Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, Legal academic and politician

Born: 27 May, 1941, in Glasgow. Died 5 April, 2009, in Edinburgh, aged 67.

HE WAS of impeccable Nationalist pedigree, but there was nevertheless always a whiff of the Establishment about Professor Sir Neil MacCormick. The son of "King John" MacCormick, the Glasgow lawyer and leading Scottish Nationalist, Sir Neil followed him with distinction in both professions, although his geniality and generosity of spirit earned him friends across the political spectrum.

Donald Neil MacCormick (he used Neil to differentiate him from a cousin called Donald) was the younger of two sons of John MacCormick and Margaret Miller, whom Sir Neil recalled as "a tower of strength" in a happy family life which also included two sisters. Despite juggling a large legal and political workload, John remained a "very engaged dad", he said.

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He was undoubtedly a major influence on Sir Neil. Growing up in a large flat overlooking Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow, he was surrounded by talk of Scotland and politics. "If you were a small boy or young teenager interested in political affairs," Sir Neil later recalled, "simply assuming the role of an unobtrusive listener gave a great political education in a very particular kind of politics."

At first, however, Sir Neil chose a legal education, reading for an MA in philosophy and English literature at the University of Glasgow, before benefiting from a Snell Exhibition to take a BA in jurisprudence at Balliol College, Oxford, graduating from both with first-class honours.

Few other students could point to a famous legal battle – in Sir Neil's case McCormick v Lord Advocate (regarding the designation of Queen Elizabeth in Scotland) – bearing the family name.

Sir Neil started his academic career as a lecturer in jurisprudence at St Andrews University from 1965-67. He then moved to Balliol College, Oxford, as a fellow and tutor in jurisprudence from 1968-72. Thereafter, he held the Regius chair of public law and the law of nature and nations at Edinburgh University, appointed at the unusually young age of 31. His major contribution to academic thought was in the field of the philosophy and theory of law.

Greatly influenced by the writings of the late Professor H L A Hart of Oxford University, about whom he published a critical biography in 1981 (a second edition was published last year), Sir Neil could be described an "ethical positivist". For him it was an ethical presupposition that law be treated to a large extent as detached from morality.

This approach bore fruit in a collection of essays published in 1982 entitled Legal Right and Social Democracy, and his interest in law as an institution of human society in such internationally recognised works as The Institutional Theory of Law (1986) and the more recent Institutions of Law: An Essay in Legal Theory (2007). Other important works included Questioning Sovereignty: Law, State and Nation in the European Commonwealth (1999) and Rhetoric and the Rule of Law (2005).

He was a compelling lecturer and brilliant tutor, and political involvement overlapped naturally with Sir Neil's academic career. He joined the SNP (which his father had left in 1942) in 1967, eventually became one of its vice-presidents and unsuccessfully contested seats in Edinburgh and Argyll (where his brother Iain had been MP from 1974-79) from 1979-97. He finally won an election in 1999, having been ranked second on the SNP's list for the European parliamentary elections.

Sir Neil's belief in Scottish independence was pragmatic rather than romantic. He refused to see it "as an end in itself", as he explained in a collection of essays he edited in 1970 – The Scottish Debate – but saw rather a "utilitarian nationalism" which proposed independence as "the best means to the well-being of Scottish people".

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Keenly interested in constitutions, whether Scottish, British or European, Sir Neil argued strongly that Scotland would automatically remain a member of the European Union if it became independent, while defending the concept of Scotland becoming a "partner region" of the EU, something he was honest enough to admit fell short of his party's preferred aim of "independence in Europe". A member of the Convention on the Future of Europe from 2002-03, which drafted the EU's proposed Constitutional Treaty, Sir Neil published Who's Afraid of a European Constitution? in 2005.

Three times voted Scottish Euro MP of the Year at the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards, Sir Neil retired as an MEP in 2004 to complete his Leverhulme Research professorship at Edinburgh.

In 1999 he was appointed Queen's counsel honoris causa, while his knighthood in 2001 for services to scholarship in law furrowed some Nationalist brows. The then SNP leader, John Swinney, defended it as "a recognition of Neil MacCormick's tremendous academic achievements".

In 2004 Sir Neil received the Royal Society of Edinburgh's Royal Gold Medal for Outstanding Achievement, and in 2008 retired from the Regius chair at Edinburgh after 36 years as a professor. Accorded the honour of a series of lectures in his name, as well as an honorary degree, he found retirement provided more time for hill-walking, bagpiping and sailing.

In May 2007 Sir Neil was appointed a special adviser on Europe to Alex Salmond's minority Scottish Government, the election of which gave him much satisfaction. One of his last tasks was to pen a short introduction for a new edition of his father's book, The Flag in the Wind, although he was too ill to attend its launch at Bute House. He also took much pleasure from a special screening of the film Stone of Destiny, featuring his father, at his home last year. His final book, Practical Reason in Law and Morality, was published just before Christmas.

Like his father, Sir Neil was a man of rare courage in illness and pain. He died from stomach cancer and is survived by three daughters from his first marriage to Caroline Barr, his second wife, Flora, and three step-children.

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