SOME members of the Scottish Government have a low profile and rarely attract the headlines, but Derek Mackay is the opposite.

Last month the SNP’s busiest Cabinet Secretary flew to Paris for urgent talks with tyre manufacturer Michelin after he learned the firm’s iconic Dundee plant would close.

At the same time he was scheduling meetings with colleagues about his third Budget. In charge of Finance, the Economy and Fair Work, the 41 year old is the most powerful figure in the Government after the First Minister.

His expanded portfolio - the Economy part was added in the summer at his suggestion - means he has responsibility for growth, jobs and allocating how a £30bn-plus budget is spent. It is a multi-faceted role that requires pragmatism, diplomacy and a thick skin.

This version of Mackay - moderate and inclusive - stands in contrast to his early SNP activism two decades earlier. In 1999, the 21 year old was a newly-elected Renfrewshire councillor who was a hardliner on independence and a devolution sceptic.

Back then, the split in the SNP was between ‘gradualists’ who believed Holyrood could be a stepping stone to independence, and ‘fundamentalists’ who wanted the party to focus solely on promoting independence. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon were in the first (and much bigger) section of the party. Former deputy leader Jim Sillars and newly-elected MSP Alex Neil were arch-fundies. So was Mackay.

The first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 opened the Nationalist wound. Although the SNP had returned 35 MSPs, they had thrown away a poll lead and the fundies blamed Salmond. The SNP had ranked independence as tenth in a list of priorities, which the leader’s critics believed was symbolic of his cautious approach.

An early post-devolution policy change deepened the divisions. The SNP’s long-standing position was that winning an election would serve as a mandate to open negotiations with the UK Government on independence. Under Salmond’s leadership, this policy was junked and replaced with a promise that independence would be preceded by a referendum. The fundies sensed another betrayal.

Mackay’s position as convener of Young Scots for Independence (YSI) - an outpost of fundamentalism - gave him a foothold in an independence debate that had simmered for years. In 1998, a year before Mackay became a councillor, he was the “coordinator” of “The Vision”, a magazine produced by the YSI and the Federation of Student Nationalists.

The National Library of Scotland retains a single copy of the first edition. Although unlikely to win a Pulitzer Prize, the magazine’s content provides a glimpse into Mackay’s formative years. His sole article, ‘Independence - Tried by Night’, offered an analysis of a TV debate involving Salmond. While he complimented his leader’s “style” and “charisma”, Mackay noted sarcastically that it was good to see Salmond talk about independence “with some fire in his belly!”.

In another tweak of Salmond’s tail, he wrote: “For a while we have been campaigning on so many other issues Independence seems to have [sic] somewhat forgotten, and this has been a concern for many in the Youth and Student wings.”


Picture: Mackay as a councillor

Mackay’s stance on independence reflected the views of Jim Mitchell, a local SNP stalwart who was a huge influence on the young councillor’s political development. “Jimmy”, as he was known, was a left-winger who had been a Paisley councillor since the 1970s. He was also a hardcore fundie who tended to respond to a political row by asking if it had any relevance to independence.

As a member of the SNP’s national executive committee, Mitchell warned colleagues against becoming "preoccupied and mesmerised" by policy detail. He, like Mackay, also indulged in unsubtle digs at Salmond. "Shouldn't we at least consider sit-ins, demonstrations, high-profile campaigning that will make it clear we are made of more than fancy soundbites?" he said.

Mitchell also had little time for devolution, describing Labour’s plan in the 1990s as a "a wishy-washy insult to the Scottish people", a “sell out”, a “toy town Parliament” and “a compromise between liberty and subjugation." One of Mackay’s friends said Mitchell was a “fire and brimstone” Nationalist, but also a political “father figure” to the future MSP.

In 2000, the tension between the gradualists and the fundies found the perfect forum when Salmond stood down and a leadership contest was triggered. John Swinney, at that point a Salmond ally, backed the referendum policy of his predecessor, while Neil wanted it scrapped. It was game on.

Mackay and Mitchell were solidly behind Neil and appeared to co-ordinate snarky letters to the Herald about apparent briefings by Swinney’s supporters.

“I for one am concerned by the language used by the so-called ‘friends of John Swinney’ who see their aims as delivering a ‘crushing defeat’ on those who differ from his views,” Mackay bellowed.

