Margo MacDonald - Politician loved by the people

Margo MacDonald, Picture: Jane Barlow

Margo MacDonald, Picture: Jane Barlow

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SHE spoke up for prostitutes, condemned overspending on the parliament building and campaigned for the legalisation of assisted suicide.

Never one to shy away from controversy, Margo MacDonald was the people’s politician – outspoken, hugely respected and highly influential despite never holding government office.

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Margo: in her own words

Her death, aged 70, robs Scotland of one of its most effective and down-to-earth campaigners.

She passed away peacefully at her home in The Grange yesterday, surrounded by her family. She had battled with ill health for some time, but continued working right up to the end.

Margo was born in Hamilton and grew up in and around East Kilbride, one of three children. Her mother, Jean, was a nurse but her parents separated when she was 12. She told an interviewer her father was inadequate. “He was very cruel and my mum took us away for our own good.”

The family was “desperately poor” and moved frequently until they managed to secure a council house, an end terrace in East Kilbride.

After Hamilton Academy, she trained as a PE teacher at Dunfermline College.

In 1965, she married her first husband, Peter MacDonald, and they took over the running of the Blantyre pub he had inherited from his father, the Barnhill Tavern, known as The Hoolet’s Nest.

Taking on the responsibilities of a pub landlady at just 21 helped Margo develop her natural skills of dealing with all kinds of people and all kinds of argument.

The couple had two daughters, Petra and Zoe, but the marriage did not last. “I loved Peter with all my heart, but the pair of us fought like cat and dog ­because we were too young and had too much responsibility,” she recalled in an interview. They divorced in 1980.

Margo first burst onto the political scene as the surprise victor of the Govan by-election in 1973. It had been one of Labour’s safest seats, but she won it for the SNP with a swing of 26.7 per cent.

Her career as an MP came to an end when she was defeated at the general election just four months later, but her by-election triumph gave the SNP the momentum to reach its Westminster peak – winning seven MPs at the February 1974 election and the “football team” of 11 MPs at the second election of the year in October.

Margo went on to become deputy leader of the party and played a key role inside the SNP in the critical period before the first devolution referendum in 1979.

It was the campaign for a Yes vote for a Scottish Assembly which brought Margo together with Jim Sillars, who had broken away from Labour to form his own Scottish Labour Party. They married in 1981.

Margo was a leading member of the left-wing ’79 group of Nationalists – along with Alex Salmond and Kenny Mac-Askill. Several of the group were expelled from the SNP for their activities and Margo resigned in protest.

She was director of Shelter in Scotland for two years before joining Radio Forth in 1981 and later worked as a presenter for STV.

A passionate supporter of Hibernian FC, she was heavily involved in the “Hands off Hibs” group, which campaigned for the future of the club in the 1990s.

Devolution opened the door to Margo’s return to parliamentary politics and she was elected as an SNP list MSP for Lothian in the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999.

Four years later, jealousies inside the party saw her pushed too far down the rankings to have a realistic chance of getting re-elected and she decided to quit the SNP and stand as an independent.

For almost any other politician, it would have been a massive gamble, but Margo’s profile and popularity were such that she got back in comfortably – and was re-elected again in 2007 and 2011.

One of the first issues which Margo took up on becoming an MSP was the escalating cost of the Holyrood building. She and Liberal Democrat Donald Gorrie became the leading critics of a project that looked increasingly out of control. Twice they came within just a few votes of forcing a rethink.

Margo continued to keep a close eye on the £414 million building and its problems, warning only earlier this week about the likelihood of big bills for repair and maintenance as it reaches its tenth anniversary.

She was a consistent supporter of Edinburgh’s long-established pragmatic approach to prostitution and warned a move away from the policy would put sex workers at greater risk. She proposed legislation giving local authorities the power to establish tolerance zones where prostitutes could tout for business without fear of prosecution, but MSPs voted it down.

She campaigned successfully for Edinburgh-raised Kenny Richey to be freed from Death Row in the United States, where he was held for 16 years after being convicted of starting a fire which killed a two-year-old girl.

And at the time of her death Margo was still pressing ahead with her Bill to legalise assisted suicide. Her first attempt was defeated in the parliament, but she believed public opinion had shifted in favour of the change.

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1996, she told only a handful of people she had the condition until going public in an Evening News interview in 2002. She spoke movingly about how her Bill would give her the reassurance that if life became intolerable there was an alternative to prolonged suffering. Her death does not mean the end of the Bill – it will now be taken up by Green MSP Patrick Harvie.

Margo was held in high respect and great affection by people across the political spectrum. Even when seriously ill, she was a hugely influential figure at Holyrood, zipping around the building on her mobility scooter.

And despite their previous falling-out, she had the ear of senior SNP ministers. First Minister Alex Salmond visited her at her home within the past few weeks.

Margo dealt with serious issues all her life, but never took herself too seriously. She was famous for her love of the shopping channel QVC. She christened part of the parliament’s bar “Margo’s snug”. And in 2007 she even appeared in a stand-up comedy show “Laugh? I Nearly Voted!” with other politicians. It was, she said, “a chance to laugh at ourselves”.

Under the rules, there will be no by-election to replace Margo at Holyrood. When list seats fall vacant, they normally go to the next person on the party’s list, but since Margo was elected as an individual, her seat will remain unfilled until the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2016.

A MASTER AT HELPING THE CAPITAL

By Donald Anderson

Margo was able to exploit her position as an independent MSP ruthlessly on behalf of Edinburgh – and she was a master at it. She managed to keep the city’s agenda in front of ministers and bring millions of pounds worth of additional investment into Edinburgh. When Margo spoke, politicians of all parties listened – and acted.

The Capital City Supplement (extra cash in recognition of Edinburgh’s unique role) would never have happened without Margo’s influence and hard work.