Margaret Ewing

Schoolteacher turned Scottish Nationalist MP and, later, MSP who married into the Ewing dynasty


Margaret Anne McAdam, teacher and politician: born Lanark 1 September 1945; assistant teacher, Our Lady's High, Cumbernauld 1968-70; special assistant teacher, St Modan's High School, Stirling 1970-73, principal teacher, Remedial Education 1973-74; MP (SNP) for East Dumbartonshire 1974-79, for Moray 1987-2001; Senior Vice-Chairman, SNP 1984-87; Leader, SNP Parliamentary Group 1987-99; MSP (SNP) for Moray 1999-2006; married 1969 Donald Bain (marriage dissolved), 1983 Fergus Ewing; died Lossiemouth, Morayshire 21 March 2006.

In October 1974, somewhat unexpectedly, Margaret Bain, as she then was, won the seat of East Dumbartonshire for the Scottish National Party. When she arrived in the House of Commons, badge messengers would stop her in the corridors, thinking she was a secretary, and say, a little severely, "Sorry, you are not allowed in there." In her soft, lilting voice, she would explain that she was an elected Member of Parliament.

She did enjoy herself, because at that stage there was a minority government and the 11 SNP members and three Welsh Nationalists really mattered when it came to voting and getting the government business through. What was important about her victory from the SNP's point of view was that East Dumbartonshire was not a seat on the Celtic fringes but was at the heart of industrial Scotland.

Like many of her SNP generation, Margaret Bain had been inspired by the dramatic by-election victory at Hamilton in 1967 of Winnie Ewing (who in 1983 would become Margaret's mother-in-law on her marriage to Fergus Ewing). Indeed, it was Winnie Ewing who went round "pouncing on anyone she thought had potential, particularly women, to put their name forward".

Margaret and I were both elected to the House of Commons at the same age of 29. Years later, she was to tell me, "I think you and I might agree it was too young for our own good!" I had only been to the House of Commons once, as a fidgety child sitting in the gallery; in Margaret Bain's case, she had never spent a night in London, only passing through the capital on a couple of school trips.

Although bewildered at first, she soon took to the Commons as a duck to water, partly because of her friendly willingness to chat to colleagues of all parties, partly on account of the obvious sincerity about her case for an independent Scotland, and, it must be said, partly on account of her fresh-faced rural beauty. If men in grey suits referred to her as a "sweet and charming kitten", it was meant as a compliment. She was deemed, even by men who were appalled at the prospect of an independent Scotland, to be one of the most beautiful ladies to be elected to Parliament.

She was born Margaret McAdam, the daughter of a farm worker. Her mother recounted to her often the story of her father being dragged out of the harvest field on a glorious September day to drive his wife to Lanark so that she could give birth. Margaret and an elder brother who became a senior prison officer at Saughton in Edinburgh spent a lot of their time as children just being associated with nature.

Margaret Ewing would say that there was nothing like a healthy respect for wind and weather to make one recognise one's place in life. Throughout her political career, both at Westminster and latterly, from 1999, in the Scottish Parliament at Edinburgh, she contributed to discussions and committee work on rural affairs, being in the vanguard of the environmental movement before it became fashionable.

When she was only 12, she had the misfortune to contract tuberculosis and spent 13 months in a hospital in plaster from neck to toes. She was in Ward 13 and would wryly tell us that she spent her 13th birthday in the hospital. She wanted to be a doctor but was advised that, having missed so much schooling, she should study languages, in which she went on to get a good degree at Glasgow University.

But her hospital experience directed her towards remedial teaching, in which she was to specialise. In 1968, she began as Assistant Teacher at Our Lady's High school in Cumbernauld and the following year was married to Donald Bain. By the time of her election to Parliament in 1974, she was Principal Teacher in Remedial Education at St Modan's High in Stirling. Her colleague the Labour member Dennis Canavan testified that she was an extremely well-respected and effective remedial teacher, and I know at first hand from constituents how caring she was.

I remember Margaret Bain as a woman of forthright views wanting Scotland to be part of the European Community and totally independent, having Scotland's own voice on international affairs and defence. She really did want a Scottish Secretary of State for Defence sitting down at the United Nations and talking to other ministers.

It would be unfair to say that she wanted anything other than an outward-looking nation with something to offer the international community. She would chide me during my opposition to Margaret Thatcher's Falklands war that a Scottish government would not have allowed itself to become involved in military action, and that policies towards South Africa, overseas aid and Central America, Nicaragua and El Salvador would be wholly different.

She made no secret of the fact that her feelings were left-wing and she was very uncomfortable at the decision of the SNP in 1979 to vote to bring down the Labour government. The electorate punished the SNP and, like many of her colleagues, Bain lost her own seat. She secured only 12,654 votes to the 20,944 of Michael Hirst, the Conservative Party chairman in Scotland and the 23,268 of Norman Hogg, later to be Labour's deputy chief whip and now Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld. (In fairness to her, there were also disadvantageous boundary changes.)

She turned to journalism and, her first marriage having ended in divorce, in 1983 she married Winnie Ewing's son, Fergus Ewing (now MSP for Inverness East), entering into what was to become an outstandingly happy relationship. In 1987, almost as part of the Ewing dynasty (her sister-in-law Annabel is the SNP MP for Perth), she became MP for Moray, the area that her mother-in-law had represented before going to the European Parliament as Madame Ecosse.

Colleagues on the Select Committee on European Legislation have said that for 10 years Margaret Ewing did valuable if unsung work on a committee that should be less obscure than is now the case. She also took a serious interest in the services, representing the big RAF base at Lossiemouth, and concerned herself in a serious way with the very real problems of low-flying training.

In 1999 she had no hesitation in opting to go from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh for which she had worked throughout her life. There she took an active part in the Rural Development Committee and in the Justice Committee of the Parliament.

In her last long illness she was without self-pity and typically courageous.

Tam Dalyell

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