DCSIMG

FOCUS: Margo MacDonald

IF LOYD Grossman put his eye to the keyhole of Margo MacDonald’s office, he would have little trouble guessing who inhabited the space behind her cluttered desk.

All the clues are there: the kitsch 1970s water column full of fish that swim against the tide, and the paperweight the shape of a cat; there’s the picture of husband Jim Sillars; and - what’s this? - three, no four photographs of Jack McConnell. No sign of SNP party leader John Swinney, though.

Only Margo - as she is universally known - could accumulate such an eclectic mish-mash of possessions and people.

Despite her deep-seated nationalist convictions, she is as likely to be seen with McConnell (whom she met when he was a Stirling University student) or former Tory leader Michael Forsyth, as with Swinney or Nicola Sturgeon, who stood for Margo’s old queendom in Govan in 1997, but with whom she exchanges no more than the time of day.

MacDonald had an odd mutual affection for McConnell’s predecessor, Henry McLeish. The two would often embrace as old friends, and the then First Minister forbade Labour attacks on her, however much of a thorn in his administration’s side she became.

And that’s the problem with MacDonald. A maverick, who brooks no compromises, she is capable both of expansive friendships and bitter feuds. She combines an ego the size of the parliament building overspend with a self-deprecating sense of humour, a brash couldn’t-care-less exterior with a streak of vulnerability, an enviable drive with a lack of political ambition, an unquenchable compassion for the underdog with the tongue of a snake.

A blonde with brains, she’s presents a dazzling contradiction to grey-suited "on-message" apparatchiks. They can neither explain her nor contain her: to the less interesting, she poses a threat, and so finds more knives in her back than Julius Caesar.

Last night, she received an unexpected boost to her campaign. Henry Spurway, the bookie who was first to predict the resignation of Henry McLeish last year and that Jack McConnell would take over as First Minister, tipped MacDonald as a ‘dead-cert’ to win a seat if she stood as an independent.

He quoted odds of two to one against.

He said: "I think it’s very very likely that she will win a seat.

"I am not a political person, and I’m not allied to any party. I am doing this purely from a bookmaker’s point of view. When I see things moving a particular way, I have to call it that way."

The eldest of three children, in a single-parent family from Hamilton, MacDonald was always restless and full of enthusiasm, notching up more than her fair share of careers and friendships as the sands of her life shifted. Early plans to be a journalist went awry (her mother didn’t approve), and she became a PE teacher hoping to join the Scottish Netball Squad.

But at 20 she found herself married to childhood sweetheart Peter MacDonald, expecting Petra (the first of the couple’s two daughters) and helping to run The Hoolit’s Nest Pub in Blantyre.

Then, she was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a form of bone cancer, and her lifestyle had to change. So she turned back to her early interest in journalism and politics and became a member of the SNP.

Yet, while Labourites of the ’70s and ’80s could be almost Calvinist in their dedication to the socialist cause, MacDonald retained her flirtatious manner, her platinum blonde hair and her love of dancing.

Even those with little interest in politics have the image of her 1973 Govan by-election triumph imprinted in their memories: the fading old photographs and the flash of white light on the podium.

Later on when, after just four months in Westminster, she lost her seat and then her marriage broke up, she returned to journalism, fronting the forerunner to BBC Scotland’s Frontline and hosting her own chat show on Radio Forth.

Journalism, like politics, gave her an outlet for one of the abiding passions - fighting unpopular causes, such as a tolerance zone for prostitutes and a reprieve for Scot Kenny Ritchie, on death row in Ohio.

Her other abiding passion came in the form of a pugnacious Labour politician, nicknamed "The Butcher" for his savage attacks on the SNP. The pair first spoke in the late ’60s when an angry MacDonald telephoned the STUC headquarters in Glasgow to complain trade unionists had blocked her from an engagement because she had criticised the local Labour council over their rents policy.

