Book Review: Sylvia Pankhurst-Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire

Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire by Katherine Connelly.

Katherine Connelly. Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire. London: Pluto Press, 2013. RRP £14.99 paperback.

Sylvia is my favourite Pankhurst. Her mother and older sister Emmeline and Christabel are the most famous Pankhursts, but their conservative and authoritarian tendencies are off putting. Adela is fascinating, but it is hard to like her because of her conversion to far-right nationalism in the 1940s. Sylvia, however, remained committed to her socialist principles throughout her life, and campaigned tirelessly to make like better for marginalised groups of all kinds. She has been one of my heroes for some time, so I was excited to read Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire and find out more about this fierce campaigner. The book is part of Pluto Press’ Revolutionary Lives series: short, critical biographies of prominent radical figures ranging from Gerard Winstanley to Leila Khaled.

Sylvia was above all profoundly committed to a radical, far-reaching conception of democracy for women, for workers and for people struggling to overthrow the dominance of Empire…For those in today’s social movements who want to change the world, Sylvia’s ideas, campaigns and the dilemmas she confronted with are more important that we have been led to believe.

Connelly, 2013; p.3.

Katherine Connelly has written an engaging, well-paced, and insightful biography. Sylvia’s life was so varied and eventful that it would be hard to write a boring biography, but Connelly’s style is clear and logical. The text is punctuated with quotes from Sylvia herself and those who knew and encountered her, which introduces a broad range of perspectives. There is no denying that Sylvia was pretty awesome. From her suffrage activity, to her rejection of stereotypical family values, to her defence of Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy in 1935, to her rejection of all colonialism, there is lots about her to admire. It is tempting to put historical figures like Sylvia on a pedestal, portraying them as perfect visionaries who cannot be critiqued. Connelly does not fall into this trap, pointing out the moments when Sylvia could have made better strategic decisions, or when her beliefs held her back from building connections with other activists and groups.

Sylvia was involved in a dazzling array of organisations during her lifetime, and left-wing groups are not particularly known for having catchy, easy to remember names. Even Sylvia’s own organisation in the East End of London changed it’s name multiple times to reflect Sylvia’s evolving beliefs. Starting as the East London Federation of the WSPU, it became the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914, then the Worker’s Suffrage Foundation in 1916, the Worker’s Socialist Federation in 1918, the the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) – not to be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain – and finally the Communist Worker’s Party before it dissolved itself in 1924. In other books I have read about this period I have got confused by the huge range of radical groups and their different perspectives, but this wasn’t the case as I read Sylvia Pankhurst. Perhaps because the focus is on how Sylvia’s changing political sensibilities were manifested through the organisations she led and worked with rather than the groups themselves, I found it easy to keep everything straight in my head.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a truly fascinating and inspiring woman, and Connelly has done an excellent job of telling her life story. I enjoyed learning more not just about what Sylvia did, but why she did it, how her political beliefs drove and shaped her. If you know Sylvia’s story well then you will still get a lot out of this book, and if you don’t know much about her then you should definitely read it – Sylvia deserves to be better known, and there is much that modern activists could learn from her.

Traces of Turbulent History in Holyrood Park: The Radical Road

The Radical Road is a path that runs around Salisbury Crags in Holyrood Park. The path sits where the gorse becomes bare rock (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A 500-year old royal park might not be the first place you look for evidence of Scotland’s turbulent history. But that is exactly what the Radical Road is, a trace of a particularly tempestuous period of history in Edinburgh’s famous Holyrood Park. The path was built in 1822 by unemployed weavers from the west of Scotland after a failed uprising two years earlier. Sadly, the path has been closed ever since a large rockfall in 2018, and it isn’t clear when, or if, it will reopen. Nevertheless, the story of the Radical Road and the events that led up to its construction is fascinating.

The Radical Road runs through Holyrood Park (highlighted in red). The name feels out of place for a royal park (Source: Google).

