Two days before his resignation, Mark McDonald MSP conducted his last
public engagement as Scotland's minister for childcare and early years. He was in Uddingston for the launch of North Lanarkshire Council's 'fantastic Sid and Shanarri wellbeing kit' (his description).
Before we contemplate Mr McDonald's abrupt fall from grace, you might
want to know a little about Sid and Shanarri. According to the official bumph they are 'two colourful characters.' Sid is a monkey, Shanarri a spider, and together they have adventures in the Wellbeing Wood.
Their 'storybooks' – there are eight of them – have been designed for
Scottish local authorities with the aim of developing a better understanding of what 'wellbeing' means. This is a concept that pre-school children – the target market – have difficulty in grasping. I sympathise. After many years on this planet, I have difficulty in grasping it myself.
Sid and Shanarri are here to help us. To the unwary toddler, they may look innocent enough. In fact they are propagandists for the Scottish government's wellbeing strategy, of which Mark McDonald MSP was chief
proselytiser until his departure from office at teatime on Saturday, just as the football results were coming in.
There are eight official wellbeing 'indicators'. The Scottish government aspires that each child should be Safe, Healthy, Achieving, Nurtured, Active, Respected, Responsible and Included. The reason I'm capitalising these words is that if you put them together they become SHANARRI, which is the creature of another ludicrous acronym, GIRFEC (Getting It Right For Every Child).
If you tick all the Shanarri boxes – forgive me if I revert to lower case – the Scottish government will not trouble you further and you may go on deluding yourself that Shanarri is just a cute spider in the Wellbeing Wood. But if your small life is found wanting in some way, you will come to the attention of your Named Person (an authority figure such as a health visitor or a teacher) and he or she will start to take a close interest in your welfare. Concerns will be 'flagged', notes 'exchanged', and before you know what's hit you, you'll be a client of the child care industry.
Well, that's Sid and Shanarri. My advice to Scotland's pre-school children is to be suspicious of them, for they are not what they seem.
We come now to the third colourful character in the story, a boy called Mark. He, likewise, may not have been all that he seemed. Until the weekend, he had led a charmed existence in the Wellbeing Wood. He had never had what some of us would regard as a proper job. Straight out of university he had entered nationalist politics full-time, initially as a parliamentary assistant to three MSPs, then as the SNP's deputy group leader on Aberdeen City Council – at the age of 26. He had not long turned 30 when he was first elected to the Scottish parliament. His appointment as Alex Salmond's parliamentary liaison officer – how they love their titles – confirmed his status as one of his party's rising stars.
But deep in the Wellbeing Wood, there are traps for the unwary. If you travel too far too soon, you risk getting hopelessly lost.
Nicola Sturgeon had said that she wanted Scotland to be the best place in the world in which to bring up children. Presumably that was why, in May last year, she promoted Mark McDonald to one of the most sensitive portfolios in her administration. The new children's minister was to be big on Baby Boxes, but that was the easy bit. He was also expected to deliver, or help his boss John Swinney to deliver, the highly contentious Named Person project and the whole GIRFEC/SHANARRI nonsense.
The role, above most others in Scottish public life, called for a high degree of maturity. Instead it got Mark McDonald. The political editor of the Scottish Sun wrote at the weekend that the new minister had a reputation at Holyrood as 'a bit of a Jack the Lad.' Ms Sturgeon may have been unaware of this. Equally plausibly, she was all too aware of it but, woefully short of talent in her ranks, chose to overlook it.
There was, however, no sign of Jack the Lad in the only full-scale interview he gave during his short ministerial career – to the editor of Holyrood magazine, Mandy Rhodes, in November last year. He spoke at length, inordinately so, of his love of family and had Ms Rhodes convinced: 'It is clear that family is [his] bedrock.' Yet, in his personal relationships at work, he was giving – or had given, for the timing is by no means clear – a different impression.
Let Mr McDonald speak for himself:
It has been brought to my attention that some of my previous actions have been considered to be inappropriate – where I have believed myself to have been merely humorous or attempting to be friendly, my behaviour might have made others uncomfortable or led them to question my intentions.
Even by the standards of resignation statements, this is not only opaque but exceptionally weird. There is no acknowledgement that his 'previous actions' were inappropriate, only that they were 'considered' inappropriate. He then more or less invites us to wonder why a bloke like himself who's just trying to be a good mate should be unceremoniously dumped from ministerial office.
Without so much as a grope or lunge hinted at, and with the female knee out of sight for once, we are left to speculate whether the children's minister may have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Being amusing in the company of women is an enviable gift but not often a sacking offence. The tabloids are lusting for detail, complaining of a 'veil of secrecy' in the SNP about precisely what Mr McDonald is alleged to have done.
But could there be some other explanation for his dismissal?
I have read one of his speeches, which happens to be available on the internet. It is excruciatingly bad. It shows no feeling for the English language or even for the meaning of words. It may have been written by a civil servant; I have to be open to that worrying possibility. But there is no doubt who wrote the resignation statement as the full-time whistles sounded on Saturday afternoon. That had the ring of someone out of his depth in the Wellbeing Wood, someone who had no idea what he was trying to say and who anyway lacked the ability to say it.
What has Mark McDonald ever known? What has he ever done? The answer is politics, politics. The real problem is that he is an anorak, with no experience of the outside world, who found himself promoted well above his modest capabilities. Yet there is hope. By failing his own Shanarri test, he has exposed the illusion of wellbeing. Irony of ironies: the minister who came closest to personifying the Named Person was himself desperately in need of help.