not clear that bar and who have to therefore be dealt with?

“There is nothing that I have done that was physically abusive in nature. I don’t dispute that I have behaved in a way that fell below the professional standards that should be expected of me but if we are to say that people cannot make a mistake and then rehabilitate and return, what message are we sending out more widely? What are we saying about the concept of rehabilitation? Are we saying that it’s impossible?”

I found McDonald deeply contrite, at times very controlled, at others very distressed.

One of the most interesting aspects amid the prolonged party process and the way he has simply been cast off by colleagues was when he talked about the benefits of the counselling he has been receiving: “A lot of the discussion has been about this whole question of how do you see yourself, how do others see you, how do you think others see you versus how do others actually see you, or how have you since found out others actually see you.?

“And I guess I had laboured under the misapprehension that people saw me as being a reasonably nice guy, a decent enough person and that clearly was not the case for some individuals who clearly saw me in a very different way and I have no idea if that was more widespread. One of the things that I found when I initially resigned was the number of people who said they were surprised because they didn’t think that was the kind of person I was.

“Clearly, as this has gone on, people have maybe reassessed or perhaps people always thought that I wasn’t a good person and this is simply cemented those opinions.

“I am hoping to continue for a while longer with [counselling] because I think it has been good for me to be able to reflect on relationships and I think the thing is that when I got elected back in 2011, it wasn’t expected. I was a surprise MSP it would be fair to say, and I’d spent my previous working life at the parliamentary assistant researcher level so I still saw a lot of those people as my peers and saw myself as being part of that crowd as much as I was part of the MSPs group.

“I guess I didn’t realise that when you become an MSP, that balance shifts and then when you become a minister, that balance shifts further. That was why I said in my statement, that we as politicians like to say that these things don’t change us as people, but you know, and maybe they don’t, but they do change how other people essentially view you and certainly how the dynamics of your relationships with other people work and certainly I hadn’t given any thought to that. I accept that now. Things had changed.”

McDonald was first made aware that he may be under scrutiny on November 2nd when the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, and the First Minister’s chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, asked to speak to him and said his name had come up in “chatter” and that he was asked to consider any potential behaviour which could have given rise to this.

The next day he met with Lloyd and was told that there had been a specific complaint relating to the sending of a text message which had caused offence. He was told the nature of the message and he said he couldn’t recall sending such a message. The next day he was sent a screenshot of the message which he says was not the same as what had been described to him the previous day. However, he says it was clear that his behaviour was not considered appropriate and that the recipient of the message had been very distressed and that the appropriate thing was still for him to resign as a minister which he did following a telephone conversation with the First Minister.

I ask him why he thought it necessary.

“I think because there is an acceptance, particularly with the ministerial role that I held, that I needed to demonstrate behaviour and character beyond any reproach.

“I resigned on the basis of what was presented to me as a complaint that had been made against me and when I apologised with a view to coming back, I did so on the basis of trying to demonstrate that I was coming back to reflect on how I’d conducted myself and I could better conduct myself in future and that was part of my agreement to see a behaviour coach.

“I think that what I realised very early on was that this was not something that was going to be able to simply be toughed out or left to the side and nor did I ever seek for it to be so. I accept that at a certain point I may have looked at the messages and thought they are not of the same nature as those which were being suggested to me in the conversations that I’d had and I’ve since been told that other people were told that the messages said something rather more extreme than they did, but that is perhaps the point about the impact and the perception, and it was perhaps that the perception was created that I was seeking to, you know, create a conversation of a less wholesome nature and I have to accept that, you know.”

Were you?

“No, I think I genuinely was making a very ham-fisted attempt at being friendly to someone and making what I thought was a joke which was clearly taken in a much more, which was clearly perceived in a much more sinister way, and I have to accept that that comes down to the whole question around the dynamics of individual relationships and the way in which the need to better understand how people receive me.”

McDonald says that until the “new information” was received he was preparing to return to Holyrood.

“I remember it well because I was on my way back to my constituency office to meet with some constituents and I was doorstepped by the BBC and I remember saying to them about what I’d said in my statement about my desire to get back to Holyrood and to demonstrate that I was learning from my mistake, or mistakes, and I got into the office and I had phoned the party comms people to let them know that the BBC had spoken to me outside the office and that it would probably be on the news and then about half an hour later, round about 11.30, 11.45, I forget exactly when, I got a phone call telling me that The Sun had just put an article up saying that they had been told a new complaint was coming which would lead the party to suspend me. I was told at that point the party had not received any information or any complaint, but I obviously had to then leave my constituency office because there was the potential for people to come looking for me. It was that afternoon at around about 4pm that the chief whip phoned me to tell me that he’d received information and on the basis of that information, I was being suspended from the parliamentary group pending the party investigating the matter. I then got a message from the national secretary telling me that I was also being suspended from the party, which is what happens.

“I was not told what the information that had been received was but that they would then be in touch about what the investigation process would be but that there was no defined timescale

“I wasn’t made aware of what was being alleged until 4th January, and even then that was in the broadest sense and I wasn’t made aware of the detail until four days later when I was interviewed by the investigators.”

The conclusion of that investigation, McDonald understands, was a fortnight before he was then presented with an abridged version of the final report last week which he was not allowed to remove or take a copy of.

“They gave me five pages with the front cover and essentially a layout of what they were asked to investigate, how they went about it, how many people were interviewed, and then the next pages were: individual one and the things that they’ve told us, individual two and the things that they’ve told us, individual three and the things that they’ve told us along with the associated things that I’d said and what witnesses said.”

There was no recommendation or real conclusion to the report and McDonald took the decision to resign the next day. The party responded with a press release saying that his behaviour had been deliberate and included four things:

  • inappropriate and unwanted text and social media messages;
  • unwanted attention causing distress;
  • persistent behaviour over an extended period of time;
  • exploiting his position of power.

As he prepares to return to Holyrood, I ask him whether anyone should consider him a sex pest.

“I would hope not,” he replies.

“One of the hardest parts of this is having a version of you held up in front of you that you don’t recognise as you. And it doesn’t tally with how you see yourself. And having to come to terms with the idea that maybe you’re wrong about yourself. And maybe other people see you very differently.

“I want to come back and demonstrate yes to colleagues, yes to constituents, but also to my kids that this wasn’t all that I was. That this wasn’t the sum of me, because otherwise this will be their truth.

“This will be all they will know, because they’ll look and, you know, it’s fair to say that most of the positive things that I’ve accomplished previously have been quietly airbrushed or people are now looking back and saying, you know, well, we thought he was a good guy when he did that but now he’s not. I feel an obligation to them to try and demonstrate that you can come back from mistakes that you make and that if you show that you’ve learned from your mistakes, not everybody will accept it, not everybody is, it would be foolish for me to think that people are going to welcome me back with open arms, you know, welcome me back into the fold or anything like that. I know I’ve got to work hard at this and prove myself all over again but I’m determined to do that.”


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