Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Motion of Condolence, Topical Question Time, Ministers, Scotland’s Voice in the European Union, Housing (Scotland) Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Football Clubs (Fan Ownership)
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Motion of Condolence
- Topical Question Time
- Scotland’s Voice in the European Union
- Housing (Scotland) Bill
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Football Clubs (Fan Ownership)
Motion of Condolence
Friends, it is hard to believe that we are gathering again to pay tribute to another one of our own who has passed too soon: the incomparable, the irreplaceable and the independent Margo MacDonald. Our condolences go to Jim, Zoe, Petra, Craig, and to her grandchildren and wider family. Jim, Petra and Roseanne have joined us in the gallery. I thank them for being with us today.
On the day of her death, I likened Margo to a sparkling jewel for her contribution to this Parliament. She took up the difficult causes, such as prostitution and end-of-life legislation—issues that most politicians shy away from. However, Margo was never just a politician: she transcended politics and political parties. She made the complex simple and spoke a language that everybody understood.
The way in which she coped with her long and painful illness inspired many people, including me, and showed what bravery really is. People loved and admired Margo. That is why she was able to go before the electorate in Lothian and be elected three times as an independent member.
There is another reason why I called Margo our “sparkling jewel”; we know how much she loved her jewellery and her bright clothes. If QVC did not exist, Margo would have had to invent it. I was, as Presiding Officer, a disappointment to her—she often told me that I just do not wear enough jewellery. She was determined that I should wear more, and I was just as determined not to. She cajoled and nagged me, and when all that failed, she gave me a small bag of necklaces. I was still reluctant to wear them—after all, how could anybody out-bling Margo? However, today, just for Margo, I am wearing my bright clothes and her necklace.
I said that Margo is irreplaceable. She is, and it feels somehow appropriate that our electoral system means that she will not be replaced on the Lothian list.
Margo MacDonald—we will never see your like again.
When Margo won the Glasgow Govan by-election in 1973, she played a crucial role in popularising the cause of Scottish independence. She held the seat for a mere three months, although it is arguable that she had more influence on real politics than people who sat in Westminster for 30 years.
It is hard to overstate what a force of political nature Margo was in the 1970s. I first met her some 37 years ago, when she spoke at a meeting in St Andrews. We gave her a lift back home, and I relished the opportunity to give her the benefit of my student analysis of Scottish independence. No sooner had we left St Andrews than Margo fell asleep, and slept the whole way. That was the only time in almost 40 years that I ever got a word in edgeways when talking to her.
Margo put her years outside politics to good use. She was director of Shelter Scotland for three years, and was a widely respected journalist and broadcaster through the 1980s and 1990s. However, it was the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament that gave her the chance to re-enter the political arena, and over the past 15 years she has been, quite simply, the finest parliamentarian that this chamber has seen.
It is hard to imagine that anyone else in Scotland would have had the profile, talent and sheer presence to be elected three times to the Parliament as an independent candidate, but Margo did. As an MSP, she pursued a wide range of causes, regardless of whether they were popular. She was one of the first to call for an inquiry into the cost of the Parliament building, and she spoke up for the health and wellbeing of Edinburgh’s sex workers. In recent years, she was a staunch advocate of the right of terminally ill people to choose the manner of their death.
Even more important than the causes that she fought for was how she fought for them. She combined unyielding integrity with immense personal warmth. She always put people before party or ideology, she was prepared to work with anyone who agreed with her, and she was able to understand and empathise with those who opposed her views. It is typical that, when she spoke with undiminished vigour and clarity at last September’s rally for Scottish independence on Calton Hill, she emphasised the crucial importance of everyone in Scotland pulling together, regardless of the referendum outcome.
In the past year, we have lost four of the MSPs who were elected in 1999: Brian Adam from the Scottish National Party, Helen Eadie from Labour, David McLetchie from the Conservatives, and now Margo, who was an independent. They varied widely in their political views, but were united in their capacity for honest disagreement. The ability to respect one’s opponents and to be respected by them are qualities that have deep roots in Scottish political discourse. We should treasure them now, more than ever.
I sometimes had honest disagreements with Margo—after all, she was a passionate Hibernian supporter—but I have admired her all my adult life. I saw her just three weeks ago when, despite great physical infirmity, she dispensed wise advice, and her enthusiasm and commitment to the independence cause was bright and undimmed.
When an MSP dies, it is usual for them to be replaced, either through a by-election or the elevation of someone else in the party list. There is something fitting about the fact that Margo’s seat will remain vacant until 2016; she is, quite literally, irreplaceable.
Our loss at Holyrood is great, but it is as nothing compared with the loss that is being borne by those who were closest to her. Our heartfelt condolences go to Jim, Zoe, Petra, Roseanne and all of her immediate family. On Margo’s death, Jim Sillars said:
“the brightest light in the Scottish political firmament has gone out.”
