I spent a few years in Margo jail. She’d decided she didn’t like me. But as I pointed out to her when she told me this, she didn’t actually know me. Looking back, she probably knew me better than I thought, for I don’t much like who I was either back then.
But I knew my sentence was served when I was summoned to meet with her and a constituent in the Parliament. The organisation I worked for could probably help. I knew I was being sized up to see if I could prove my worth and while our paths didn’t cross all that much afterwards – something I regret hugely now – I knew I was off the hook. She had been tickled by my organisation’s attempt to cash in on MSPs’ protestations of reluctance to accept a pay rise being imposed on them. We wrote suggesting if they didn’t want the extra cash, they could donate it to a good cause. Margo was one of a handful to write back and the only one to donate, sending us £50 for our “cheek”.
I was at that fateful SNP ranking meeting before the 2003 elections. There had been all manner of plotting and horsetrading over votes before the meeting – it was a delegate ranking rather than a one member, one vote situation, so constituencies with lots of branches were wooed mercilessly. I’m not sure how aware Margo was of any of this, nor that most delegates actually pitched up at that meeting without a mandate. When she walked up to speak, there was a real sense of everyone sitting up to pay attention, moving to the edge of their seats, preparing to hang on her every word. Despite all the chatter and rumour, people wanted her to do well, they wanted her to give us reasons to vote for her. But her speech was lacklustre, it trailed way over time, it seemed as though either she thought the game was a bogey or she had already made up her mind to go it alone. And I wonder even now if she knew just how many of us backed her and that what did for her was a double-crossing by a supposed ally in the Lothians on delegate votes. The boys effectively carved it up among themselves.
But that’s history and what’s for ye, will no go by ye, as they say. And as we all know now, Margo was made to be an independent MSP and the role was made for her. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been amazed at the sheer number of Margo stories I’ve read and heard, of all the people who had encountered her, who could recall every word of conversation, who could recount small kindnesses and thoughtfulness.
I’m glad the referendum provided Margo with a national stage again and that she was welcomed into the Yes camp, though she should have been given a place on Yes Scotland’s board, something I’ve only recently become aware didn’t happen. And I’m glad, in particular, that she, Jim and Alex Salmond got to meet and mend their differences. My only regret, as I’m sure it is for many others, is that it took until now to happen. I can’t help thinking what a force the three of them would have been, working together, no doubt still disagreeing in some areas but how the nationalist movement could have harnessed all that combined talent and energy. A lesson there for us all.
But Margo was given her place and her due and that was only right. I remember vividly her speech to the first Independence rally in 2012. She was near the top of the bill, because she had the football to go to, she said but I rather suspect that was a handy excuse to make sure she wasn’t slotted in further down the speaking order. There were no flies on Margo.
She had two messages for us all. The first, which others have remarked upon, is that if everyone there spoke to and persuaded just one more person to vote yes, we’d win. And it looks like we’ve all taken that advice to heart. All around the country, committed Yes voters are engaging with their families, their friends, their neighbours and work colleagues, encouraging them to ask questions, share their doubts and concerns and be given our thoughts on it all. If the polls and the anecdotal evidence are to be believed, it seems to be working.
The second piece of advice from Margo was for us to be kind to each other. For everyone working for a Yes and No vote to be respectful and considerate, we would after all have to live together no matter which way the vote went. This has stuck with me fast over the last year and a half and I’m not sure we’ve paid as much attention to it as we should.
Anyone who went along to Margo’s memorial service this morning – and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to go – will have been astonished, if not a little bewildered by the range of friends and acquaintances Margo had from right across the political spectrum and from all walks of life. She counted as dear friends, journalists whom many on the Yes side see as the enemy. Did anyone else hear big rufty tufty Alan Cochrane break down on national radio the day after she died, unable to continue speaking? Alan and Margo were football pals, good ones at that. One of her very best friends was Fiona Ross, a journalist whom few on the nationalist side ever trusted. All journalists who have worked in Scottish politics over the last forty years have their own Margo stories to relate, often replete with notes of personal kindness, such as her buying a gift for Euan McColm’s wee baby. Margo encouraged and supported Jack McConnell’s entry into politics, and many others from all parties and none and had lots of good advice for young and old – whether sought or not, it was freely given. Margo refused to be bound by the perceived wisdom of if they’re not for us, they’re agin us when deciding who her pals and chums should be. And she was absolutely right that we need to be mindful of life after the vote and how we don’t create such polarisation that we find it impossible to work together for the good of Scotland in the future, whatever the outcome in September.
As we prepare to campaign the last few months without her, we might want to reflect on that advice, as well as on her mindset and attitude. Margo was a can-do woman. She espoused that anything – everything – was possible, preferring to use sometimes sharp humour to make her point about the negative. Margo saw only possibilities and solutions, not barriers and problems. She believed in the ability and capability of Scotland and indeed, people to be better and bigger than we sometimes think we are. She preferred to play the ball rather than the man or the woman, and every time we feel the need to hit out at folk, disparaging those whose message we disagree with or oppose, rather than their message, we might want to remember her approach.
Last night’s BBC documentary, like so many other tributes, was touching in so many ways. She wondered aloud at the end if she had left a legacy, doubting if she had. Many have suggested that Margo was a one-off whose likes we won’t see again in Scottish politics. If we want Margo’s legacy to be a lasting one, then we should acknowledge that we need more like her not just in politics but everywhere in Scottish life. And work to enable that to happen.
*For anyone wondering about the heading, it’s Reba McEntire’s mantra, meaning that to achieve anything in life requires an intense internal fire. It sums Margo up perfectly and fitting that it comes from one of her Country and Western favourites.