Euan McColm: Protect democracy from politics of harassment

Mark McDonald will be barred from Holyrood for a month. Picture: John Devlin
Mark McDonald will be barred from Holyrood for a month. Picture: John Devlin
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If he had a shred of dignity or truly cared about public service, Mark McDonald would have quit as an MSP a long time ago.

Had he genuinely reflected on the way he abused his position of power, the former SNP minister – who jumped before he was pushed from his party after allegations were made of inappropriate behaviour towards female members of staff – would surely have given the people of Aberdeen Donside the opportunity to choose a new representative in a by-election.

Instead, he clings grimly on to a salary and associated benefits that will dry up in 2021 when he leaves Holyrood to become virtually unemployable in any kind of public role.

Last week, three months after he expelled himself from the SNP, McDonald was found by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life to have sexually harassed one woman and failed to treat a second with respect by asking her to pay the deposit on a flat for him and then failing to reimburse her for three weeks.

McDonald has accepted the watchdog’s decision though he insisted that it had “disproved or disregarded the overwhelming majority” of the complaints made against him.

Following publication of the commissioner’s report, members of Holyrood’s standards committee recommended McDonald’s suspension from the Holyrood estate for a month, without pay. Given that McDonald previously stayed away from the Scottish Parliament for eight months after complaints were first raised about his behaviour, I daresay he’ll cope.

But McDonald is not the only politician who should be reflecting on his behaviour after the commissioner’s findings were made public.

SNP backbencher James Dornan lodged the complaint that triggered the investigation into McDonald. Perhaps you recall his high-profile intervention in McDonald’s case, when he made serious allegations about his former colleague’s behaviour. In his letter to the standards commissioner, Dornan wrote that a member of his staff had been admitted to hospital suffering from a stroke and that, although she was under other “extreme pressures”, McDonald’s actions had “compounded” the situation.

It is quite correct, of course, when it comes to the abuse of power by men, that light is shone where it once was not. Crucial to this happening is the recognition by men that a problem exists.

Dornan’s decision to make a formal complaint about McDonald’s return to Holyrood, where his victims would be forced to endure his presence, was entirely justified. But if his intention was to help victims then I fear he got things quite disastrously wrong.

Standards committee convener Claire Haughey criticised Dornan for disclosing details about his complaint to the media, saying “confidentiality requirements have been flouted more than once during the course of this complaint”.

Despite my firm belief that if a news organisation has information that is in the public interest, it has a duty to report it, I believe Haughey made an excellent point. Dornan’s behaviour, throwing up ever more lurid allegations, turned the McDonald case into something of a circus.

One wonders whether other victims of harassment saw an angry man spill intimate details of a woman’s experience and thought “you know, this is just the sort of thing I want to get myself involved in”.

McDonald’s actions were wrong, but that doesn’t make Dornan’s right.

The commissioner reported that there was no evidence to support certain allegations made by Dornan and added that his and the woman’s accounts of her experience did not chime.

Anyone now considering taking the courageous step of speaking out about their experience of harassment might reasonably look at all this and wonder whether it’s worth it. Dornan set himself up as a champion of women’s rights and made a damned mess of things.

None of this should be taken to indicate any sympathy for McDonald; he can blame nobody for himself for the predicament in which he finds himself. But, at best, Dornan has demonstrated that men – even those who may delude themselves they are woke – really do need to think more carefully about this issue. Men, I think, have to recognise that sexual harassment remains a real and pervasive problem and then offer support to anyone who may wish to speak up. Part of that support is creating an environment where victims feel that they retain control and are reassured that their privacy will be respected.

What men don’t need to do is start flexing their muscles and using the experiences of alleged victims as the basis for a bit of alpha-male posturing.

At best, Dornan is a fool.

Naturally, the McDonald case has brought back into the spotlight the matter of whether a law should be introduced allowing the recall of MSPs.

The Liberal Democrats – in a curiously illiberal stance – are great champions of the idea that MSPs would be sackable in cases of “proven misconduct”.

Currently, only a prison sentence of at least 12 months is enough for an MSP to be forced out. This might seem to give politicians a heck of a lot of leeway (and it does) but it seems about right, to me.

One could argue that a shorter prison sentence – any prison sentence – should be enough to see someone expelled from Holyrood, but what if an MSP is locked up for a week after attending a protest? Would we really wish to strip politicians of the right to take guidance from their consciences on matters of protest?

One could also argue that a case like McDonald’s should be enough to see an MSP replaced, but examination of Dornan’s actions shows how easily these matters can appear to become politicised.

None of this is of any use to the women whose complaints against McDonald were upheld last week. They will have no option, other than by resigning their positions at Holyrood, but to tolerate his presence at their workplace for the next three years.

It is Mark McDonald’s failure to recognise the unacceptability of this situation that speaks most clearly of his character. The fact that nothing can be done to force him out of Holyrood, however, is not something we should rush to change.

If we make it easier to remove MSPs, we make them vulnerable to politically motivated attacks. That would severely weaken our democracy.