He was right. It is difficult to imagine this Parliament—indeed, it is difficult to imagine this Scotland—without Margo MacDonald.
It is with great sadness, but also with great pride in, and admiration for, her extraordinary contribution to Scottish political life that I move the motion of condolence to the friends and relatives of Margo MacDonald, on behalf of the entire Parliament.
That the Parliament expresses its deep regret and sadness at the death of Margo MacDonald MSP; offers its sympathy and sincere condolences to her family and friends; recognises the high regard in which she was held by so many people from all parties and none; pays tribute to her significant contribution to public life as a teacher, a journalist, a campaigner and a parliamentarian, and acknowledges her distinguished record of dedicated service to her constituents in the Lothians and to the people of Scotland.
Margo’s passing sees the bright light of one of the biggest personalities and characters of Scottish politics go out. She was a formidable politician. The fact that she was elected and returned as an independent by the people of the Lothians—a rare feat in national politics—shows how she reached beyond party politics. She became almost a political institution in her own right—albeit one with the widest array of dazzling jackets ever seen in Scottish politics.
Like others here, I had many a disagreement with Margo. That is the stuff of politics; they were debates and arguments that were conducted without acrimony. She was a woman of strong convictions that were robustly expressed. She was a serious politician, and she did not gain such immense popularity by softening her views or by dimming the passions that drove her politically. She had strong views, but it was clear that those views did not define her; rather, they were an expression of the deeply held values that had shaped her life.
Margo was prepared to explore contentious issues—she did not balk at them. It was a joy that such a serious politician could take politics seriously without talking herself entirely seriously. She delighted in the ordinary—the quick quip, the amusing line and the silliness of life. She offered advice about which jackets and make-up to wear and which bling to acquire. That made her all the more endearing.
I reflect too on the fact that, as a young woman, in her short time as an MP, she made a massive impact. I am sure that she found herself not for the first time, and certainly not for the last time, to be a trailblazer in that role. She was so often a woman in a man’s world, whether in politics, journalism and broadcasting. She made a mark for herself, but she also represented progress for all women.
Across the chamber and far beyond, people will have the fondest memories of Margo. I remember her as a woman who was courageous in her battle with ill health, but who offered comfort and understanding to others who faced the loneliness of debilitating illness. She was a woman who focused on huge issues, such as what type of society Scotland could be and what its future should be. She was also a woman for whom family mattered hugely; indeed, she never seemed to be more relaxed than she was when talking about her family holiday plans.
She was always kind, warm and compassionate. She shared generously with me her observations on my effectiveness in contributions to particular debates; she was equally generous in her observations on my wardrobe and its failings.
Our thoughts now are with Jim, her children and her grandchildren, who must feel their loss most grievously. They will, I hope, take comfort from all the voices that have been raised across Scotland and beyond in celebration of Margo’s life and legacy.
Parliament has lost one of its biggest personalities. Today we mourn that loss and offer our condolences to her family, but we should also celebrate a life that was lived well, in the service of others. [Applause.]
Much has been written about Margo’s remarkable political career, which spanned decades and Parliaments and included moving from being a party member to being an independent. It was so unique that there is no process to fill her vacant seat, which seems to be appropriate, because there is no replacing the truly irreplaceable.
She was always a committed nationalist, but it is appropriate—to this outsider, at least—that Margo spent the majority of her time in Holyrood on the independent benches, because independent she was. She was independent of thought, independent of mind and independent of spirit. She championed unpopular and overlooked causes, including prostitution and assisted suicide, which are difficult and morally complex areas. They are issues of grown-up politics that required all of us to examine our consciences. She championed such causes in part because they were unpopular and overlooked, and because difficult decisions should be taken by Parliament and every issue deserves to be examined.
Gutsy and gallus, forthright and determined, Margo also had a real warmth and humour. She was happy to take her colleagues to task when she disagreed with us—and, by God, you knew when you’d been Margoed—but she was also happy to throw an arm round a colleague and give them a piece of advice that she felt they needed. A couple of weeks after I was elected, I brought my family to the Parliament to show them round. As we crossed the garden lobby, Margo pulled my family over and, pointing at me rather sternly, said, “She’s got a lot to learn, that girl.” Then she twinkled and said, “But don’t you worry, I’ll look after her.” She was right on both counts.
Presiding Officer, if you think that you disappointed Margo in the bling stakes, you should have heard the grief she gave me for wearing dark suits and no rings, and for having unadorned ears.
I think that the reason why Margo could be so demanding of her colleagues and opponents, and so demanding on procedure—we remember the number of points of order that she made—was that she was passionate about Scotland and about building a better country. That requires a Parliament that measures up, so she wanted individuals to do better so that the nation would do better.
For her, that also meant an independent Scotland. In this year, when the constitution is the main faultline in Scottish politics, I am avowedly on the side of our remaining part of the United Kingdom and will fight for that between now and September but, truly, Margo’s is one yes vote that I wish I could have seen being cast.