"I spoke to this cheeky young man who tried to mollify me," she has said. "He still hasn’t succeeded." The cheeky young man was Jim Sillars.

MacDonald has said they were sparring partners first, then colleagues, friends and finally lovers. And you can see how, in a sense, they are still all those things.

The pair met through a number of political campaigns in the ’70s - frequently clashing on opposite sides. But, they found themselves sharing a platform during the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should stay in the Common Market.

MacDonald said: " I was against it because I thought Scotland shouldn’t go in unless Scotland had a voice. Jim was against it because he thought it was a capitalist plot. And Teddy Taylor [the Conservative MP] was against it because he thought it was a plot from Rome."

The couple’s relationship did not blossom until later in the 1970s, after Sillars left the Labour Party to form the short-lived breakaway Scottish Labour Party. They finally married in a quiet service in 1981. Four years later, Sillars joined the SNP.

One of the most refreshing things about the couple’s marriage has been how they have not felt the need to present a united front. Sillars could not hide his contempt for the notion of a Scottish parliament and urged the public to abstain. MacDonald voted Yes, Yes in the referendum, then decided to stand as a candidate. "He offered to get me a neurosurgeon. He said no expense would be spared if I needed a brain transplant," MacDonald recalls.

Indeed, MacDonald paints a humorous picture of a life dominated by politics. "We were lying in bed one night," she once said. "Jim was watching football on television and I said to him: ‘What do you know about Viagra?’ He said: ‘Is it one of the Nigerian provinces?’ I just turned over and went to sleep."

Like Sillars, MacDonald is a "fundie", an old-guard fundamentalist who believes in independence or nothing. She has said: "If you don’t have a set standard against which you measure, you do end up a wobbling mess." In the run-up to the referendum, she was one of those who criticised the party for playing down independence as an achievable goal, and she was a fierce opponent of Alex Salmond’s cautious approach. This came back to haunt her this week when Salmond appeared on Newsnight Scotland to mock her decision to stand down as an SNP candidate. With his trademark grin he accused her of a "hokey-kokey" approach to politics and playing to the camera. This time, though, when the camera did turn to MacDonald, she was visibly shocked by the viciousness of the attack.

In retrospect, MacDonald’s return to politics in 1999, despite her decade-long feud with Salmond (whose 1990 leadership bid Sillars refused to support) was always going to be turbulent. In fact, the parliament had been open less than a year, when she was issued with a written warning for missing a vote and speaking to the press. The penalty was later reduced to a verbal warning.

But the bad feeling was not dissipated under Swinney, and earlier this year, she was in trouble again, this time for saying she had been impressed by some of the personal qualities of the French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Plain-speaking and unconventional, like former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, MacDonald, has been smeared in much the same way: both women were forced to reveal major illnesses because of leaks from former colleagues, the implication being that they were physically unfit for the rough and tumble of politics.

Last week, however, the 58-year-old confirmed the Parkinson’s Disease she has been suffering, unbeknownst to the electorate, for seven years, with typical aplomb. Her fury in the face of such underhand tactics was as awesome as her contempt for her condition. MacDonald insisted she had a mild form of the disease, that has left her with nothing more than a slight twitch in one arm when she is under pressure. And, with her customary sense of the dramatic, she spoke of the "craven conspirators" trying to bring her down.

In many ways, MacDonald is completely unsuited to the anodyne world of modern politics. She was always going to prove too much of a handful for those who wanted to break her. If she decides to stand as an Independent, and is voted in, she will feel - and look - more comfortable with Tommy Sheridan than any of her former colleagues.

In fact, the poet Jenny Joseph could have been thinking of MacDonald when she penned her colourful paean to growing old disgracefully: "When I am old, I shall wear purple, with a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me."

Margo MacDonald: wearer of colourful suits and over-sized earrings. Bombastic, flamboyant, wilfully eccentric. And loved and loathed in equal measure.

 
 
 

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