As SNP Winnie Ewing dies at 93, how she built a political dynasty…

Farewell Madame Ecosse! As SNP grande dame Winnie Ewing dies at 93, how she built a political dynasty… and made waves from Hamilton to the Hague

  • The former party president passed away yesterday, surrounded by her family 

Winnie Ewing was stylish, clever – and scary. Those educated Glasgow vowels could drip with scorn; those wide-set eyes set, in an instant, to implacable ice.

I was often in her company. Sat beside her on a flight from Stornoway after a sad funeral. Dined with her in Perth. Watched her work the room at a fundraiser in Inverness, holding court, waving a vast glass of white wine like a ping-pong bat.

Once, just for me, Winnie Ewing sang a verse or two of a wistful old song about Irish migrants. She had a sweet voice.

‘Wha saw the tattie howkers sailin’ doon the Broomielaw…’

Or – ‘and this is strictly off the record’ – I was regaled about her annual retreat to a health farm. And I have never seen such an effective street campaigner.

Former Scottish National Party MP Winnie Ewing with an old campaign bag on the first day of the party conference in Aviemore

Winnie Ewing, MP celebrating winning the election in 1967 for the Scottish National Party in Hamilton

Folk would scamper over the road to meet ‘our Winnie’ and the very air about her seemed to crackle. One night in 1992 she packed out a hall in Pitlochry. John Swinney, then making his first bid for North Tayside, seemed less the candidate than a sort of pet. But, my word, you never for a moment wanted to cross her. You would have been vaporised.

This was one of Scotland’s most consequential post-war politicians. Ewing’s fabled victory at Hamilton established what has since been continuous Westminster representation for the SNP, set Scotland on the road to devolution, and nine years ago came within a sneeze of ending the Union itself.

‘Stop the world,’ she once famously cracked. ‘Scotland wants to get on.’

She was also a woman in professional politics through an era when there were very, very few; rebounded time and again from defeats and reverse, fetched up as the Mother of the European Parliament and, when the new Scottish parliament assembled in May 1999, was the first MSP to speak. Ewing, too, established a dynasty.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon ‘heartbroken’ as her SNP political heroine Winne Ewing – known as Mrs Scotland – dies at 93

Her daughter-in-law, the late Margaret Ewing, was the SNP’s Westminster leader from 1987 to 2001, and two of Winnie Ewing’s children – Fergus and Annabel – also sit in Holyrood.

Nor was Winifred Margaret Ewing ever one to suffer fools gladly – not always ideal in a party that abounded in them.

Privately, she was delightful: a thoughtful, deeply cultured woman with a profound grasp of Scottish history and lore.

Publicly, she could be tart, even brutal. At a critical candidacy selection for the 1995 Perth and Kinross by-election, she humiliated Roseanna Cunningham. At the SNP conference in 2000, too, Ewing mocked the late ‘Saint Donald Dewar’.

T HERE was uproar, but Winnie Ewing followed lifelong the Disraeli maxim: never apologise, never explain. And no one ever seemed able to get rid of her. Ousted from Hamilton in 1970, in February 1974 she humiliated Gordon Campbell – then Scottish Secretary – by snatching his Moray and Nairn constituency.

Overturned there in 1979, Winnie Ewing bounced back, just weeks later, as directly elected MEP for the Highlands and Islands. (She had been a nominated member since 1975.)

In 1987, she succeeded Donald Stewart as president of her party and, by then, life a happy swirl of continental salons and champagne receptions, was established as so formidable a pork-barrel politician Le Monde hailed her as ‘Madame Ecosse’.

Former MSP Winnie Ewing sworn in the temporary chamber accommodation of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on the Mound

Privately, she was delightful: a thoughtful, deeply cultured woman with a profound grasp of Scottish history and lore 

If it was meant to be a dig, Winnie Ewing flourished it for the rest of her days as a battle honour. Finally, in 1999 she sailed into the Scottish parliament and, as the oldest of all the MSPs, took the chair until the formal election of a presiding officer.

And seized the moment. ‘I have the opportunity to say a few words,’ the veteran Nationalist declaimed, ‘and I want to start with words I’ve always wanted to say, or hear someone say – the Scottish parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened.’

