Obituary: Neil Davidson, historian and activist with a love of pop music and horror fiction

Neil Davidson, historian. Born: 9 October 1957 in Aberdeen. Died: 3 May 2020, aged 62

Neil Davidson

The Scottish intellectual and political scene has lost one of its leading lights with the death of Neil Davidson, historian, sociologist and activist. Neil was born in 1957 in Aberdeen to Dougie Davidson, a radiographer, and Margaret, a secretary: with his sister, Shona, they shared a household of modest working-class respectability. Neil would often recall the enormous impact on his childhood of moving to a council house with an inside toilet.

After attending Aberdeen Grammar School, Neil worked first as a clerical officer for Grampian Health Board, often attending the same trade union meetings as his father. Civil service was to become one of the several fields in which Neil had an impact on Scotland – he would end his Civil Service career as policy adviser to the office of permanent secretary to the Scottish Government in 2008. Neil would often joke about prefacing his works of Marxist theory with the words “... a state manager writes”.

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It was in London in the early 1980s that Neil developed the quite different politics that would define his life. Amongst his flatmates was the future novelist Andrew Murray Scott. During this time, Neil’s commitment to socialist politics and a rigorous but undogmatic Marxism led to his contributions to intellectual life in Scotland and beyond as a historian, social theorist and public intellectual.

In two seminal works, The Origins of Scottish Nationhood and Discovering the Scottish Revolution – awarded the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher memorial prize, and the Saltire Society’s Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun award – Neil demonstrated the relevance of a Marxist framework for understanding the country’s history.

Scotland, Neil showed, should be seen neither as the appendage of a greater British history nor the bearer of an unbroken national consciousness reaching back to the declaration of Arbroath.

Rather, the country was one of the first to experience the “uneven and combined development” of capitalism and a “revolution from above” in the late 18th century – the very revolution that Neil discovered in his book of the same name.

Neil took his degree from the Open University in 1992 – refusing, with his comrade Alex Law, to wear the “archaic” graduation gown – and became an excellent OU lecturer in his own right, giving tutorials in Sociology that encouraged many people to undertake a degree.

It was his books, however, that were to launch Neil on a second career as an academic and intellectual; he published nearly 100 academic articles and political interventions, as well as four collections of essays, and his 2013 magnum opus How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? The latter work, in which Neil comprehensively reinstated the concept of the “bourgeois revolutions” for the understanding of global modernity, moved his reputation onto the world stage. Neil’s work was translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin and he was a fixture at conferences in Europe, North American and Brazil. Based from 2008 at the university of Strathclyde and then from 2013 at Glasgow University’s department of sociology, Neil’s productivity was remarkable. Friends remember how, even in his Civil Service days, he would rise at 5am just to get his daily reading done.

As part of his extraordinary output, Neil engaged with other Scottish intellectual giants such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Tom Nairn.

Neil never severed his academic from his political commitments. An active trade unionist all his working life, first in Nalgo and then the PCS and UCU. No academic prima donna, Neil somehow found time still to put in hours of casework and organisation for his union. Colleagues trusted him, managers dreaded him.

Neil was a leading – if thrawnly independent-minded – member of the Socialist Workers’ Party in Scotland from the late 1970s to 2014. He remained committed both to the ideal of a socialist society and the need for political organisation to bring this about, becoming a founding member of Rs21 and the International Socialists in Scotland.

Perhaps his greatest impact came with the foundation of the Radical Independence Campaign in 2012 and its influence on the independence referendum of the following year. Neil was an intellectual leading light for many of the young activists involved in it who ensured the campaign moved beyond a narrow nationalist agenda and reached into working class communities where it developed a radical dynamism. It is no exaggeration to say that without Neil’s influence the 2014 referendum campaign might have been very different. He inspired younger working-class activists to take up intellectual work, mentoring them with a generosity of spirit.

Throughout all this Neil maintained a devoted partnership with his beloved Cathy. They met first when they both worked for the Scottish Office. After flats in Wester Hailes and Leith they moved to Cauther Ha’ in West Lothian: prompted by Neil’s ever-expanding library and Cath’s love of gardening. They were generous hosts and excellent company, with Neil always entertaining with his dry Doric wit. Neil came to resemble somewhat the improving-scholar gentlemen he had once written about: Davidson of West Calder, complete with kailyaird. Like Marx, who said “nothing human is foreign to me” – although given Neil’s fondness for the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft, one might say “nothing inhuman either” – Neil pursued cultural interests of extraordinary breadth. As a teenager he was a punk. He was passionate about music, dancing, theatre and the arts. He and Cathy visited the Edinburgh Fringe each year and he was also a lover of Seventies disco music. He seemed to read novels at the same pace as others read newspapers and was as at home discussing TS Eliot as David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Blondie or the heyday of 1980s hip-hop.

Neil’s last outing on the intellectual stage was a fitting achievement: a major international conference on uneven and combined development held at Glasgow in September 2019 at which Neil debated the famous historian Robert Brenner.

At that very time Neil was suffering from the brain tumour that would take his life. Rushed to hospital, he responded well to treatment initially but in the end the diagnosis was too grave.

After eight months he succumbed to the illness. It is Cathy and Neil’s family who will feel his untimely loss most keenly but a worldwide network of friends, comrades, students and admirers are also left bereft – as is the cause of a more just and humane world, in which he never wavered.

JAMIE ALLINSON

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