I was 13 when Margo MacDonald won a stunning victory for the SNP in the Govan by-election of 1973.
I remember watching news bulletins where this woman they called ‘the blonde bombshell’ explained why poverty and unemployment in places like Govan didn’t happen by chance, but were the result of economic and social policies implemented by out-of-touch and uncaring politicians in a parliament 350 miles away in London. I was already interested in politics – I remember being the only person in my First Year class at Ardrossan Academy who could name the Prime Minister (Edward Heath) and Leader of the Opposition (Harold Wilson) – but Margo MacDonald opened a new, Scottish dimension to my interest when she won for the SNP in Govan and then explained why ordinary men, women and children in Scotland needed the full powers of independence in order to build a country that offered hope and opportunity for everyone.
Winnie Ewing had broken the British political mould when she secured victory for the SNP in the Hamilton by-election of 1967, but I was a bit young to remember that. Winnie’s triumph was certainly the seismic event that brought the SNP to mainstream political prominence, but it was Margo’s Govan win that set the foundations for the party’s significant electoral breakthrough, in 1974, where the SNP – and the fight for an independent Scotland – became credible.
At the age of 13 I wanted to be a footballer but, believe me, finding myself some years later sitting next to Margo MacDonald in the Scottish Parliament was like me fulfilling my dream of lining-up next to Kenny Dalglish in the Scotland football team. Margo, a big Hibs fan, would have liked the football analogy, although her modesty would have led her to ‘give me a row’ for equating her with such a Scottish icon as Kenny Dalglish.
When I heard, yesterday (April 4), that Margo had died, I was shocked, genuinely shocked. We all knew she was ill, but she was Margo: nothing could daunt Margo.
I was fortunate to know her as a friend and parliamentary colleague. We spent 3 years together, sitting on the very back-row of the Scottish Parliament’s debating chamber. We joked that if we were any further back we would have been in the car park, which is where some (only a few) of our former colleagues in the SNP would have preferred us to be.
When I was expelled by the SNP in 2004 – that’s another story – no-one knew better than Margo what I was going through. She had been there herself. It was typical of Margo, and of her husband, Jim Sillars, that they didn’t just offer me political support, they were there for me on a personal level, too. I ended up spending a week with them in Portugal, which was where I realised just how famous Margo MacDonald actually was.
One night we drove to a restaurant in a small village in the hills above Albufeira. This really was an out-of-the-way place, far from the tourist areas. There were a few couples already dining as the three of us walked into the restaurant and I happened to look at a man as he leaned across the table and clearly said to his female companion, “There’s Margo MacDonald.” It turned out they were from Glasgow.
Margo was happy to blether to that couple in Portugal, and she would do the same with anyone.
While we were Independent MSPs together, I travelled to various meetings with Margo. Because her illness impaired her walking she would travel by taxi. Every taxi driver in Edinburgh knew Margo and she would talk away to them for the whole journey. Then, when we arrived at our destination and Margo got out of the taxi, people on the street would recognise her and would stop to talk. Margo was always happy to have a blether – then she would blame me for us being late at the meeting.
It was never a dull moment with Margo. She was funny and just as much at ease talking about macro-economic policy as she was discussing the relative merits of the various shopping channels on satellite television (she was a big fan). She treated everyone the same and spoke to people with the same disarming charm irrespective of who you were or what position you held.
Politics is a dirty, nasty business, but Margo was liked and respected across political parties. People who were supposedly political ‘opponents’ would seek advice from Margo, and she would willingly give it. She would help anyone. Many MSPs from all parties were grateful for the advice and assistance provided by Margo. Jack McConnell, when he was the Labour First Minister, would take FMQs and, as he left the chamber, he would pause at Margo’s desk on the back row. He’d look at her and say, “Well?” Margo would either say, “Aye, you did well,” or “We’ll need to have a wee chat” – and they would.
While in the chamber, Margo would often ask me where a particular Minister was sitting. When I pointed them out, she would say, “Right, I need a wee word with him”. The Minister then wouldn’t get out of the chamber without agreeing to whatever Margo wanted for a constituent or campaign group.
Margo really was one of a kind. She was highly intelligent, articulate, passionate, witty, serious, conscientious, determined...and successful. I don’t know any other politician who could stand for election to parliament on their own, without party support, and receive public backing not once, not twice but three times. There are also very, very few politicians who are embraced by the public to such an extent that they only need their first name to be recognised – everyone knew who you were talking about when you said ‘Margo’.
It is an absolute tragedy that Margo did not live to see Scotland re-take its independence, but as was typical of her, she was the one who cut through the political rhetoric at the pro-independence rally back in September 2012. At that time support for independence was standing at around 30%. Margo said, “If we’re at 30% just now, then that means every one of us who supports independence needs to persuade one person each, then we’re at 60%...and we’ve won.”