Euan McColm: More's the shame when politicians don't do the decent thing

There are few more excitable creatures in the world than the political press officer.
Mark McDonald has resigned from his party but has seen fit to stay on in Holyrood as an independent MSP. Photograph: PA/Danny LawsonMark McDonald has resigned from his party but has seen fit to stay on in Holyrood as an independent MSP. Photograph: PA/Danny Lawson
Mark McDonald has resigned from his party but has seen fit to stay on in Holyrood as an independent MSP. Photograph: PA/Danny Lawson

These men and women, who exist to put words into the mouths of elected members, are given to flights of hyperbole that frequently veer into the laughable.

Press releases – often concerning the most trivial matters – splutter and shudder off the computer screen with furious accusations; the alleged hypocrisy of opponents is always “breathtaking” and their deceptions never less than “shameless”. Some pleasure may be obtained by reading aloud these press releases while impersonating the late Reverend Ian Paisley.

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The concept of shame lives large in the language of politics. After highlighting the shamelessness of an opponent, your standard press release will go on – usually in the name of some drab backbencher – to demand that the guilty party hangs his head in shame.

But for all the accusations that fly and all the demands that are made, shame is in pitifully low supply in our politics.

A few days ago, MSP Mark McDonald announced that – following an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women – he had resigned from the SNP.

At last, a resolution to a situation that has seen McDonald absent since allegations against him surfaced last November.

Last Monday, the MSP for Aberdeen Donside was shown the findings of an SNP investigation into allegations made by three women. McDonald – accused variously of sending inappropriate and unwanted text and social media messages, causing distress to women through unwanted attention, and exploiting his position of power – was found to have behaved inappropriately over an extended period of time.

McDonald jumped before he was pushed. An SNP disciplinary panel would almost certainly have expelled him from party ranks.

But while McDonald may have accepted his behaviour made it impossible for him to continue as an MSP for the party under whose banner he stood (and, while not wishing to kick a man while he is down, I’d suggest the utterly unremarkable McDonald’s success was entirely down to the popularity of the SNP rather than the inspiring quality of his rhetoric) he went on to say that he intended to return to Holyrood to sit as an independent. Independent MSPs should be held to lower standards than those who sit on the nationalist benches, apparently.

And so, as of Tuesday, a politician whose actions distressed a number of women will be back in his workplace, still taking his 60 grand salary and enjoying the other benefits of elected office.

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This is a rare case when a politician should have some sense of shame and McDonald has demonstrated that he doesn’t. There is nothing to be done about the McDonald situation. If he chooses to brazen out the next three years then he is free to do so.

This is an area which must be carefully discussed by MSPs. Ideally, it would be made possible for members to be removed from Holyrood but the mechanism by which this might be done must be resistant to abuse. If MSPs explore this matter, they will not find easy solutions.

Shame used to be a more powerful force in politics. It would destroy careers.

A decade ago, a member of the Labour Party’s Holyrood staff lost his job after shouting an obscenity as then First Minister Alex Salmond was named Scottish Politician of the Year. These days, that heckle is the sort of thing that might be described as “civic and joyous”.

The death of shame in politics is not confined to Scotland, of course. A wave of senior politicians have repositioned the line of what is acceptable. Salmond is among their ranks.

As First Minister, Salmond was fiercely protective of his people. He considered a sacking to be a concession to his opponents and so he looked after individuals – a spinner, for example, who briefed inaccurately about a Better Together campaigner during the independence referendum campaign leading to her having to go into hiding after threats against her wellbeing were made – when others would have sent them on their way.

Salmond’s enthusiasm for the sort of ugly protests we saw outside BBC Scotland’s HQ in 2014, when Yes campaigners demanded the dismissal of various journalists further coarsened our discourse.

South of the border, things are no better. Brexit opportunist Boris Johnson has risen to the office of Foreign Secretary despite a career littered with incidents that would have, a generation ago, ended the career of a senior politician.

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Across the floor from Johnson sits Hugh Gaffney, a Scottish Labour MP who recently made a number of racist and homophobic remarks at a Burns supper. Did Labour think this a serious matter? Well, if you think slapping him on the wrist and sending him on a diversity training course means they did, then they did. I’m not so sure.

Not so very long ago, politicians whose behaviour was considered inappropriate could expect to pay a price. During the 1990s, the Saturday football results show would invariably be followed by a news programme announcing the resignation of this minister or that advisor who would then appear in the next day’s tabloids, embroiled in scandal either financial or carnal.

There’s no doubt that many of those who resigned in shame did so for reasons that might, these days, barely cause a flicker of interest.

But others – those who’d been caught lying or scamming the system – went down for good reason.

I’m not sure what it would take for a politician to feel he had to do the decent thing, these days.

It used to be the case that politicians were forced to quit by party bosses who feared a public backlash but the daddy of this new era of shamelessness, US President Donald Trump, has shown us that – short of being filmed kicking a Labrador to death in a Lidl car park – a politician can get away with the most appalling, offensive behaviour and retain the support of his tribe.

What a damned shame.