Gavin Madeley – The Scottish Daily Mail Feb 7, 2020
In 2011, newly elected MSP Derek Mackay celebrated his poll success by warmly embracing his wife Jennifer in front of the cameras. Within two years, that image of the rising star of Scottish nationalism as a happily married father of two would be exposed as a sham.
He announced he was separating from his wife of 12 years after telling his family he was gay. He could no longer live a lie.
Mackay was commended for his bravery and honesty in coming out. It cannot have been easy having publicly to confess that he had been leading a double life.
It would not, however, be the last time.
Yesterday, the 42-year-old’s seemingly unstoppable rise through the SNP ranks came to a shuddering halt after he admitted that he had bombarded a 16-year-old schoolboy with 270 online messages over a six-month period.
One came only hours after Mackay’s son celebrated his own 15th birthday last month. He even pestered the 16-year-old boy while enjoying a New Year’s break in the Canary Islands with his partner.
Mackay owned up to his shameful misdemeanours only after they were exposed in a newspaper. This time, the mood music is markedly different.
There is no sympathy – only universal condemnation and the fury of his party’s members, many of whom had regarded him as a frontrunner to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister.
News of his sudden downfall came only hours before Mackay was due to take centre stage as Finance Secretary to present his fourth Budget to Holyrood, setting out his Government’s fiscal priorities for the next 12 months and, perhaps, his own credentials as a future leader.
Instead, it all blew up in his face, leaving party officials panicking and opposition MSPs and child abuse experts questioning whether his predatory behaviour was tantamount to ‘grooming’.
A thin-lipped Miss Sturgeon told MSPs she had no warning of the scandal. Her quiet fury may have been tempered by the cold dread of what new revelations are still to emerge. Worrying rumours are doing the rounds of the Scottish parliament about the now disgraced former finance secretary’s ‘hard-partying lifestyle’.
THERE were suggestions that even matters of state reserved for his desk as one of the country’s most powerful politicians could not prevent Mackay throwing ‘all-nighters’. When the crisis at the Ferguson Marine shipyard broke last year, it was Mackay who stepped in to outline the Government’s rescue plan.
Yet one Holyrood source said: ‘On one occasion, when he was making a statement, he did so suffering the effects of a hangover, having been partying until the small hours on an SNP night out.
‘He was absolutely hammered the night before and was very hungover when he gave that speech.’
More evidence of Mackay’s rash behaviour came at the height of the #MeToo scandal in a bizarre exchange with a passing male lobby journalist.
Recalling the incident, which took place within earshot of a government adviser, the journalist told the Mail: ‘Derek looked at me and said, ‘I had a dream about you recently’, before adding with a smirk, ‘I’m not telling you what it was about’.’
The journalist added: ‘It was very strange behaviour from a Cabinet minister. A few colleagues remarked afterwards that if a male politician had spoken like that to a woman, it could have led to a major scandal… the special adviser looked very uncomfortable.’
While some had backed Mackay’s leadership qualities to the hilt, there were plenty within the party who doubted it would happen.
‘They were concerned about the possibility of skeletons in his closet,’ said one Holyrood source.
Certainly, the timing of his fall from grace bears scrutiny.
His pursuit of this schoolboy coincided with a period when some political commentators suggested he was ‘on manoeuvres’ laying foundations for a crack at the leadership. Last August, around the time he first made contact with the boy, he began a charm offensive including plans for a celebrity-style chat show at an Aberdeenshire hotel, entitled An Evening With Derek Mackay.
The half-hour format would discuss his ‘rise up the SNP ranks’ as well as his vision of Scotland’s future. In order to fit the 30-minute time slot, some judicious cutting of his political biography would be inevitable. Certain to be included were his abusive upbringing at the hands of his alcoholic father; his student activism; and his decision to quit university for council politics – becoming Scotland’s youngest male councillor at 21.
Less likely to get a mention were his struggles with the Laffer Curve; the job reference he gave to a friend, unaware he was a fraudster; and the £1,000 of taxpayer’s money he spent on voice coaching and public speaking lessons after rivals likened him to a Dalek. The public might grudge the cash, but his vocal delivery did soften.
Such determination to reinvent himself in a more popular guise seems a hallmark of Mackay.
But what dark elements lie buried beneath this ever-more polished surface?
Mackay’s back story was among the more vivid of Holyrood’s politicians. Born in July 1977, Derek John Mackay grew up in Kirklandneuk, a council estate in Renfrew marked by pockets of extreme deprivation. The oldest of three children, he had a father who was a violent alcoholic and the teenage Derek would take the blows as he tried to defend his mother, Agnes. At one stage, she fled with Derek, his brother Stephen and sister Tracy and ended up in a homeless unit.
Those early experiences informed both his personality and politics.
‘My upbringing and the poverty I saw and some of the turbulence of my early years taught me about resilience, community, family,’ he once said. It also forged a steely ambition.
