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date: 18 September 2019

MacDonald [née Aitken], Margo Symington Jackfree

(1943–2014)
  • David Torrance

Margo MacDonald (1943–2014), by unknown photographer, 1978

MacDonald [née Aitken], Margo Symington Jack (1943–2014), politician, was born on 19 April 1943 at the County Hospital, Bellshill, Lanarkshire, one of three children of Robert Jack Gibson Aitken, a music teacher, later greengrocer, and his wife Jean Symington, née Clark, a nurse. It was a difficult childhood. MacDonald’s father, in his daughter’s words an ‘inadequate’ and ‘cruel’ man (Scotland on Sunday, 7 Oct 2012), left when she was just twelve, and her teenage years included residence in a caravan. At Hamilton Academy she excelled at sport and met Peter Donaldson MacDonald (b. 1941); they married on 8 February 1965, taking over his family’s Blantyre pub. ‘If you ask what shaped me’, she later reflected, ‘it was that as much as anything’ (ibid.).

Proudly self-sufficient given her peripatetic upbringing, Margo MacDonald trained at Dunfermline College as a PE teacher and started a family (pregnancy prevented her joining Scotland’s netball team: she had two daughters, Zoe and Petra), while at the pub she talked politics with miners and steelworkers. In 1970 she fought the Paisley constituency on behalf of the Scottish National Party (SNP), and in November 1973 a by-election in Govan. She was typical of a new generation of Scottish Nationalists: young, socially concerned, but ideologically pragmatic. She won by 571 votes, a significant victory in one of Labour’s industrial heartlands.

As well as being fluent and charismatic, MacDonald was strikingly attractive, and the novelty of a thirty-year-old ‘blonde bombshell’ attracted significant publicity. Her parliamentary career, however, was brief, cut short by Edward Heath’s snap general election in February 1974, at which she lost the seat by 543 votes; she had spent just seventy-eight days as a Member of Parliament. She fought Govan for the third time in October 1974 but lost by nearly 2,000 votes. Instead she found a platform as the SNP’s senior vice-chairman (in effect, deputy leader), becoming perhaps the best-known Nationalist outside the House of Commons, although she attempted to re-enter parliament at another by-election in 1978, for Hamilton. MacDonald also ran the party’s campaign against continuing membership of the European Economic Community in 1975.

By then significant tensions had emerged between the SNP leadership in Edinburgh and a now eleven-strong group of MPs at Westminster (she was initially responsible for liaising between the two). Internally, MacDonald persistently urged the SNP to move leftward in order to compete with Labour, an analysis she believed the 1979 devolution referendum confirmed: working-class Scots had voted ‘yes’ to a Scottish Assembly, and the middle classes ‘no’, therefore the SNP had to look to the former in order to expand its electoral support. Constitutionally she was a ‘gradualist’, viewing devolution as a necessary stepping stone towards full independence.

Shortly after the 1979 general election, at which the SNP lost nine of its eleven MPs, MacDonald became one of three spokespeople for the ‘79 Group’, a ‘party within a party’ which antagonized the party’s more conservative old guard and deprived her of re-election as deputy leader at that autumn’s conference. Three years later she resigned from the SNP lest she be expelled along with several other members of the group, including a young Alex Salmond.

MacDonald’s first marriage having ended in separation in 1976, and divorce in 1980, on 10 April 1981 she married James (Jim) Sillars (b. 1937), a former Labour MP, at a small private ceremony in Edinburgh. Following her second marriage she re-established herself as a broadcaster, having been director of Shelter Scotland, a housing charity. A talented writer with an engaging televisual style, she presented television programmes such as Network Scotland, was a reporter on the BBC series Cause for Concern, and ran the current affairs department at Radio Forth.

In the early 1990s MacDonald applied for readmission to the SNP, although relations with Alex Salmond, leader since 1990, were not easy given his strained relationship with Sillars, to whom he had once been close. When the creation of a Scottish Parliament became inevitable following the 1997 general election, MacDonald easily topped the SNP’s Lothians ‘list’ and was thus a founding member of the devolved parliament elected in May 1999. Although she had hopes of a front-bench post (the SNP were the largest opposition party), the leadership regarded her as popular but unmanageable and instead appointed her chair of the Subordinate Legislation Committee, whose proceedings she enlivened with her dry wit. When Salmond resigned as leader in 2000 MacDonald unsuccessfully backed Alex Neil as his successor.

