Obituary: Margo MacDonald, independent MSP

Margo MacDonald. April 19, 1943 - April 4, 2014. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Margo MacDonald. April 19, 1943 - April 4, 2014. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Born: 19 April, 1943, in Hamilton. Died: 4 April, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 70.

During the 2010 Westminster election and the 2011 Holyrood election, I knocked on thousands of doors in Edinburgh. I discovered there was one politician that absolutely everyone knew and frequently mentioned. She was simply “Margo”.

Margo the Scottish nationalist. Margo who always said what she thought. Margo who spoke the language of ordinary voters and never down to them.

Margo MacDonald’s rise in influence in the SNP encapsulates the dramatic transformation of the movement during the 1960s, from being a tiny party driven by cultural nationalism into a left-wing force aiming at contesting Labour for power in Scotland.

She was a close acolyte of Billy Wolfe, the SNP’s seminal leader during this period, when the worldwide youth revolt, disillusion with the Wilson government, and the onset of de-industrialisation, began to create a new Scottish self-awareness.

Born in Hamilton, in the very heart of the working class Central Belt, Margo was of the post-war generation who benefited from the expansion of higher education – she was trained as a teacher of physical education.

This generation was outraged by London’s indifference to the collapse of Scotland’s heavy industries and the mass emigration that resulted.

At the same time, the arrival of US Navy Polaris submarines on the Firth of Clyde had turned Scotland into a prime nuclear target, sparking a local anti-war movement than soon embraced Scottish nationalism – but a nationalism that was internationalist and radical, not parochial and exclusive.

Like Margo herself.

One thing about the new wave of Scottish nationalism was that it contained prominent women leaders such as Margo and Winnie Ewing, who made the great breakthrough for the SNP by winning the Hamilton by-election in 1967.

One reason might be that the Scottish higher education system was more open to women, another that the early SNP was too weak to have an entrenched bureaucracy. To that, Margo added a shock of blonde hair and a vivaciousness that made the grey men of the Wilson administration look like the dinosaurs they were.

The national movement suffered one of its periodic reverses between 1969 and 1974.

Here Margo came to prominence, pushing the SNP to spend more time and effort developing detailed policies for government.

Despite her earthy touch, Margo was deep down an intellectual who loved ideas – a bond she had with her husband, Jim Sillars.

In those years the SNP became a real political party that could no longer be dismissed as a collection of tartan eccentrics.

Margo got her political reward in 1973 when she won the Govan by-election. She was now a household name in Scotland and would remain one for the next 41 years.

Though she lost the seat at the General Election only 112 days later, it marked the SNP as a force.

At the second election in 1974, the SNP won 11 Westminster seats.

Friction soon arose between the SNP leadership in Scotland – principally Margo (now the party’s senior vice-chair) – and the Westminster group. Margo considered the Commons group too right-wing and opposed the decision to vote for the vote of no confidence in 1979 that sank the Callaghan government.

Friction between the right and left of the party flared into open warfare after the SNP’s drubbing in the 1979 election. By this time Jim Sillars had split with Labour to form his own pro-devolution Scottish Labour Party, before joining the SNP.

Along the way he found Margo. Together they were an axis around which a new generation of SNP radicals would gravitate, including Alex Salmond.

Sillars, Margo and the radicals formed an internal ginger group called the 79 Group, dedicated to focusing the SNP on winning working class voters.

This was the start of Margo’s long disenchantment with the SNP leadership, though never with nationalism.

If Margo had a fault, it was often to see these disagreements in too personal terms. Perhaps that is inevitable in a small country where everyone knows everyone else. However, as with the present Yes campaign, it never stopped Margo from doing her bit.

In 1982, with the banning of the 79 Group, Margo resigned from the SNP and embarked on a second career as a journalist. She took to radio broadcasting and the then novel concept of the listener phone-in like the proverbial duck to water.

Her distinctive voice – earthy, empathetic, and with its clear Scots diction – was made for radio. But she also had the knack of putting over complicated ideas with democratic ease while never pandering to fools or bores.

I first got to know her well as a guest on her Radio Forth programmes at the time of the miners’ strikes against the Thatcher government – I was advising the Scottish NUM and she was gloriously partisan.

Ensconced in her tiny studio was like being in someone’s living room, for the phonecalls coming in sounded like – and were treated by Margo as – family members with something important to say. After 1979, the SNP was to endure a long period in the wilderness. Margo and Jim eventually found their way back into the fold, as right and left in the SNP huddled against the political cold. In an extraordinary coincidence, Jim Sillars won the 1988 by-election in Govan, Margo’s old seat, re-igniting the nationalist spark. The scene was set for Sillars to become SNP leader when Gordon Wilson retired.

But in 1990, Sillars hesitated to oppose the leadership candidacy of Margaret Ewing and in the subsequent internal election Alex Salmond won.

Margo was deeply resentful and relations between her and Salmond were icy. She considered Salmond too arrogant, too much of a gradualist, and (if truth were told) too centrist in his politics. However, Margo remained immensely popular with the voters and was elected a Lothian list MSP at the first Holyrood elections in 1997.

Relations between Margo and the party leadership were frosty on both sides. She may have been too critical but there were also some in the leadership who should have tried harder to find a role for her undoubted talents. However, the arrival of a Scottish Parliament had changed the political equation dramatically.

New members, while they respected Margo, were less willing to grant her maverick status.

For the 2003 Holyrood elections, members ranked her fifth on the SNP list for Lothians, meaning she had no hope of re-election. Instead she stood as an independent and won easily three more times – a tribute to her popularity and hard work as an MSP, despite the fact (unknown for many years) that she had Parkinson’s Disease. While Alex Salmond undoubtedly created the SNP as a winning electoral machine, Margo MacDonald gave the modern party its popular face and an appeal beyond its association (right or wrong) with tartan eccentricity.

She also proved that politicians can be honest, have integrity, and stand their ground for unfashionable causes till the voters see past the specious media headlines.

In a phrase, she was the living embodiment of the fact that democracy can work.

Of course, she believed the best democracy was secured by a sovereign Scottish parliament and a sovereign Scottish people.

It is a sad irony that Margo will not be able to vote in the 18 September referendum. Some of us will remember her as we cast our ballot.