The strange background of Margo MacDonald

The strange background of Margo MacDonald
The Scottish Review, By Kenneth Roy
April 2014

Long ago (February 1990), when Margo MacDonald languished in the political wilderness, Kenneth Roy met her for dinner one evening. This is an account of their conversation, written at the time.

After observing a succession of dismayingly young executives desert the Cowcaddens studios of Scottish Television in Glasgow around six in the evening, it was a relief to be confronted in reception by a middle-aged career woman borne down by bulging shopping bags and pot plants.

‘Apricot hyacinths’, explained Margo MacDonald.

‘What’s in the bags?’

‘The messages, of course.’
I took the messages, Margo held fast to the apricot hyacinths, and we trudged off to her favourite Italian restaurant. She had been in London presenting a BBC television programme. ‘I was standing in for Anna Ford’, she said. ‘They must have been looking for someone bearing a close physical resemblance’.

It was turning into a tough week. Her flat had just been burgled, and now here was a producer stopping us in the street with eager tidings of the party conference season and a reminder that her services would be required for a ritual wet weekend in Dunoon.

Once the producer was out of the way, I asked her what she thought of party conferences.

‘They’re neurotic’, replied Scottish Television’s political pundit. ‘The only one that was ever worth going to was the old Liberal conference. For the home baking’.

The Italian restaurant was empty, though not for long. One young waiter was entrusted with the apricot hyacinths and warned to guard them with his life, another accepted the message bags, a third fetched a bottle of ‘very special’ Italian wine; meanwhile my companion lit the first of the evening’s many cigarettes.

‘Tell me about your background.’

‘It was quite strange. My parents split up when I was six weeks old, and my mum brought up my brother and sister and myself. She didn’t have good health. She had cancer, and three or four heart attacks…a helluva time. But then we went to live in East Kilbride, and that was terrific because there was proper community support.’

‘Did you get on with her?’

‘We were all proud of her. She was a very considerable woman. She kept the family going, never once gave in. And although she wasn’t highly educated, she knew a bit of Burns, she knew about MacDiarmid before he was fashionable, she had a good appreciation of Scottish music.’

‘Is Scotland a matriarchal society?’

‘I don’t know about that. But our family was full of women. I thought men were useless and weak. I thought that was just their natural condition.’

‘Did you ever see your father again?’

‘About 30 years later. But do you mind if we don’t talk about that?’

Margo Aitken, daughter of Jean, was an exceptionally able child. She was primary dux and won a place at Hamilton Academy, which was then a selective school for the cream of the neighbourhood. She bought the school blazer – a boy’s one, almost down to her knees – in a pawn shop.

‘It was drummed into us that we were brainy. We were schooled to think of ourselves as an elite. And that made me uneasy, because it was obvious that there was nothing elite about our family. I also knew that my pals at the baths, who were as good at swimming as I was, and whose families were exactly the same as mine, went to junior secondaries. But they weren’t God’s chosen children. I was one of the lucky ones.’

‘Not so much lucky as clever.’

‘No. Dead lucky. No more deserving.’

‘Creaming worked, though.’

‘Aye, it worked! For the people who were creamed! I heard Mrs T (Thatcher) talking the other day about how some poppies naturally grow straight and strong, while others are stunted in their growth. Has it never occurred to her that what the stunted poppies need is a good dose of manure?’

The restaurant was filling up – mostly, it seemed, with employees of Scottish Television – and Margo, the most celebrated of them all, was in fine fettle. ‘Aw, Christine!’, she bellowed to a neighbouring table. ‘You’ve got a voice like a foghorn!’

‘What did you discover about yourself at Hamilton Academy?’

‘That I was competitive. That there were things I wanted to do better than anybody else. I wanted to be the world’s best netball player. Do you know what else I wanted to be? The world’s best journalist. But my mother had this idea that journalists were men who wore dirty raincoats and felt hats. She also thought it wasn’t the most secure job. She knew that if you got into teaching, you’d made it. Not enlightened thinking, but probably very sensible.’

She took her mother’s advice and worked briefly as a teacher of physical education. By her early twenties she was married to Peter MacDonald, a former fellow pupil at Hamilton, and had two small children. She was still hoping to make a break into journalism when she became the SNP candidate in the traditional Labour seat of Govan.

‘Winning the by-election was a shock and an absolute disaster in career terms. Alex Dickson might have been on the point of offering me a job at Radio Clyde. But in some ways I was glad of the experience. Westminster taught me a lot about power politics – and respect for the strength of the system that I’m opposed to.’

