Margo MacDonald and other victims of the creepy compliment

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By Kenneth Roy

One of the incidental curiosities of reading the Hansard record of a House of Commons debate on the Clyde Port Authority (Hunterston Ore Terminal) Order Confirmation Bill (11 December 1973) – it’s odd what I get up to, really – was to see Margo MacDonald compared favourably to a nuclear power station. The power station – Hunterston ‘A’ – is being decommissioned. The member for Govan, as she then was, battles on.

On 11 December 1973 she delivered her maiden speech in parliament, a few weeks after her stunning by-election victory for the SNP in one of Labour’s heartland seats. She was 29, a former teacher of physical education, and the wife of the landlord of the Hoolet’s Nest in High Blantyre. She and her first husband and their two young daughters lived in a flat above the pub. Margo said after her unexpected triumph that it had not been her ambition to be an MP and that she would rather sit in a Scottish parliament. She did – 26 years later.

A maiden speech is an occasion for honourable members, setting political differences aside, to say nice things about the debut of the new boy or girl. Mrs MacDonald’s speech was unusually short, a model of brevity at around 700 words, and very much to the point. But from the Labour side, some of the tributes were muted, if not downright chilly. The party’s rising star, Jim Sillars, had nothing to say in praise of the speech but confined himself to ‘welcoming the conversion of at least one member – I put it no higher – of the Scottish National Party to the campaign for the development of Hunterston’. Relations between the member for Govan and the member for South Ayrshire thawed sufficiently for the two of them to marry each other some years later.

But to read the other personal references to Margo MacDonald that night is to be reminded of how much the world has changed since 1973. Prepare to blush as we re-visit a few of them:

T G D Galbraith (Conservative, Glasgow Hillhead): ‘If all that I heard did not please my ears, everything that my eye saw was a delight’.

George Younger (Conservative, Ayr): ‘I hope that I shall not be misunderstood when I say that I hope to meet her here often’.

William Ross (Labour, Kilmarnock): ‘Hers was one of the best speeches that we have seen here for a long time – and I say “seen” quite rightly’.

J Dickson Mabon (Labour, Greenock): ‘The Hon Gentleman said that it was necessary in almost all circumstances to have beauty and the beast. Certainly she is the beauty’.

And the beast? Well, that was Hunterston ‘A’ nuclear power station. To say nothing of the ore terminal on the same site, and the petro-chemical plant, and the oil refinery, and the steel works, most of which never materialised. Reading Hansard cold 39 years later, the short-sightedness of the vision for Scotland’s economic future is striking. But it’s the overt sexism, the unmistakable nudge-nudge from the ranks of the suits, which leaps more immediately from the page. Though only by the standards of today.

Outside the dinosaur environments of certain male-only Burns suppers and the ‘sportsman’s dinner’, no-one now would dare to define women in public life – or women in general – by their physical appearance. That form of sexism belongs in the same 1970s’ dustbin as ore terminals, Carry On films, and the collected speeches of Edward Heath.

But if the war against one ism has been largely won, it seems that the war against another is still being fought.

May I introduce you to Alfred Throop? Mr Throop was a passenger on an Arriva bus in Leicester last week when the vehicle began swaying from side to side. ‘There’s something wrong here’, he thought, percipiently enough. Sure enough, the driver was having a funny turn. Our hero grabbed the wheel and steered the bus to safety. Mr Throop is now being held up as an example of what can be achieved by ‘a brave pensioner’ – as the BBC and the newspapers insist on calling him.

A brave pensioner, indeed. Mr Throop is 67. Hey, ain’t he old?

One newspaper discovered that he is a grandfather as well as a pensioner. Another described him as an OAP. Imagine it. There’s this ancient geezer Throop, pensioner and grand-daddy, the type that need help to get themselves dressed in the morning, barely ambulant with assistance, meals on wheels, just about ready for the zimmer frame, and amazingly there’s one of them on this Arriva bus, being all heroic, and at his age.

Odd, though, that there is discrimination even within the discriminatory practice of ageism. When Harry Redknapp, aged 65, joined QPR last week he did a brave thing – take one look at QPR if you doubt me – but he wasn’t described anywhere as a brave pensioner. When Tony Hall joins the BBC next March he too will be doing a brave thing – take one look at the BBC if you doubt me – and in the week of his 62nd birthday at that, so our Tony is not far off being a brave pensioner himself. In fact, he’s already claiming a pension from the BBC and will bravely go on doing so even when he is picking up a big fat cheque for being DG.

If we must define Alfred Throop as a brave pensioner, is there not a case for every reference to Lord Hall and Harry Redknapp to be prefaced in the same way? Or how about me? I have a vested interest in this matter: I too have reached the age and status of a brave pensioner, marvelling at my ability to totter up the stairs of Liberator House unaided. If I loathe the whole idea of age and gender stereotyping, I suspect it’s because I’ve become vulnerable to a bit of it myself.

But then I remember what it must have been like in the House of Commons on the night of Margo MacDonald’s maiden speech, when it was still possible for a woman MP to be compared favourably to a nuclear power station.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review