LUCKY am I to have many wondrous friends and family who have my back when storms strike life. The matriarch of our family is one such lady: my aunt, who at 90 still writes with wisdom from time to time.
One such card appeared in my home last week and contained one of her trademark quotes unattributed but found scratched on a wall of Auschwitz concentration camp after its liberation: “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when I don’t feel it. I believe in God even when He is silent.” Hope can be found and burn in the darkest places.
It jumped into my mind when I heard the sad news that one of the heroes of modern Scotland had passed far too soon. Margo MacDonald born, like me, in the great county of Lanarkshire, died tantalisingly short of the independence choice that her whole life, spirit and soul ached for.
“Today the brightest light in the Scottish political firmament has gone out,” was the simply beautiful conclusion of her loving and beloved husband Jim Sillars.
When I found myself elected to the same Holyrood parliament as Margo in 1999 at the tender age of 28, I was delighted to receive an invite to their home for dinner. My hero Jim was there sat reading a book on American history and harrumphing occasionally while Margo, cooked, fed me and talked at length. She flitted between your love life, haircut, family and views on fiscal policy with seamless ease. Warm lady, a walking heart.
She was asking my thoughts on the devolution settlement and the financial system. We mused on how capital could be got without borrowing powers, and as early as then we discussed how the Holyrood building project would be a good use of her forensic mind and campaigning eye, long before the scandal unfolded.
She combined the brainpower of the academic elite, the heart and soul of the Lanarkshire towns, the passion of a radical and the tenacity of a street fighter. All in one person. How about that?
Motherly and warm, she was clever and did me the honour of seeking and respecting my view even when she raged at the constraints of the party line. We fought on many issues without falling out for long. We both found ourselves marooned on the lower reaches of the party lists in the lead-in to the 2003 election. I criticised her then for going alone while I campaigned for a direct seat.
History proved her choice correct and no-one else could have done it. It was, on reflection, in the emphatic best interest of politics, the parliament and the wider Scottish cause, and many less fashionable ones to boot.
She forgave me that spat and we spoke often in the subsequent years on many different things. I disagreed with her on many things but so, it was clear, did her husband. Honest disagreement is baked into the historic culture of Scottish political discourse and to be embraced in friendship and democracy. Now more than ever.
I thought she would have made a superb Presiding Officer for a whole host of reasons, had her battles with health not rendered those responsibilities probably too onerous when the moment came.
I would have liked for her to have held office in some way but, then again, her spirit was that of the unique and independent flame in every sense. I was with the First Minister later on the day he visited her and Jim at hospital. He was visibly lightened by the fact the discussion was warm and friendly again and the advice wise.
I never really knew the reason his one-time mentors and he distanced, but it was always clear to me that, whatever his public face, it ate at him that he had lost their friendship and guidance.
The conclusion I reach on her life force was that she combined two core characteristics we must now try and find elsewhere.
The first was an unbelievable ability to be both radical and unifying across the political spectrum. More than anyone else she taught me that progress only happens when you respect opponents and bring them with you. We will need that on 19 September and beyond, whatever the outcome.
The second was the most important. She spoke for people, in their voice, in their language, on terms they understood with the accent of the Lanarkshire earth she came from.
She made it OK to elect “one of us”. And she used her immense talent and intelligence to give voice, encouragement and support to those who had none of their own.
Too many of our number don’t share the warmth of family and friends like the ones I described above. For those without learned aunts to write to them with love and wisdom in their hour of darkness we need public servants like Margo.
To remind people to believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining, or that she would fight to make it shine. That, more than anything, is her legacy in my heart. «