She is no longer a member of the Scottish National Party (‘They threw me out, remember?’) but in her second marriage to Jim Sillars is presumed to be something of a back-seat driver. True or false? ‘Oh, I’ll argue with him about SNP tactics and strategy. Sometimes I wouldn’t let them run a raffle. But other times, particularly in the last two or three years, I admire them for what they’ve done.’

‘Do you see Jim as a charismatic figure who will lead us to the promised land?’

‘I don’t know. I only know he’s one of the most honest men I’ve ever met. He has a quality that is absolutely priceless in a politician – he doesn’t care what people say or think about him. Sometimes I could stoat his head off the pavement for having that strength. He’ll say something in all honesty, and not anticipate how it will be twisted and used against him.’

‘Which other politicians do you admire?’

‘Usually,’ she said with an ironic laugh, ‘the ones I admire are the ones who don’t get into government. Like Tam Dalyell. He’s got the same quality as Jim. Canavan’s great, too. But I also have a lot of time for Michael Forsyth.’

‘That’s a pretty odd choice.’

‘Well, I admire him for sticking to his guns. We need idealogues like him. Without them, the benevolent compromisers wouldn’t have touchstones, would they?’

After four months in the Commons – she was defeated in the February 1974 general election – her hopes of a broadcasting career were quickly dashed. BBC Scotland told her she was too closely aligned to the nationalist cause and that she would need to spend a long period in purdah before she would be acceptable as an on-screen face.

Instead she got a job for which her crusading fervour qualified her – Scottish director of Shelter, the Campaign for the Homeless.
‘I once shocked them at Shelter. We were discussing whether there was any such thing as anti-social tenants. To me that didn’t need any discussion. Of course there are anti-social tenants. There are folk you don’t want to live next door to, because they don’t look after the place properly, they don’t take their turn on the stairs. My colleagues were quite disgusted with me, I think. But when I asked around the table who’d ever lived in a council house, I was the only one.’

‘Did you come from a family who took their turn on the stairs?’

‘Oh, yes. My mother was an egalitarian whose ideas of social conduct and behaviour were genteel.’

‘Was she religious?’

‘She was a Christian woman and taught the Christian ethic.’

‘And you?’

‘I’m not a church attender, but I am a Christian. I believe in Christ the saviour, I believe in God, I believe in the teachings of Christ.’

‘What do they tell you?’

‘They tell me to love my neighbour. They teach me consideration of other people’s eccentricities. And since I’m not a naturally humble person, they also teach me a bit of humility.’

‘If you’re not naturally humble, what are you?’

‘Bolshie! Not sure where that comes from. My mother couldn’t afford to be bolshie – the wee soul had worked that one out. And I wish I wasn’t bolshie either. I’d like to be nice and respectable. Being bolshie consumes so much more energy.’

As a television interviewer, Margo likes the idea of testing every case: telling politicians to prove it. She is still enough of an optimist to believe that journalism is one of the fundamental professions of a healthy democracy.

‘What are the others?’

‘Natural selection being what it is, some people will live – so we can do without doctors. But we can’t do without teachers, so that must be the ultimate profession. We’ve destroyed a lot by downgrading the importance of education. This theory that you’ve got to leave school ready-made to be flexible for the post-industrial age – what the hell does that mean? I always thought you were meant to come out of school as a trainee adult.’

‘And you would put journalists next to teachers in society’s pecking order?’

She no longer seemed convinced. ‘Sometimes,’ she said. ‘In mellow moods.’

‘Your mum was worried because it wasn’t a secure profession. Do you feel secure?’

‘I don’t. I’m anti-establishment, and journalism in Scotland is establishment.’

‘Are you happy?’

At first she dodged the question by saying that she certainly wasn’t complacent. When I pressed her, she replied that she could not be completely happy when she considered the state of Scotland.

‘I’m not talking about the state of Scotland. I’m talking about you.’

‘Ah, but that’s part of me.’

‘Surely you don’t need an independent Scotland in order to be personally happy.’

‘I’m not sure. People all over Europe just now are saying, "We’re going to do it the best way for us". But what about the Scots? We’re still creeping along. Nothing big or brave ever came out of that. Where’s the boldness? Where’s the risk?’

Margo MacDonald, MSP, died on 4 April 2014 at the age of 70