The people’s politician
When Jim Sillars won the seat of Govan for the SNP in 1988 someone joked that while everyone else headed home for some peace, he went home every night to a public meeting. And it’s true, Margo MacDonald didn’t have a voice designed to whisper. She was loud and she had a lot to say.
And I admit that when you heard that mobility scooter, which she used latterly, come up behind you in the Scottish Parliament, your heart would sink just a little, not because you didn’t want to engage but because any encounter with Margo was never brief. We all listened, not because we had to but because we wanted to. She could talk the hind legs off a donkey and whether it was some searing analysis of the current political landscape or a detailed description of some new piece of glitzy frippery from Accessorize, it was all done with such intellect, gusto and passion that she demanded to be heard. It was seductive, intoxicating and it will be missed. I’ll miss it.
When Margo died last week, three days after Jim had been back in Govan speaking at a public debate on independence with Scottish Socialist chief, Colin Fox, how he must have wished he was still surrounded by that usual cacophony that was his wife. They talked about everything, all the time. Jim’s son, Mat, told me last week that their home was like a permanent debating chamber, even if all they were debating was her latest find on the shopping channel. How will Jim fill that space? How will we?
Margo knew she was dying. She believed she had a few months but, in the end, she had a few weeks. She had things to do. Things to organise. There just wasn’t enough time. She’d booked the house painters, had her hair done, made Jim promise that he would carry on the fight for the two of them. Had told me I wasn’t to let him stop writing. He was not allowed to sit and mourn. All of us were being set up for the end that she was preparing for but an end that came too soon. And so tantalisingly close to the vote that she had waited for all her life. How that must have ached. And only this week she was to start filming a video which could well have proved a pivotal point for the ‘Yes’ campaign. She had also been expecting to see Alex Salmond when he got back from his trip to the US because she had so much more she needed to say. So much advice to give. All of that remains as important today as it was when she ticked it off her ‘to do’ list because Margo does something that no other politician I can think of does, she crosses boundaries and she persuades and when she can’t get consensus, she unifies. She was, is, a force of nature. I say ‘is’ quite deliberately because the energy that was Margo, her spirit, will live on; the essence of what she fought for will live on.
Margo fought for independence all her political life. And while her relationship with the SNP – a party she once led as deputy leader and certainly one she thrust on to the political centre stage when she won the Govan by-election in 1973 – might have been a difficult one, fundamentally she wanted the same as Salmond and the SNP. She wanted independence for Scotland because she believed it was the right thing for Scots. Poverty appalled her. Her own upbringing had been desperate and was the wind beneath her wings. Margo wanted change and would work with anyone to get it. But she could not be shackled by party discipline or political rhetoric – neither did she want to be – so while the SNP transformed itself into an electoral-winning machine, she became a one-woman campaign. Jim persuaded her to stand as an independent because he believed that if she couldn’t do it, then who could? She fought and won a seat three times in Holyrood as an independent, proving the point that you don’t need to be in anyone’s gang. And it was with that thought, no doubt in mind, that Salmond called Jim Sillars with a heavy heart last week to express his pain at Margo’s passing. Salmond later revealed, during a television interview, that during his last visit with Margo, just a week before she died, when they had discussed the referendum campaign in great detail, she had given him some sound advice which he said he would certainly follow. What that advice was, for the moment, he’s not saying but given the public outpouring of grief that there has been for such a popular and unifying campaigner for independence as Margo, he would be wise to recognise the power she possessed in life and could still do in death.
And when it came to her funeral; in the end, as she always did, Margo got her own way. She and Jim discussed it in the weeks leading up to her death and although he argued for something bigger, because who could you leave out, she was adamant she wanted a small family affair. A humanist do. No fuss. Just a private time to say goodbye. And so Jim was persuaded that like in life, her death would have to be a game of two halves.
So on Friday, while her 10 grandchildren said their goodbyes to their ‘Edinburgh granny’ and Jim to the love of his life, Scotland gets its chance on 25 April when there will be a celebration of Margo’s life at the Assembly Hall on the Mound. It holds 1200 and Jim already questions whether that will be enough. There will be politicians, dignitaries and the great and the good but the important point for Margo will be the message ‘all welcome’.
Margo proved that independent voices don’t need to be crowded out by big party politics. She is a reminder to nationalists fighting for independence that to simply replicate a political system at Westminster should be anathema to their cause and paradoxically for the SNP, the party that couldn’t contain her, she proves a point that independence in politics matters. Her death could undoubtedly provide a turning point for the ‘Yes’ campaign and certainly for politics and that would be a legacy that Margo would certainly approve of.