Obituary: Dr Robert (Bob) McLean, political activist and arts administrator

BORN: 13 November, 1956, in Penicuik. Died: 14 July, 2012, in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian, aged 55

Dr Robert (Bob) McLean was a big man in every sense of the word. He had a big heart, a massive presence, a wonderful sense of humour, a huge intellect and a burning passion for Scottish Home Rule.

He was one of the most 
significant extra-parliamentary figures of late 20th-century Scotland, and his skills placed him at the centre of the campaign to secure a Scottish Parliament. He was the beating heart of that devolution movement, inside and outside the Scottish Labour Party.

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Of the generation whose hopes were dashed by the 1979 referendum, few worked so hard, and with such impact, to ensure that in 1997 Scotland voted decisively for its first directly elected parliament.

With his passion for history, his analytical and storytelling skills, his strong politics but willingness to listen to others, his charm and love of the arts and music, he would have been at home at the height of the Enlightenment in 18th-century Edinburgh. And like many of the great figures of that time, he did not come from a privileged background.

Born in Penicuik on 13 November, 1956, young Robert was the only son of Bob and Sarah. His early years were spent on the outskirts of Edinburgh when his father, an HGV driver, became transport manager in Loanhead. But before he completed primary school, the family moved to his lifelong home in Bonnyrigg.

Always the most memorable speaker on any platform, he was a leading schools and university debater. One friend recalls first meeting Bob at the Daily Express schools debating championship.

The bearded 16-year-old seemed like “a teacher disguised as a pupil”, but Bob held the captivated audience in the palm of his hand within 30 seconds of beginning his speech.

A teenage member of the SNP, he arrived at Aberdeen University and later joined 
Labour. His formidable speaking and campaigning talents meant he became a key member of university campaigns and student president in 1979-80.

He was already prominent in national student politics, and after completing his Honours Degree in History and Politics in 1982 he became president of NUS Scotland from 1982-84.

Many of our contemporaries went off to work in politics – in parliamentary offices or the trade unions – but as we entered the world of work I remember Bob stressing the importance of locating our politics in the community, and his advice that I should follow my vocation of teaching and settle in Stirling.

So, although he surprised many by taking up a job in the marketing unit of Edinburgh City Council’s Recreation Department in 1985, I knew that he saw an interesting job outside politics as part of what would make him tick.

At his early retirement function last year, colleagues recalled with tears and cheers the impact he had in those years at the City Art Centre and beyond. The Emperor’s Warriors, Thunderbirds are Go and The Gold of the Pharaohs were some of the exhibitions that helped transform the reputation of Edinburgh and draw in hundreds of thousands of ordinary youngsters to previously remote institutions.

Increasingly active in the Scottish Labour Party, he became frustrated with the conservatism and tribalism he encountered. His rallying cry to activists of all parties as he sought to unite the Home Rule movement of the Eighties and Nineties was: “Are we political activists or football supporters?” He believed Scotland needed a bigger and better approach.

He had been among the first to join the new Campaign for a Scottish Assembly in 1980, the all-party effort to keep alive the flame of Home Rule.

With a few fellow travellers, Bob founded Scottish Labour Action and became the convenor of the new pressure group formed to push Labour further down the devolution road.

He was ahead of us all in his belief that a Constitutional Convention was required to ensure the plans for a Scottish Parliament had wider and deeper support next time around. And his unique ability to draw people in helped persuade others of his case.

Elected to Scottish Labour’s Executive Committee between 1994 and 1997, he served as election agent for Eric Clarke MP, David Hamilton MP and Rhona Brankin MSP.

He was secretary of the Midlothian constituency party for more years that anyone can remember.

He loved to publish, first through Radical Scotland in the 1980s; later with histories of Labour and Home Rule, and of the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament. His relentless production of lively newsletters kept the campaign fresh and informed.

His former colleagues on the executive of the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament say Bob’s Blueprint for Scotland was critical during the referendum in 1997.

Always available with a word of advice or a hug, he was proud that many of his contemporaries were elected to the new parliament.

But, despite one appearance on Labour’s list of candidates for Lothians, he never made it himself. It was a cruel blow, and a blow for Scotland too as his oratory, intellect and presence would have added so much there. Supervised by Owen Dudley Edwards, his thesis on The Legacy of Michael Collins 1922-32 secured his long-coveted PhD from the University of Edinburgh in July 1999. Edwards describes McLean as a supervisor’s dream, “a student with the mind of a pioneer”.

Big Bob had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and his remarkable stamp collection saw him invited to the Royal Philatelic Society in London as guest lecturer on his collection of stamps from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Despite having no family of his own, he had a wonderful way with the children of others.

In his own words, he “didn’t drink alcohol from the day he was old enough to do so legally”.

After the death of his father in the late 1980s, he lived with his mother, with whom he had a deeply affectionate bond. When Sarah died in 2009 Bob found life alone a challenge. His health deteriorated and despite his desire to write the history of pirate radio, his big heart eventually gave up last weekend.

He was loyal to family, friends and party, but most of all he was loyal to Scotland. A special man, he was one of modern Scotland’s finest sons. He was a patriot, a socialist and a true friend.

He had a massive impact on all who knew him: he inspired us, educated us, entertained us and organised us into the generation that turned his dream into reality.

We all miss him already, but Scotland will always be a better place for the time he spent with us here.

Bob’s funeral will take place tomorrow at 10am at Mortonhall Crematorium in Edinburgh.


Rt Hon Lord McConnell,

First Minister of 
Scotland 2001-2007