Scotland loses political star

James Mitchell looks back at the life of Margo MacDonald who placed independence before compromise

The Scottish Parliament prides itself in the number of visitors it receives. They might hope for a sighting of the First Minister, but Margo MacDonald was the member the public was keenest to actually meet on tours of Holyrood.

This larger-than-life character first came to prominence as a by-election candidate for the Scottish National Party in Glasgow Govan in 1973. She had joined the SNP in 1966, a year before Winnie Ewing secured the SNP’s first by-election victory in Hamilton. MacDonald was heavily involved in Ewing’s campaign, even though their relationship was always difficult.

There were two by-elections the day Margo MacDonald won Govan. The SNP’s hopes had initially focused on Edinburgh North where Billy Wolfe, then party leader, was the candidate. Not for the last time, Margo upstaged the SNP establishment by taking Govan from Labour while Wolfe won less than half Margo’s share of the vote.

She took up her seat in the UK Parliament alongside Donald Stewart, then the only SNP MP (for the Western Isles). But she was out of Westminster within three months when Govan returned to Labour at the February 1974 election. She failed to win it back that October even though her party made significant advances, taking 11 of Scotland’s 72 seats with 30% per cent of the vote. Her compensation was election as deputy leader. She was in charge of strategy and became the public face of the party in the lead-up to the March 1979 devolution referendum and the general election later that year.

She became a favourite of journalists and broadcasters seeking comment at this febrile time in Scottish politics. The SNP led in the polls and seemed unstoppable for a period. ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ may have been the brainchild of others in the SNP but MacDonald became the messenger. She never missed an opportunity to hammer home the message that oil could be used to tackle Scotland’s deep social and economic problems. But her success in getting the message across came at a cost: the SNP came to be seen to rely too heavily on this one resource. 

Rather than learning her trade in Glasgow University’s students’ union with numerous contemporaries, MacDonald had been a trainee physical education teacher. Her demotic style meant though she was a powerful communicator who spoke the language of the public, she suffered from the snobbish elitism found across all political parties in the 1970s.

But speaking the language of the playground rather than the classroom was no impediment in articulating complex ideas. MacDonald’s uncompromising refusal to translate her speech contributed in no small way to the democratisation of political debate, one of the most under-acknowledged achievements in Scottish politics.

MacDonald saw independence as more than a constitutional project. To her, it was the only way to confront social injustice. Her maiden speech in the Commons noted that her predecessor, John Rankin of Labour Cooperative, had referred to housing problems, slums and unemployment in 1945 and that the “same shameful facts are still all too self-evident in Govan 30 years later.”

Tam Galbraith, Glasgow’s last Tory MP, followed her stating that even if what he had heard did not please his ears, “everything that my eye saw was a delight”. She brought passion and commitment to all her causes and tackled Scotland’s boorish male-dominated politics with her own coquettish personal style, albeit she was easily slighted at times.

These prejudices were as evident in her own party where she became the focus of criticism as the SNP’s advances were reversed later in the 1970s. When MacDonald stood in Hamilton in another by-election in 1978, she was defeated by future Nato Secretary General George Robertson.

Tensions intensified over strategy between the 11 MPs and the SNP leadership based in Scotland, still under Billy Wolfe. MacDonald spent a period as director of homeless charity Shelter in Scotland between 1978 and 1981 but the climate made it particularly difficult to combine this with SNP activities. She was the main SNP casualty of the referendum failure and the general election results in the 1979, when she failed to take Glasgow Shettleston. She was then heavily defeated as deputy leader. 

MacDonald was instrumental in setting up the ’79 Group following the election, arguing for socialism and republicanism at its inaugural meeting. She faced suspension from the party when it voted to prohibit internal groups in 1982, but resigned before she could be suspended. Some would say she never developed the hard shell necessary for the macho world of Scottish politics.

If her political life declined from the latter half of the 1970s, her personal life gave her comfort. Jim Sillars had been a Labour MP but set up his breakaway Scottish Labour Party, supporting independence and socialism, in 1976.

There had been speculation that MacDonald might join. Instead, Sillars joined the SNP after losing his seat in 1979. The couple married and MacDonald set out on a new career as a journalist, while Sillars went on to build a career as an SNP politician. He followed his wife both to become SNP MP for Govan in a by-election in 1988, and deputy party leader. But as Sillars’ second political career declined after he lost Govan in 1992, MacDonald started to become engaged again. She developed a very personal style of broadcast journalism, with a particular focus on social justice. And as the prospect of a Scottish parliament became more likely as the nineties went on, she made the transition back into politics. 

She returned to the SNP, standing at the head of the party’s list in Lothian in 1999. Alex Salmond gave her responsibility for raising questions about the Holyrood parliament building, which was becoming a major issue as the cost escalated.

But as had happened in the 1970s, MacDonald’s skill in communicating a message outstripped its usefulness for the party leadership. Senior people in the party thought that the criticism of the building project undermined not only the building but the very idea of the parliament.

As the 2003 election approached, MacDonald failed to appreciate that popularity with the electorate was not the same as popularity with her party’s grass roots. She fell from top slot to fifth place in internal elections for the SNP’s Lothian list, effectively being de-selected. She attacked her colleagues bitterly and stood as an independent. She was returned and re-elected in 2007 and 2011. Her formal status as an independent merely acknowledged what she had always been.

Her campaigns in Holyrood were extensions of what she had long articulated in her journalism and before. Her advocacy of tolerance zones for prostitution in Edinburgh was informed by the same skills that she had deployed as a journalist. 

MacDonald also became a fierce advocate of assisted dying. Her campaigns were often rooted in the personal, but this one more than any, since she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In a moving contribution, she told parliament: “I don’t want to burden any doctor. I don’t want to burden any friend of family member.”

Her attempt to legislate in this area failed in 2010 but she continued to pursue the matter, pushing a second assisted dying bill through Holyrood at the time of her passing.

She was keenly aware of the characters of the national movement of which she was a part and knew the remark of fellow nationalist, republican and socialist Oliver Brown: “I regret the day I compromised the unity of my party by admitting a second member.” Margo MacDonald was never one for compromise. The public respected her.

James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh. This article originally appeared on TheConversatiion blog here (

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