The American and French Revolutions in the late 1700s sparked radical movements and debates across Europe, and Scotland is no exception. I have written before on this blog about the Political Martyrs Memorial in the Old Calton Burial Ground commemorating 5 reformers that were transported to Australia for their part in a campaign for universal male suffrage and annual elections in the 1790s. This growth in radical ideas and groups was also accompanied by fierce oppression by the authorities, the 1819 Peterloo Massacre being perhaps the most famous British example. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 led to an economic depression that severely impacted living conditions in Scotland. Demands for reform grew, particularly in the west of Scotland – workers believed that the government didn’t care about their poor living and working conditions. On the 1st of April 1820 a proclamation was posted around Glasgow calling for a general strike. The strike started two days later, with tens of thousands of people across central Scotland refusing to work.

The strike was supposed to be accompanied by an armed uprising. The government had a network of spies, informants and agent provocateurs within the reform movement, so the authorities were aware of most of the plans. The impact of this for the radicals was bigger than just losing the element of surprise, however. The agent provocateurs deliberately encouraged unrest in order to expose the radicals, and exaggerated the threat to the government. Because of this, the number of people willing to take part in armed uprising was lower than both the radicals and the government expected. Largely as a result, the uprising was over before it even began. There were several violent clashes between the authorities and strikers around central Scotland over the next few days. For example, on the 8th of April a crowd managed to free 5 prisoners as they were transported to Greenock Jail. Around 20 people were killed or injured in the fighting. The strike and uprising was crushed quite easily, and 88 people were charged with treason, with 3 men – James Wilson, Andrew Hardie, and John Baird – executed.

The defeat of the uprising pretty much put a stop to radical organising in Scotland. Hundreds of radicals emigrated to escape repression, and the reform movement was decimated. In 1822, George IV visited Scotland. It was the first time a British monarch had visited Scotland in nearly 200 years, and he proved incredibly popular. The visit increased loyalty to the monarchy and further dampened the radical movement. Sir Walter Scott had an important role in organising the visit, and helped to reinvigorate Scottish national identity in the process.

After George IV’s visit, Scott suggested that unemployed weavers from the west of Scotland could be used to build a path in Holyrood Park. As well as giving the men work, it was also designed to discourage further unrest. The work was hard and tiring, leaving the men little time to organise, and they were separated from their local communities and activist networks. A local nursery rhyme was inspired by they scheme:

Round and round the Radical Road the radical rascal ran

If you can tell me how many ‘r’s are in that you can catch me if you can.

The Radical Road in April 2021. The path has been closed since 2018 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Radical Road became a popular path in Holyrood Park, with views over central Edinburgh and towards the Pentland Hills. In September 2018, 50 tonnes of rock fell onto the path during the daytime, and it was decided the path could no longer remain open. Discussions about how to make it safe for use are ongoing, but the Park’s status as a Ancient Monument makes the situation more complicated. Hopefully it will reopen one day, but until then it remains an important trace of Scotland’s radical history, hidden in plain sight.

Sources and Further Reading

Armstrong, Murray. The Fight for Scottish Democracy: Rebellion and Reform in 1820. London: Pluto Press, 2020.

Baxter, Ian. “Radical Road, Radical Response.” Heritage Futures. Last modified 3rd November 2019, accessed 4th May 2021. Available at https://heritagefutures.wordpress.com/2019/11/03/radical-road-radical-response/

Dickson, Alan. Songlines: The Road to Bonnymuir – An Anthology of Late 18th/Early 19th Century Political Song. Glasgow: Rowth, 2020.

Our Edinburgh Friends. “The Radical Road.” Last modified 15th June 2018, accessed 4th May 2021. Available at https://ouredinburghfriends.scot/2018/06/15/the-radical-road/

MacAskill, Kenny. Radical Scotland: Uncovering Scotland’s Radical History from the French Revolutionary Era to the 1820 Rising. London: Biteback, 2020.

The Scotsman. “The Forgotten History of Edinburgh’s Radical Road.” Last modified 30th March 2016, accessed 4th May 2021. Available at https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/forgotten-history-edinburghs-radical-road-1479781

Edinburgh’s Protest Stickers: Climate Change and the Environment

A #ClimateCrisis message on a lamppost opposite Holyrood (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

It often feels like events like Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have forced climate change down the political priority list. Movements such as Extinction Rebellion and School Strikes for Climate have lost momentum, and they are not getting the same kind of press coverage as they were in 2019. Nevertheless, climate change continues to be an urgent issue, and it keeps cropping up in Edinburgh’s protest stickers, alongside other environmental issues. With the next UN Conference on Climate Change being held in Glasgow in November 2021, Scotland might see an increase in environmental activism.