“I believe that our party is at least united by our aim of independence, but feel a growing concern, like many other party members, that these anonymous spinners and ‘sources close to the leadership’ will use any tactic to win, even when it is damaging to the party as a whole.”

The future Finance Secretary continued: “The aim of the SNP is to restore power to Scotland rather than winning for the sake of electoral victory and ministerial rewards. The price of the Lib Dems may be a ministerial Mondeo but our fee is national freedom and nothing less.

“So the talk of who has the ability to be First Minister is misplaced, when really the debate within the party should be about who can deliver independence more quickly.”

A politician who would later be known for his flexibility in striking deals at Holyrood concluded: “The battle charge from the SNP was ‘Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on’, not ‘Slow down so we can think about it’.

“Independence will be achieved, not just by mentioning it on occasion as an addendum on literature or as a soundbite at each leadership contest, but by making it a number one priority for the party.”

Within days, Mitchell piped up with a rasping letter of his own:

“It makes a refreshing change to see independence back at the top of the SNP's agenda rather than relegated to tenth position on the party's list of priorities which was the case at the elections for the pretend Parliament in Edinburgh.

His sign-off was typically caustic: “The way to win Scotland's freedom is to make independence a vote-winner and you don't do that by blending into the British State.”


Picure: the late Jim Mitchell

Three years later, Swinney’s struggling leadership was put under further strain when he was challenged by Dr Bill Wilson, who at that stage was not even a parliamentarian. To the outside eye, the contest was an oddity: an obscure IT worker, with a PhD in the biology, ecology and regulation of wood mice, was trying to topple the SNP leader.

His challenge was not welcomed in the party and Swinney won convincingly, but a source said Mackay backed Wilson. It is one of the big ironies in modern SNP politics that Mackay, a decade later, would become a Swinney protege in Government.

When Mitchell died of cancer in 2011, Mackay and Sillars were among the pallbearers who brought his Saltire-draped coffin into a packed funeral. The pair also delivered the eulogies.

Sillars, who described his speech as the “most difficult” he had written in 50 years of public life, said of Mitchell: "He was an incredible man, that rare breed which is getting even rarer in Scotland, a Scottish working class intellectual."

Mackay told the gathering: "If nationalism makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, then that's how Jimmy would have wanted it. I can hear him say right now, ‘what's this got to do with independence?’."

Born in 1977, Mackay grew up in Kirklandneuk, a council estate in Renfrew marked by pockets of extreme deprivation. His childhood is also said to have been scarred by memories of domestic abuse. At one point, Mackay, his mother and siblings moved out of the family home into a homeless unit.

In a 2016 interview with the Paisley Daily Express, Mackay reflected on how the experience affected him.

“We sought refuge in a homeless shelter when I was in my early teens.

“We stayed in a unit in Johnstone, then we lived in temporary accommodation for six months before we were rehoused.

“It was really hard. We had to start all over again. Seeing the impact on others and wanting to support my mother and my brother, that shapes you."

He continued: “When I was a councillor, I had people coming to me and saying, ‘they want to put a homeless unit next to us, how can we stop it?’ and I’d be thinking, well becoming homeless can happen to anyone. It happened to me."

After leaving high school, Mackay was the first member of his family to attend university, studying social work at Glasgow. However, he dropped out of higher education to focus on fighting a council seat in the 1999 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 two-horse race against Labour in the Blythswood ward, Mackay defeated James Harte by 889 votes to 816. It would be the first step on a path that would take him into the Cabinet.

Mackay rose to become SNP group leader on Renfrewshire council and led his party into power in 2007 for the first time in decades. He also fronted the SNP team on council umbrella group COSLA and entered Holyrood in 2011 after winning the Renfrewshire North and West constituency.

So what changed? How did Mackay go from being a combative fundie, who was sanctioned by an ethics watchdog in 2004 for disrupting a council meeting, to a Cabinet Secretary known for businesslike approach? Allies cite two elements of his council career. One, as group leader, he presided over a “renewal” of the SNP team that involved getting rid of the deadwood. “That toughened him up”, said one colleague.

The major turning point was leading the council. In opposition, councillors can issue unrealistic demands, make grand gestures and signal their virtue. In office, the same politicians have to make hard choices, fulfil legal responsibilities and balance the budget.

In Mackay’s case, he led an SNP/Lib Dem coalition that was in charge of hundreds of millions of pounds and an organisation that employed thousands of staff. More pertinently, he was leader during a point of huge pressure on public spending following the near-collapse of the global financial system.

