Last Friday (April 25) I was one of over 1,000 people who crammed into the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall at the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
The hall was used as the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2004, until the new building was completed at the other end of the Royal Mile, and it was for one very special politician that so many had gathered. The event was a commemoration for Margo MacDonald, who died on April 4th.
There are very few people who are nationally recognised just by the mention of their first name: Margo was such a person.
I was fortunate to know Margo as a friend and parliamentary colleague. I witnessed, first-hand, how the public held her in great affection. In Edinburgh, it didn’t matter where you went with Margo, everyone knew her and everyone wanted to talk to her.
At the commemoration, Margo’s husband Jim Sillars said there were three time-zones in the UK – Greenwich Mean Time, British Summer Time...and Margo Time. Part of the reason Margo was late for everything was her willingness to stop and engage with everyone who spoke to her. She always had time for people and was prepared to listen to what they had to say, whether it was a concern about politics, social issues, a discussion on the relative merits of Hibs and Hearts – she was a big Hibs fan – special bargains on the QVC shopping channel or simply someone who wanted a wee blether. Margo was the same with everyone, whether you were the First Minister of Scotland or someone she was meeting for the first time in a chance encounter on the street. What you saw was what you got with Margo.
Born Margo Aitken in Hamilton, the young girl that would go on to break the male-dominated political mould in Scotland grew up with a sister and brother in a single-parent home. Her mother raised the three children through very difficult times. When Margo the politician spoke about poverty, she knew her subject well because she had lived it.
A bright pupil, the schoolgirl Margo also excelled at sport, particularly swimming. It was therefore no surprise when she combined education and sport to train as a PE teacher.
However, as she married and had children, Margo followed her first husband into his line of work – running a pub. Can you imagine the conversations in a pub where Margo was behind the bar?
It was politics, though, that catapulted Margo to national prominence when, in 1973, she won a stunning victory for the SNP in a by-election in the Glasgow constituency of Govan. The media had never seen anything like Margo. Until she arrived on the scene politics had been a dull, dry occupation for men. Margo changed that forever. She swept aside outdated conventions and made it acceptable for intelligent, articulate women to take their rightful place in making the decisions that affect the country.
Speaking at last week's commemoration, the actress Elaine C. Smith recalled how she had seen this attractive blonde woman on the television, speaking in the same working class Scottish accent as she did, and arguing about politics, which the young Elaine thought was only something men did. Today, there are so many strong, able female politicians in Scotland who owe their presence in the political world to the inspiration Margo provided and to the fact she smashed the men-only mould.
Margo fought all of her adult life for Scottish independence, not because she wanted to swap London government for Edinburgh government, but because she knew the people best-placed to take decisions to improve the lives of ordinary Scots are those very same ordinary Scots. Only independence gives the people of Scotland the full powers necessary to radically transform Scottish society, and that was why Margo wanted independence. She wanted Scotland to have use of the full resources of the nation, and she wanted those resources used to deliver a country where children didn’t have to grow up in the poverty she had known as a child.
It wasn’t flags or seats of government that mattered to Margo, it was people.
Jim Sillars told last week’s commemoration that when Margo knew she was dying, she began to put everything in order, including arranging for decorators to come in and ‘do up’ the house, so it was nice for Jim after she had gone.
Jim also said Margo made him promise not to stop campaigning for independence. She told him not to mourn, but to get back out on the road and persuade as many people as possible to vote ‘YES’ on September 18th.
For Margo, I promise to do that too.