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by Mandy Rhodes
26 November 2023
What a disappointment Michael Matheson turned out to be

Michael Matheson is now under investigation by the parliament's corporate body | Alamy

What a disappointment Michael Matheson turned out to be

I’m disappointed in Michael Matheson. And my heavy-hearted despondency could have remained just that – a personal sigh of regret that I had just got someone’s character wrong, that my judgement, in this instance, had let me down and that Matheson was not the man or the politician I had assumed him to be.

That’s how it could have been left, a personal chagrin, a slightly painful personal lesson to be learned, had Matheson not gone on to perfect the mastery of the dribble. And in his apparent bid to be best father, prevaricated all the way to an own goal, exposing himself as a liar and, along the way, still managing to throw his kids under a bus. 

But personal disappointment has turned to frustration and then frustration to fury at Matheson’s apparent disregard, not just for common decency, but also for the people who have elected him to high office. And that anger at him has turned to exasperation with his boss, the first minister, who made a very poor judgement call in backing his man to the hilt and then literally telling the rest of us to back off. As if Matheson’s emotional attempt at clearing the air could make up for a series of fouls.

But my personal vexation matters not a jot. It is the damage that this whole tangled affair has done to trust in politics, in the party of government, in the processes of parliament, and in First Minister Humza Yousaf’s leadership itself. And it is all of that which has long-lasting and damaging consequences for democracy.

Turning to Matheson. He is an MSP of almost 25 years, he has been in government for more than a decade and held important and difficult briefs in justice, transport and health. Like others, I have had a long-time admiration of him. Underrated by his colleagues. Understated by himself.

I believed that what I saw in Matheson was an honourable man, a well-motivated and steady politician with a great back story that should have made him the poster boy for an SNP government that self-declares as progressive

When I was interviewed by broadcasters back in February when Nicola Sturgeon stood down, I name-checked Matheson as the one to watch, a dark horse. I knew then that he would not have name-checked himself because, aside from his characteristic modesty, I had already asked him, and with what I interpreted at the time as his usual humility, he told me ‘he knew his limitations’. It now transpires he also knew about the £11,000 bill.

I am disappointed because I thought I saw beyond what others believed him to be, an obsequious technocrat who had quietly sailed under the media radar to survive the rough and tumble of Scottish politics, unscathed by scandal, untroubled by controversy, just by keeping his head down, doing as he was told, and diligently getting on with the job.

I have interviewed many politicians, and I believed that what I saw in Matheson was an honourable man, a well-motivated and steady politician with a great back story that should have made him the poster boy for an SNP government that self-declares as progressive. 

Matheson was brought up in poverty in Glasgow’s Toryglen. His two-bedroomed home was riddled with damp. He would later blame that recurrent black mould for his grandfather’s death from pneumonia. His parents would roll out camp beds every night in the living room where they bedded down, leaving Matheson and his two elder brothers to share one bedroom, with his grandfather in the other.

As a kid growing up in the notorious Prospecthill Circus in the 1980s, Matheson witnessed the death and destruction of his peers through gangs, knife crime and drugs. His best friend at primary school was found dead in the street in his early 20s from a heroin overdose, one of his cousins was stabbed to death at 17, and a classmate was later one of the city’s first intravenous drug users to die of Aids.

To say that Matheson had it tough would be to minimise all that he went through. But importantly for here, he also discovered early on that you couldn’t always take politicians at their word when his mother went on a rent strike after politicians repeatedly failed to live up to promises of getting the family moved.

It is all of that, and more, which shaped Matheson into the man he is today and should have continued to act as his guiding principle in politics. Instead, he has turned out like so many – entitled, financially imprudent and too arrogant to take full responsibility for his own mistakes and resign.

Whatever way you cut it, Matheson has lied and become imprisoned by his own convoluted chronicle of events. But what I will never understand is why, when he understood the eye-watering scale of his parliamentary expenses, he didn’t just pay up and shut up.

Why, when he first saw that the massive £11,000 data-roaming bill – almost half the starting salary of a newly qualified nurse – dated from when he and his family were in Morocco on holiday, didn’t he hear alarm bells, put two and two together and realise how the expensive and entirely attributable mistake had been made?

And if we are to believe that this is a government minister who is responsible for the largest portfolio budget, and whose very job it is to scrutinise, question and interpret the numbers in a bid to make efficient use of public funds, yet who lacks such a level of self-examination of his or his family’s actions, what do we then make of his ability to do his job? 

If we are to trust any of Matheson’s account of how we got to the point of him lying to parliament, to the first minister and, perhaps, even to himself, then I can only imagine the angst that has gone on within the Matheson family with teenage sons either being blamed or shouldering the blame for watching a football match.

But of course, as the explanations have become ever more tangled, it is difficult to get clarity on anything other than the fact that no one now believes very much that the health secretary has to say. And there’s the rub.

This scandal has denigrated politics. It has robbed us of trust in our government and in parliament’s ability to scrutinise. And for that, Matheson should have already been handed a red card.

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Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - The SNP doesn't need another 'reset', it needs a complete rework.

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