Mother Scotland

Share this article

WHEN the Scottish Nationalist Winnie Ewing, a glamorous Glasgow solicitor, won the Hamilton by-election from Labour in 1967, it was a political and media sensation. Some apparently sensational by-election victories are quickly forgotten. This one wasn't. It was a genuinely epoch-making event.

Consider the consequences of that one heady night at Hamilton in November 1967. Within six months, the Conservative leader of the opposition, Ted Heath, travelled north to Scotland and made the famous - and courageous - Declaration of Perth, in which he provisionally committed the Tories to devolution. A few months after that, prime minister Harold Wilson set up the Crowther Commission to inquire formally into the need for devolution in Scotland and Wales.

Back in Scotland, the then editor of this newspaper, Alastair Dunnett, ruminated on the Hamilton result and decided to commit The Scotsman to the devolution cause. He instructed his leader writers to produce a series of articles on the case for devolution. These pieces created so much interest that they were reprinted in booklet form.

As for Ewing herself, she embarked on a remarkable political career which led to her acquiring the sobriquet Madame Ecosse. She lost her Hamilton seat in 1970, but won the very different constituency of Moray and Nairn in the next general election, in 1974, defeating the secretary of state for Scotland, Gordon Campbell. Another sensation.

She has won eight parliamentary elections. She has represented the largest constituency in the European Parliament, and the largest region in the Scottish Parliament. She became president of her party and across Europe she remains by far the best known Scottish Nationalist.

A charming, sharp and delightfully combative conversationalist, she is a lively 77-year-old widow. She has just moved into a little house in Kilmacolm, near the home of her son Terry and his wife Jacqui. (Her other son Fergus, and her daughter Annabelle, both MSPs, live much further away). She is starting to write her first novel - a legal thriller based on her experiences representing clients in Glasgow Sheriff Court before her political career took off.

Looking back on the extraordinary aftermath of Hamilton, she says she suspects many people took up the cause of devolution through fear.

"Devolution was seen as a way of stopping nationalism, the best way of giving the Scots something but preventing independence, of handing us so much, but not enough. It was undoubtedly driven by fear," she says.

She encountered many unpleasant manifestations of this fear as soon as she arrived at the Palace of Westminster. "I was treated abominably, and, yes, I am angry about it, even now, 40 years on," she says. Looking back, she regards herself as an innocent among wolves. She had enjoyed a successful middle-class career as a solicitor, following an enormously happy childhood (her father, a small businessman, was a member the Independent Labour Party). After Glasgow University she eased into the roles of wife, mother and lawyer. She was unprepared for the bile she encountered in London.

As the lone SNP member in the Commons - at best an intimidating place for an inexperienced politician - she found herself without friends, without party colleagues, without any supporting structures. She was completely alone. She was hundreds of miles from her husband and her children in an excessively macho and very hostile environment. "I was treated as the enemy, I was shunned and despised. It's a peculiar experience to suddenly find yourself hated. At times I did feel terribly lonely, close to despair."

She says she was treated with inexcusable boorishness and contempt by many Labour MPs: "These people were dross. I would look at the ranks of them in the chamber and think, 'My God, these people are representing Scotland, my country, heaven help us.'"

She contrasted the "boorish mediocrities" she clashed with in the Commons with those who had elected them. "In those days Labour in Scotland was very well organised. Many of the Labour activists were seriously impressive people. There were so many decent, hard-working Labour supporters. Yet the people they elected were often third-raters. It was as if the few, the elite in the party, wanted rubbish around them, so that they could control things. I was offended that so many decent folk in Scotland were working so hard to return such people to parliament. "But, you know, these hardworking Labour activists have all but vanished. It is an almost untold story, the disappearance of the Labour organisation in so many parts of Scotland." Because of the constant rudeness and scorn to which she says she was subjected, she remembers with particular gratitude the kindness and courtesy she received from a few exceptional Labour MPs, notably Emrys Hughes and Michael Foot. "For the most part it was the backbenchers who treated me so badly," she recalls. "One or two senior people in the Labour Party, like Willie Ross, were also very unpleasant. But Harold Wilson was kind to me, and so was the speaker, Horace King."