Founded in 2018, Extinction Rebellion quickly became one of the most well-known environmental direct action groups. They are quite active in Edinburgh (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
The Socialist Workers Party is a revolutionary socialist party. Many groups believe that climate change cannot be halted without widespread change to our economic and political systems (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
The Green Anti-Capitalist Front (GAF) argues that capitalism is responsible for the environmental crisis, and the impacts of climate change are disproportionately affecting the most poor and powerless. (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
There are 3 branches of the GAF in Scotland: Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the Borders. Whoever designs their stickers has a knack for it! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
This sticker is a reference to the 1997 song by Aqua ‘Barbie Girl’. One of the lines from the chorus is “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.” The sticker is clever, but looking back at the song lyrics I’m a little disturbed at the image of a 6-year-old me singing along to it! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Straight to the point (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
The words on this sticker have faded, but they read: “Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction.”(Photo: Hannah Awcock).
rs21’s full name is Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (you can see why they shortened it!) They aim to create a space where socialist ideas are discussed, reinterpreted for the modern era, and acted on. This sticker demonstrates how climate changes is only one of the issues that concerns them. In fact, climate change and the environment is one of 10 key themes that rs21 organise around (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
This sticker also links climate change and capitalism (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Of course I had to give Mr T the last word! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Cramond Island’s Political Graffiti

The World War Two fortifications that remain on Cramond Island are a popular canvas for graffiti artists (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

Cramond Island sits about a mile off the coast on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The Island can be reached on foot via a concrete causeway at low tide, and it is a popular spot for Edinburgers to visit. There is a long history of human use of the Island, but the most prominent human-made features date from the Second World War. The Island was part of a string of defenses designed to protect the Firth of Forth, and many of the concrete structures used to house searchlights, guns, stores, and generators remain. This uninhabited coastal environment is not the kind of place that you would expect to find graffiti, but it seems the smooth grey concrete is an irresistible canvas, with tags ranging from basic scrawls to elaborate designs covering every available surface. I was even more surprised to discover that quite a lot of the graffiti is political, turning this little island into a radical outpost.

“Housing is Healthcare.” Edinburgh is the second most expensive city to live in in the UK after London, and house prices have continued to rise during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
“Healthcare is a human right.” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
“Anti-sexist action.” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
“Feminist Antifa.” Antifa is short for anti-fascism. Despite Trump’s attempts to classify it as a ‘terrorist organisation’, antifa is a loose network of activists rather than a single group (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
“Men are fuckin trash. Grrrl style revolution now.” (Photo: Hannah Awcock)
“Fuck TERFS.” Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists are those who hold and promote transphobic views. The term was used in 2008, but seems to have gained more popular traction in recent years, as debates about the rights of people who are transgender rumble on (Photo: Hannah Awcock)
“Bi Pride.” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
“Queer as in fuck u.” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
“Fuck the Tories.” The Conservative Party isn’t exactly popular in Scotland, although this sentiment isn’t unique to this part of the UK! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
“ACAB.” A popular acronym amongst left-wing radicals, ACAB stands for “All Cops Are Bastards” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
“Fuck Duda.” Andrzej Duda is the President of Poland. He promotes ‘traditional’ values and is actively opposed to LGBT rights. Underneath the “Fuck Duda” it is just possible to make out “Fuck Boris”, creating a palimpsest of controversial European leaders (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
“Anarchy is the mother of order.” This is an adaptation of a quote by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, one of anarchism’s most influential philosophers (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Turbulent Scots: Helen Crawfurd, 1877-1954

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Next up is Helen Crawfurd, a feminist and socialist campaigner.


Helen Crawfurd, 1877-1954 (Source: Women’s History Scotland).

Helen Crawfurd was a dedicated and talented campaigner. She worked for the causes of women’s rights and socialism for more than four decades. Over the course of her life, she lent her skills to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as well as numerous other groups, movements, and committees.

