John McLellan: Margo was champion of underdogs

Margo MacDonald.  Picture: Robert Perry
Margo MacDonald. Picture: Robert Perry
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Since Margo MacDonald’s death a week ago, sincere tributes have continued to flow and her memorial service at the Assembly Hall on The Mound a week today will doubtless be packed to overflowing.

So much has been written about her in the past seven days, but one constant shines through it all; her great humour, honesty and determination.

I was fortunate enough to have known her for the best part of 20 years as her editor (as she would always describe me) here at the Evening News and latterly in the Scottish Parliament.

I was always amused when such significant a figure in Scottish politics for over 40 years would deferentially introduce me as “my editor” when she knew damn well I didn’t edit a word she wrote, but happily published it all without question.

She was a huge asset for the paper and the hole she leaves will be impossible to fill, even by someone as astute as her husband and political travelling companion Jim Sillars.

As her illness left her increasingly infirm, Jim kept the column going with some superb commentary, but not a week went by when he was filling in for Margo when I didn’t think “I hope Margo’s OK”.

As someone who latterly worked for the Scottish Conservatives, on the face of it there should have been little upon which Margo and I could agree, but I can’t ever remember having anything other than hugely entertaining and rewarding conversations with her.

Some of her explanations of elaborate plots and consequences I even managed to follow.

We were never going to see eye to eye on independence so it rarely came up, although in the last year she positively sparkled when saying she was convinced beyond certainty that Scotland was going to vote Yes. And I think she genuinely wanted me to be happy about that too!

Having spent over a year working in Holyrood, I can assure readers that they don’t know the half of what a dull, self-important bunch MSPs can be when they get to their feet. That was never something which could be laid at Margo’s door. Every time she stood to speak you knew there would be either fireworks or laughs, but you certainly couldn’t predict which.

While having unswerving conviction of her own beliefs, it did not matter to her whether she agreed with you or not. What mattered was that your beliefs were honestly held and that you were involved.

She obviously didn’t agree with much of what Ruth Davidson stood for, but she rated her highly and kept a close eye on her progress.

We never had the conversation, but I reckon Margo would have been impressed, and maybe not a little bit proud, of the way Ruth spoke in favour of same sex marriage. If there was one thing Margo and Ruth had in common it was courage.

Next to the main door of the MSP office block, her office was seemingly symbolically placed to keep watch on the comings and goings and as a constant reminder to all the earnest young wannabes that one of the enduring old stagers of Scottish 
politics was still in their midst. The truth was that the ground floor was the most suitable for an independent MSP on a scooter.

Although she never returned to the SNP fold, there was clearly a warming in her relationship with Alex Salmond in recent years.

Around the time of her fall-out with the party and the insulting fifth place on the Lothians list for the 2003 election, anger was never far below the surface when she spoke about the man who would be First Minister. Reports at the time describe the shock she felt at the attacks directed against her.

Latterly, that venom had gone and it was first-name terms. It was certainly very difficult to argue his tactics had been all wrong when the victory for which she’d fought all her political life was within touching distance. That the First Minister was able to visit her at home in recent weeks is a mark of how much the relationship had been repaired.

She loved the chess game of political manoeuvring and liked nothing better than a good gossip about the goings on of high and low politics, but an understanding of human frailty underpinned her views.

When the late Foreign Minister Robin Cook separated from his wife after his relationship with his secretary was revealed, Margo was unimpressed by the furore. “Ach,” she said “we’ve all known for years that Robin was a randy old goat”.

It is the mark of her that only two weeks ago, when she must have been desperately ill, Margo called SNP MSP Joan McAlpine to offer moral support amidst continuing adverse publicity about an expenses claim and an affair with a married man some years ago. Margo would have been well aware of the Holyrood scuttlebutt surrounding Ms McAlpine and I have little doubt she called because, not despite, of all that.

That instinct for lending a helping hand to any fellow human in trouble lay at the heart of the campaigns for which she’ll be most remembered.

No-one was better placed to argue for the legalisation of assisted suicide for those terminally ill people who want it.

Her campaign for the maintenance of tolerance zones for prostitutes was based on an understanding that, however distasteful it might be, some men will always be willing to pay for sex and some women would be prepared to offer it.

She knew that few women chose such a life but having done so they should be free from fear of attack, disease or prosecution. And she also understood the inadequacies of the clients.

The Scottish Parliament was the perfect platform for her and as a stickler for proper procedure and decorum with proven independence of mind, she was unquestionably the best Presiding Officer we never had.

Neither will we know what might have happened had the Scottish Parliament been established in 1979 when she was in her prime and before the schisms which took her from the SNP’s deputy leadership to the wilderness.

The doggedness she displayed in pursuing the disastrous Holyrood building project – and through political editor Ian Swanson, the Evening News was the main beneficiary of the intelligence she and Lib Dem MSP Donald Gorrie unearthed – would have been directed elsewhere.

Fireworks would certainly have been on the cards if there had been a Scottish Parliament containing a young Margo at the helm of the SNP at the same time as a Conservative administration in Westminster under Margaret Thatcher was dealing forcefully with industrial decline.

She was a serious person, often intense, but never took herself too seriously. So I guess it would be appropriate to rename the Holyrood watering hole where she held court with her chums Christine Grahame and Mary Scanlon as Margo’s Bar.

And given she counted every penny of the £430 million it cost to build the place, it’s the least they can do.

And even if they don’t, everyone in there will still call it Margo’s. With a wee wink and a nod, she’d appreciate that.

David’s missed too

YOU’RE never far away from a politician when you go to events in Edinburgh, some more than others.

And I could only count two at country music superstar Reba McIntyre’s concert at the Festival Theatre a few years ago. Margo you might have expected, but then Tory leader David McLetchie?

With two such important and colourful figures gone in less than a year, Holyrood is so much the poorer.

Calm and collected at burns’ disaster

MY predecessor at the Evening News, John McGurk, had the idea of creating Edinburgh’s biggest Burns’ Supper and with Margo in the chair, the inaugural event duly took place at the Assembly Rooms with a crowd of 500 and all went pretty well.

The following year, John had moved on and our events team decided to trim costs by employing a new caterer. Margo was back, with her well-thumbed and heavily annotated Complete Works, and I was sat with her on the top table which was rather loftily set up on the stage in the main hall.

This afforded us a bird’s eye view of the disaster about to unfold. The new caterers, whose name I have thankfully erased from memory, simply weren’t up to the job, and as the top table tucked into their haggis and neeps, an understandable rebellion rose amongst those who hadn’t had their bread rolls, never mind their cock-a-leekie soup.

People were looking up at our perch, saying things like “Hey Margo, we huvnie even had our soup” so we had to take charge. I was among the tables trying to redirect the waiters while Margo was on the stage trying to point out who had soup, who had haggis and who was still starvin’.

She just about blew a gasket when the tablet and coffee started appearing at one end of the room before soup had reached the other.

Mutiny was only just quelled when the late Russell Hunter delivered his classic Holy Willie’s Prayer, but I vowed there would be no repeat.

So the following year it was off to the EICC and no expense was spared to redeem our reputation, and with Margo back for the third year the event went like clockwork.

Until the end. A recovering heroin addict had been brought along by her mum as part of her rehab, but mum also thought it would be an idea to come with bottles of vodka in case in-house supplies were insufficient.

By the time half a dozen of Lothian and Borders’ finest had forced the screaming, withdrawing, vodka-sodden girl into the back of their wagon I decided Edinburgh could do without it’s big Burns bash. Margo didn’t disagree.