IF you had a train to catch and you saw that mobility scooter trundle into view, you knew you’d have to revise your travel plans. No encounter with Margo MacDonald was brief. But every one was a pleasure.
We’re not supposed to be friends, journalists and the politicians about whom we write. We’re supposed to keep things professional.
This was not possible with Margo, whose death on Friday at the age of 70 robbed Scotland of a unique political figure. If Margo decided you were to be friends, then that was that and she’d let you into every aspect of her life.
And what a remarkable life it was. At 30 – all Bet Lynch peroxide and gallus Glasgow glamour, Margo became a national political figure. Her victory in the Govan by-election is the stuff of SNP legend. Margo showed that no supposed Labour stronghold need be impenetrable to Nationalists.
Margo’s time as an MP was brief – having won Govan in November 1973, she was ousted by Labour’s Harry Selby the following February.
Out of Westminster, Margo became deputy leader of the SNP, holding the position from 1974-79. But in 1982 she quit the party after the prominent socialist 79 Group, of which she was a member, was proscribed.
Her next career step was perfect. Margo’s warm and easy nature made her a popular broadcaster in the 1980s. But she hadn’t given up on politics and, in 1999, she was elected to Holyrood where she proceeded to enjoy herself immensely.
Tributes to Margo made much of her Govan victory and it’s certainly true that taking that seat from Labour – even for little more than 100 days – is an iconic achievement for SNP members. But it was at Holyrood that Margo did her most serious politics.
Of course, she clashed with the leader – first Alex Salmond and then John Swinney – from day one. Margo’s unhelpful approach to press matters – she would talk to journalists if she damn well liked – and disdain for authority (or those in authority in her party at that time) was quite the combination. There were attempts to discipline her (the very thought), and by 2002 it seemed her reinvigorated political career might be cut short. She found herself facing a losing position on the SNP’s regional list for the following year’s election.
Around this time, I recklessly agreed to deliver a speech to a dinner attended by journalists and politicians, most of whom were fairly well on. I took to the stage and introduced myself as president of the Margo MacDonald Preservation Society. After the cheer subsided I was in full control of matters. Later she sought me out and said “You’re quite a nice wee man, really aren’t you?” and I was quite chuffed, indeed.
Eventually Margo took matters of self-preservation into her own hands and swept out of the SNP for a second time. Naturally, the people of the Lothians returned her as an independent MSP.
But, while she may have been a one-woman band, Margo wielded real influence.
Labour’s Jack McConnell – first minister 2001–7 – was a pal. When he was in power, Margo was a frequent visitor to his office, sometimes with a demand, as often with a comforting word.
“I just feel sad,” McConnell told me on Friday. “What a loss.”
McConnell recalled his first meeting with Margo, back in 1981 when he was involved in the National Union of Students and she was a national celebrity, during which she made a suggestion that would change his life.
“She heard me speak at an event and afterwards came up to me and said that I should have a pitch at standing for election,” he said. “It had never occurred to me until that point that standing for election was something that someone like me, from my background, could do. But Margo was hugely encouraging.”
McConnell said Margo’s nationalism was neither parochial nor inward-looking but based on a “very Scottish” attitude of “who is anyone to tell us we can’t do anything?”
“She was,” he added, “ready and willing to take on a range of causes and she showed what can be done with a bit of personality and dedication. She didn’t have the power of a party hierarchy behind her but she made an impact because of the force of her personality and the passion she felt.
“I hope young politicians look at her and say, ‘That’s what I want to be like. I don’t want to be a focus-group-friendly politician with nothing to say’. I want Margo to be seen as the role model for the younger generation of politicians.”
Margo’s determination to find answers about the spiralling cost of the Holyrood building project was a driving factor in the creation of Lord Fraser’s Inquiry into why the Scottish Parliament opened three years late and cost ten times the estimate.
“Here, you,” she would shout across the Garden Lobby and, for however long it took, the latest scandal to emerge would be painstakingly detailed. She was deeply serious about these matters but funny too. She’d offer caustic commentary on the villains of the piece and then the subject might suddenly change.
“Listen, you look even shorter than you are,” she told me one day. “You have really terrible posture. Come up here and stand properly.” Then she had her hand in the small of my back, demanding I stand straight and stop sticking my backside out.
I paraded backwards and forwards until she was satisfied that I was “walking like a man”, and all the while she suggested ways in which my then editor might be persuaded to run her latest take on the building fiasco.
Of course, Margo was a nationalist icon long before her passing on Friday. But it was not nationalism that defined the politics of her final years. Instead of matters constitutional, Margo focused on difficult issues which had much to do with her deeply held belief that people should be treated with dignity. Her campaign for the introduction of tolerance zones for prostitutes was based on her belief – and she knew there were others who sincerely held opposing views – that this was a key step in making working life safer for the women involved.
Her illness frustrated her but she was loath ever to give in to it. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1996 and the condition became public knowledge in 2003, a fact she attributed to forces of darkness in her former party. This has always been denied by the SNP.
But she could hardly have kept her condition a secret for long. Soon she was displaying the symptoms of the disease. She was exhausted by uncontrollable trembling in her hands, and increasingly reliant on sticks to get about the parliament (eventually she got that scooter which would zoom her up the corridor beside the debating chamber).
Margo knew she had limited time left. Her illness would take her and she wanted to go with dignity. Her last great campaign saw her push for the introduction of right-to-die legislation that would allow the terminally ill to have legal access to assisted suicide.
Margo was on the wrong side of the argument between fundamentalism and gradualism in the SNP, but her true legacy is not her service to the nationalist cause but her willingness to take on difficult issues because she thought people mattered more than politics.
Margo felt free to see the world in shades of grey, to detect nuance in every situation, and to come out in favour of whoever she deduced was getting the worst deal. She recognised both the best in people and their frailties too. Having recognised those frailties, she understood and accommodated them. Exceptions would be made for those – usually in the SNP – who she felt had done her wrong. And she had a long memory.
“Here, you,” she said, “I’ve got something for the wee one.”
I’m looking now at a photograph of my daughter Sylvia, taken when she was around eight months old. She’s wearing a vivid pink sweater with a rabbit on the front. Margo brought it back from a holiday in Portugal. It’s another reminder of her kindness. And it makes me realise how much I shall miss her.
Her husband, Jim Sillars, of whom she was very proud, followed in Margo’s political footsteps in two ways: he took Govan for the SNP in a by-election and he also served as deputy leader of the party. His tribute after her death was accurate and heartbreaking.
“She leaves a void in our lives which will be impossible to fill and her death robs the Scottish nation of one of its greatest talents,” he said.
“She was without question the most able politician of her generation. Today the brightest light in the Scottish political firmament has gone out. Her legacy will speak for itself.
“She supported and inspired generations of idealists and campaigners who, like her, wanted Scotland to take its place in the world.
“Her talent acted like a magnet and she gave her time so freely to so many for so long.
“Many will mourn, but the pain of loss will be borne most of all by those at the heart of her life; her children and her grandchildren. We will do all we can to honour her memory.”
Margo was clever, funny, glamorous, mischievous, indiscreet, generous, tenacious and tough. She gave politics a good name. There will be no new Lothians MSP to fill the gap she leaves. A quirk of the rules means the seat will remain vacant until 2016. This seems fitting. Margo MacDonald is irreplaceable.