Relations between MacDonald and the SNP reached their nadir when, ahead of the 2003 election, she was effectively deselected after being ranked fifth on the Lothians list. Upset but bullish, she decided to run as an independent. ‘I’ve always put people before party’, was her explanation. ‘As such, I’m out of step with the party control freakery which is all too evident in the executive coalition and the SNP’ (Scotsman, 29 Jan 2003). She was officially expelled from the SNP on 28 January 2003. In a clumsy attempt to diminish her chances of victory in the forthcoming election, someone (MacDonald claimed a former friend) told the media she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which she had been diagnosed with in 1996. Although her condition was mild, the announcement provoked sympathy and, bolstered by First Minister Jack McConnell’s agreement to hold an official inquiry into the Holyrood building project—on which MacDonald had long campaigned—she won more than 10 per cent of the Lothians list vote at the 2003 election, twice the amount needed to win a seat.

Liberated from the strictures of party politics, MacDonald threw herself into various high-profile, if ultimately unsuccessful, campaigns, including a Bill to establish prostitution ‘tolerance zones’ and another to legalize assisted suicide, the latter imbued with greater resonance given her own health issues. In a memorable speech in 2008, she spoke of her ‘degenerative condition’ and how she would ‘like the ability’ to take the decision to end her own life (Official Report, 26 March 2008). Her End of Life Assistance Bill, however, was defeated by eighty-five votes to sixteen, while a second attempt, the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, fared little better. Both measures were libertarian rather than explicitly left-wing, and by the early 2000s she was that rare thing, a popular politician as well as a household name. In 2007 she was comfortably re-elected with 6.7 per cent of the Lothians vote (after which she stood unsuccessfully as Presiding Officer), and again in 2011 with roughly the same vote share.

Even during bouts of ill health—including periods of hospitalization—MacDonald was relentlessly upbeat. Eventually she had to walk with sticks, which she hated, or glide around Holyrood on a mobility scooter, but that simply added to her charm. Addicted to jewellery and fashion, a make-up bag always close by, she was a fixture in the Scottish Parliament’s bar, although more for gossip than drink. ‘She is simultaneously waspish and wee-wumminish’, observed one journalist, ‘Dorothy Parker meets Dorothy Paul’ (Scotland on Sunday, 7 Oct 2012). But she was not to everyone’s taste. ‘There are many things about me that probably irritate people’, she reflected in 2006. ‘A lot of folk love me, but I also know a hell of a lot who don’t’ (Herald, 23 Sept 2006). A political animal, relaxation generally involved spending time with her extended family, watching Hibernian FC, or holidays in Portugal, where she would swim and gossip by telephone with friends back home.

MacDonald died at her home in Grange Loan, Edinburgh, on 4 April 2014, just months before the Scottish independence referendum. At a memorable memorial service, Jim Sillars spoke of his late wife’s concerns about the conduct of the campaign. ‘Charismatic is an inadequate word for Margo’, he added. ‘She was dusted with magic’ (Scotsman, 25 April 2014). Her two daughters also survived her. An archetypal ‘authentic’ politician, MacDonald, along with Winnie Ewing, helped establish the SNP—and its goal of independence—as a serious prospect.

Sources

  • The Scotsman (29 Jan 2003); (25 April 2003); (5 April 2014)
  • The Herald [Glasgow] (23 Sept 2006); (5 April 2014); (23 April 2014)
  • Scottish Parliament official report (26 March 2008)
  • Scotland on Sunday (7 Oct 2012)
  • The Times (5 April 2014); (8 April 2014)
  • Daily Telegraph (5 April 2014); (26 April 2014)
  • The Guardian (5 April 2014); (14 April 2014); (5 May 2014)
  • WW (2014)
  • private information (2018)
  • m. certs.

Archives

Film

  • Margo Goes to Holyrood, STV documentary, 2003

Sound

Likenesses

  • G. Burns, painting, c.2016, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood
  • G. Burns, painting, c.2016, www.gerardmburns.com/featured-work/margo-macdonald, accessed 2 Aug 2017
  • D. Oulds, photograph, 1973, Hult. Arch.
  • J. Mitchell, nine photographs, 2008, Getty Images
  • photograph, 1983, Mirrorpix/Alamy
  • A. White, photograph, 2012, Alamy
  • photographs, 2005–8, Alamy
  • K. Jack, photograph, 2013, Alamy
  • D. M. Jones, two photographs, 2013, Alamy
  • photograph, with her husband Jim Sillars, 1983, Mirrorpix/Alamy
  • photograph, with her husband and children, 1974, Mirrorpix/Alamy
  • photograph, 1973, Mirrorpix/Alamy
  • photograph, with William Wolfe, 1973, Mirrorpix/Alamy
  • photograph, following her success in the Govan by-election, 1973, Mirrorpix/Alamy
  • three photographs, with her children, 1973, Mirrorpix/Alamy
  • E. Allen, photograph, repro. in Edinburgh News (13 June 2015)
  • photographs, repro. in Daily Record (16 June 2015)
  • M. MacLeod, photograph, repro. in The Guardian (7 December 2008)
  • obituary photographs
  • photograph, 1978, PA Photos [see illus.]
birth certificate
death certificate
(1920–)
Hulton|Archive, Getty Images, London
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh