Listen to this article
Even more than most nationalists, Margo MacDonald stood for independence. Not just for her country – though she yearned for Scotland to forge a future outside the UK – but as an individual. Her political career was marked by an unwillingness to bend to party leaders, a spirited autonomy that made her one of the most admired Scottish parliamentarians.
It was a career that careened along the roller-coaster of nationalist fortunes, a ride from fringe activism to majority government and on towards the referendum this September at which Scots will decide whether to end their three-century-old union with England.
MacDonald, who has died aged 70, gained her first starring role in this drama with the potential to reshape Europe’s political geography in 1973. That was when, as a candidate for the Scottish National party, she won a stunning victory in a UK parliamentary by-election in the Labour party’s deprived Glaswegian stronghold of Govan.
The triumph against the odds established MacDonald as a fearless battler – or “bonnie fechter”, as some Scots put it. She was regarded as bonnie in another way too, a “blonde bombshell” whose looks and charm gave the SNP a valuable dose of glamour. But the Govan triumph was rooted in MacDonald’s ability to connect with working-class voters.
Born on April 19 1943, she had a tough childhood – her father was cruel and when her mother took her and her two siblings away from him they were desperately poor. Later she ran a pub with her first husband, serving miners and steelworkers.
Her Westminster career was short. When a general election was called just months later, the SNP did well but MacDonald lost her seat by a narrow margin. She became a big figure in the party but was forced out in the 1980s after losing a battle – fought alongside Alex Salmond, now Scotland’s first minister – to make the SNP more socialist.
MacDonald’s second husband, Jim Sillars, who survives her as do her two daughters from her first marriage, had campaigned against her as a Labour activist in Govan in 1973. Yet in a neat bit of political symmetry, Mr Sillars himself won the seat for the SNP in a by-election in 1988.
By then MacDonald had made a career as a journalist but she later rejoined the SNP. When a Labour government created the devolved Scottish parliament in 1999, she was one of the Edinburgh institution’s founding members.
Her unwillingness to toe party lines still caused problems, however. In 2003 SNP leaders tried to squeeze her out by giving her a low position on the party proportional representation list. MacDonald simply won re-election as an independent – and defied Britain’s party-dominated political norms to retain her seat in the following two elections as well.
MacDonald could be sharp-tongued, calling SNP rivals “snakes” and chiding Mr Salmond for one parliamentary appearance at which she said the first minister had “rambled, blustered and bored for Scotland”. Mr Salmond had earlier likened MacDonald’s relationship with the SNP to the dance known as the hokey cokey. “She’s been in out, in out . . . and now, presumably, she’s going to shake it all about,” he said.
But MacDonald flourished as an independent, passionately critical of shortcomings on the part of fellow members but also commanding broad affection. One of the perks of being free of party affiliation, she joked, was that she could be nice to everyone.
Independence was hardly her only cause. Among other unpopular stances, she also sought to legalise assisted suicide for the terminally ill, a campaign informed by her own experience with degenerative Parkinson’s disease. She wanted, she said, the comfort of knowing that if her condition became intolerable, she might choose how to die without imposing a legal burden on anyone.
MacDonald battled for years against the limitations imposed by Parkinson’s, latterly zipping around parliament in a motorised wheelchair to push her campaigns. A reconciled Mr Salmond had met her just days before to hear “wise advice” on the independence referendum.
For many it was a special sadness that she would not see the victory she was sure could be won, despite polls that show a persistent lead for the No camp. For MacDonald it was an article of faith that a Scotland, governed by its own people would be better off than one subject to rule from far-off London.
Speaking shakily at an Edinburgh rally last September, she described defeat as unthinkable. But she also warned against letting referendum differences become too divisive. “There’s a bitterness creeping into things,” she said. “Just remember that we are all Scots. We have to work together, no matter the way it turns out.”