06 April 2009

Professor Sir Neil MacCormick

As we've no doubt all heard now, Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, one of Scotland's foremost legal academics and former MEP passed away yesterday.

I met him only once, at University, campaigning in advance of the European elections five years ago. He was not seeking re-election but still came out to support the SNP's candidates.

What struck me at first was how genial he was, that it didn't seem like you were talking to an academic, or your average politician. He seemed approachable and was good company for that morning session on the stump.

It helped as well that he seemed to be actually enjoying it.

In a world where politics and politicians are becoming professionalised, the Prof stood out, as someone who had earned his place, and was there because he was an expert in his field. Which is why I don't think he'd have enjoyed Holyrood or the House of Commons quite so much. The Lords, perhaps, but that Chamber was never an option - and it's the likes of Sir Neil that make me wonder if the SNP's anti-Lords stance is something of a missed opportunity, but that's a discussion for another time.

I was a linguist, not a lawyer, so I never had the chance to learn directly MacCormick's expertise. My heroes were the likes of Bob Ladd, Jim Hurford, Caroline Heycock and especially John Joseph, the Professor MacCormick of Applied Linguistics. But knowing how big an impact they had on me, I can understand how those who knew Sir Neil better than I did, or knew him as an academic, will be feeling today.

But I still learn two things from the man, even now. Firstly, his life tells us how politics needs people like him. He came into elected politics already an expert on a field, with decades of experience behind him, and when Parliamentarians don't have that internal backup - when their experience is in politics itself - the result is a weaker standard of debate and, more catastrophically, poorer legislation.

The other thing I learned was from that morning, when I didn't see the prominent academic or the outgoing MEP, but simply saw a man, at ease with his surroundings and himself, doing something he enjoyed. These days, to be in a position such as his at any time is almost a luxury.

Whatever anyone else learned in his texts, he gave me - and doubtless so many others - a lesson that we all ought to heed but are always in danger of forgetting: do the things that we can take joy from, and take pride in them.

Let that be his legacy.


Ideas of Civilisation said...


An excellent article.

Particualrly important points about Mr MacCormick's experience outwith politics before entering that arena.

As you say it's a pity that the Scotish system really doesn't have any places for people who want to properly draft and understand policy rather than just seek quick headlines.


Holyrood Patter said...

what you write about the lords is interesting.
There are plenty of think tanks floating about london, surely the snp could comission one to look at an elected second chamber?
could give them some kudos to show its not all about picking fights with westminister

Scott @ loveandgarbage said...

Will, http://www.law.ed.ac.uk/neilmaccormick/ has details of the memorial service later this week, as well as an on-line book of condolence.

Bucket of Tongues said...
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