Derek Mackay: what was he thinking?
I am trying to compute the news that Scotland’s Finance Secretary was a predatory male who bombarded a teenage boy on social media with over 270 messages in what looks like a textbook case of ‘grooming’.
And that that man is also someone I counted as a friend.
There is no excuse, no justification, no rationale that can be applied to the obscenity of what Derek Mackay has done. As a 42-year-old gay man, he targeted a random young boy on social media and ‘made friends’ based on an image and of a stated attraction to the lad being “cute”. And despite no clear indication that the 16-year-old boy was in any way interested in Mackay’s attention, the texts were relentless in their pursuit.
They even carried on during a period when Mackay’s best friend and office manager, John Clark, had died while on holiday in the US, and when Mackay was said to be bereft.
Messages too, over Christmas, when Mackay was at home with his partner or seeing his kids. And when the nature of the betrayal, given the family orientated season, can seem even more acute.
The full transcript of the texts is so much more disturbing than the ones initially highlighted by the Sun’s explosive front-page splash. And it is in the persistence with which Mackay tries to get the boy to engage with him, the excruciating attempts to persuade him to meet, the repeated offers of a lift in his car, or even in the attempts to just find out where he lives and who he is with, that lay out Mackay’s suggested intention in all its awfulness.
What was he thinking?
What is it about a politician at the top of his game, tipped as future first minister, and who has already gone through the agonies of opening up publicly about his own sexuality, and gone on to ensure the happiness of his own two boys when his marriage fell apart, that he considers it appropriate to abuse his position or to take such risks?
If it wasn’t for the absolute carelessness with which Mackay clearly treated his own privilege of power and in making no attempt to disguise who he was, then this had all the elements of a classic media sting. A ‘honey trap’ laid to snare a high-profile prey. But far from trying to hide what he was doing, or to coerce the boy into deleting messages or keeping this grubby interaction secret, Mackay seemed to treat it as a joke, with texts littered with emojis and often ending in a ‘lol’.
Did he not consider how vulnerable a teenage boy might feel caught in that dynamic or what he might then do?
Up until late last Wednesday night, Mackay seemed destined for the very top. It was his name that was most frequently cited as being the likely successor to Nicola Sturgeon and even as he prepared to present his annual Scottish budget the next day, he remained the bookies’ favourite.
But less than 24-hours later, he was no longer a minister, suspended from the SNP, and facing calls to resign as an MSP.
Mackay’s behaviour was completely unacceptable and there should be no sugar-coating of that. As Jackson Carlaw so powerfully pointed out by reading the NSPCC’s definition of child grooming, this is what Mackay has done, and there are no words strong enough to condemn it.
The tragedy is that he hasn’t just harmed himself. The damage that Mackay leaves in his self-absorbed wake to the young boy, to his own family and to his party, is unimaginable.
Mackay once told me that he wanted to show people that came from his kind of background that they could succeed. That anything was possible.
He had grown up with a violent father and had fled with his mother and younger brother to a refuge. They had spent time homeless. He went on to study social work at university, married his teenage sweetheart, fathered two boys. And while he had struggled with his sexuality, he had in recent times appeared more settled, had bought a house with his partner, found equilibrium with his ex-wife and his two sons, and grown into his role as finance secretary.
Through adversity, Mackay had emerged as a powerful, grassroots politician, still fuelled by the principle of giving a leg-up to the underdog and creating a more equal society. He was a poster boy for social mobility and a role model for young gay men who aspired to high public office.
But that is all gone. Amid the wreckage of his own political career, there is the personal catastrophe that he will have to explain to his two boys, his partner and to his wider circle of friends.
Mackay talked to me about the SNP being his family but, in his hubris, that bond has been irretrievably severed. He has been the master of his own destruction and it is unfathomable
What is it about men in positions of political power? Do they believe in their own invincibility or is it a desire to push risk to the limits on some rollercoaster thrill trip on the way to self-destruction?
I don’t believe that politicians are sexually-driven monsters any more than the next man (and we are talking men) but they live in such an artificial world, an insular environment, rooted in power and privilege, that they can begin to feel they are gods. And that feeling of invincibility, coupled with an adoring fan-base, and an unequal relationship dynamic, can be a toxic mix when fuelled by an inflated view of self.
Think Lord Sewel in his salmon-coloured bra, snorting cocaine and cavorting with prostitutes, too absorbed to question the use of a camera and what could be the inevitable consequence.
The question then, as it is now, and will be always, is ‘what on earth was he thinking?’
The answer is simple, he wasn’t.