Most by-elections, before polling day, are said by the political parties to be contests of the utmost consequence. Few actually turn out to be so. Three Scottish by-election results were exceptions. Mine, in West Lothian, in 1962, which saw the Scottish National Party take 9,750 votes and the Conservatives lose their deposit: the SNP became a serious political force and Harold Macmillan sacked half his cabinet (as Harold Wilson memorably jibed, “the wrong half”) in the Night of the Long Knives.
The second was when James Sillars in March 1970 took 54 per cent of the vote to win handsomely in South Ayrshire, lulling Harold Wilson into an early summer general election – and handing power to Ted Heath. The third, and most momentous, was the Glasgow Govan by-election of 8 November 1973 when a striking young 30-year-old blonde bombshell of a barmaid, with a broad smile and attractive personality, Margo MacDonald, set the cat among the political pigeons by gaining 6,360 votes to 5,789 for Labour’s Harry Selby, with the Conservatives and Liberals losing their deposit.
It created turmoil in the Scottish Labour Party and a commitment to devolution. The ensuing panic was to have consequences which are still with us, in the form of the Scottish Parliament and huge arguments about Scottish MPs voting on English matters.
Margo Aitken was born in 1943 of a mining family in the Lanarkshire coalfield and went to Hamilton Academy, an academically rigorous school which took gifted pupils from all over Lanarkshire. One of the few of her class not to go to university, Aitken, physically and athletically gifted, went to the Dunfermline College of Physical Education, where she excelled in swimming. Teaching for two years, she left the profession, married Peter MacDonald and added to the family income as a barmaid while bringing up her two daughters.
At 27 she was chosen at the last minute to take on the engineering union’s entrenched MP for Paisley, John Robertson, and was soundly beaten. But such was the reputation gained by her feisty campaign that she was chosen for a by-election in Govan on the death of John Rankin. Making her maiden speech on 11 December 1973, she said: “I represent a constituency – not just a constituency but a community – within the City of Glasgow which has almost had its heart torn out. I say ‘almost’ because, although Govan is the most desolate part of Glasgow, the people have still not given up. For years they have watched their community being physically demolished, but the community spirit that is referred to so often nowadays has been present in Govan for hundreds of years and still remains.
“The people there have seen fewer and fewer ships coming up the River Clyde and have watched shipyard after shipyard close until only two yards are left in my constituency. These yards are part of the lifeblood of Govan and Clydeside. Nowadays the yards have fairly healthy order books, but if that situation is to continue they must be supplied with competitively priced steel.” She went on to plead for the Hunterston iron-ore terminal, a campaign she continued after she was defeated in February and again in October 1974 by Labour’s Harry Selby, a popular barber in the constituency.
MacDonald remained at the centre of the SNP. In 1975, at a National Executive meeting she was critical of the party’s MPs for their timing of a press conference on the Denis Healey’s budget statement and fell out with the economic spokesman, Douglas Crawford. This was the beginning of SNP factionalism, which led to their catastrophic results in the 1979 election; the left-leaning 79 Group was formed. MacDonald was well beaten to the post of deputy leader by the fundamentalist former MP for Aberdeenshire East, Douglas Henderson. Bad feeling caused her to resign from the SNP in September 1982. Early 79 Group meetings involved the charismatic ex-Labour MP Jim Sillars, who married MacDonald in 1981 – a supremely happy marriage.
In 1978 she had become Director of Shelter (Scotland) and turned out to be an extremely effective broadcaster and presenter.
Elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, MacDonald, forever a stormy petrel, was expelled from the SNP in January 2003, but won a place as an Independent largely as a result of her lively columns in the Edinburgh Evening News and Sunday Post.
For many Scots of all political hues MacDonald will be remembered not for the position she held but for her remarkable and infectiously enthusiastic personality, Writing for Professor Tom Devine’s Being Scottish (2002), she recalled: “My home town was the regimental headquarters of the Cameronians. I learnt there were no better soldiers in the British army than in the Scottish Regiments. I couldn’t stand the whole Union Jack bit, even as a wee girl. My heroes were Wallace and Bruce...
“I don’t know from where my nationalism came ... Being Scottish was simply what I was. Later, my nationalism meshed with other beliefs and assumptions. I was anti-nuke, anti-Vietnam War, pro-civil rights, pro-Hungary and the bittersweet Prague Spring of Alexander Dubcek. With the beginning of political analysis came the start of a love-hate relationship with my fellow Scots. How could they claim nationhood yet not demand the sovereignty for which people elsewhere gave their lives?”
Scottish political life will be far more dull for MacDonald’s passing. And never can an MP at Westminster for a bare three months have had more effect on the British body politic.
MacDonald was unlucky enough to have the worst form of Parkinson’s disease, and in 2008 her last public act was to feature in the television programme The Right to Die. She highlighted the position of “wonderful people” criminalised for acts of mercy and said she hated becoming slow because she never used to be – when she arrived in the Commons she was one of the fittest and most active of women.
At the last elections to the Scottish Parliament I did what I have never done before. Rather than vote Labour, I voted for an independent –Margo MacDonald.
Margo Aiken, politician and broadcaster: born Bellshill, Renfrewshire 19 April 1943; MP for Glasgow Govan 1973-74; MSP for Lothians 1999-2011, Lothian 2011-; married 1965 Peter MacDonald (divorced 1980; two daughters), 1981 James Sillars; died 4 April 2014.