The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Margaret Ewing (1945-2006) and Margo MacDonald (1943-2014) had very different careers in the UK Parliament. Ewing was an MP for nearly 20 years, MacDonald for less than four months, but they were both major figures in Scottish nationalism.
Margaret Ewing was born in rural Lanarkshire in 1945, to Margaret and John McAdam, a farmer. She joined the SNP at university and married Donald Bain, an SNP researcher, in 1968. She worked as an English teacher from 1968 to 1974, when she won East Dunbartonshire for the SNP with a majority of just 22. She was 29, making her one of the youngest MPs in the House of Commons. In her maiden speech in November 1974, she raised education as a priority, telling the Commons that her fellow teachers’ “long-standing patience is totally exhausted.”
Ewing lost her seat in the 1979 general election, and began working as a freelance journalist. She contested the Strathkelvin and Bearsden seat for the SNP in 1983, and in the same year married her second husband Fergus Ewing, son of Winnie Ewing, the first female SNP Member of Parliament. She was unsuccessful in Strathkelvin and Bearsden but won Moray—an area that had formerly been part of part of Winnie Ewing’s Westminster constituency of Moray and Nairn—from the Conservatives in 1987. She retained the seat in the 1992 and 1997 elections. In 1988, she moved a 10-minute rule Bill calling for a referendum on Scottish self-determination, and from 1989 to 2001 she was a member of the Select Committees considering European legislation. However, having been elected to represent Moray in the new Scottish Parliament in 1999, she left Westminster in 2001 along with many of her SNP colleagues peers.
Ewing served as deputy leader of the SNP from 1984 to 87 and as leader of the party in the Commons from 1987 to 89. In 1990, she became the first woman to stand for the leadership of the SNP, but was defeated by Alex Salmond. Ill health forced her to announce that she would not stand in the 2007 Scottish parliamentary election, and she died at her home in Lossiemouth in March 2006. Alex Salmond said that she was “one of the few politicians without an enemy in the world”, and at her funeral, former SNP leader John Swinney said she was a “charming, vivacious, principled Nationalist who had the very rare ability to speak from the head and the heart at the same time.”
Margo MacDonald was born in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, to Jean, a nurse, and Robert, a music teacher. She trained as a PE teacher before marrying Peter MacDonald, taking over the family pub and having two daughters. She won Glasgow Govan, traditionally a Labour seat, for the SNP in a by-election in November 1973, but the seat returned to Labour only three months later in the February 1974 election. She contested the seat in the October 1974 election, and went on to stand for the SNP in 1978 a by-election for Hamilton, and in the 1979 election for Glasgow Shettleston, but she never returned to Westminster.
MacDonald developed a prominent role in the SNP, serving as deputy leader of the party from 1974 to 1979. She also enjoyed a career in broadcasting and journalism, and married her second husband, Jim Sillars, in 1981, who followed in her footsteps when he won Govan for the SNP in a by-election in 1988. MacDonald was elected as an MSP for Lothian in the first elections for the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but her relationship with the SNP was complicated. Independent-minded and on the left of the party, she was expelled in 2003 but re-elected for Lothian three times as an Independent MSP. She campaigned on behalf of migrants, sex workers and prisoners, and introduced two assisted dying Bills in the Scottish Parliament. She was also a director of Shelter and a broadcaster and columnist.
She died from Parkinson’s in 2014. In tributes in the Scottish Parliament following her death, she was called a “sparkling jewel” who “made the complex simple and spoke a language that everybody understood.”
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Margaret Ewing’s maiden speech on 6 November 1974 [as Margaret Bain]: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1974-11-06/debates/7205cda8-92f2-4614-b50d-e892dfbd7dd2/SocialSecurityAmendmentBill
Tribute to Margaret Ewing by SNP leader John Swinney: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2006/mar/26/liberaldemocrats.scotland
Margo MacDonald speaking at a Scottish independence rally in September 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JLANNZgAbw
Tributes to Margo MacDonald on 22 April 2014, following her death: https://www.parliament.scot/chamber-and-committees/official-report/what-was-said-in-parliament/meeting-of-parliament-22-04-2014?meeting=9515&iob=85564