MSPs will be back at Holyrood tomorrow for the start of another parliamentary week.
This time all 129 of them will be there because, for the first time in almost four months, Mark McDonald will turn up too. The former childcare minister hasn’t been seen in parliament since he was suspended from the SNP amid allegations of misconduct.
The prospect of his return has prompted anxiety among those affected by his actions and anger from fellow parliamentarians. One woman, who works for Nationalist MSP James Dornan, says the inappropriate behaviour had a ‘devastating impact’ on her and resulted in a six-month absence from work and a stay in hospital. She doesn’t want the Aberdeen Donside MSP to return to her workplace and Mr Dornan is backing her up.
The SNP has mishandled the matter from the start. Last November, it was reported that Mr McDonald had sent a sexually explicit message to a woman. He quit his ministerial portfolio but Nicola Sturgeon backed him remaining as an MSP, with her spokesperson saying he would ‘continue to make a valuable contribution to parliament’. Since then, further allegations have surfaced and an internal investigation found claims of ‘inappropriate’ remarks and advances.
Mr McDonald admitted he was ‘too flirty’ and apologised for causing ‘upset, discomfort or offence’ but stressed he was never ‘physically abusive’. He says he intends to continue as an independent MSP.
Parliamentary chiefs are in a lose-lose situation. They have a duty of care to staff and must provide a safe working environment. They also must respect the democratic will of the people. Mr McDonald has a cast-iron mandate from the voters of Aberdeen Donside, 56 per cent of whom put their cross against his name in 2016. As the law stands, an MSP can only be disqualified for a criminal conviction leading to a prison sentence longer than 12 months.
We have been here before. Bill Walker was the SNP MSP for Dunfermline until allegations of domestic violence emerged in March 2012. The Nationalists first suspended and later expelled him but he continued to sit at Holyrood as an independent for another 18 months. He was eventually convicted of 23 charges of assault against three former wives and a step-daughter. The following month he stood down, petulantly blaming a ‘media onslaught’, but could have continued in the role even after he was handed a year of jail time two weeks later.
Then as now, the Scottish Parliament found its hands tied by the law. The Presiding Officer of the day, Tricia Marwick, was a canny one and devised a clever sanction for the convicted criminal. Had Walker not resigned, the Parliament would have docked his salary by 90 per cent for non-attendance while he resided at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Beyond this, though, there was little else that could be done.
Mr McDonald, it should be stressed, has not been accused or convicted of a crime. This is what makes his situation all the more complicated. The Marwick sanction could not be applied to him because he plans to show up at work as normal.
However, a legal change could offer another solution. In some US states, elected officials are subject to recall if citizens feel they are ineffectual or bringing the office into disrepute.
In 2003, voters in California tired of Governor Gray Davis amid a budget crisis and electricity shortages. Campaigners successfully petitioned for a recall election and Mr Davis’s tenure was terminated when Californians replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Similar early elections have been forced to remove officials accused of abuse, corruption and excessive drinking.
Electors in Scotland should be given the same right to bring a failing or undesirable representative to book. A Scottish right of recall would settle the Mark McDonald fiasco in a fair and democratic fashion. It would ensure the voters, who pay politicians’ salaries, do not have to endure an MSP they consider unfit for public office. And it would allow legislators at Holyrood to get on with running the country instead of serving as political bomb disposal experts, sweating to diffuse a potentially explosive political, personnel, and reputational crisis.
Recall ballots make politicians uneasy and for good reason. They are open to exploitation by populist rabble-rousers who could pick on an incumbent unjustly, whip up public animosity, and pilfer their seat in the resulting by-election. To preclude this, most jurisdictions impose a minimum number of signatures for a recall petition to be successful. In California, for instance, campaigners must get the equivalent of 12 per cent of the turnout in the previous election.
Recall measures are common to countries with high levels of direct democracy, which is at odds with our parliamentary system. For that reason — and to deter vexatious recalls and keep costs down — a Scottish recall ballot should impose a higher hurdle of 25 per cent. We are a nation of Brenda-from-Bristols and view the prospect of another poll with all the enthusiasm of a trip to the dentist during an anaesthetics shortage. If one in every four voters is willing to sign a petition for a by-election, it would be a clear indication of discontent with the incumbent.
In Aberdeen Donside, this would translate to just shy of 8,000 signatures. If Mark McDonald’s constituents are repelled by his conduct and believe it merits an early opportunity to sack him, recall campaigners should not find it difficult reaching that number. Once the petition was verified, a writ would be issued for a by-election and the voters would get to sit in judgement on their erring MSP. It would be up to them to decide whether to boot him out or give him a second chance.
The SNP should have taken clear and decisive action early on, either to tell Mr McDonald to clear his desk or to have him apologise and rehabilitate himself. They have left parliament to clean up their mess and those involved in this sorry episode will face more anguish. Political parties have had enough chances now. It’s time for the voters to be put in charge.
Mhairi Black used a speech at Westminster to share her experiences of online abuse. MPs listened in horror as the Nationalist politician reeled off a litany of hateful messages sent her way by social media trolls. Most are simply unrepeatable in this newspaper but they included homophobic slurs and liberal use of the C-word. In some instances, Black was assured she was ‘too ugly’ to rape.
There are those who say the Paisley and Renfrewshire South MP should have sugar-coated her experiences and censored the more obscene language for Parliament. In fact, by reading these profane, hate-filled comments into Hansard, Black shamed the bigots who often hide behind anonymous profiles and the social media companies that permit them to get away with it.
We have allowed a culture to breed in which disagreeing with someone’s politics is seen as legitimate grounds for drenching them in abusive and violent language. Black deserves credit for standing up to the bullies and refusing to be silenced.
China has changed its constitutional provisions to allow incumbent Xi Jinping to remain president for life. Xi can now rule the country as he pleases, steamroller dissent, and can’t be held accountable for his policy failures. Reports that Nicola Sturgeon has dispatched a delegation of lawyers to Beijing on a fact-finding mission are as yet unconfirmed.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.