(c) The Daily Record
Spring 2014 is not proving to be a good season for the remaining handful of British politicians who choose to show an independent cast of mind and follow their own consciences, rather than obsequiously toe a party line – even if such independence and integrity costs them a lucrative political career and dooms them to a lifetime of outsider-status.
A few weeks back, the venerable socialist Tony Benn shuffled off this mortal coil. Ostracised by his own Labour Party in the 1980s while it was bidding to make itself ‘electable’, Benn’s left-wing zeal now seems refreshingly honest and honourable, especially when it’s measured against the cynicism and opportunism of those who rose to power in Labour after he’d been shunted into the sidings – that of the notorious trough-feeder Neil Kinnock and of the even more loathsome Tony Blair.
Then, last week, there was the news that Margo MacDonald, the one-time Scottish National Party MP and more lately an independent member of the Scottish Parliament, had succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, against which she’d been battling for many years.
Margo became an MP in November 1973 at the age of 30, after winning the Glaswegian constituency of Govan for the SNP in a by-election. Her victory was memorable because it shattered the Labour Party’s assumption that the vote in urban working-class Scotland would always be in its pocket. It was memorable too because Margo’s background was anything but the norm for a Westminster MP. She was a mother of two who’d never been to university. She’d trained as a Physical Education teacher but had more recently been working as a barmaid.
She lost the seat the following year, though. This was seemingly a harbinger of how the fortunes of the SNP, and the morale of Scotland generally, would deflate during the second half of the 1970s, culminating in the travesty of the 1979 Scottish devolution vote (a majority voted for a devolved Scottish parliament but due to backroom politicking it wasn’t delivered) and then the Westminster ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher (who seemed happy to run Scotland like it was a colonial territory). I’ve seen a depressing clip of Margo campaigning in 1978, trying to engage some miserable-looking people who were clearly suffering from a massive dose of the Scottish cringe. One woman started heckling her, lamenting that Scotland could never survive as an independent country because all it would be fit to do would be to ‘pump oil.’ Oh aye, pumping oil. That’d be fatal for a country’s economy…
But thanks to her gregarious personality and many media appearances – she was on TV a lot and, if memory serves me correctly, she even had regular columns in the fervently pro-Labour Daily Record and Sunday Mail newspapers – she stayed in the public consciousness. When the Scottish Parliament was finally set up – 20 years late, many would grouse – she was a shoo-in as one of the new MSPs. By now her days as the SNP’s bubbly and Abba-esque ‘blonde bombshell’ were behind her. She’d matured into a doughty and formidable matriarch. Fond of a laugh, but plain-speaking and at times bloody-minded, she was somebody you’d love to love to have as a pal, but at the same time you really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her. I suspect she was most Scottish people’s notion of what the ideal mum would be like.
Her relationship with the SNP ended acrimoniously in 2003. She didn’t get on with the party’s ultra-cautious then-leader John Swinney and she was eventually expelled. However, she seemed more than happy to re-invent herself as an independent and the people of Lothian region were more than happy to re-elect her to the Scottish Parliament as such.
Her maverick status paralleled that of her second husband, the one-time SNP MP Jim Sillars, who ended up having his own feud with the party and headed off to plough his own lonely furrow. Indeed, Sillars, who in the late 1980s had been ubiquitous on the Scottish political scene, seemed to vanish entirely off the radar for a while. (With the Scottish independence vote this September approaching, I’m pleased to say that Jim Sillars has been visible again of late. A few weeks ago, I saw him take part in a televised debate about independence with the preening and increasingly ludicrous George Galloway. Sillars quietly made mincemeat of Galloway, whose only way of dealing with criticism and argument these days is to shout, “That’s nonsense on stilts!”)
Being an independent MSP – albeit one still committed to independence, as she’d been in her SNP days – suited Margo down to the ground and it allowed her to get on with her own personal campaigns. She tried to get to the bottom of the fiasco surrounding the construction of the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, a project that ended up costing £414 million, about ten times its original estimated price, and that nearly wrecked the credibility of the parliament as an institution before it’d properly started operating. She fought for the rights and safety of workers in Scotland’s sex industry at a time when the police’s policy seemed to be to turn them out onto the streets. And she championed an Assisted Suicide Bill to permit the terminally ill in Scotland to end their lives at their own choosing – a cause that’d come increasingly close to her heart after she was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease in the late 1990s.
Her death a few days ago brought tributes from across the political spectrum. Even Alan Cochrane, the Daily Telegraph’s rabidly independence-hating Scottish correspondent, penned a moving eulogy to her – although I suspect that if Margo had read his previous column (in which Cochrane used a tragedy at an Edinburgh school where a 12-year-old pupil had been killed by a collapsing changing-room wall as an excuse to condemn the Scottish Parliament), she’d have run him down with the mobility scooter she’d been using towards the end of her life and then drove it over the top of his head. Meanwhile, she was also the subject of an obituary written for the Independent newspaper by the lugubrious, fiercely-his-own-man and much-loved former Labour MP Tam Dalyell. Actually, in this post-Benn, post-MacDonald era, Tam is possibly the last of the Mohicans.
Dalyell concluded his piece by admitting that, in the last Scottish election, he’d actually voted for her. What, Tam Dalyell voting for a pro-Scottish-independence politician? Only Margo could do that.
Here she is, by the way, speaking at the pro-independence rally on September 22nd, 2012: