Obituary: Allan Macartney
Thursday 27 August 1998
His sudden death leaves a sore gap in Scottish public life in a critical year. In Europe also, many will be mourn the passing of a good European. In the European Parliament, he was a member who wholeheartedly believed in its capacity to build a proper European democracy. He was sincerely but unobtrusively Christian, an elder of the Kirk who gave good service on the Church and Nation Committee. He was a devoted family man, for all the demands politics imposed on his time. He was an inspiring teacher and student of politics, for whom the Open University was the ideal academic forum. He was elected Rector of Aberdeen University in 1997, and chaired the University Court with wisdom and panache.
Above all, he was a patriotic Scot and a tireless worker for the restoration of his country to its proper place among the nations of Europe and the world. His election as Senior Vice-Convener (deputy leader) of the Scottish National Party in 1992 was the culmination of years of dedicated commitment over the lean years that followed the SNP's electoral debacle of 1979.
His emphatic victory in the North-East of Scotland in the European election of 1994 was a deserved triumph, adding a much valued foil to Winnie Ewing's long, heroic stand as sole SNP representative in Europe. That election was one of the first fruits of the revival in SNP fortunes to which Macartney's contribution, though never showy, had been profound.
His formidable command of languages served him well in his European work. Long before election as MEP, he had kept active contacts in Flanders, Bavaria, Catalonia, Brittany, the Basque country, the Faeroes, the Aland Islands and other parts of Europe that were submerged in the imperial state-building of the 19th century, and sought, like Scotland, to re-emerge before the 21st.
Nationalism is a political stance with which many are uneasy, having acquired the reputation of such evil bedfellows as racism, chauvinism, ethnic exclusiveness, intolerance and worse. Allan Macartney believed and showed that these are pathological excrescences on nationalism, not its essence. He was a living embodiment of the nationalism that is tolerant, inclusive, and universalist in outlook and commitment. For him, the fundamental principle in politics was that of self-determination for individuals and for peoples.
His African experiences left a profound mark on him, both his teenage years when his father was working as a missionary in present-day Ghana, and subsequently when he took up his own first job, as a university teacher in Botswana. That period of work led eventually to his PhD on the politics of Botswana, completed under the tutelage of the late John P. Mackintosh, and later to work on the principle of self- determination in the Commonwealth.
Constitutional questions were at the heart of his work. He served on the committee that in 1977 produced the SNP's draft constitution for an independent Scotland. The principles of a liberal, civic nationalism in which he believed are captured in that document, and were enhanced in the revision of 1991 to which he gave a lead.
In 1996, he convened a committee of experts mainly from outside the SNP to report on how to achieve a transition to independence. Their report charts these potentially treacherous waters. The existence of this calm, undramatic explanation of the transition process will greatly serve the common good if, or when, the moment arrives. He was wise in his ability to think ahead to the moment of crisis in which a pre-considered position is required. It is one of the qualities for which he will be sadly irreplaceable.
The introduction of party-list systems of proportional representation for the Scottish and the European parliamentary elections of 1999 has called for new procedures in all the parties. Allan Macartney was in charge of the SNP's adaptation to this, and made sure that the process was a fully democratic one that gave grass- roots members the key role in selection.
The widely felt alarm over a surrender of popular democracy to party-machine politics has no application to the schemes he devised. (Or, at least, as little as it could have to any scheme that satisfies the new electoral laws.) He was hard at work overseeing the European selection process till this very week, and spoke to me on the telephone about it just hours before his fatal heart attack. I fear he spent too much of himself in this and all his work.
Allan Macartney and I met when we were students, he at Edinburgh University and I at Glasgow. In 1961, he led the process of founding, or re-establishing, the Federation of Student Nationalists, linking together nationalist clubs and associations in all the universities and colleges. At the time, our contemporaries considered us harmless eccentrics, but Macartney already foresaw the change in the Scottish mind-set that a new world and hard work would produce.
Over 40 years he was one of my best friends, my political conscience who kept me from retreating completely into academic life. He had a marvellous sense of humour and of fun, and as little malice as it is possible for a witty person to possess. It is hard to believe that never again will the phone's ring presage a greeting with a joke in bad Gaelic - we were both lifelong learners who never completed the job - and a chuckle and then some mildly conspiratorial adjuration to stop neglecting the project of the day. A beacon has gone out for me, the afterglow will still inspire.
As Deputy Leader of the Scottish National Party Allan Macartney left his beloved country poised at the point of selecting candidates for its first parliament since 1707, writes Angus Calder.
"National", not "Nationalist" Party. The first thing you learnt about Allan was that he cared as passionately for the peoples of Southern Africa and for the Sami minority of Northern Scandinavia as he did for his ain folk in North-East Scotland.
Scots for him were one people in a mosaic of equal peoples. The MEP job specification might have been written for him. Beside several African tongues, and pidgin Gaelic, he spoke German, French and Dutch. As a political scientist he was particularly interested in the constitutional issues facing Europe (and Scotland) which baffle and bore even most "politically minded" people.
The Open University in Scotland gave him an academic base in Edinburgh as Staff Tutor in Social Science. I joined him there in 1979 as Staff Tutor in Arts and can testify to the pleasures and strains of that very peculiar role. Responsible for appointing and supervising scores of part- time staff from Galloway to Shetland, we also had the academic duty of contributing to courses created in Milton Keynes. And if we didn't keep stuck in there, our pleasant English colleagues would forget that Scotland had a different legal system, different educational traditions, an Established Church of its own and a richly distinctive cultural history. So - Stornoway Tuesday, Milton Keynes Thursday.
There were no academic seminars in the OU Edinburgh office. Instead, we academics on flexitime lingered after lunch in the pub round the corner where Allan, red wine in hand, puffing the short cigars which were his one obvious weakness, tended to function as orchestrator of remarkable symposia which included his neo-Marxist colleague Greg Maclennan (son of the CPGB Secretary General), the maverick Tory Home Ruler Michael Fry, a historian like my own alter ego, Ian Donnachie, and any full-time or part-time staff who cared to join in. Remaining good-humoured as our Senior Counsellor colleague Henry Cowper enjoyed his politically incorrect flytings against women and social scientists, and indulged his Old Labour anti- nationalism, was one of Allan's peculiar graces, as was his utter straightforwardness.
He was one of few Scots outside pipe-bands who could wear a kilt without exciting jeers. His marriage to Anne Forsyth straightforwardly endured while his colleagues' crumbled, and he leaves three children and four grandchildren. As a political scientist, he was practical, interested in voting systems and the legalities and mechanics of home rule. Though no philistine, he wasn't into fancy Gramscian cultural nationalism.
In politics, he sought, not self- aggrandisement, but political solutions to problems which he understood politically. As an Honorary Fellow of Edinburgh University, he set up a notable conference there in 1986 on "Self-Determination in the Commonwealth", and the democratic right of all peoples to self- determination was the liberal groundrock of his own politics. On other issues, he was an uncomplicated social democrat, fully in tune with the SNP's leftward shift in the 1980s. He didn't go on about religion, but one knew that regular worship in the Church of Scotland sustained him.
His former OU colleagues in the administrative and secretarial departments have been in tears. Allan, liked by all, was the natural MC for Christmas parties or our annual "Burns Lunches". My own loving memory has him, paper hat on head, filthy Italian cigar in hand, leading us over empty wine bottles into a patriotic song, Hamish Henderson's great "Freedom Come All Ye", say, in which "A black boy frae yont Nyanga / Dings the fell gallows of the burghers doon."
William John Allan Macartney, political scentist and politician: born Accra, Ghana 17 February 1941; teacher, Eastern Nigeria 1963-64; Lecturer in Government and Administration, University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland 1966-74; Staff Tutor in Politics, Open University 1975-94; SNP spokesman on foreign affairs 1987-98; Deputy Leader, SNP 1992-98; MEP (SNP) for North East Scotland 1994-98; Vice-President, EP Fisheries Committee 1997-98; Rector, Aberdeen University 1997-98; married 1963 Anne Forsyth (two sons, one daughter); died Aberdeen 25 August 1998.
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