Obituary: Lord Maclennan, former leader of UK’s Social Democratic Party

Lord Maclennan of Rogart, politician. Born: 26 June 1936 in Glasgow. Died: 18 January 2020 in London, aged 83

Lord Maclennan in 2000 (Picture: PA Wire)
Lord Maclennan in 2000 (Picture: PA Wire)

Bob Maclennan, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, was a former leader of the Social Democratic Party just prior to its merger with the Liberals in a move that led to the birth of the Liberal Democrats in 1988. His 35-year Commons career was a commitment to the realignment of the centre-left. His politics were marked by a series of immovable anchors in support of social justice, human rights, Europe and support for the arts.

There was something olde worlde about Bob Maclennan, from his dapper, if dated, dress sense to his impeccable manners and old-fashioned courtesy. He was softly spoken and occasionally gave off an air of vulnerability which some mistook for weakness. In fact he was utterly steely in pursuit of his beliefs and could deploy lofty argument and plain stubbornness in pursuit of them.

As an MP he was totally dedicated to the people of Caithness and Sutherland and served them in Parliament for over three decades with a distinction few MPs could match. A drive around that part of the world with him was an education as he stopped to talk with local business people, artists, farmers and local residents.

Robert Adam Ross Maclennan was born in Glasgow on 26 June 1936. His father, Sir Hector Maclennan, was an eminent physician who tended on occasion to The Queen and was latterly Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Sir Hector was Conservatively inclined but Bob’s mother, a doctor, was a Socialist. The children followed the mother’s politics. Bob pursued a career in law and politics. Sister Elizabeth wed playwright John McGrath and they founded the 7:84 theatre company with younger brother David. Elizabeth and David’s politics were well to the Left of their brother – they were the Redgraves of Scottish theatre.

Bob was educated at Glasgow Academy and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Law. He was called to the Bar in 1962 but a political career beckoned. Will Marshall, Scottish Labour’s talent spotter in chief, with a little encouragement from Scottish Office Minister Dick Mabon, thought Maclennan a good fit for the Highland constituency where his father once had a hotel and was so well respected.

In the Labour landslide of 1966 Bob Maclennan captured Caithness and Sutherland from the Liberal George Mackie. There was never any doubt where he stood in Labour’s ideological spectrum. He forged a friendship with Roy Jenkins, the unofficial leader of the party’s social democratic wing. In October 1971 he followed Jenkins, along with 67 other Labour MPs, by defying a three-line whip to vote to take the UK into the then European Economic Community. He was a lifelong European and saw Brexit as a sprint to insularity and self-harm.

When Labour returned to power in 1974 he served as a junior minister at Prices and Consumer Protection, where his boss for a time was another cherished friend, Shirley Williams. He championed the left winger Janey Buchan to sit on the Scottish Gas Consumer Council.”But she’s impossible”, complained John Smith. “Exactly the quality you need in a consumer champion,” replied Maclennan. After defeat in 1979 Labour convulsed in an orgy of self destruction. Roy Jenkins had left Harold Wilson’s government in 1976 to become President of the European Commission. But the unmistakably anglicised tones of the Welshman echoed long with his Dimbleby lecture in 1979, floating the idea of a political realignment to break the mould of British politics.

The SDP was formed in March 1981 in the biggest rupture in Labour politics since 1931. Jenkins was warned off fighting a by election in Glasgow Hillhead in 1982, colleagues believing his patrician manner would be kicked all the way down red Clydeside. But this seat is where Maclennan was born and he persuaded Jenkins he could win. He did, in what commentators dubbed the by election of the century. The Falklands war stalled the SDP juggernaut as they were in electoral Alliance with the Liberals. The would-be mould breakers polled impressively at the 1983 election but the electoral system helped strangle them after a mere two years of life.

From 1983-87 the Alliance was fractured by old-style political rows on defence policy. David Owen seemed determined to fashion the SDP in his own image and it undoubtedly moved to the right after Jenkins demitted the leadership. At this time Bob Maclennan was mentoring a young Charles Kennedy, unexpectedly elected in 1983 at the tender age of 23. After a failure to break through in 1987 Kennedy broke rank with Owen to argue for a full -blown merger with the Liberals. Initially hesitant, MacLennan backed merger to Owen’s volcanic fury. Bob became SDP leader when Owen resigned after members voted to merge the party with the Liberals. He steered the SDP through the merger and was central in forging the new party’s constitution. A draft policy document (later dubbed “the dead parrot”) was binned as too radical. It was a product of Bob’s desire to tackle poverty but its details were never likely to fly electorally. Under enormous pressure he looked brittle. In part this was because his politics were heartfelt. I have only witnessed two politicians become visibly upset when talking about poverty: Margo MacDonald and Bob.

Having delivered the constitution and policy prospectus he wanted his work was almost done. At the behest, however, of Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair, Maclennan started talks with Robin Cook about cross party cooperation on constitutional reform. He worked well with Cook, with whom he developed a friendship. The former Labour Foreign Secretary stayed with the ever hospitable Maclennan’s shortly before he died.

Bob’s wife Helen provided the greatest support of his life. An American teacher, she undoubtedly fostered his love of the US, but more than that, she supported him politically. She is also a shrewd reader of people, an invaluable asset in politics. He went to the Lords in 2001, taking the title of Rogart in Sutherland, where he had a small cottage. He and Helen bought a farm near Dunnet Head in Caithness. They split their time between this haven of calm and their flat in Pimlico. As his health declined he became less active in the Lords. He was privately sceptical and occasionally depressed by the coalition government, which he viewed as far from social democratic.

Bob Maclennan was a throwback to another age. A time when politics seemed no less intense but certainly less angry. He viewed inequality as a scourge and nationalism as insular. He was a great constitutionalist, believing that rules-based politics confer rights, limits the ability to abuse power and civilises society. He was a liberal, a social democrat, a European and an Atlanticist who was unshakeable in his belief that the greatest freedom is the freedom from economic enslavement. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word, a civilised man who lived life by values that were the essential core of his being. He is survived by Helen, children Adam and Ruth and stepson Nicholas.