Politician and journalist
Politician and journalist
Born April 19, 1943; Died April 4, 2014
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Margo MacDonald, who has died aged 70, first burst onto the Scottish political stage towards the end of 1973, one of two charismatic female Nationalists (the other being Winnie Ewing) who helped establish the SNP as a serious political force.
The death of John Rankin in October that year had sparked a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Glasgow Govan and Ms MacDonald, then an attractive 30-year-old mother of two, was selected to fight it for the SNP, her first outing as a candidate. She won, against all the odds (her campaign HQ was in a condemned building), by the narrow margin of 571 votes. But although the result was symptomatic of a rise in SNP support, Ms MacDonald's Parliamentary career was short lived.
She took her oath on 22 November 1973 and made her maiden speech on 11 December, but when Edward Heath called a snap general election early the following year Ms MacDonald lost Govan by the equally narrow margin of 543 votes to a Trotskyite barber called Harry Selby. She had spent just 78 days as a Member of Parliament.
Billy Wolfe, the then SNP leader, regarded Ms MacDonald's defeat as a political tragedy and unsurprisingly she interpreted it as a personal rejection. But it helped establish her within the party hierarchy and later she would jokingly call herself "Grandma Moses", conscious that she had helped move her party a little bit closer to the electoral Promised Land.
Ms MacDonald was born on April 19 1943 in Hamilton and grew up, one of three children, in and around East Kilbride. Her mother Jean was a nurse and her father Robert, in her own words, an "inadequate" and "cruel" man, left when she was just 12. She recalled her teenage years being "desperately poor", living for a time in a caravan and then with the family of a farmer.
She was educated at Hamilton Academy, where contemporaries included the future Scotland coach Craig Brown (he remembered a romance, Ms MacDonald did not) and Peter MacDonald, who became Margo's first husband in 1965. The couple took over the running of a Blantyre pub he had inherited from his father, the Barnhill Tavern, otherwise known as The Hoolet's Nest. "If you ask what shaped me," Ms MacDonald later reflected, "it was that as much as anything".
Already self-sufficient given her peripatetic upbringing, Ms MacDonald found herself talking politics with miners and steelworkers (one regular recalled being served by Margo in her bare feet). Meanwhile she gave birth to two daughters, Petra and Zoe, but by the time she fought Govan in 1973 - in the interim she had trained as a PE teacher - her marriage was already in difficulty.
Her by-election victory was significant because, as with Winnie Ewing in Hamilton six years before, she had gained a hitherto safe Labour seat. Ms MacDonald's arrival at Westminster doubled the number of SNP MPs and suggested the party was on a roll, as indeed it proved to be the following year.
In her maiden speech Ms MacDonald described her constituency - accurately - as "the most desolate part of Glasgow" and hoped approval of the Hunterston ore terminal would give the West of Scotland a "psychological boost". Displaying all too typical sexism, the Scottish Tory MP Tam Galbraith congratulated the new MP on an "attractively delivered speech". He added: "If all that I heard did not please my ears, everything that my eye saw was a delight.'
Ms MacDonald was indeed strikingly attractive, and the novelty of a 30-year-old "blonde bombshell" attracted significant publicity, which in any case she was already adept at cultivating. In late November Ms MacDonald joined forces with Liberal MPs to present a Bill to establish parliaments for Scotland and Wales (a Royal Commission had reported shortly before her by-election win), but it met with a similar fate to Margo, who lost her seat in the election called shortly thereafter.
She fought Govan again in October 1974 but lost by nearly 2000 votes. Obviously frustrated at her Commons career being cut short, Ms MacDonald instead became the SNP's senior vice-chairman (in effect, deputy leader) and established herself as a major force in the party's hierarchy. In May 1978 she had one last go at re-entering Parliament at another by-election in Hamilton, but lost to Labour's George Robertson despite gaining a third of the vote.
By then significant tensions had already emerged between the SNP leadership in Edinburgh and a now 11-strong group of MPs at Westminster (Margo was initially responsible for liaising between the two). At a December 1974 National Council meeting Ms MacDonald had been critical of the SNP's failure to win seats from Labour in industrial Scotland (including, presumably, herself in Govan) and urged the party to move to the Left in order to compete (it had fought both 1974 elections on a social democratic platform).
Ms MacDonald applied the same analysis to the outcome of the controversial devolution referendum in March 1979: while working-class Scots had voted Yes in the referendum, she argued, Scotland's middle classes had voted No; therefore the SNP had to look to the former in order to build future support. The result of the May 1979 general election, in which the party lost 9 of its 11 MPs, strengthened her class-based analysis of how the SNP ought to respond.
