Monday, 6 April 2009

Professor Sir Neil MacCormick

The rallying cry of the MacCormick was always a thunderous belly-laugh and the trademark was the joke that carried on far past its normal life because the teller of the joke was laughing too much. Neil MacCormick was a man of enormous good humour, fantastic generosity of spirit and deep humanity. He was liked and respected on every road he travelled.

He was loved and respected in the SNP, highly regarded as one of the towering intellects who made the philosophical and jurisprudential case for Scottish independence, his extensive knowledge and deep understanding of the concepts and principles of constitutional law giving a solid underpinning to the party's positioning on constitutional matters. As the son of John MacCormick Neil would have grown up learning all sides of the debate in the family home and he made contribution to the cause which was substantial in every meaning of the word - a contribution which, it could be argued, was greater than his father's. Many party members have been privileged to witness excellent and well-argued tea-room debates at conference (honest, they weren't in the bar) between Neil and other members of the party with a similarly deep philosophical take on nationalism - people like Neil's friend Dr Allan McCartney who preceded him as an MEP and into that last campaign.

Neil was one of those few people who could excel in more than one field and it is a measure of his ability and his modesty that those of us who knew him mainly or entirely through politics have little appreciation of the scale and scope of his achievements in academia and those who knew him from academia have little appreciation of the regard in which his political abilities are held on this side of the fence. One chap who knew Neil on both sides of the fence described his lecturing technique in these terms:
He didn't use notes, he wasn't delivering a prewritten hour, he was more in the realms of calling it down from the heavens.

Fellow academics at Edinburgh University held him in high regard as well, one (who is no laggard himself) described Neil to me as 'the outstanding legal intellect of his generation'. He was sought by Ivy League universities but turned them down, preferring to stay in Scotland, and his contribution was marked when Edinburgh University took the unusual step of granting him an honorary degree (universities don't usually give those to their own academic staff) - one of the seven honorary degrees bestowed upon Neil during his career. John Swinney made sure that his diary was free for that afternoon so that the party was represented by one of our most senior members at the ceremony, indicating the regard in which the party held Neil - although personal friendship would also be playing a part in John's decision. The scale and the importance of Neil MacCormick's academic exploits can be seen in the Biographical details held on Edinburgh University's website.

Neil had one dark secret - when at Oxford University he helped Lord James Douglas Hamilton to pass an exam. Lord James had turned up with footwear which would not have been acceptable in the exam and Neil loaned him the shoes which Neil was wearing so he could sit his exam.

It's perhaps illustrative of the character of Neil MacCormick that he was an internationally known and respected academic and he was one of the leading intellectual lights of the SNP but that he always found time to talk to whoever sought him out for advice and that his favourite stories which he told 'on himself' were not about his achievements but about things like the Burns Supper where the catering arrangements went wrong and the local chipper was pressed into service for haggis suppers. He had discoursed with scholars and reasoned with fools but still had the humility to hand credit which belonged to him on to others who deserved it less. SNP members all across the country can tell stories of how Neil MacCormick helped them out, helped them up, gave them advice, and then changed the subject when thanks were proffered.

Even in his final illness he looked ahead to a better Scotland, regretting that he wouldn't be around to see independence but that, like his father, he was a staging post in the long march to independence and along the way he had improved some things around him. In a Sunday herald interview he said his great sadness was that he wouldn't have a long retirement to enjoy with Flora and her philosophical take on his illness spoke to the support she always had for him. She said we are all in life's departure lounge but that Neil had a better idea of his departure time than most of us.

He's departed now, and Neil will be missed, missed sorely by those who knew him - and missed sorely by the SNP.


subrosa said...

What a lovely tribute Calum. Thanks.

ccfc said...

Sadly, Frank Ellis the popular councillor in Angus died today. Another sad loss.

Scott @ loveandgarbage said... has details of the memorial service later this week Mr C, as well as an on-line book of condolence.