Sir Neil MacCormick, 1941-2009

May 7, 2009

Sir Neil MacCormick, world-renowned legal scholar and leading Scottish nationalist, has died.

He was born on 7 May 1941 into one of Scotland's leading political families - his father, John, helped found the forerunner of today's Scottish National Party (SNP) in 1928. The younger MacCormick soon began a spectacular ascent up the academic ladder. After studying philosophy and English at the University of Glasgow, he switched to law at Balliol College, Oxford, where, after briefly lecturing at the University of St Andrews, he returned as a tutor and fellow in 1967. In 1972, still only 31, he was appointed regius professor of public law and the law of nature and nations at the University of Edinburgh, a prestigious chair, the origins (and sonorous title) of which date back to 1707.

Professor MacCormick's writings on law were notably wide ranging as well as influential. He developed the insights of his mentor H.L.A. Hart into the "anatomy" or underlying structure of legal systems. As a Scottish nationalist and committed European, he was well placed to illuminate the ways that different legal orders can co-exist. His final book, Practical Reasoning in Morality and Law (2009), returned to an early interest in the Scottish Enlightenment to explain how the law offers a crucial framework, although only a framework, for the good life.

After seeking election to Westminster on five separate occasions, Professor MacCormick became a Member of the European Parliament in 1999. He also served as vice-president of the SNP and, after retirement, as special adviser to Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland.

While working as an MEP, Professor MacCormick demonstrated the quickness of his legal mind in the cause of foreign lecturers who had suffered discriminatory treatment in Italy. Italians MEPs had managed to insert the phrase "the Italian Government claims that its obligations towards lettori have been fulfilled" into a resolution on the issue, before leaving early on Friday to go home for the weekend. Professor MacCormick seized the opportunity to propose a small amendment - the addition of the word "unconvincingly".

Neil Walker, Professor MacCormick's successor in the regius post at Edinburgh, remembers a man of "fantastic intellectual curiosity" who "constantly reminded you that the life of the mind is its own best reward". Despite his political commitments, he was "first and foremost an intellectual and public thinker. He was interested in a civilised society and the contribution the academy could make to that. He could always see the big picture."

Professor MacCormick died of cancer on 5 April 2009 and is survived by his wife, Flora, three daughters and three stepchildren.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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