Born in Glasgow on the 9th of November 1877, Helen was the fourth of seven children. The family moved to Ipswich when Helen was young, and returned to Glasgow when she was 17. The family was religious and politically active, so Helen would have grown up surrounded by debate and discussion. Her father was a baker and an enthusiastic union member, and both parents were active in the Conservative Party. In 1898 Helen married the Reverend Alexander Montgomery Crawfurd, a temperance campaigner and opponent of militarism.

Her family may have primed Helen for a life of politics, but the beliefs she developed were quite different to her parents. Shocked by the inequality and poverty that she saw in Glasgow, Helen became a socialist, although the early years of her campaigning were dedicated to the women’s suffrage movement. She joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in around 1900 and put her debating skills to good use, becoming one of the most popular speakers in the Scottish suffrage movement. Like many other women, Helen grew frustrated with the slow progress of the movement, and joined the WSPU in 1910, embracing their militant tactics. She was imprisoned several times for her participation in WSPU protests, including being sentenced to two years for her alleged role in the bombing of the botanical gardens in Glasgow in 1914. When in prison, she went on hunger strikes.

1914 was a tumultuous year for Helen. Both her husband and mother died, and she left the WSPU when it came out in support of the First World War. She did not slow down though, joining the ILP. She became Secretary of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, and alongside Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan was instrumental in the 1915 Glasgow rent strikes, which convinced the government to fix rents throughout the UK for the duration of the war. She remained a committed anti-militant, an unpopular stance during the war. In November 1915 she and Agnes formed the Glasgow branch of the Women’s International League, a pressure group opposed to the war. The League had few working class members however, and did not support militant tactics, so in 1916 she helped form the Women’s Peace Crusade. Within a year the Crusade became a national organisation, with Helen as Honorary Secretary.

By the end of the war Helen was a well-known figure, and was appointed Vice-chair of the Scottish divisional council of the ILP. She grew frustrated with what she saw as a lack of radicalism in the ILP though, and became interested by attempts to establish a Communist party in Britain. In July 1920 she traveled to Moscow and interviewed Lenin. Helen tried to establish a Communist faction within the ILP, and when this failed she left and joined the recently formed CPGB, quickly being appointed to it’s executive committee. She worked on increasing female membership, including editing a women’s page of the party’s official paper, the Communist. Helen also continued to campaign on other issues close to her heart. In 1919 she was part of the British delegation to the Conference of the Women’s International League in Zurich, alongside other formidable women such as Charlotte Despard, Ellen Wilkinson and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.

Helen with Methil Women’s Communist Party in 1925. (Source: Glasgow Caledonian University Special Collections and Archives, Gallacher Memorial Library).

In 1922 Helen became secretary of the Worker’s International Relief Organisation, which provided aid and support in struggling industrial regions. She visited Ireland in support of Home Rule, and was involved in organising several international conferences. She threw her efforts behind the 1926 General Strike, giving speeches and distributing food. Helen stood as a Communist candidate in the 1929 and 1931 general elections, losing on both occasions.

During the 1930s Helen worked with the Friends of the Soviet Union, which coordinated global solidarity efforts with the Soviet Union. She also recognised the rising threat of fascism however, and in 1933 became the honorary secretary of two committees aimed at combating fascism and anti-Semitism in Scotland. In 1938 she organised the Peace and Empire Congress, with the goal of coordinating a peace movement across the British Commonwealth. Like many members of the CPGB, she was ambivalent towards the Second World War, arguing the Communists had to be convinced Britain was commited to fighting fascism before they could support it.

During the Second World War, Helen retired to Dunoon in Argyll and Bute. Even retirement did not stop her campaigning efforts however. After the war she served as Dunoon’s first female Councillor for 2 years, and she started a local discussion group on Marxist literature. In 1947 she married George Anderson, a fellow member of the CPGB. She passed away on the 18th of April 1954.

The list of Helen’s activities and achievements throughout her life is formidable. She worked tirelessly for what she believed in, and certainly made her mark on Scotland’s, and in fact British and European, radical culture.

