WINNIE EWING - “THE TRUE RADICAL SPIRIT OF SCOTLAND”
“The heirts ay the pairts ay,
That maks us richt or wrang”.
It was Winnie’s favourite quotation usually told with reference to a conversation with former Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home in the late 60s on the way to a Burns supper
Home said that he was a Scottish nationalist in his heart, but not his head and Winnie shot back with the Burns quotation.
“The heirts ay the pairts ay …
But it seems to me the quote is much more than a clever retort to suit the occasion - it was actually Winnie’s guiding star - in her politics certainly, but in her life as well.
Winnie’s commitment to Scotland was instinctive, heartfelt, her Scottish nationalism the product of a loving family upbringing even through the turbulence of wartime Scotland.
Which should remind us today as we celebrate the life and work of an extraordinary woman, we should recall a family mourning the passing of a mother and grandmother and those able to be with us today are;
Children - Fergus, Annabelle and Terry
Daughters in law - Jacqui and Fiona
Grandchildren - Tasha, Ciara, Jamie and Sophie
And our thoughts and solidarity are with them now.
Winnie’s legal training applied an intellectual rigour to her nationalist sentiment and of course the law faculty at Glasgow University in the immediate post war years brought forth a number of colourful nationalists.
It was only Winnie’s lack of a driving licence which precluded her from being part of “the pinch” - the repatriation of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in Christmas 1950 having been, as she put it, “sounded out” by the ringleader, Ian Hamilton. This provoked a life long friendship with Kay Matheson, the student who did have a driving licence.
Winnie admired above all courage, conviction and a splash of derring-do.
Winnie did not hone her political and debating skills in Glasgow University Union as so many others did but rather in the much harder school of Glasgow Sheriff Court and for fifteen years after graduation she built a successful law career and a family.
And then there was history, the co-incidence of circumstances, the star alignment which resulted in the by-election in Hamilton.
I think for most people now it is difficult to understand the full significance of 1967.
Scotland was having a good year. Celtic were champions of Europe, Rangers in the final of the Cup winners cup, Kilmarnock in the semi final of the Fair Cities cup and Scotland were the real world champions by dint of Jim Baxter humiliating Sir Alf Ramsay’s pretenders at Wembley.
So there was a feel good atmosphere about. But not even these successes could compare to the seismic shock of Hamilton and the celebrations which followed.
I was 12 years old when I first heard the name Winnie Ewing. It was lunchtime on Friday 3 November 1967. As was our habit my pals and I were off to the McGinley Grill for food -to be greeted by a beaming Jimmy McGinley later Convener of West Lothian Council, who had bedecked his cafe in tartan, placed a giant poster of Winnie in the window and announced everything on the menu was FREE for the day.
A free meal in Lithgae - not something easily forgotten!
All of which, means that among her many other achievements we should note that Winnie introduced free lunches for all school children thirty years before a new Scottish Parliament was born! - Sir Keir Starmer eat your heart out.
Only some of us here today can personally remember Hamilton but every single one of us has lived through the consequences - it was the transformational by-election
From that day to this the constitution of Scotland has been ever-present in political debate. Ups and downs of course, but ever present.
Could any other politician have won Hamilton? - possibly. Would they have done it as well? - using it as the launchpad to change Scottish politics for ever and for good.
That was Winnie Ewing’s achievement
And what were the qualities which made Winnie, Winnie?
First her indomitable character
We all know the headline circumstances knocked out in Hamilton, back in Moray and Nairn in 1974,defeating a sitting Secretary of State for Scotland and then within weeks of the 79 disaster, she won in the Highland and Islands against all odds, 20 triumphant years in Europe and then the pinnacle of her career in the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament.
What we don’t so easily know is the underlying strength and resilience that this remarkable record required and the support and sacrifice of her family and particular by her husband Stuart who commanded the back room operation.
There is a picture of Winnie and one of her Hamilton constituents, friends and supporters, the late Walter McGowan. McGowan was, with Ken Buchanan, the most talented boxer of his era and a worthy champion. However he cut easily and as a result has to battle his way through just about every fight.
But every time McGowan was cut and lost he persevered to triumph again to become the world flyweight champion.
Winnie was like that. Every time she was on the canvas she beat the count to battle through to victory. It is a reminder to all of us, that real success in politics does not come easily, it is born out of decades of work and must never, ever be taken for-granted.