His spell in charge was marked by rows over education cuts. On Mackay’s watch, dozens of school jobs - teachers, classroom assistants and admin staff - were axed. The administration proposed, and abandoned, using unqualified volunteers in the classroom. And, most damagingly, school bus services were slashed.

A colleague said of the last two controversies: “I think he [Derek] would look back and say we should not have done those things.”

An opponent in the council chambers remembers Mackay as a “fresh face” who was “ambitious and ruthless”. He was said to be effective in communicating his message to the media and fostered good links with business. Politically he was, the insider said, an SNP version of Steven Purcell, a reference to the then Labour leader of Glasgow council who was considered a rising star.

He was wise to leave council politics for Holyrood in 2011. Twelve months after becoming an MSP, with Labour holding the SNP to account for their local record on education, the Nationalists lost control of a council they had won five years earlier.


Picture: entering Holyrood

Mackay’s early months in the Parliament saw him join the Finance Committee and act as bag carrier to SNP veteran Bruce Crawford. It was Salmond, not Sturgeon, who gave him his first break in Government, appointing him to the junior Local Government and Planning brief in 2011. As a former council leader, Mackay was able to learn about the machinery of Government in a portfolio he knew well. It was also during this period he announced a change in his personal life. Although married with children, he came out as gay and separated from his wife.

His next Ministerial role - Transport - was of a different magnitude. Just as Health Secretary Jeane Freeman feels the political heat for cancelled operations and waiting time failures, so too does the Minister in charge or rail and roads get the blame for train delays, overcrowded carriages and traffic jams.

In 2010, Stewart Stevenson had to resign as Transport Minister over his response to the chaos caused by extreme weather. His predecessors in the Labour/Lib Dem coalition also faced calls to quit over various crises. It is a job that can break a career.

Mackay faced the biggest threat to his Ministerial prospects in December 2015 when cracks appeared on the Forth Road Bridge. The emergency closure conjured images of thousands of commuters being squeezed into buses and trains in the run up to Christmas. An amber warning flashed above the Minister’s future.

Political friends and foes alike believe he handled the crisis well and the bridge re-opened before Christmas. Speaking to Holyrood magazine after the crisis passed, Mackay said the closure was a “make or break, do or die” moment for him as a Minister. A friend added:

“Transport stretched him and the bridge could have killed his career, but it didn’t. That was definitely the moment when folk said he could fix things.”

Surviving transport paved the way for Mackay to succeed Swinney as Finance Secretary. Securing support for the minority SNP Government’s Budget - Mackay’s primary task - is probably trickier than it was previously. Swinney faced a similar challenge between 2007 and 2011, but his plans were invariably pushed through with the help of the Tories. Post-indyref, and with the country split down constitutional lines, this road is closed and the Greens appear to be the only viable option.

Sources say there are subtle differences between Swinney and Mackay. One Budget negotiator says Mackay is “personally warmer” than his predecessor and a “smidgeon” to the Left of him. The same insider said Swinney would have been less likely to have backed the income tax rises announced by Mackay last year.

A bigger contrast is on council finance. Mackay’s first two Budgets were ungenerous to local authorities, but horse-trading with the Greens led to a slightly better settlement than originally announced. One source said: “John has an instinctive antipathy to local government, whereas Derek comes from that world and has more time for councils than John.”

Other MSPs complain that Mackay, given the basket of tax and spending powers available to him, is too cautious and unimaginative in the job. He is not as “nimble” as Swinney, said one colleague. Mackay is also self-conscious about what has been described as his robotic speaking style in the Chamber. A colleague said: “He definitely improved after he moved away from the civil servant script. When he is himself, he is very good.”

MSPs across the political aisle agree Mackay has grown into the job and is the Cabinet Secretary who has developed the most since the last Holyrood election. Members of his own tribe also believe he is a serious contender to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as party leader, should a vacancy arise.

Mackay, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf and Freeman are tipped as possible leaders. A senior SNP source said Yousaf is better presentationally than Mackay, but the Finance chief is politically savvier. His seven years as SNP Business Convener, effectively chair of the party, were also helpful in laying down roots.

Mackay has come a long way since his wilder days as a pro-indy ultra who was viewed as a trouble maker by the gradualists. As he prepares his third Budget, it would be foolish to assume he has reached the summit of his ambitions.