Meeting Margo

As part of our trip to the Scottish Sports Development Conference TLR took the opportunity to interview Margo MacDonald MSP, who as a young woman led the ‘Scots Nats’ in a bid to secure devolution and now serves as chair of the cross-party group on sport in the Holyrood parliament

Margo MacDonald: top of the bill

John Beattie, conference chair on the first day, referred to the chair of the cross-party group on sport in the Scottish parliament as a “dream woman for every teenaged, Scottish boy growing up in the late seventies”. She certainly earned the description “feisty” and cornered the market in the use of the soubriquet “firebrand”.

These days she is forced to fight Parkinson’s Disease but still has energy left over to harry her fellow politicians and make many people’s lives more difficult than they envisaged. Including your correspondent who, from the outset, found taking “Margo” for granted to be a dangerous game.

TLR: Scotland is a passionate sporting nation and always has been… you’re raising your eyebrows?

MM:  Well, I’m sceptical about this. There are some contests in some sports about which  the Scots are very passionate. There’s a real passion that runs through shinty, for example; there’s a real passion that runs through football but the passion is shown in different ways depending on the teams. Rangers and Celtic are awful, as far as I am concerned. Their supporters are awful. They are not terribly sporting; its tribal. Now I, in contrast, am a Hibbie [a supporter of Hibernian Football Club] and we’re delightful people.

TLR: And would Hearts [the'“other' Edinburgh team, Heart of Midlothian FC] say the same?

MM: Well they might quibble sometimes; but they would say we are better than Rangers and Celtic at expressing the passion or emotion that we feel for our team.

I think you’ll find that Scottish sport is just like anybody’s sport; there are areas where people are passionate and areas where they are not. I am sure if you went to South America you wouldn’t find that women’s hockey generates the same passion as football does.

TLR: Having said that, where do you think sport should sit in the government agenda? I know you’re not in government but…

MM: No; I’m not in government - and never likely to be. I’m older than most of the government. I can remember Olympic medal winners whose names they think they’ve never even heard.

But I think that sport should be a very important part of the education and health strategies and the social strategy as well. But I would say that wouldn’t I? My original degree is in physical education and therefore I have brought a much better awareness of the personal development and the community development that can be achieved through sport to my work. Therefore I would like to persuade all governments – and indeed I have nagged all three governments that we have had in Scotland since the Scottish parliament was established – to introduce much more imaginative and much more determined sports policies. And general activity policies, as well, as they feed into each other.

TLR: So, without putting words into your mouth, you feel politicians don’t understand sport?

MM: Most politicians are “speccy people”.

[At this point your correspondent sought clarification for our southern readership.]

MM:  I think you’ll find that a high percentage of politicians are the kids who were left standing against the gym wall when the rounders teams were picked. And when they think about sports and utilising sport they think: “BEIJING!”. Or they think “MELBOURNE!” When I think about sport I think about happy, little kids jumping up and down. In the open air if at all possible.

I’m paraphrasing quite a lot of people who have said that politicians mean well but they do an awful lot of harm. This is because they don’t understand what physical activity is about and how physical education must feed into sport and the priority, and the consistent priority, must be given to sporting activity in the community, which means the provision of facilities.

TLR: What is your vision for the Scottish sports system? Clearly it’s built on kids getting the fundamentals right by doing PE in schools…

MM: At the moment the catchphrase is “Two hours quality PE every week”. Hooey, absolute hooey. First of all define ‘quality’; what is “quality PE”? What I would rather aim at is every child having some period of physical activity every day where they either take off their socks and shoes or they take off their jacket, where its just understood that built in to every 24 hour day as well as brushing your teeth and having your meals there is a period when you physically think about your body, when you exercise your body.

TLR: And how close are you to that in Scotland?

MM: We’re light years away from it!

What I hear is that in the current recession there’s a round of cuts coming up. Everybody’s fancy dancing at the moment because nobody wants to say it with a general election coming up. Nobody wants to be the party pooper who says: “What would you rather have cut? Would you rather have local authority wages frozen, would you rather have this hospital not open or would you rather just cut this programme of football at the weekends. These are the sorts of choices that will be made and I fear that once again the thing which still some people – including some school teachers, unfortunately – see as a ‘thrill’ – that is physical activity – will be cut.

TLR: So you think that sport in schools will lose out to other priorities?

MM: Also out in the community. The cycling club will be asked for a bigger rental for the place they keep their equipment; swimming pool charges to the clubs will go up. All that sort of thing will act as a disincentive.

TLR: You mentioned Melbourne and Beijing but everyone here is focused on 2014 (the Glasgow Commonwealth Games). 2012 doesn’t seem to figure in your vocabulary.

MM: Well no wonder! 2012 has meant that we have had a huge lump of money – millions! – taken out of our community sport development funds because the lottery was changed. That combined with the recession that we now have means that we might put on flashy, good-looking Games – and if Glaswegians are anything to go by, it will be that – but I wonder how many Scots athletes, who just five years away from it should be in gestation for the Commonwealth Games, won’t be there because the facilities have been cut and perhaps their access to coaching has been cut.

TLR: Isn’t that the definition of legacy – access to coaching and participation – rather than the building of shiny facilities? Seb Coe says we’re getting ‘legacy’ but you could argue that we’re just getting facilities.

MM: Och, Seb Coe came up here – I like Seb he’s a nice boy –  but he and I had words about this. He told me not to be so pessimistic about it. I can appreciate that that’s his job, but its my job to say to people: “This is the truth. This is the reality. We have choices to make about spend.” Don’t imagine that legacy just happens after people watch athletes performing. A lot of the politicians thought that this is what legacy meant and because the Games were here that everybody looking at them would leap off their couches and into leotards. I don’t think so! Legacy is made now; it’s developed now.

TLR: One last question, if you would, about this conference. It came out of a movement towards the professionalisation of sports development which is still a key issue five years on. Has the cross-party group discussed this issue?

MM: We have not discussed it in those terms. We just take it for granted that sport should be managed professionally much the same as any business. There should be a sports development plan in place and the people who deliver it should be qualified for starters and have access to development opportunities. One of the things we have talked a lot about on the cross-party group is how the amateur activists – who are the backbone of the organisation of sport in the community – should be allowed to professionalise as well. Although they are amateurs, you don’t want somebody who is an absolute rookie running the affairs of a club or someone who doesn’t really understand how to run the financial side of things. What we have been trying to discuss is how in times of straitened financial circumstances councils can help. Can they not – in kind – take someone from the cycling club who has just been appointed club treasurer and give then some kind of internship in the finance department? That sort of thing, although it’s perhaps not the best example.

TLR: Have you had any response yet?

MM: Oh, I haven’t started nagging yet. I have a number of things on the back burner and that’s one of them. But now’s the time to do it, when the councils are desperate to save money.

TLR: Definitely the last one now. What are your ambitions for the cross-party group?

MM: Just to get bigger and better. We are the cross-party group in the Scottish parliament; we are not of the Scottish parliament. That’s very important for people to understand. We have a very wide-ranging membership including people who represent organisations such as governing bodies that are outside of parliament who are full members of the committee alongside the MSPs. And it works extremely well. I had a predecessor, Dennis Canavan, who is now the president of Ramblers Scotland, who was just marvellous in organising and running the cross-party group. I am standing on his shoulders.

I shouldn’t be so boastful about it really as a lot of its Peter’s work – that’s Peter Warren, my office manager – and the work of the committee but it’s probably the most successful cross-party group in the Scottish parliament in terms of lobbying. When they give these young men the job of being ministers I’m old enough to be their granny and I get them to listen. Lobbying its called.  I call it nagging.

TLR: Well you were always good at that. Thank you, Margo. It’s been an honour to meet you.

The Leisure Review, June 2009

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“I would like to persuade all governments – and indeed I have nagged all three governments that we have had in Scotland since the Scottish parliament was established – to introduce much more imaginative and much more determined sports policies.”

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