AS The Herald Scottish Politician of the Year Awards pause in 2020 because of Covid, this week’s look at the best of the best from the past 21 years continues with two categories that have featured some of Holyrood’s most colourful and unbiddable MSPs. 

Like devolution, the first has constantly evolved, from Maverick, to Free Spirit, Political Impact and now Community MSP of Year.  

The common thread has been the individualistic streak and cussedness of the winners: MSPs who could straddle the demands of both their public and party roles, and who often, frankly, couldn’t give a damn if the party came second.  

The judges unanimously agreed that no one better has embodied that spirit than the award’s inaugural winner, the incomparable Margo MacDonald.  

A political phenomenon, the former PE teacher made a political splash by taking the ostensibly safe Labour seat of Glasgow Govan for the SNP in a 1973 by-election aged just 30. 

Depute leader of the party for five years, she fell out with the leadership over the left-wing 79 group backed by Alex Salmond, and quit the party in 1982, becoming a respected journalist.  

By the mid-90s she had returned to the party fold, and was elected a Lothians list MSP in 1999.  

But her rebellious streak and fundamentalist tendencies led to another fall-out with the leadership, resulting in her being demoted on the list rankings to an unwinnable spot.  


Margo MacDonald MSP

She stood as an independent instead, and was expelled from the SNP shortly before the 2003 election.  In a disgraceful example of the dark arts, the media was briefed that she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease in an apparent bid to damage her chances. It backfired and gained her sympathy, and she won 10 per cent of the Lothians vote. 

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Free from party restraint, she threw herself into a series of controversial campaigns, including prostitution tolerance zones and assisted suicide. 

She was also a siren voice on the rising cost of the Holyrood building. 

Twice re-elected as an independent, she became the conscience and sage of Holyrood even as her health failed, a sort of Yoda on a mobility scooter.  

Her example lives on in political jargon – standing as an independent is known as “doing a Margo”– while her good humour and affability means the Holyrood bar is nicknamed Margo’s.  

She died in 2014 aged 70.  

Also commended by the judges was Karen Gillon, the Labour backbencher for Clydesdale who turned a constituency tragedy into a national campaign for justice, clashing with her own ministers in the process.

After four members of a family were killed by gas explosion in Larkhall in 1999, she fought tirelessly for tougher laws on corporate killing.   

Today’s other category is One to Watch, which recognises rising stars and potential party leaders.  

The judges choice for the best of the best is Ruth Davidson, who won the award in 2011, the same year she entered Holyrood and swiftly took the helm of the Scottish Tories. 

Although her first years in charge were decidedly rocky, she grew into the role during the independence referendum and its aftermath. The upshot was a revival of the Scottish Tory brand at the 2016 local and Holyrood elections, when her party overtook Labour to become the second biggest in Scottish politics.  


Former Constervative leader Ruth Davidson

A year later, she increased the number of Tory MPs from one to 13 at the General Election. Self-deprecating, rude, with a knack for a vivid turn of phrase, she also found a UK audience during the EU referendum, and was mooted as a potential UK leader.  

After quitting as Scottish leader last year, she has found a new role supporting Douglas Ross at Holyrood, and will go to the Lords in the spring.  

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All winners of this award show potential. Ms Davidson was named the overall winner for realising it in the biggest and more enduring way.   

Also commended by the judges were the SNP’s Kate Forbes, who passed the sink-or-swim test as Finance Secretary after being thrust into the job at a few hours’ notice after the resignation of Derek Mackay. 


Finance Secretary Kate Forbes 

Green MSP Ross Greer has also proven a talented communicator, whether sparring with Piers Morgan over Winston Churchill’s legacy or as his party’s education spokesperson. 

While Alex Cole-Hamilton, the only Liberal Democrat to take a seat from the SNP  in 2016, was praised for his work in the health brief. Long tipped as his party’s leader, he is still waiting. But perhaps one day his prince will come – driving a bus at Willie Rennie.