Sources and Further Reading

Corr, Helen. “Crawfurd [née Jack; other married name Anderson], Helen.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2010, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40301 [Subscription required to access].

Couzin, John. “Helen Crawfurd.” Saltaire Society Scotland. No date, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://www.saltiresociety.org.uk/awards/outstanding-women/2015-nominees/helen-crawfurd/

Simkin, John. “Helen Crawfurd.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/CRIcrawfordH.htm

Todd, Amy. “Women and Peace: Helen Crawfurd.” On History. Last modified 6th May 2019, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://blog.history.ac.uk/2019/05/women-and-peace-helen-crawfurd/

Edinburgh’s Protest Stickers: Coronavirus

A stereotypically Scottish public health message on Leith Walk (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Protest stickers tend to reflect the issues that people care about. It should come as no surprise then that the coronavirus pandemic has emerged as a popular topic of stickers over the last 12 months. I have written about coronavirus protest stickers in Brighton, where I spent the first lockdown, but since I moved to Edinburgh I have found a whole new set of stickers, which have evolved as the pandemic has. From criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, workers rights, and complaints from the city’s student population, through to questioning the efficacy of lockdowns and masks and even rejecting the existence of Covid-19, the stickers I have found over the last few months represent a range of conflicting views.

Although this sticker doesn’t explicitly mention Covid, it is in the same style as other stickers I found nearby that did directly mention the virus, so I am fairly confident that this sticker is refering to Covid rather any of the other things Boris Johnson has been criticised for over the last few years (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
This is one of the other stickers in the same style. The text is faded, and it looks like someone tried to scratch it off at some point, but it says “Clapping isn’t enough.” The weekly Clap for Carers started out as a very popular gesture during the first Lockdown, but later was criticised for being just that, an empty gesture (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Many employees felt compelled to go back to work after the first lockdown, even if they were worried about their health. The No Safety No Work campaign is a new campaign to protect worker safety during Covid-19 run by the Anarchist Communist Group (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Another sticker promoting the No Safety No Work campaign. Again, there is no direct reference to Covid (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Another sticker produced by the Anarchist Communist Group calling for the redistribution of wealth. Many of those classified as key workers during the pandemic are poorly paid, and it has highlighted inequality in wages and income (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
As the pandemic has progressed the number of protests against Lockdowns and masks has increased. There is also a significant proportion of people who do not trust the vaccine. The Saving Scotland Party seems to have been set up to campaign against coronavirus restrictions (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
UK Column is an alternative news website and newspaper founded in 2006. Judging from the cartoon on this sticker, they also disapprove of coronavirus restrictions. Someone has responded by writing on the sticker (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
This sticker is a modified version of a well-known image created by the street artist Shepard Fairey (the mask has been added). Although it isn’t explicitly anti-mask, that is how I interpret it. Many people opposed to coronavirus restrictions have complained that they are authoritarian, and I think this sticker is making a point along those lines. I suppose it could be an honest attempt to encourage people to wear masks, but it doesn’t feel like that! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
It is not uncommon to see the coronavirus restrictions linked to the dystopic world of George Orwell’s 1984. This sticker is suggesting that Covid-19 is an excuse for cracking down on civil liberties. ‘False flag’ is a phrase popular with conspiracy theorists (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
I wanted to end on a slightly more positive note, and this sticker made me smile. Once I figured out what it means, that is! ‘Jambo’ is a nickname for a supporter of the Heart of Midlothian football team, based in Edinburgh. Apparently they have a healthy rivalry with the other Edinburgh team, Hibernian. Something tells me this sticker was made by a Hibs fan! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

‘False Idols’ on Leith Walk, Edinburgh

The fate of the building at 106-154 Leith Walk has been hotly contested over the last few years (Source: North Edinburgh News).

Towards the Leith end of Leith Walk is a long red sandstone building. 106-154 Leith Walk is currently the focus of a bitter struggle between developers who want to demolish the building to build student housing and the grassroots campaign group Save Leith Walk. In January 2019 planning permission for the new development was denied, a significant victory for the community group. New plans have been submitted that propose to keep the building intact and reopen it as commercial spaces, but in the meantime the shop fronts remain boarded up. The dark gray wooden boards have come to serve a purpose of their own however, as a sort of community pin board. Slogans, street art, and other miscellanea appears, disappears, and reappears often. One of the most recent installations is called False Idols, by Creative Electric.

