Ian Swanson: Margo’s influence on SNP still strong

Alex Salmond will draw on Margo MacDonald's wisdom for the September vote. Picture: Jon Savage
Alex Salmond will draw on Margo MacDonald's wisdom for the September vote. Picture: Jon Savage
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IT’S more than a decade since she left the party, yet the death of Margo MacDonald has robbed the SNP of one of its guiding spirits.

Though she no longer stood under the party label, she always maintained good relations with many inside the SNP, often had private, behind-the-scenes talks with senior ministers and was recognised as a hugely important and influential figure in the nationalist movement.

SNP members gathering in Aberdeen for their conference this weekend – with less than six months now to go to the referendum – will mourn the passing of a politician whose commitment to the independence cause was unwavering for more than 40 years.

And her influence is set to last well beyond her death. She may not be here to see the referendum result in September, but First Minister Alex Salmond has said he will be drawing on her wisdom to win the vote.

They did not always see eye-to-eye, but he described visiting her just a week or so before she died. “She offered me all sorts of good advice about how to win the referendum in September – and I intend to follow that good advice.”

He didn’t reveal what Margo told him, but it might well have included a suggestion that the Yes campaign should concentrate on some simple, down-to-earth explanations of why independence would make a difference to people’s lives. And she might have urged him to focus on the 
principle of Scotland having the power to decide matters for itself rather than allowing the campaign to get bogged down in specific policies where there might not be agreement.

Margo was one of a shrinking number of politicians who had been through the highs and lows of nationalism in the Seventies and Eighties. She also had a special knack of connecting with voters. And she was able to use all that experience to judge how best to take the campaign forward.

Margo first made her mark in the 1970s, but her election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as an SNP Lothians list MSP was a welcome return to frontline politics by a charismatic campaigner who was certain to make an impact in the new world of devolution.

But she was too big a personality and too independent-minded to be confined by party discipline and when it came to ranking candidates for the 2003 election, her critics inside the SNP made sure she was pushed down to fifth place on the list – which would have given her no chance of being re-elected.

Rather than accept that fate, she decided to stand as an independent – and was re-elected comfortably, just as Margo. She never regretted the move. Independence freed her from the constraints of the party whip and meant she could speak freely and take up issues as she chose. She made the most of it.

But she also kept her eye on the prize of independence – and Alex Salmond paid fulsome tribute to her crucial role in bringing Scotland to the brink of realising the dream they shared.

He described her 1973 Govan by-election victory as the catalyst for the SNP’s later success, in the following year’s elections and since.

He said: “That dazzling breakthrough set in course the train of events which culminates this year in the independence referendum.

I think it’s reasonable to say that without Margo’s presence and impact we would not be where we are now and we would not get where I hope we are going to get to.”