We have lost too many of our number, from all sides of the chamber: Brian Adam, David McLetchie, Helen Eadie and Margo MacDonald. I do not know what happens in the afterlife, but I would like to think that somewhere they are having a terrifically disputatious argument, possibly involving a glass or two of wine. Although I would always back David’s forensic legal brain, I do not doubt for a second that it would be Margo who would get the last word.
Margo’s passing leaves the Parliament and the political life of this nation more dull and monochrome, because she lit this place up. My thoughts and prayers and those of my party are with Jim, Zoe, Petra and the wider family at this time. I support the motion in the First Minister’s name. [Applause.]
Many such people have left us in recent years; Tony Benn was one of them. If Margo was here now, sitting in her usual place, she would castigate me for such a comparison, as she often did about so many other issues, but she shared characteristics with such great leaders. She had the common touch, she was engaging, she could deliver unpalatable messages in an appealing way, and she was trusted and authentic.
Margo was able to tread the line between rebellion and credibility—she was both a rebel and credible. Despite parting company with her party, she still had a positive impact on it. Despite raising challenging issues, she was still listened to. Despite having no party machine to help her to win, she had the appeal to win several times over in the one election. If she was afraid, she did a very good job of hiding it. Many people would fear to raise issues such as assisted suicide and protection of sex workers, or to launch out beyond the support of the party machine, but she showed no fear throughout her political life.
Margo was certainly not afraid to pass comment on anything or anybody, from media regulation to independence, and from our relationship with China to our membership of the European Union. She even remarked on my latest suit that she guessed it was being worn for an especially big speech that day. I am sure that she had a view on everything. Rarely did she miss the mark. She could change the course of a debate and had impact with her penetrating insight and apposite commentary.
In Alex Neil’s wonderful tribute to Margo, he said:
“She was the most human of politicians. She spoke with the head but always informed by the heart.”
Margo had passion for politics right to the end. She proudly took her seat in the chamber when she was clearly in pain, and she struggled to her feet when her physical strength was diminished, but she battled on to make her impact on the country she loved.[Applause.]
I wish that I could add some recollection or memory from Margo’s historic 1973 by-election win, but sadly I was only eight months old at the time, so to do that would have required a degree of precociousness that I do not think anyone would expect. However, when I was growing up, even when Margo was no longer in Parliament, she was a recognisable political figure and one of the people who taught me that there is such a thing as a distinctively Scottish politics.
Later, as I became politically active and during the early days of this Parliament, she offered her support during the section 28 campaign—albeit that that support was couched in her always independent and not always totally politically correct terms. Following the 2003 election, I was one of seven MSPs who were green in more ways than one, and she was always a source of advice and challenge in equal measure. She brought dedication, wit, insight and—as you said, Presiding Officer—a flash of colour to our proceedings. I never got make-up advice from her, but she often challenged me because I wore too many dark ties. I do not think that she would have forgiven me for wearing one of them today.
Over the past year and a half, I had the privilege of working more closely with Margo through the formation of the Green and independent group. I think that the name “Grindies” was her idea, in fact. This corner of the chamber will be a lot poorer for the loss of her warmth and wit; that is also true of the Parliament as a whole. The formation of the group was never a surrender of Margo’s independence; it was more about a natural fit among the five of us on most issues. However, it was always Margo who was the source of guidance, the voice of experience and the source of juicy background gossip on lots of members. I hope that she wrote a lot of it down, because in her head there were secrets that do not deserve to be lost.
Members have already remarked on the many causes that Margo was fearless in adopting—issues that many politicians would shy away from. She thought that we should all be paid less, for starters. Not many of us would say that. Other issues include her work in representing the interests of sex workers—as she saw them, although not all would agree—and her criticisms of the Parliament building, which not all would agree with.
Independence was an issue that she campaigned on all through her life, but not always with the same approach to that mission as her former party took. There was also the issue of assisted suicide and the presentation of her new bill to Parliament just five months ago. All members would recognise Margo’s commitment and determination through some incredibly challenging times. It causes me great sadness to say that she will not be here to see the culmination of her work on those last two issues. Whether members agreed or disagreed with Margo on those issues, very few could fault her determination, her integrity or the flair with which she put forward her views. In progressing Margo’s bill in this session of Parliament, I thank the many MSPs and members of the public who have taken the time to get in touch and to offer their good wishes. It is important that Margo’s intentions for that bill be put before Parliament, scrutinised and debated.
I hope to have opportunities, in the future, to celebrate successes on some of the issues that Margo championed when she was with us. However, when celebrating, on entering the bar it will not be quite the same if I do not see Margo’s chair waiting outside, suggesting that she is inside with a glass of something fizzy and a few apposite quips. All of us will miss Margo. [Applause.]
14:27 Meeting suspended.
14:50 On resuming—