False Idols, an installation on Leith Walk, Edinburgh in November 2020 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The death of actor Sean Connery on the 31st October 2020 sparked a predictable outpouring of grief and admiration, particularly in his home city of Edinburgh. Not everyone mourned his loss, however. It was well known that Connery physically abused women. On several occasions he explained how he felt entitled to hit women who ‘deserved’ it, and his first wife Diane Cliento accused him of sustained physical and mental abuse during their marriage. Many people, myself included, didn’t know about this until after Connery’s death, and False Idols questions how such a man could be celebrated as a national hero.

False Idols demands that society stops celebrating abusive men (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

False Idols is described as a community art project, and in some ways it is the literal embodiment of this term. It is made up of comments posted on the I Love Leith Facebook group in the wake of Connery’s death. It must have been installed quickly, because it was destroyed on the 4th of November, just four days after Connery died. It was replaced on the 13th of November, and I took these photos two weeks later, on the 22nd. It was still largely intact when I passed by again on the 29th. You can never be sure how long street art is going to last, and the more controversial something is, the more likely it is to upset someone enough that they will try to obscure or destroy it. This is part of what makes political street art so special; it gives people an opportunity to express their opinion in public space, a privilege normally reserved for those who are rich or famous enough to attract media coverage or buy advertising.

Some of the comments included in False Idols (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Some of the included comments defend Connery, but they were clearly selected to make us question how such a person could be so revered (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

It is generally accepted that people say things on social media that they wouldn’t be willing to say in ‘real life’. So it is interesting to see the language of social media transposed onto the public space of Leith Walk. The comments have been anonymised, but I wonder how the commenters would react if they suddenly saw their own words as they walked past. Would they regret their choice of words, or their tone? Or would they stand by them? Would they be upset, angry, or proud that their opinions have been plastered onto the physical fabric of Leith? Would they even recognise their own words in this strange context?

Both political street art and social media provide ‘ordinary’ people with a platform to express their opinions. False Idols brings these two platforms together, with thought-provoking results.

Turbulent Scots: Margo Macdonald, 1943-2014

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Last time I looked at Wendy Wood, artist and campaigner. This time it is the turn of Margo MacDonald, a charismatic politician and broadcaster.


Margo Macdonald in 1978
(Source: ODNB).

The movement for independence in Scotland has been building momentum since the mid-twentieth century, and has made some significant gains over the last 50 years. Central to those gains have been the efforts of some charismatic and driven women, including Wendy Wood, who was the first Turbulent Scot I featured on this blog, and Margo MacDonald, the focus of this post. Like Wendy, Margo was passionate and likeable, although both women struggled with the constraints of membership in a political party.

Margo Aitken was born on the 19th of April 1943, one of 3 children. She grew up in East Kilbride, and trained as a PE teacher when she left school. In 1965 she married her first husband Peter MacDonald, they had 2 children. The couple ran a pub, and Margo’s experiences talking to customers and getting to know the regulars seems to have been influential on her later political beliefs.

Margo embarked on a political career in the early 1970s, winning the Glasgow Govan by-election in 1973 as an SNP candidate. She won by 571 votes. This was a remarkable achievement; the SNP wasn’t considered a serious political force at that point, and it was widely believed that they couldn’t win an election under a Conservative government. Margo proved all the doubters wrong. She wasn’t an MP for long though, as she lost her seat in the 1974 General Election. She lost further elections in 1978 and 1979, but her 1973 victory helped establish the SNP as a serious political force.

Margo with her daughters outside the House of Parliament after her election in 1973 (Source: The Conversation).

In 1974 Margo became Deputy Leader of the SNP. She was critical of the Party’s poor performance in the General Election that year, particularly the failure to convert more Labour voters. She was a prominent member of the 79 Group, which tried to persuade the SNP to move further left to appeal to the working classes. The Group was banned by the SNP in 1982, and many of its members left the Party. However, they were later readmitted to the party and several had successful careers, including Margo and Alex Salmond.