She has a special word of warmth about the Tory leader Ted Heath: "He was a shy man for a politician, completely ill at ease with women, but he was always very helpful, and he gave me useful tips about how the Commons worked. Ted was a true gentleman. When he came up to Scotland and made his Declaration of Perth in 1968, it was amazing, simply amazing."

That such a successful and assured woman - she has received many honours and awards - is still furious about the way she says she was humiliated and snubbed several decades ago might suggest an underlying pettiness or insecurity. But her conversation is generally expansive, forward-looking and positive. For the most part, she seems devoid of animosity. In any case there is a wider, more topical point here. Recently the political classes have been pondering the sad death of Fiona Jones, a former Labour MP who died prematurely, surrounded by empty bottles. During her relatively brief and very unhappy career at Westminster she was said to have been bullied, patronised and mocked, by her colleagues every bit as much as her opponents.

Even today, Westminster is said to be an unforgiving place, representing an outmoded and callous political culture. Ewing contrasts it with the European Parliament. "There is so much more openness there, and so many people want to help. You are actually encouraged to believe that you can make a difference, that you can get things done."

And what about the Scottish Parliament? "Well - I'm afraid to say there, too, most of the Labour members are third-rate. I've fought so many elections, and what I've seen over the years is the decline of the Labour Party. It was getting bad in the 1960s; my goodness, it's a lot worse now."

She is sanguine about the present political climate in Scotland: "There is still a long way to go to independence, but I'm quite relaxed."

What is her message to young Scots? "Please, make sure you look outside Scotland. Be open to ideas from elsewhere. Look at the smaller countries around you. Travel to them, look and learn. Go to Ireland or Norway, or Sweden or Denmark. See how small countries can manage their own affairs with success and dignity. Experience the confidence, the optimism. Soak in the self-belief. And, of course, get to know your own country as well. Get to know it and its past. And work hard for what you believe in politically."

She speaks movingly of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) she knew in her youth: "These people were gracious and sincere. They were well read. They respected their opponents. They were deeply, seriously, optimistic Their politics was not based on fear, on negativity. They utterly lacked the nastiness that seems to infest so much of our politics in Britain today."

But if she so revered the politicians of the ILP, the party of her much-loved father, why did she become a Nationalist? "Simply because of the golden words of 'King' John MacCormick of the National Movement, when I was a student at Glasgow University. "And, you know, I've truly never had a moment's doubt since, even in these dark days at Westminster in 1967, 1968 and 1969. I've known deceit and trickery and animosity, but I'm happy and I'm confident. The dream is alive."

If Donald Dewar is regarded as the father of our devolved Scotland, could it just be that one day Winnie Ewing will be regarded as the mother of an independent Scotland?


BORN: July 10 1929.

EDUCATED: Queen's Park Senior Secondary School and Glasgow University, where she obtained an MA and LLB. She is a qualified solicitor and notary public. She was secretary of the Glasgow Bar Association from 1962-67.

POLITICAL CAREER: She became active in campaigning for Scottish independence through her membership of the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association, and came to prominence in 1967 when she won the watershed Hamilton by-election as the Scottish National Party (SNP) candidate.

She was unsuccessful in retaining the Hamilton seat at the 1970 election, but was re-elected to Westminster at the February 1974 election for Moray and Nairn, and held her seat in the repeat election in October of the same year.

In 1975 she became an MEP when the European Parliament was still comprised representative delegations from national parliaments. After the 1979 election, she ceased her involvement as a Westminster MP, but was elected to the European Parliament weeks later in the first direct elections to the body.

Often referred to as Madame Ecosse because of her strong advocacy of Scottish interests in Strasbourg and Brussels, she is a former vice president of the European Radical Alliance.

She was elected SNP Party President in 1987, and remained in office until July 2005, when she left to work on her autobiography. In 1999 she gave up being a MEP to become a MSP in the first session of the Scottish Parliament, for the Highlands and Islands. As the oldest member, it was her duty to preside over the opening of the Scottish Parliament, a session she opened with the words: "The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened."

During the controversy that arose surrounding proposals to repeal the anti-gay Clause 28 she joined son Fergus in abstaining, while daughter-in-law Margaret backed repeal.

In 2003 she lost her husband, Stewart, in a fire. He had been active in politics for many years, and served as a SNP councillor for the Summerston area in Glasgow.