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Significant Scots
Margo MacDonald


This obituary comes from The Telegraph newspaper.

Margo MacDonald was the charismatic face of the SNP in the 1970s whose fervent socialism led to splits with her own party.

Margo MacDonald who has died aged 70, was the larger-than-life face of Scottish nationalism, the winner of a sensational by-election at Govan in 1973, an inaugural member of the Scottish Parliament and the political and marital partner of Jim Sillars, who quit Labour to found his own party before also winning Govan for the SNP.

Margo MacDonald was living proof of the party’s fractiousness. Convinced that nationalism was as much about personal liberty as freedom for the Scottish nation, she twice left the party — under duress in 1982 when its leaders lost patience with her Left-wing 79 Group; and again before the 2003 Holyrood elections, sitting for her final two terms as an Independent.

Margo MacDonald was uncomfortably far to the Left for a party establishment she branded “tartan Tories”, but the SNP found it hard to live without her charisma from the moment in November 1973 when she captured solidly Labour Govan with a majority of 571.

Her tabloid image as a glamorous 29-year-old publican’s wife (her first husband, Peter, was licensee of the Hoolet’s Nest at Blantyre) did her no harm against a lacklustre opponent. But while her fervour and good looks made her a natural for television, she was serious about her politics and resented being called a blonde bombshell.

The inadequacies of Labour’s Harry Selby, a hairdresser, could not alone explain the collapse of its vote. The novelty of a forceful woman candidate in a working-class Glasgow seat was a factor. So, too, was the widespread belief that, while Edward Heath’s government had been disastrous for Clydeside, a tired Labour Party had little to offer.

Yet the result also reflected a growing local militancy stemming from the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in, and an upsurge of pressure for independence that caught Labour unawares. The publication in mid-campaign of the Kilbrandon Report recommending a Scottish Assembly, and Labour’s lukewarm response, was just the boost the SNP needed.

Margo MacDonald spent barely two months in the Commons before Heath called — and lost — a snap election. In that time she raised the standard of an independent Scotland drawing strength from North Sea oil revenues, capturing more headlines back home. The February 1974 election was bitter for her, but sweet for her party: boundary changes gave Selby his revenge by 543 votes, but the SNP gained six other seats, causing panic in both main parties.

Labour made a painful U-turn over devolution in time for a further election that October; Margo fought Govan again, but the margin widened. As the SNP’s senior vice-chairman, she urged the party Leftwards and, as Wilson and later James Callaghan saw even their modest devolution proposals hampered by lack of a clear Commons majority, she scorned their “hollow assembly” and upped the pressure for independence.

She tried once more to return to the Commons, in a by-election at Hamilton in June 1978. The omens were good: this was her home town, and the seat Winifred Ewing had captured in 1968 to launch the SNP as a serious force. But a hiding from Labour in the local elections got her campaign off on the wrong foot, the future defence secretary George Robertson proved a tough opponent, and despite her warning that if she lost there would never be a Scottish assembly, Labour doubled its majority. That August she became Scottish director of Shelter.

Labour got its devolution scheme on to the Statute Book, and a referendum was set for March 1979. Despite her reservations, Margo Macdonald campaigned energetically for a “Yes” vote. And when the campaign team was formed in 1978, she and Sillars — then leader of the two-MP Scottish Labour Party — were thrown together.

She had separated from her husband two years before, and Sillars’s own marriage had broken down. Both wanted an independent, socialist Scotland, and their partnership was strengthened by the inconclusive result of the referendum and Sillars’s loss of his seat in the 1979 election (triggered by the passage of the SNP’s consequent no-confidence motion in Callaghan’s government).

Even before the referendum and the SNP’s heavy losses, she had founded the 79 Group within the party, aimed at securing a more socialist programme. This cost her the SNP vice-chairmanship at the 1979 conference, but gained a powerful recruit in Sillars, who joined the party and the Group. They married in 1981.

For a time, Sillars and MacDonald looked to their supporters a “dream ticket” who could lead the SNP Leftwards to victory. But the leadership had had enough; it cracked the whip again, and Margo resigned from the party, blaming Winifred Ewing. Sillars stayed in. He would himself win a by-election at Govan in 1988; his wife did not campaign for him despite her past triumph there, but was with him for the declaration of the result.

Margo MacDonald was back in the SNP by the time Tony Blair’s government delivered a Scottish Parliament. She stood for Edinburgh South in the first Holyrood elections in 1999, but became an MSP by virtue of topping the SNP’s list of candidates for the Lothians. She again enjoyed a bumpy relationship with the party, especially after John Swinney replaced Alex Salmond as its leader. Impatient with his moderation, she was expelled in January 2003.

Re-elected as an Independent that year — she backed the Scottish Socialist Party during the campaign — she joined a non-party group comprising health and senior citizens’ campaigners and defectors from Labour and the SNP. In the 2007 elections, only she among the Independents survived.

Her greatest contribution as an MSP was to leak in 2004 a report on the soaring cost of the new Parliament building. Discontent over the more than 10-fold increase in the original estimate of 40 million came to a head, and her action led to the First Minister, Jack McConnell, setting up an inquiry which pilloried a number of the officials responsible.

In 1996 Margo MacDonald was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Six years later she made her illness public, and demanded the legal right to end her own life. She launched a campaign for assisted dying to be legalised, and cooperated with a BBC documentary exploring both sides of the argument.

She explained on the programme: “The possibility of having the worst form of the disease at the end of life has made me think about unpleasant things. I feel strongly that, in the event of losing my dignity or being faced with the prospect of a painful or protracted death, I should have the right to choose to curtail my own, and my family’s, suffering.”

Margo Aitken was born on April 19 1943 . After attending Hamilton Academy, she trained as a PE teacher at Dunfermline College. Inspired by Winifred Ewing’s victory at Hamilton, she joined the SNP and in 1970 contested Paisley. In 1972, aged 29, she was elected a party vice-chairman; months later she was an MP.

After her break with the SNP she reinvented herself as an Edinburgh-based journalist. In 1985-86 she presented Radio 4’s Sunday Colour Supplement and the consumer programme Face the Facts, and she continued to broadcast frequently.

Margo MacDonald leaves two daughters from her marriage to Peter MacDonald, whom she married in 1965 and divorced in 1980. Jim Sillars also survives her.

Margo MacDonald, born April 19 1943, died April 4 2014


Margo MacDonald's speech @ Scottish Independence Rally Sept 2012

See also her memorial service

Got in a note in from David Thompson...

Margo and I joined 1,000 others at the assembly halls on the mound for the most moving and inspiring service of memory for Margo MacDonald.

There were great speeches from Alex Neill, Elaine C Smith (both highly amusing and powerful), rounded off by Jim Sillars and the Proclaimers.

The audience was a who's who of the Scottish Parliament, all of whom applauded loudly with a standing ovation at the end for Jim. Going out we sang "a man's a man for a' that".


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