Margo’s membership of the 79 Group meant that she wasn’t re-elected as Deputy Leader of the SNP in 1979, and she was one of those who left the Party in 1982. She established herself as a successful radio presenter, and wrote for several Scottish newspapers. She remarried in 1981, to politician and columnist Jim Sillars. As devolution became more likely in the mid-1990s, Margo rejoined the SNP as she believed it was the only way to achieve Scottish independence. She was elected as an MSP for Lothian in 1999. Margo was popular, but was outspoken on lots of contentious issues such as sex worker’s rights and MSP’s salaries. She struggled with the restrictions of being part of a political party, and was disciplined in 2000 for not toeing the party line.

When the SNP chose its candidates for the Scottish elections in 2003, Margo was 5th on the list, almost guaranteeing that she would not get re-elected. She stood as an independent candidate in protest, and was kicked out of the SNP. Margo had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1996; in the run up to the 2003 election this became public knowledge. Margo believed someone in the SNP had leaked the information in an attempt to hamper her chances of getting re-elected, which they denied. However her diagnosis got out, it didn’t prevent her getting elected. She went on to be reelected as an independent candidate in 2007 and 2011. Margo used her platform to continue to fight for what she believed in. She became a fierce advocate for assisted suicide; this was a particularly personal issue because of her illness.

Margo Macdonald was a popular figure in the Scottish Parliament from her election in 1999 to her death in 2014 (Source: The Edinburgh Reporter).

Throughout her career, Margo was suspicious that the British Security Services were interfering in Scottish politics. She believed that MI5 infiltrated the SNP in the 1970s, and in the run up to the 2014 Independence Referendum she asked the Security Services to guarantee that they would not interfere. Throughout her career she supported the causes that mattered to her; she once joined an Anti-Trident protest outside the Scottish Parliament, and she campaigned to ban vuvuzelas in Scottish football grounds.

Known as firebrand and rebel, Margo remained a popular and well-known politician until her death on the 4th of April 2014. She was respected, if not always liked, by allies and opponents alike. Although she never had a smooth relationship with the SNP, she helped to establish the party as a serious political actor. I’m sure that many Scots remember her fondly.

Sources and Further Reading

Black, Andrew. “Margo MacDonald: The Life and Times of a Political ‘Blonde Bombshell.” BBC News. Last modified 4th April 2014, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-26854930

Gander, Kashmira. “Margo MacDonald Dies: Tributes Pour in for ‘Britghtest Light’ Veteran Scottish Politician. The Independent. Last modified 5th April 2014, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/margo-macdonald-dies-tributes-pour-veteran-scottish-politician-9239694.html

Mitchell, James. “Margo MacDonald, Independent Scot, 1943-2014.” The Conversation. Last modified 4th April 2014, accessed 6th November 2020. Available at https://theconversation.com/margo-macdonald-independent-scot-1943-2014-25299

Torrance, David. “Margo MacDonald.” The Glasgow Herald. Last modified 5th April 2014, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/13154083.margo-macdonald/

Torrance, David. “MacDonald [nee Aitken], Margo Symington Jack.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 15th February 2018, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.108517 [Subscription required to access]

Wikipedia, “Margo MacDonald.” Last modified 21st September 2020, accessed 27th October 2020. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margo_MacDonald

Ecological Depletion is Scary: Halloween Extinction Rebellion Protests on the Royal Mile

An Extinction Rebellion protester with a Halloween themed placard in West Parliament Square (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last weekend I was out on the Royal Mile preparing for a Geographies of Protest walking tour for the third year students. It just so happened that I witnessed a protest organised by Extinction Rebellion whilst I was out and about. The protest was in two parts: the first was an animal die-in in West Parliament Square, and the second was a march down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Parliament. It is always interesting to witness a protest first hand, and this was no exception.

