Margo Mobile Hits the Road

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  By Peter Geoghegan
 
Govan has been good to Jim Sillars, and his late wife, Margo MacDonald. Back in 1973, Margo sensationally won a by-election on the banks of the Clyde for the SNP, catapulting the 30-year-old with the flowing blonde locks into the glare of the UK media spotlight. Fifteen years later, Jim repeated the trick. 
 

  By Peter Geoghegan
 
Govan has been good to Jim Sillars, and his late wife, Margo MacDonald. Back in 1973, Margo sensationally won a by-election on the banks of the Clyde for the SNP, catapulting the 30-year-old with the flowing blonde locks into the glare of the UK media spotlight. Fifteen years later, Jim repeated the trick.
 
On Tuesday, Sillars was back in Govan, fittingly, for the launch of the ‘Margo Mobile’, a campaign vehicle – in every sense of the word – that will take the ‘Yes’ message across Scotland in the coming weeks.

“I don’t believe death should silence Margo,” Sillars said, looking like an avuncular ice-cream seller as, glasses in hand, he leaned through a rectangular breach cut in the side of a specially converted Luton van. He wore a t-shirt that asked “What Would Margo Do?” over an image of a Saltire. A sign just above his head read: ‘A Message from Margo’.

The ‘Margo Mobile’ is the kind of community politics that the late Lothian MSP, who passed away in April, thrived on. Crowdfunded to the tune of around £20,000 and kitted out by activists – the tannoy system was only added the previous evening – the Margo Mobile will tour housing estates and working class communities across Scotland in the run-up to September 18. 

“The message from Margo to the Scots is for the first time in a long time think big and that means voting Yes,” Sillars told the forty-strong crowd in Govan Cross shopping centre car park. Most mid-morning shoppers continued blithely into the nearby supermarket. Some stopped and took Yes stickers. One old lady in a zip-up jacket shuffled up and declared solemnly, ‘He has no right to tell people what to do.’

But Sillars was in confident mood. “The bus is about to roll and we’ll not stop until we reach the 18th of September,” he said. “Go back and prepare for a ‘yes’ victory”.

Twenty-six years ago, Celia Lawson was campaigning for Jim Sillars and the SNP on the streets of Govan. “Back then we had the ‘Snappy Bus’, the SNP bus,” she said as the Proclaimers’ ‘Cap in Hand’ played over the PA system, just above a large photo of Margo herself at the front of the van. “Now we have a whole new generation. Now my granddaughter is on the bus.”

The launch of the Margo Mobile was adroitly timed. A few hours later, Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling would go head-to-head in the first live TV debate; earlier that morning, the leaders of the three main Westminster parties had pledged to offer a new devolution deal if Scots vote ‘No’ in September.

With all speeches made and the campaign literature handed out, the Margo Mobile fired up its engine. I piled into the back of West Dunbartonshire councilor Jim Finn’s car, as we set off in pursuit.

A couple of hundred yards down the road – past some bewildered Govan Cross onlookers – we followed the Margo Mobile as it turned into a sea of peddledashed low rise flats. Microphone in hand, Jim Sillars was already making the case for independence as we got out of the car: “if at one minute past ten we have voted yes then we take the power for our country into our own hands. If we vote yes, we are the power in Scotland, the working class people.”

A young man hanging out a third floor window roared: “quiet, we’re on the night shift”. A middle-aged woman came down from one of the complexes and took a thick bunch of stickers. A man in with a nose ring and a rise badge strode confidently across the grass: “that was brilliant”.

Jim Sillars is convinced that the referendum has come down to a single variable: class. “The middle class are voting no, they lack confidence, they’re self-satisfied. The working class are the majority now.” Polling certainly suggests that support for independence is highest on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. 

The Margo Mobile’s task is not just to convince people in the housing schemes of the Central Belt of the virtues of a yes, it also needs to persuade them to vote at all. In 2011, turnout in Govan was just over 45 per cent.

As the Margo Mobile pulled up the shutters and got ready for the next destination, a Yes activist stood talking with a man in a union flag t-shirt. “People will still support Rangers even if we’re independent. You can still be British even if we’re independent.” His tone was emollient, his arms spread wide, but his interlocutor looked unconvinced.

“You’re not voting for Rangers.”
“Who am I voting for then?” the man in the red, white and blue top leaned against a doorway.
“You’re voting for yourself”. The Margo Mobile was getting ready to pull off. The Yes supporter promised to call back again.