Her single term as an MSP – she stood down in 2003 and wrote her memoirs – would be a quiet swansong, memorable only for that Dewar rant – ‘I’ll probably be sanctified myself,’ she cracked – and her hostility to the abolition of a law against the promotion of homosexuality in schools. It was with great difficulty she was persuaded merely to abstain. She was the first of what remains only a handful of Nationalists to earn instant recognition as a public personality and was never in any circumstances overawed.

There was no love lost between her and another vast Nationalist personality, Jim Sillars. When Harold Wilson, no less, asked her one day in a House of Commons corridor how she was settling in, Ewing flared, ‘Harold, I didn’t come down here to “settle in.” I came here to settle up.’

But she was a leading star in what was then an arguably much more interesting SNP – a broad coalition, with activists from every perspective, far more colourful than the mean, woke, outfit today.

Former Scottish National Party President Winnie Ewing who has died aged 92

Scotland’s eleven Nationalist Members of Parliament after the State Opening of Parliament in Westminster. Left to right: Andrew Welsh (South Angus), Douglas Henderson (Aberdeen East), Ian McCormick (Argyll), Hamish Watt (Banff), Winnie Ewing (Moray and Nairn), Donald Stewart (Western Isles), Gordon Wilson (Dundee East), Margaret Bain (East Dumbarton), George Reid (Stirling E/Clacks), George Thompson (Galloway) and Douglas Crawford (Perth)

With many Jewish friends Winnie Ewing was unabashedly pro-Israel. She never felt any need to apologise for sending her children to private schools. She was instinctively of the centre-Right and, in 1982, established the ‘Campaign for Nationalism’ – finally panicking the party leadership into cracking down on the young Turks of the Leftist ’79 Group. Several, including Alex , were briefly expelled.

H ER achievements in Europe were striking. She won the Highlands and Islands key ‘Objective 1’ regional funding. She chaired the committee for youth and culture from 1984 to 1987 and sat on many other important bodies.

To this day you can point to this Hebridean car ferry or at that piece of Highland infrastructure and remember her part in securing them – and, by 1995, she was Britain’s longest-serving MEP.

Winnie Ewing’s Nationalism was interesting because it was not of the whiny variety, blaming the UK Government at every turn for Scotland’s averred woes.

She was not a Nationalist because she was proud of Scotland, she once declared – she was a Nationalist because she was ashamed of it and wanted it to be better. And she emphatically wanted Scots to throw off victimhood, take some responsibility and take back control.

‘Time after time, on matters great and small, we are still standing on the sidelines, mutely accepting what is decided elsewhere instead of raising our voices and making our own choices.

Scottish National Party member Winnie Ewing, former MEP and MP, having a piece of birthday cake at Stirling University to mark 75th anniversary of the formation of the SNP in 2009

Former SNP MSP Winnie Ewing was the longest serving member of the European Parliament

‘Scotland’s much vaunted partnership of Jonah and the whale.’

Sometimes her flamboyance almost got the better of her. Mrs Ewing once went briefly to such extremes in Seventies fashion that someone once wickedly compared her latest ensemble to ‘Isadora Duncan on her way home from a bandaging class.’

But Winnie was always her own woman, independent to the verge of being wilful, and one can see the same stamp in her son Fergus, this week facing dire SNP reprisals for the enormity of joining Opposition MSPs in a vote of confidence against the risible Lorna Slater.

In September 2005, Winnie Ewing stood down as SNP president – the effective end of her public life – and retreated into lengthy shadows. Tragedy clawed at her now and then: both her husband Stewart and her daughter-in-law Margaret died before her.

An early mentor of Nicola Sturgeon, Winnie Ewing once told her to ‘stand your ground and believe in yourself’.

Of her spirited forerunner, the former First Minister has said, ‘a more vibrant, colourful, dynamic, passionate, committed person you would struggle to meet.’

I last met Mrs Ewing in October 2000, at Donald Dewar’s funeral. Yet again she was seated next to me, an airline bag in tow.

We both failed to recognise The Internationale.

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