By John Mowat
Winnie Ewing was born in Glasgow on 23rd June 1920.
She attended the leafy Queens Park Secondary School, in Glasgow, vividly remembering the influx of Jewish refugee students sent to Scotland for their safety and survival in the later 1930s. This left a burning desire to advocate justice and equality for the rights of others.
She trained as a lawyer at a time when few women entered such professions during the Years of World War 2. She began campaigning for Human Rights, the right of everyone for self respect, especially women from an early age.
She joined the fledgling SNP in the 1940s, championing the cause of Scottish Independence, advancing the rights of Scottish people from her mid 20s. Winnie Ewing was not a fiery left winger at a time, post World War 2, when this was highly fashionable.
She married Stuart Ewing, also a Glasgow lawyer. Fergus, Annabel and Terry were the family, the former two, following Winnie into Political careers. Some of us vividly remember Winnie Ewing winning a by-election for the SNP in Hamilton in 1967, overturning a 16,000 Labour majority.
Winnie was highly charismatic, a tireless & effective vote winner during all her Election Campaigns. The Westminster boy’s club did not take kindly to a charismatic, intelligent, moderate, highly democratic female, entering their domain. Winnie was badly treated by “public school educated oafs”, both physically and mentally, along with enduring stalking, at Westminster. She struck up lasting friendships with a number of opponents, such as Tory Alex Buchannan Smith and a number of Labour MPs who looked out for her.
The tabloids conducted a vicious campaign of Winnie deserting her children, in Glasgow. She was supposed to do the cooking & washing, at home, instead of entering the Man’s World of Politics. This of course honed Winnie to work & campaign harder, across the political spectrum.
1967 marked a turning point for the SNP, signalling a transformative shift in Scottish Politics, from then on. Winnie subsequently lost the Hamilton Seat, to Labour, 3 years later, at the General Election, after they threw the kitchen at the seat. 4 years later Winnie ousted the leading Scottish Tory Member, Scottish Secretary Gordon Campbell, in Moray, in her second political earthquake.
Winnie won the second 1974 election again for the SNP, in Moray with a reduced majority. From 1975, Winnie served as a European Parliament Member, from 1975. Already fluent in German & French, Winnie was treated with respect & understanding in the fledgling European Parliament.
While the SNP lost 9 of its 11 seats after 5 years, in 1979, Winnie bounced back by winning the first directly democratic European Election for the Highlands & Islands. “Stop the World, Scotland wants to step on board” was the famous quotation.
Winnie joined a group of like minded MEPs, first from Ireland & France, but later with Spaniards & Dutch Members. Her 23 years at the heart of European decision making earned Winnie the title of Madame Ecosse, and was along with Sean Connery, regarded as the most Famous Scot, at the Scottish Parliament opening.
Winnie struck up close friendships with fellow MSPs, Dr Allan MacCartney, Prof Neil McCormick, also past regular visitors. In the European Parliament, Winnie was regarded as the mother of Erasmus, enabling students to study in each other’s countries, promoting friendship, understanding & cultural links.
Anyone who speaks and understands other languages & cultures knows exactly what this means. Brexit, based on lies, misinformation & inward looking visions was against everything Winnie ever fought for. The loss of Erasmus, European structural funding for outlying areas & inability to seamlessly trade with our European neighbours was against everything Winnie stood for.
Winnie spend a week to ten days in each of her Highlands & Islands Constituencies, visiting schools engaging with pupils, promoting understanding & encouraging girls to enter politics at all levels. Having witnessed the damaging years of World War 2, Winnie impressed on young people that Europeans should never again kill each other in their millions. An outward Europe of friendship & understanding was regarded as a force for good in the world at large.
People who voted for other Parties at General Elections were among Winnie’s closest followers in Orkney & throughout the Highlands & Islands. Winnie’s Orkney file was the biggest of all her Highlands & Islands Constituencies, in the 1980s. She constantly directed the Council, Sports, Cultural, economic & social Groups to engage with Europe and source funding. Tongue in cheek, some of us referred to Winnie’s weeks, in Orkney as Royal visits.
She was one of the most generous people one would ever meet, hosting meetings, dinners & other social events. She would send encouragement to local people of all ages setting up new businesses of all kinds. Winnie struck up lasting friendships with people like Marjorie Linklater, also an SNP supporter & women’s rights campaigner from her early years.
She went to great lengths to host friends in her flat in Brussels, over a 23 year period. Groups of all ages visited the European Parliament & European Institutions. Winnie smartly dressed in yellow & black had style & charisma. She understood what it meant to be underprivileged.
Winnie revelled in her role as the Mother of the Scottish Parliament between 1999 & 2003, respected across the political divide. Son Fergus is a long term MP & for many years MSP for Inverness & Nairn & Government cabinet Secretary. Daughter Annabel worked in Europe before becoming an MP & later MSP. Both share their mother’s campaigning skills.
Winnie retired from active Politics a few years ago, building a house, near her non political son Terry, his wife & young family, near Glasgow.
“Terribly sad to hear of Winnies passing.”, former MEP and now MP. ” Heartbroken by this news. I cannot convey the gratitude I feel for her advice, wisdom, encouragement & inspiration “, Nicola Sturgeon MSP & former Scottish First Minister.
Winnie’s passing was keenly felt across the political divide. The Nation feels her loss, most keenly felt by her friends & family, all around the World.
A public memorial service will take place at Inverness Cathedral on Saturday 15th July, at 2pm.
The service is set to be conducted by Most Reverend Mark Strange, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Bishop of the Diocese of Moray, Ross & Caithness, and the Very Reverend Sarah Murray, Provost of Inverness Cathedral. The service will be livestreamed on Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo – with everyone welcome to attend.
image credit Rosie Hopkins