AFTER leaving school, Mackay was the first member of his family to attend university, studying social work at Glasgow.
His head was soon turned by student politics and he rose to the post of convener of Young Scots for Independence (YSI), part of the SNP’s ‘fundamentalist’ wing, arguing the party should focus on promoting independence, while the ‘gradualists’ backed devolution as a stepping stone. In 1999 he dropped out to fight a local government election in Renfrewshire.
‘He came out of Glasgow University voluntarily,’ a friend said. ‘Everybody thought he was mad, but he was determined to get elected.’
In a race against Labour in the Blythswood ward, Mackay defeated James Harte by 889 votes to 816. It was the first step that would take him into the Cabinet.
Elected Scotland’s youngest councillor at 21, and a council leader at 30, his star was rising. In 2001, he and his university girlfriend, law graduate Jennifer Hutchison, married in Keith, Moray. Marriage and two children of his own offered him the stability he had been denied as a child.
Mackay rose to become SNP leader on Renfrewshire Council and led his party into power in 2007 for the first time in decades.
An opponent remembers Mackay as a ‘fresh face’ and ‘ambitious and ruthless’. Politically he was, the insider said, an SNP version of Steven Purcell, a reference to the then Labour leader of Glasgow City Council, then a rising star.
It remains an apt comparison in light of the openly gay Purcell’s own self-induced implosion in 2010 amid lurid allegations of drug and alcohol dependency and criminal investigations into claims of corruption and links to organised crime, which were later dropped.
But Mackay kept climbing. He entered Holyrood in 2011 after winning the Renfrewshire North and West constituency. The party immediately placed him on Holyrood’s finance committee and made him business convener, meaning he played a high-profile role directing proceedings at party conferences, overseeing the SNP’s administration and co-ordinating election campaigns.
It was Alex Salmond who gave him his first break in government that year, appointing him to the junior local government and planning brief – a portfolio he knew well from his council days.
It was during this period he came out as gay. He said he had tried to ‘wish away’ his sexuality, his split with wife was amicable and they were on ‘very good terms’.
‘When I did fall in love with someone, who I met at university, I wanted it to work. And it did work.I’ve got two wonderful kids as a result of that genuine true love and marriage,’ he said. ‘It was only in later years that I thought, ‘I think I need to fix this because clearly I’m gay. While this has been able to work, it’s probably not right and won’t last for ever’.’
His personal life has never been straightforward. Despite moving to a house in Bishopton, Renfrewshire, to be closer to his wife (a divorce has never been registered) and family, and living in an apparently settled relationship with his boyfriend of two years, physiotherapist Fraser Adam, it has become clear even this much domesticity was not enough to satisfy him.
He posted snaps on social media of himself and Mr Adam on holiday in Fuerteventura, captioning one: ‘It’s been great #fuerteventura but it’s time to come home.’ The pictures were taken while he was trying to contact the schoolboy.
Until now, though, neither Mackay’s complicated private life nor any whiff of political scandal has held back his career.
In 2013, he was embroiled in a ‘cash-for-access’ row at the SNP’s spring conference when business chiefs were offered breakfast with him in return for a £498 fee.
In 2014, when Miss Sturgeon became First Minister, she appointed him Transport Minister, a role which has proved a bumpy ride for predecessors. Four years earlier, Stewart Stevenson had to resign over his response to the chaos caused by extreme weather.
Mackay faced the biggest threat to his prospects in December 2015 when cracks appeared on the Forth Road Bridge. The emergency closure conjured images of thousands of commuters being squeezed onto buses and trains in the run-up to Christmas. An amber warning flashed above his future.
Political friends and foes believe he handled the crisis well and the bridge reopened before Christmas.One friend said: ‘That was the moment when folk said he could fix things.’
H E once insisted others were always more confident in his abilities than he. ‘I’ve had to be talked into every job I’ve done,’ he said. ‘When I became a councillor at 21, I questioned whether I could do it. Then I became the council leader at 29 and, again, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. It was the same when I became an MSP and a minister. I always doubt myself, but then I show I can do it.’
It is true that when he was first appointed finance secretary in 2016, Mackay was compared unfavourably with his polished predecessor, John Swinney.
This was not helped by a humiliating appearance at Holyrood’s finance committee when he admitted he was unaware of the Laffer Curve, the economic theory stating that if taxes rise above a certain level, revenues will fall.
Stung by the criticism, he sharpened up rapidly, improving his grasp of his brief.
In February 2018, it emerged that Mackay had been hoodwinked into writing a reference for an old friend, unaware he was facing a conviction for stealing £10,000 from the bank at which he worked.
While Mackay had done nothing wrong, it just looked bad.
The same could be said of the behaviour which reduced his career and reputation to tatters.
A life of deceit, spent half in and half out of the shadows, appears to have caught up with Derek Mackay.