Margo MacDonald obituary: Politician whose popularity crossed party boundaries thanks to her infectiously enthusiastic personality

‘I couldn’t stand the whole Union Jack bit, even as a girl. My heroes were Wallace and Bruce’

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas
footballChelsea vs West Ham live kicks off coverage of all 10 of Boxing Day matches
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all