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Stuart McDonald MP: The SNP's money man on party fortunes and winning new pay rights for parents

Stuart C McDonald MP photographed for Holyrood by Robert Perry

Stuart McDonald MP: The SNP's money man on party fortunes and winning new pay rights for parents

Stuart McDonald turns up for our meeting with a carrier bag in each hand, and I ask him if he’s been shopping. “No,” he replies, “they’re full of leaflets” set to go through doors.

The SNP’s treasurer, it seems, is conscious that there is work to be done.

One year ago, McDonald’s campaign for “life-changing” new rights for the parents of premature babies ended in success, with the UK Parliament passing his Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act. Backed by charities like Bliss, the legislation, when implemented, will provide paid leave of up to 12 weeks to parents of newborn babies who are taken into hospital for a week or more before they reach their 28th day, regardless of whether they were premature or full-term.

Estimates suggest that could benefit tens of thousands of families every year. Now he’s gearing up for a general election with that big win under his belt to show constituents, but at a time when the polls suggest his party must come out fighting.

Result after result has highlighted that the gap between the SNP and Labour is narrowing, with the latter “breathing down the SNP’s neck,” in the words of leading psephologist Sir John Curtice. Trust in SNP leader Humza Yousaf is at 25 per cent, according to one study, with his Labour rival Anas Sarwar narrowly behind at 21 per cent. McDonald says he’d be out campaigning even without the warning. “There are peaks and troughs,” he says. “There’s an election coming up so this should be very close to the peak, but I don’t think you should ever stop.”

Ask around about McDonald, a Dundee United fan and solicitor, and people will tell you he’s a safe pair of hands; an active campaigner who’s good on the doorsteps and has a cool head. It’s the latter quality which apparently earned him the nickname “the good Stuart McDonald” within the SNP Westminster group to differentiate him from his Glasgow South namesake, Stewart Macdonald. The two men go way back, meeting as staffers in the Scottish Parliament before going on to elected office themselves. They were both part of “the 56” contingent returned in the SNP landslide of 2015, and both will stand again this time.

If things had gone differently, McDonald would be standing for re-election in his Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch constituency as depute leader of the SNP Westminster group.

He shared a ticket with Alison Thewliss, who sought the leadership after Ian Blackford stepped down in late 2022, but the pair lost out to Mhairi Black and Stephen Flynn respectively. That loss left McDonald free to step into an arguably more important position for the party months later, when he became its treasurer in the wake of the Operation Branchform arrests of ex-treasurer Colin Beattie MSP, Nicola Sturgeon and her ex-chief executive husband Peter Murrell. To date, none of the  three has been charged. “I’ve no hesitation in stepping forward when asked to do my part in keeping our party firmly on a campaign footing as the case for Scottish independence becomes more compelling than ever,” he said at the time. Does he still feel like that? Yes, he says, but he doesn’t want to elaborate. 

“Clearly the party faced certain challenges last year. I think it’s your responsibility, if you’re asked, to step in and help,” he says. “My responsibility and line of accountability is to SNP members and I’m held accountable through the National Executive Committee, national council and annual conference. That’s that. I have my discussions on that role internally.”

Last August official accounts showed the SNP had spent more than it brought in during 2022, going into deficit to the tune of more than £800,000. Though it recorded a receipt of public funds of more than £436,400 in the three months to the end of September, it took in no large, reportable donations during that time and figures revealed by Holyrood show that the party membership dropped to 69,235 as the year turned. So McDonald may not want to talk money, or indeed membership numbers, but can his party afford to fight this election? “Emphatically yes,” he nods assuredly, and he says it should stand by Sturgeon’s track record. “She was a fantastically articulate first minister and is a fantastically articulate politician,” he says. “She is someone who both can see the big picture and knows policy in minute detail. 

“We can be proud of things like the Scottish Child Payment, that’s something that can have a transformative effect. I’m more than happy to champion her track record.”

Raised in Milton of Campsie, McDonald studied at the University of Edinburgh and lives in the west end of Glasgow with his partner, SNP councillor Angus Millar. Formerly a Yes Scotland researcher, he’s run the London Marathon twice and turned out at Tynecastle for the Houses of Parliament football team against MSPs, earning himself both a ruptured Achilles tendon and a pulmonary embolism. He counts independence minister Jamie Hepburn and his wife, senior SNP HQ staffer Julie Hepburn, as close friends and says May 2022, when he topped the backbenchers’ ballot for private members’ bills, “feels like a millennium ago”.

Then SNP home affairs spokesperson, he had “hundreds of ideas” for how to use his stake at the statute books, but wanted something that was deliverable. New rights for the parents of babies in neonatal care had been on his party’s manifesto and that of the Conservatives, who had gone so far as to include the proposal in the 2020 Budget and hold a consultation, even committing to including the provisions in the promised Employment Bill. But that bill was not introduced and McDonald took his opportunity to force the change. Royal Assent was given in May last year and implementation is expected in April 2025. 

