Tommy Sheppard: The heart and mind behind Scotland’s future

The Clash sang of a White Riot, but wherever change was in the air, Bob McLean would surely be found. Picture: Getty
The Clash sang of a White Riot, but wherever change was in the air, Bob McLean would surely be found. Picture: Getty
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JOE Strummer was singing about a White Riot when I first met Bob McLean in the red bar of Aberdeen University Students Union.

It’s Freshers’ week (I’m the fresher) and Bob is sporting an old, tattered red academic-style gown. These garments were worn earlier in the century – apparently without embarrassment – by members of the Students Representative Council (SRC), who must have fancied themselves the officer class. Now they serve only to identify those helping out with the induction of the class of 77. Bob is a huggy-bear of a man and the red brushed-cotton material has probably never had to cover such a large frame. I take an instant liking to him. Curly hair, the unkempt beard of one a year out of his teens, and a big round face that holds the biggest laugh I’ve ever seen. Gregarious.

Within weeks, we were close friends. I join the broad left political group of which Bob is already a well-known member and get elected to one of the first-year’s places on the SRC. This allows us to spend many evenings together debating how to change the world. And the world is changing around us. These are heady times at the end of the 1970s. There are strikes all over the place and the social and economical upheaval is so dramatic that it cannot be ignored – even among the Gothic spires of Old Aberdeen.

But it is international affairs that animate us most. We are focused on an anti-apartheid campaign to get the university to divest itself of South African investments. The action is played out in the general meetings of the central refectory. These are held at lunchtime every second Tuesday and we spend most other lunchtimes planning how to win the debates. The speaking order is crucial.

We had very few people who, by the power of speech alone, could change hearts and minds – Bob was one such, and it was commonly agreed that he would need to propose or sum up on the motion at hand. Bob was a big man, but his presence at the microphone was larger still and on occasions too many to number he would – through charm and conviction – sway the debate and win the vote. In a left-wing village striving to separate itself into 57 of varieties of leftism, Bob was also refreshingly open-minded and non-sectarian. Even though the debate on the left would often crystallise into Trots versus non-Trots, Bob could confound the given line. This gained him respect and popularity from his political opponents as well as his comrades.

He also had a wicked sense of humour. In spring 1978, I was heavily involved in the campaign against the construction of the Torness nuclear plant. I made an emergency statement to the bemused diners of the central refectory to say that the protest camp had just been cleared by bulldozers and that a bus was leaving the next day to lend support. Perhaps I overstated myself, but for weeks afterwards Bob would mimic my Northern Irish brogue and repeat the phrase “people are preparing medical kits”.

It didn’t stop him getting stuck in though. Bob was on that bus – and many others. He was instrumental in National Union of Students (NUS) adopting an anti-nuclear stance. One of many policies he had a hand in. His enthusiasm was infectious: it was fun being with him, he made politics exciting – sometimes with an almost childlike glee.

Then Margaret Thatcher took over from Jim Callaghan, the Clash sang about fighting the law and we all joined the Labour Party. Bob – having been elected vice-president and then president of the SRC – was fast becoming one of the leaders of the rejuvenated Labour Students organisation nationwide. He was elected and re-elected president of NUS (Scotland).

Much has been written elsewhere of Bob’s contribution during the 80s and 90s to the campaign that would eventually establish a Scottish Parliament. But just to re-emphasise, he led the pressure group inside the Labour Party that brought that organisation to the cause of home rule. He made sure the party’s leaders could not ignore its members’ views. I recall one occasion in 1990 when, excited by developments in Russia and lamenting the ineffectual nature of the then Labour parliamentary leadership, he declaimed: “That’s what we need … we need someone who can stand on a tank!” Bob was pivotal in the wider campaign for a Scottish Parliament and a much-sought after advocate for the cause. I spent most of the 80s in that there London, but returned to Scotland in 1993. I was back in town a matter of weeks before Bob had recruited me to the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament’s people’s referendum, which was being run in Falkirk – a town selected as the demographic microcosm of the nation. Strangely enough, that was also a two-question referendum. The first asked if there should be a Scottish Parliament at all, and the second whether it should be part of the UK or independent.

In the years running up to 1997, as Labour prepared for power, Bob kept the party focused on the constitutional prize. Things went right and wrong after the Labour landslide. Donald Dewar made sure there was no reneging on promises this time. Labour held and won the Scottish Parliament referendum. But Labour missed a trick big style when a particularly nasty episode of Tony Blair-inspired control-freakery saw the party reject Bob’s application to be considered as a potential candidate. If anyone should have been a member of the Scottish Parliament, Bob should have – a fact underlined by the number of those in the chamber who would continually turn to him for advice.

As the century turned and the parliament got down to business, many of those involved in the campaign to establish it got on with their lives. Those not running the country ran other things. Bob turned back to his study of history. But academe is often a solitary pursuit and he missed the camaraderie and social contact of earlier decades.

I first met Bob as the ground was being laid for 1979 referendum on Scotland’s future. Independence was not on the agenda and the prospect of even the mildest devolution of power was viewed by many, including on the left, as a constitutional nightmare. I make no claim about how he would have voted in this coming referendum, but the fact that we are able to have a serious debate about Scotland’s constitutional future where the argument is not about whether, but how much self-government the people should have is in good part the legacy of Bob McLean.

• Tommy Sheppard was a long-standing friend of Bob McLean and is director of the Stand Comedy Club. The McLean Lecture, which is supported by The Scotsman, takes place this Friday: