Winnie Ewing, Who Transformed Scottish Politics, Dies at 93

Winnie Ewing, who in the late 1960s transformed Scottish politics by bringing the issue of independence from Britain to the national mainstream from the electoral fringe, died on June 21 at her home in Bridge of Weir, a town west of Glasgow. She was 93.

Her death was announced in a statement by her family, several of whom, including her daughter and one of her sons, followed her into Scottish politics.

Mrs. Ewing was a political neophyte in 1967 when, as a member of the Scottish National Party, she won a stunning upset over a Scottish Labour Party veteran, capturing a parliamentary seat near Glasgow that had been in that party’s hands for some 50 years.

Just 38 at the time, with three young children and a successful law career, the charismatic Mrs. Ewing sliced through Scotland’s torpid, sclerotic politics with her vision for an energized, independent nation.

“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on,” she told a reporter soon after her victory.

She made her inaugural trip to the Palace of Westminster in London, where the British Parliament meets, aboard a special train called the Tartan Express, with 250 well-wishers aboard. Even more people, along with a band of pipers playing “Scotland the Brave,” greeted her when she disembarked at Euston Station.

She got along well with most of her colleagues, but the rest of the Scottish delegation, all resentful Labour Party members, made her years in Parliament unpleasant. They insulted her in public and refused to sit with her in the Westminster cafeteria. She even later claimed that someone — she refused to say who — had stalked her for months.

“I didn’t realize it would be so nasty, because nobody had warned me,” she told The Herald, a Scottish newspaper, in 2004. “It was like going to face a crucifixion, a minor crucifixion, every day.”

She was received better back home, where she inspired a generation of young people and women to flood into Scottish politics after decades of staying out of it.

“She was somebody who changed the course of Scottish political history,” Nicola Sturgeon, the former first minister of Scotland, told the BBC in 2018. “When I was growing up in politics there weren’t very many women that I could look to, who had blazed a trail, and Winnie was undoubtedly one of the few.”

Mrs. Ewing also reoriented her country’s politics from its traditional left-right arrangement to one focused, at least in part, on the question of independence. Over the span of her political career, the Scottish National Party, which had been on the periphery, became the country’s dominant electoral force.

In 2014 she played a lead role in Scotland’s referendum on independence, campaigning relentlessly alongside her friend and fellow proud Caledonian Sean Connery. But despite their efforts, the referendum lost, 55 to 45 percent.

Winifred Margaret Woodburn was born on July 10, 1929, in Glasgow. Her father, George Woodburn, ran a paper plant, and her mother, Christina (Anderson) Woodburn, was a homemaker.

She received a law degree from the University of Glasgow, where she joined the Scottish Nationalist Association, a pro-independence group. She later recalled that when she told her father, a committed Labour Party member, about her decision, he called her “a traitor.”

She married Stewart Ewing, an accountant, in 1956. He later also served as her aide and political adviser.

Stewart Ewing died in 2003. Mrs. Ewing is survived by her sons, Terry and Fergus; her daughter, Annabelle Ewing; and four grandchildren.

Fergus and Annabelle Ewing are members of the Scottish Parliament, as was Fergus’s wife, Margaret, who died in 2006.

Mrs. Ewing’s first stint in Parliament lasted just three years, but she returned in 1974 and served another five. In 1975 Prime Minister Harold Wilson chose her as a member of the British delegation to the fledgling European Parliament, a position she held for 20 years.

In Strasbourg, France, where the European Parliament met, she earned the nickname Madame Écosse — Mrs. Scotland in French — for her seemingly single-minded focus. She defended Scottish fisherman and oil interests, and she made common cause with representatives of other European regions restless for home rule.

Over the years, she used her position in Strasbourg to push Scotland from a pervasive skepticism toward the European Union to a full-on embrace under her slogan “Independence in Europe.”

Shuttling across the North Sea, she won the presidency of the Scottish National Party in 1987. She held that post until stepping down in 2005.

The Scottish voted overwhelmingly in 1997 to reconstitute their Parliament, which had been dissolved after the country’s unification with England in 1707. Mrs. Ewing easily won election to it, and at its first session, in 1999, gaveled it back into existence.

“I want to begin with the words that I have always wanted either to say or hear someone else say,” she said, seated on a dais at the head of the chamber. “The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March, in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened.”

Six years later, when the Parliament moved to a new location, Mrs. Ewing was given the chair in which she had delivered those historic words.

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