A die-in is a type of protest where activists simulate pretend to be dead. It is a tactic that Extinction Rebellion have used before. This die-in was designed to highlight the decline of wildlife in Scotland (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
The protesters wore hats that represented different British and Scottish species (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
They also displayed facts about the decline of each species (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
After an ominous drum-beat, each activist read out the fact about their species, then lay down on the ground (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
It wasn’t a large protest, there were maybe 20 activists involved, but they chose an effective way to get their point across (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
This banner faced out onto the Royal Mile to convey the main message of the protest action to passersby (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
After the die-in, another group of activists started to march down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle. Again, it was a relatively small group (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Once the march reached the Scottish Parliament the activists arranged their banners for photographers and observers. There was one or two speeches, but I got the impression that these were more for the activists themselves than any observers (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
This was the first protest I have attended since social distancing and face masks became necessary. It felt like a more muted experience, but that could also have been because the numbers were relatively small. I am impressed with the way that activists are adapting their strategies and tactics to this new normal though (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
There was a visible police presence throughout the protest, and there were several police vans parked nearby that presumably contained more officers. It felt over the top, but wasn’t too intimidating (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Edinburgh’s Protest Stickers: Black Lives Matter

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 sparked a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Founded in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has experienced a renaissance since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May 2020. From protests to art, the resurgence of BLM over the Summer of 2020 has been dramatic. Racism has been a topic of protest stickers for as long as I have been studying them, but the recent BLM revival has resulted in a corresponding surge in stickers that use the language and symbolism of BLM. Since my recent move to Edinburgh, I have found a lot of protest stickers on a whole range of topics, but racism and BLM have been some of the most common.

Love [insert place or thing], hate Racism is a fairly common formula for protest stickers. Racism was a common topic of protest stickers long before BLM experienced a revival this summer (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
This sticker combines two of the hot topics of 2020! Stand up to Racism has been prominent in anti-racism campaigns in Britain over the last few years (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
The raised clenched fist has been a symbol of resistance for decades, but at the moment it is particularly synonymous with Black Lives Matter (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Simple but striking black and white designs is also fairly typical of Black Lives Matter (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Graffiti artists and taggers often use ‘Hello, my name is…” stickers to make their mark on urban space. I don’t think I have seen an Italian version before, but it is still instantly recognisable (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Repeating the names of black people killed by police is a common practice of BLM at meetings and protests. The next few photos are sticker versions of this practice. Michael Brown was 18 years old when he was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
BLM is very much a social movement for the social media age. Hashtags are common, and are used very effectively to attract attention to causes and events. Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by a white civilian whilst out jogging in Georgia on 23rd February 2020 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Yvette Smith was shot and killed by a police officer in Texas in 2014 when she opened the door of a friend’s house. Yvette was unarmed, and had called the police because of a dispute between two men (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Sandra Bland committed suicide in her jail cell in Texas in 2015 after being arrested for assaulting a police officer during a traffic stop. Both her arrest and her treatment in prison have been heavily criticised (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
The next set of stickers are also part of a series that I assume are produced by the same person(s). When Britain ended slavery in the 1830s the government borrowed a huge sum of money to pay compensation–not to the slaves, but to their former owners for the loss of their ‘property’. The British public only finished paying off that debt in 2015 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
There seems to be a general sense in Scotland that it is not as racist as the rest of Britain. This sticker is disputing that narrative. Sheku Bayoh died whilst being arrested by police in Kirkcaldy, Fife, in May 2015 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
This sticker is also disrupting the narrative that Scotland does not have a problem with racism (Photo: Hannah Awcock).
Henry Dundas was the most powerful man in Scotland in the late 18th century. He became Home Secretary in 1791, and he has been accused of using his influence to delay the abolition of the slave trade by 10 years (he supported a gradual rather than immediate abolition). A statue of Dundas stands on top of a 150ft pillar in St. Andrews Square in Edinburgh, and it has been just one of the statues targeted in a campaign to decolonise British statues in recent months. Dundas is a popular figure in Scotland, and the debate about his legacy has been fierce. It is difficult to make out, but someone has written on this sticker: “Dundas abolished slavery in Scotland 1793.” His legacy in relation to the slave trade is complicated, and certainly cannot be resolved by a single protest sticker. It does demonstrate how strongly people feel on this issue, however, on both sides of the debate (Photo: Hannah Awcock).