Professor Sir Neil MacCormick was a giant of Jurisprudence, and Legal Philosophy and Legal Theory on the world stage and particularly in the UK, where he was a dominant figure in the renaissance of that subject begun by H.L.A Hart. At his death he was president of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy and played an important role in introducing continental legal theory on to the Anglo-American scene.
MacCormick was born on 27 May 1941, in Glasgow. He was one of the four children of John MacCormick, a Glasgow lawyer, and Margaret Miller. After schooling at the High School of Glasgow, MacCormick (though his first name is Donald he was always called Neil, to distinguish him from his cousin, Donald) attended Glasgow University (1959-63) and graduated MA with 1st class honours in Philosophy and English. He then won a Snell Exhibition to continue his studies at Balliol College at the University of Oxford, where he graduated with 1st class honours in Law in 1965. Though he studied English law, he always intended to return to Scotland and enter into legal practice in Edinburgh. He accepted a teaching post in law at St Andrews University (Queen's College, Dundee) as a means to that end.
At Oxford, however, he had come under the influence of H.L.A Hart, then Professor of Jurisprudence and, after some two years at Dundee, he returned to Balliol to teach Jurisprudence and Legal Philosophy. He was appointed to the Regius Chair of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at Edinburgh in 1972 at the very young age of 31. He held this post with pre-eminent distinction until his retirement in January 2007. He was Leverhulme Research Professor from 1997-99 and from 2004 till his retirement. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the British Academy as well as an honorary Queen's Counsel. He was knighted in 2001 in recognition of services to scholarship in Law, and in 2004 he was a recipient of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's Gold Medal for Outstanding Achievement.
He was prominent in public and political life. He served from 1999-2004 as Member of the European Parliament on behalf of the Scottish National Party (of which party he had been a Vice-President) following in the footsteps of his father, who was one of the key figures in the early Scottish National movement. Voted Scottish Euro MP of the Year for three years running at the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards, he was Special Adviser to the First Minister, Alex Salmond, on European and External Affairs.
The four books produced under the rubric of "Law, State, and Practical Reason" during the tenure of his Leverhulme Professorship are a fitting testimony to the enduring importance and influence of his work and thinking. Institutions of Law: An Essay in Legal Theory (2007) sets out the parameters for a general jurisprudence, marrying philosophy and sociology in the study of institutions such as contract, property and marriage. This had long been neglected but was something which he saw as fundamental to serious thinking about the law right from his inaugural lecture in 1974. Rhetoric and the Rule of Law: A Theory of Legal Reasoning (2005) were his final thoughts on the quality of legal reasoning, an area which he had energised with the 1978 publication of Legal Reasoning and Legal Theory and which he saw as an integral part in the moral and political theorising of the worth of law as a guiding institution for our society.
It is perhaps Questioning Sovereignty (1999) that is most important. This concludes work begun with Essays in Legal Right and Social Democracy in 1982 where he explicitly sets out his views in the context of legal, social and political theory and advances a strong social democratic position. Questioning Sovereignty clearly influenced his tenure as an MEP, where he served as a member of the Convention on the Future of Europe from 2002–03.
In that book he questions sovereignty, in the sense that it is not for him single and indivisible. Thus an entity such as the EU could be viewed as one of multiple overlapping sovereignties. But this does not preclude the claims of some polities for sovereign independence within international law. In dealing with the challenges, as he saw them, that the EU poses for legal theory he was one of the dominant figures in the transformation of the study of European supranational law, one whose influence can be seen in the work of many of the best scholars in that area. His final work, Practical Reasoning in Morality and Law (published shortly before he died) is the culmination of the series and looks at practical reason, about how one should live and deliberate in the world, and is a powerful and original contribution.
All of the above hardly does justice to MacCormick the man. His last book was finished quickly when he knew he had not long to live and he thought it not fully worked out. But it is all the better for that. It is written from the heart, and that heart and the man keep breaking through. Though his life was largely spent in the academy, his view and practice of that life was wide and far reaching. He embodied the best Scottish traditions of the "Democratic Intellect", tirelessly pursuing his and the University's engagement with the outside world. He was constructive and inclusive. This showed in his politics, where he vigorously espoused in his writings and public interventions a nationalism that was not narrow-minded and xenophobic but inclusive and open – a position that put him at odds with some but which reflected the views of his father. In the academy he was the same – he was out of sympathy with many current trends but that did not prevent him from taking on senior administrative roles where he worked to best maintain his vision of a University in the context of the present political imperatives.
He was extraordinarily open and generous. He was an inspiring teacher and saw teaching, unlike many in these research-oriented times, as an important part of his academic vocation. He had time for everyone, from the first-year student to the most senior member of the Faculty. His door was always open and he would always offer constructive and careful criticism. He was a master of the difficult art of being critical but also positive. He found it difficult to be entirely negative. He was relentlessly optimistic and always able to find worth in someone or something. He was always able to couch even far-reaching critical comments in a positive and encouraging way. He was for those privileged enough to have been taught or to work with him, as I was, the perfect model for the academic life.
A man of enormous energy and stamina, MacCormick was the life and soul of any party and academic gathering and was a joy to be with at either. He truly lived the liberalism and toleration which he espoused. He also had the ability to engage with people as equals without ever being patronising.
He had been married to Flora for nearly 20 years and the love between them sustained them both and spread to the world beyond. This was a source of strength for them in his final months of illness, which he bore with realistic optimism and consideration for the countless friends from all parts of the globe who wanted to visit him. He was a warm, lovely and intelligent man whose company will be sorely missed by many.
He died, as he wished, at home. He is survived by Flora, three children from a previous marriage, three step-children, two grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.
Professor Zenon Bankowski
Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, legal philosopher and politician: born Glasgow 27 May 1941; President, Oxford Union Society, 1965; called to the Bar, Inner Temple, 1971; lecturer, St Andrew's University, Queen's College, Dundee, 1965–67; Fellow and Tutor in Jurisprudence, Balliol College, Oxford, 1967–72; Regius Professor of Public Law, University of Edinburgh, 1972–2008 (on leave of absence, 1999–2004); MEP (SNP) Scotland, 1999–2004; married 1965 Caroline Rona Barr (divorced 1992, three daughters), 1992, Flora Margaret Britain (three stepchildren); Kt 2001; died 5 April 2009.