Secondly her generosity of spirit. This is what’s made her a natural with any group of people anywhere equally at home with international leaders, in a miners club in Hamilton or on a fishing boat in Lossie - and I note the representatives of the fishing community are with us today
That spirit won her friends wherever she went. Hugh McMahon her Labour colleague in the European Parliament has written to the family about Winnie’s kindness to him as a new member while the Israeli Embassy has asked for her work on Holocaust remembrance to be particularly remembered.
Winnie could light up any campaign and any street. People often ask what was her campaigning method as if they could somehow bottle it and take it away.
Her secret was simple, she loved people and they loved her back. It made her quite simply the finest election campaigner Scotland has ever seen.
Finally her steadfast love of country and her pole star of independence.
Thus even opponents who vehemently disagreed, still respected this and Winnie and therefore her cause.
Fellow SNP members who argued with her - and there were a few from time to time - still liked her and, by and large, she liked them.
All of this made Winnie Ewing the most significant Scottish nationalist of the 20th century.
Winnie never held office but you don’t have to hold high office to achieve something. Just as you can hold office and achieve nothing.
Winnie had concrete achievements - objective one status for the Highlands, her work on Erasmus, she brought the Lomé Convention to this very city, to which she devoted a fascinating chapter in her autobiography, edited by Michael Russell.
But her real achievement was to tilt the axis of Scottish politics, to put Scottish independence on the map and help define it as a positive, forward-looking, internationalist force.
All that and to define it in one single phrase ringing through the years
“Stop the World - Scotland wants to get on”
Two Winnie stories to finish
In 1969 she went to Dublin to appear on the Late Late Show with Gay Byrne - a big star host very popular and very supercilious.
Now unbeknown to the programme, Winnie had already had a very pleasant afternoon tea with the Uachtarán at his residence before going on to RTE. However, when it came to the Show itself, Byrne was condescending to the point of downright rudeness about Scottish nationalism and although Winnie, with her hackles well and truly up - I pause for you all to remember Winnie with her hackles up ! - so Winnie gave as good as she got, but it was still a very bruising experience.
Forward to the next day at departure lounge at Dublin airport, awaiting the plane back to London when a message came through the tannoy- could Mrs Ewing lift a green phone - and was promptly escorted to a secure room by two uniformed soldiers . At the other end of the line was Éamon de Valera himself. He had watched the program and wanted to apologise for the effrontery and treatment of Scotland’s favourite daughter.
He would, he informed Winnie, be making a complaint.
Now, every politician in this Cathedral has had a bad television interview from time to time, but Winnie and only Winnie has been able to secure a personal apology afterwards, from the Head of State!
Let me finish with one further story and observation of some contemporary relevance.
In 1979 shortly after the SNP were demolished in the General Election, Winnie stood for election in the Highlands and Islands against the overwhelming favourite Russell Johnson, the well respected MP for this city of Inverness, a seat now held in the Scottish Parliament by Fergus Ewing.
Towards the end of the campaign, Russell, a major figure in the shinty world, was being introduced to the Camanachd Cup final sides in Oban while Winnie was left sitting in the stands. Within seconds recognising the clear snub, she marched from the stands onto the pitch in her high heels and presented herself to the Newtonmore and Kyles Athletic teams.
“How brazen, what a brass neck” was the establishment reaction which of course was dutifully and universally reflected and promoted in the headlines in the unionist press. “She’s finished now” they gleefully agreed with themselves.
This story was well told in a BBC ALBA documentary about Winnie by her old adversary Brian Wilson who pointed out just how and why the establishment re-action completely misjudged the mood of the people.
I had my own experience of why this was so
The Monday after the game as a young agricultural economist, I was summoned to the office of the Chief Economist in the Department of Agricultural and Fisheries for Scotland in Chesser House who had the offending headlines laid out on his large desk.
I feared the worst, particularly when he asked me if I had still something to do with “that lot”.
Well he said “It is my opinion that ……..this is exactly the sort of spirit which Scotland needs right now. I do hope that Mrs Ewing succeeds in her European venture. Please let her know if you happen to see her.”
The “sort of spirit that Scotland needs” - needed then and so desperately, desperately needs now.
I started with a poem so they let me finish with one
"The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
only the little white rose of Scotland.
That smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart."
Winnie knew Hugh MacDiarmid who was a regular visitor to the Ewing family home in Queens Drive in the late 60s; principally because his son Mike Grieve ghosted Winnie’s column in the Daily Record.
MacDiarmid, once called Robert Burns, “the true radical spirit of Scotland”.
That is exactly how we should remember Winnie Ewing - “the true radical spirit of Scotland”.