For old school Scottish Nationalists, Winnie Ewing was a constant presence. I was only 4 when she won the Hamilton by-election in 1967 but still I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of her.
Somehow – even in those days where news and opinion came principally in printed form – a very young boy living in a little village in Morayshire knew about this remarkable woman.
When I was in first year at secondary school I recall we were set a task by our English teacher: we had to write a short description of someone we admired, read it out to our classmates and then they had to guess who it was.
I was the only boy that chose a woman and the only one in the class that described a politician. Of course, the hero I described was Winnie. I can’t remember if the others in the class guessed her identity but it’s pretty certain many of them will have because she was one of the most famous people in Scotland at the time.
For me it was Winnie’s utterly defiant rejection of the notion that Scotland was inferior or second rate that was the defining aspect of her character and her politics. When she proclaimed, ‘stop the world Scotland wants to get on’ she placed the nationalist movement in a global context, just at the time that so much was changing round the world. Our movement wasn’t about a retreat into the past. Instead we intended to re-emerge into the modern world after centuries of being hidden within the British state. That’s how I still see it. And now, as the British attempt to seal themselves off from the world, it’s more important than ever.
There’s no question that Winnie grafted tirelessly. In Westminster, in the European parliament and then in Holyrood she saw herself as a historic figure. The culmination of that was on the day she took the chair to reconvene the Scottish Parliament. She expressed the most defiantly nationalist understanding of the event that it was possible to imagine. Scotland’s self-rule had been interrupted, not ended. We still have to complete that journey. But there is no doubt it will happen.
Winnie Ewing displayed the immense self-confidence of the Glasgow bourgeoisie from which she emerged. Looking back at recordings from the 1970s you can see why not everyone loved her. There was a touch of arrogance. The first time I met her when I was 14 she came across as very grand and I was a little disappointed in her complete lack of interest in me. Such are the travails of teenage-dom. In his biography of her, Mike Russell, notes that she endured the misogyny of Westminster and the isolation of being the only Scot Nat in the chamber by indulging in a daily glass of champagne.
Winnie had some old fashioned views on social issues. She didn’t let her sex get in the way of her personal achievements but she rarely took the side of the socially progressive part of the independence movement. Her opposition to legislation intended to bring about equality for lesbian and gay people was a let down.
Winnie’s death brings an end to the period of the great political reawakening of the Scottish nation. She changed the country forever. All of us who carry on the fight for independence must acknowledge her contribution to the victory that sooner or later will be ours.