The charity Bliss, which had been pushing the government to act for years, celebrated the win, but said the timeframe for implementation meant the victory would be “bittersweet” for many families and called on authorities to move faster. “This will make a huge difference to around 60,000 parents every year, and to their babies,” its chief executive Caroline Lee-Davey said. “It will relieve the additional stress of having to juggle looking after a critically ill baby in hospital with work, ease some of the financial pressure and, by allowing parents to be more involved in their babies’ care, improve the health outcomes of premature and sick babies.”

The bill’s passage made McDonald only the second SNP MP to put legislation on the statute books. The first, Eilidh Whiteford, who served Banff and Buchan from 2010-17, saw MPs agree that the UK should ratify the Istanbul Convention on tackling violence against women. “Eilidh’s achievement was perhaps greater than mine because I picked something I thought would get support from all parties, including the government,” McDonald says. “It was one of those rare things that was in my manifesto and the Conservative manifesto, and they hadn’t made good on that yet, but if presented with a bill they couldn’t not support it. I knew at the outset that was going to be fine, whereas Eilidh had to bat against the government for much of the bill’s progress and get support from the back benches.

“In opposition you feel yourself scrutinising and criticising and at the end of the day you look back and see the results, the little differences you can make here and there, but to have a bit of legislation carried straight through, not many people get to do that.”

McDonald, who variously worked in private practice, for the NHS central legal office and as an immigration specialist prior to politics, is a vocal critic of the government’s Rwanda plan and many other facets of its immigration and asylum policies. “The ones that break my heart are the rules in relation to family visas,” he says. “If you happen to fall in love with someone who’s not British, we have some of the most draconian rules in the world and the government intends on making them more draconian. People are left with the choice that they can either live in the country, in their home, or they can live with their loved ones, but they can’t do both. I think that’s sick, frankly.”

Immigration is one of the areas on which he’s spent considerable time and he takes exception at the suggestion levelled by Labour and other critics that SNP MPs achieve nothing in Westminster. “What do they mean by achieving something?” he asks. “I give voice to what I regard as really important issues on behalf of my constituents, who contact me about issues like what’s going on in Gaza. I get loads of that, and I have raised that with the prime minister, I’ve given voice to their horror at what’s unfolding, and I think that’s important. What did they achieve by following Keir Starmer’s instruction to sit on their hands?” he asks, referring to the Labour MPs who did not vote in favour of a ceasefire in November. That vote was forced by the SNP during a debate on the King’s Speech, and exposed divisions in Labour in its response to the crisis. Almost 60 of its MPs defied the whip and several resigned frontbench roles.

“I’ve raised child poverty at Prime Minister’s Questions and made the case for ending the two-child cap and benefit cap, and to roll out the Scottish Child Payment UK-wide. We could do all of that at a cost which would be less than the abolition of inheritance tax, which the Tories are debating. What’s the Labour Party going to achieve on that, given that Scottish Labour MPs will take the instruction that we can’t do it, we can’t afford it?”

So does McDonald see himself sitting at Westminster for the rest of his career? After all, Mhairi Black told Times Radio that SNP MPs she had once imagined “marching to the border with a claymore” had grown to “absolutely love” being there. “I will not specify if they are current or not, but yes, I’ve come across ones where I’ve thought, ‘hmm, you appear slightly more comfortable than I think you should be’,” she said. “Anyone who knows me knows I really look forward to not having to be there,” McDonald responds, adding that he hasn’t listened to the interview and Black is a “fantastic advocate for the party”.

If the comment, described by the SNP’s longest serving MP Pete Wishart as “clumsy language”, was aimed at former colleagues, could that include recent defector Lisa Cameron, who joined the Tories while facing deselection as a candidate for the next general election by her local branch? Cameron, who claimed to have been bullied within the SNP, has been described by some Scottish media outlets as a “turncoat MP”, language McDonald is uncomfortable with. “That’s not the way I would express things,” he says, “but if you’re going from the SNP to the Conservatives you have very, very serious questions to answer. People can draw their own conclusions as to the timing and how you can justify your voting record since that change, and what you were standing up and voting for.”

How would he get on with Cameron if the two met in the tearoom, I wonder. “It might be slightly awkward, but I think people should be more than capable of being civil to each other for 20 minutes without having to descend into personal insults,” McDonald says.

McDonald initially stood for election under the impression that he didn’t stand a chance. Labour support in the area was strong and he’d just started a job at the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights, where bosses knew he was a candidate but thought the odds were against him. When the time came for the count, McDonald nipped home for a kip, so low were his expectations. A majority of more than 14,750 followed. “How do you know that?” he asks when I mention the ‘disco nap’, “have you been talking to Jamie [Hepburn]?

“I was just knackered. I haven’t done it at any subsequent election, but at the time it seemed quite sensible. I love a count – an election is a dramatic moment, and I love all that. It’s exciting.”

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