She was not alone, and shortly after the election Ms MacDonald became one of three spokesmen and women for the so-called 79 Group (another was Alex Salmond). This "party within a party" did not go down well with the SNP old guard and her bid for re-election as deputy leader at the 1979 party conference ended in failure (partly a backlash against her role in the ill-fated Yes campaign). Three years later she jumped before she was pushed out of the party along with Mr Salmond et al.
In 1981 she married Jim Sillars, who joined the SNP having started out as a Labour MP, and set out to re-establish herself as a journalist. Ms MacDonald was perhaps a better writer than she was a broadcaster, but she had the advantage of possessing an engaging and accessible style. When Mr Sillars won another Govan by-election in 1988 Margo believed Scottish Television dropped her because it feared accusations of bias, although she managed to find other work.
By the early 1990s Ms MacDonald had applied for readmission to the SNP, although relations with its youthful new leader, Mr Salmond, were not easy given his strained relationship with Mr Sillars. And when the creation of a Scottish Parliament became inevitable following the Labour landslide in 1997, Margo made sure she was on the candidates' list. "What else can I do? I want independence," she said at the time. "And what other party is going to deliver? So yes, I've come home."
She easily topped the SNP's list for the Lothians and was thus a founding member of the Scottish Parliament elected in 1999. Perhaps unrealistically, she expected a front bench post and was bitterly disappointed not to get one. Instead she chaired the unsexy but necessary Subordinate Legislation Committee, enlivening its proceedings with her dry wit. Her relationship with the party leadership did not improve when she backed Alex Neil following Mr Salmond's surprise resignation in 2000.
This diminished status was confirmed when she was ranked just fifth on the Lothians list, making her re-election in 2003 virtually impossible. Upset but bullish, Ms MacDonald instead decided to run as an independent. "I've always put people before party," she explained. "As such, I'm out of step with the party control freakery which is all too evident in the executive coalition and the SNP." She was officially expelled from the SNP on 28 January 2003.
In a clumsy attempt to diminish her chances of victory, someone (Ms MacDonald claimed a former friend) told the media she was suffering from Parkinson's disease, which had been diagnosed in 1996. Although her condition was mild, the announcement provoked sympathy and, bolstered by Jack McConnell's agreement to hold an official inquiry into the Holyrood building project - on which Ms MacDonald had long campaigned - she won more than 10% of the Lothians list vote at the 2003 election, enough to elect two Margos.
Liberated from the strictures of party politics, Ms MacDonald threw herself into various high-profile, if ultimately unsuccessful, campaigns, including a Bill to establish prostitution tolerance zones and another to legalise assisted suicide, the latter imbued with greater resonance given her own health issues.
In a memorable 2008 speech, Ms MacDonald spoke about her degenerative condition and how she would like the ability to take the decision to end her own life (a desire fully supported by her husband). Her End of Life Assistance Bill, however, was defeated by 85 votes to 16, while a second attempt, the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, fared little better.
Both measures were libertarian rather than explicitly left wing, reflecting Ms MacDonald's journey from Marxist firebrand to liberal populist, and by the early 2000s she was that rare thing, a popular politician not to mention a household name. In 2007 she was comfortably re-elected with 6.7% of the Lothians vote (after which she stood unsuccessfully as Presiding Officer), and again in 2011 with roughly the same vote share. She had not ruled out running for a fifth time in 2016.
Even during bouts of ill health - including periods of hospitalisation - Ms MacDonald was relentlessly upbeat. Eventually she had to walk with sticks, which she hated, or glide around Holyrood on a mobility scooter, but that simply added to her charm. Addicted to jewelry and fashion, she was a fixture in several incarnations of the Scottish Parliament's bar. "She is simultaneously waspish and wee-wumminish," observed one journalist, "Dorothy Parker meets Dorothy Paul."
She was not, of course, to everyone's taste, charismatic politicians rarely are, but Ms MacDonald was at least self-aware. "There are many things about me that probably irritate people," she reflected in 2006. "A lot of folk love me, but I also know a hell of a lot who don't." A political animal, relaxation generally involved spending time with her extended family (one of her daughters was married to a Proclaimer), Hibs and holidays in Portugal, where she would swim while Mr Sillars read.
She is survived by her husband Jim Sillars and two daughters from her first marriage.