IT has surprised me to see how Derek Mackay, even in his downfall and disgrace, has evoked warm memories from certain commentators.

There have been newspaper columns that, while not now in any way condoning his despicable private behaviour, recall his wit and charm on public occasions in the past, albeit peppered with arch humour. In a Scotland no longer caring much about people’s personal sex lives, insiders tittered when he played being gay for laughs. It was also a chance for the politically correct to congratulate one another on their ease in dealing with new-age morals.

In another sphere it is worth recalling how popular Mackay has been at SNP conferences, as a symbol of what the party can do to lift its loyalists up from wretched social circumstances and give direction to their lives – a metaphor for what they would like to achieve in Scotland at large. Of course, other political parties do this, too, because the beneficiaries of the process can usually be counted on for absolute devotion to the cause. The downside for them is that they can be dumped without much trouble if things go wrong. Now Mackay’s colleagues of a week ago hasten to distance themselves from him.

I was never among Mackay’s admirers. Perhaps during researches for my columns I might have engineered an encounter with him, an interview or background briefing, but I could not be bothered. This was because, frankly, I did not think he was equal to the job of finance secretary in the Scottish Government. In conversations of the last few days, I have found journalist colleagues to be of the same opinion. Mackay’s virtues, or vices, lay elsewhere.

He suffered a traumatic childhood, but he was not to seek compensation in intellectual distinction. While he did get to Glasgow University to study social work, he abandoned the course to immerse himself in politics in his native Renfrewshire. By 2011 he won election to the Scottish Parliament, but soon had a more important job as the SNP’s business convener or party chair. He presided not only over the conferences but also over the more frequent sessions of the national executive committee.

He then in effect managed the party, its administration, its operations, its campaigns. Best of all for him, he worked closely with its chief executive, Peter Murrell, the husband of Nicola Sturgeon. No doubt Mackay did signal service for them as an enforcer while, in recent years, they kept an iron grip on the SNP.

Today, with a single exception inherited from the past, John Swinney, all the regular Cabinet Secretaries are ciphers. Although peak SNP was reached with the 45% for independence in indyref1, or at the latest with the 56 Westminster seats won in 2015, relative lack of success meanwhile has not so far led to serious questioning of Nicola’s leadership.

Mackay himself seemed content with a cipher’s role. At least, he subscribed to Nicola’s defining dictum that “unregulated capitalism is a force for bad and I think we need much more regulation, and I am not opposed to more state ownership where that is appropriate”.

Nationalisation had not been thought appropriate anywhere in the UK since 1979. Now in Scotland we have nationalised Prestwick Airport, BiFab at Burntisland and the Ferguson shipyard at Port Glasgow. It is not clear when or if any of these operations will turn a profit. The Scottish Government has also expressed an interest in nationalising the railways.

Prestwick is today being privatised again, having failed to find the custom it needs for survival – proof enough that nationalisation is not a key to success unless other economic factors are set fair. In respect of BiFab, a former shipbuilder now supplying the oil industry, the Scottish Government got a slap on the wrist when Audit Scotland reduced the value of its stake from £13 million to £6m. I hope a lesson has been learned.

But Ferguson seems to have the makings of a real disaster, if we are to judge by the hearings into its history at Holyrood last week. They revealed soaring costs and receding completion dates while everybody blames everybody else.

A pity Mackay will not be around to carry the can, because it had become his pet project. His rationale for public ownership was this: “It is absolutely essential that the outstanding contracts to build these two ferries are completed in order to sustain the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services network and provide vital support for the economies of our island communities.”

Now, it seems the economies of our island communities will have to just get by for a few years yet. If in the end they win what they actually need, it might not look much like what Mackay offered. The Holyrood committee heard about state-of-the-art vessels capable of carrying 127 cars to, for example, Colonsay (that would be one for each of the islanders). A mini-fleet of smaller ferries plying the routes more frequently and more flexibly makes more sense.

In other words, the whole of the “absolutely essential” contract with Ferguson has taken on the shape of a white elephant. Nationalisation was not just for Christmas anyway. Now we are in February, we face the prospect of a shipyard left in public ownership with no clear idea what to do with it.

We remain unaware if it will be expected to make profits, or whether it will need to survive somehow on endless losses, as shipyards did during the last era of nationalisation in the 1970s. This makes it hard for them to invest, because investment requires funds, or to give pay rises, because wages require revenue.

The mess of his pet project is Mackay’s legacy to us. It could only have got worse. It bears all the hallmarks of a man without the experience of life or of finance to fill the office he held.

His was a purely political appointment on the basis of zero attributes in his CV. A lifelong lapdog never had the right skills to run a nation’s finances. I’m glad he’s gone.

For those readers who conclude this is a Unionist column, let me be explicit that the fall of Mackay will not shake my faith in an independent Scotland or alter my habit over two decades of voting SNP, much though I deplore many policies of Nicola Sturgeon’s government.

The previous government of Alex Salmond proved it could be financially sound even while pursuing progressive goals in other ways. That, rather than a reckless spending spree, is the true nature of the European models our ruling elite professes to admire.

But the SNP, thanks to Mackay, now run the danger of resembling parties in all countries that have been in power a bit too long.

They get complacent and arrogant and careless. Then problems pile up that finally overwhelm and defeat them.

This is in a sense good for them, though it may not look like it at the time. They go into opposition, renew themselves and get ready for their next period in office.

The trouble for Scotland is we have no opposition party capable of taking over. A charlatan and turncoat leads the unpatriotic Tories. Labour and LibDems are bankrupt. So renewal must come from inside the SNP, in a fresh leader and policies. Of that, more another time.