Page last updated at 13:00 GMT, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

From political maverick to historical footnote

By Elizabeth Quigley
BBC Scotland

So who was Scotland's first female MP?

Katharine Murray. Copyright Blair Castle, Perthshire.
Katharine Murray became the first female MP in Scotland in 1923

It sounds a bit like an obscure question in a Caledonian Trivial Pursuit.

I've got a degree in modern history, I'm a former BBC political correspondent and I'm fairly confident I know more than a little about Scottish politics. But it was a question I struggled to answer.

When I went to the Scottish parliament to ask today's politicians, I found that they too had real difficulty in trying to name her.

Perhaps she was a red Clydesider? Or a Scottish suffragette?

But, no. Almost the complete opposite. She was a Perthshire aristocrat who didn't agree with votes for women initially.

And no-one in political life today seems to remember her name.

The only reason I know who she was is because I'm married to her political successor.

John Swinney, the Scottish government's finance secretary, is the politician who represents much of the constituency that she used to hold back in the 1920s and 1930s.

Political maverick

And the name of this woman who made history but now seems to be completely forgotten?

Katharine (Kitty) Murray, the Duchess of Atholl and the MP for Kinross and West Perthshire from 1923 to 1938.

She certainly seems to be a woman of contradictions at first sight.

She maintained a woman's place was in the home, even speaking against votes for women - but ended up in the most prestigious boys' club of them all, becoming our first MP.

She definitely didn't share the left-wing views of the Republicans but in return for standing up for their legitimate right to govern and defend themselves against the Fascist states, she was accused of being a socialist sympathiser

To me, that seems to be reason enough to remember her, even if she did nothing noteworthy once she became an MP.

But far from doing nothing, she played an influential role in the day's political life and she might even have changed the course of history.

When she first entered Westminster she was one of only eight women elected as MPs from across Britain.

From the start she was a model Conservative MP, loyal and hard-working.

But something happened in the 1930s to change all that. And she became a bit of a political maverick.

Europe in the 1930s was a turbulent place.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 with General Franco trying to overthrow the legitimate Republican government.

Real intentions

Dismissing the politics of left and right, the duchess got involved.

She headed for Spain and witnessed the devastation caused by the bombing and the fighting.

She resolved to help and brought 4,000 children to the safety of Britain.

Her support for the Republicans brought her international plaudits. But back home in some parts, this earned her the nickname "the Red Duchess."

She definitely didn't share the left-wing views of the Republicans but in return for standing up for their legitimate right to govern and defend themselves against the Fascist states, she was accused of being a socialist sympathiser - and never managed to shake off the label.

Female MPs. Copyright Blair Castle, Perthshire.
Britain's female MPs, including Katharine Murray at Westminster

Events in another European country also attracted her attention.

The English version of Mein Kampf appeared in bookshops in Britain in 1933 and immediately became a bestseller.

But the duchess was suspicious of Adolf Hitler.

She tried to convince other politicians in parliament that Hitler's real intentions were spelled out in black and white in Mein Kampf by commissioning a new and more accurate translation.

By 1938, she'd had enough. She'd done her research, she knew her facts and was convinced that she knew exactly what was going to happen if Britain did nothing.

Hitler would end up getting away with murder - quite literally.

She resigned her seat and prompted a by-election. The campaign which followed was a dirty one.

The government poured in MPs and senior figures to try to woo the voters. Her great-nephew Paul Ramsay described it to me as "vicious and nasty."

These events happened almost 80 years ago - and many years before he was born - but the bitterness seemed fresh, as if it was a by-election that had just been fought.

When a telegram of support arrived from Stalin her campaign was dealt another blow

She did though get support sometimes from unexpected quarters.

Winston Churchill telephoned her throughout the campaign offering his backing but he never appeared with her in public on the campaign trail.

Suffrage campaigner, Sylvia Pankhurst, sent a telegram saying all women in the constituency should vote for her.

But when a telegram of support arrived from Stalin her campaign was dealt another blow. From Russia with love.

That must have gone down really well in Highland Perthshire. It was seized on gleefully by her opponents.

Despite the resources being thrown into the campaign to try to defeat her, she lost by just over a thousand votes. She never again stood for parliament.

In the years after she lost her seat, she seems to disappear from history.

Her fears about Hitler did come true but she never said "I told you so".

She never seemed to rub it in that she was right but she would have been completely justified.

Scotland's first woman MP was right about Hitler and that's why I think history should remember her.

Watch the Duchess and the Fuhrer on BBC2 on Tuesday 2 March at 1900 GMT.



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