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MacCormick, Sir (Donald) Neil (1941–2009), jurist and Scottish nationalist, was born at Redlands Hospital, Glasgow, on 27 May 1941, the younger son of , solicitor and Scottish nationalist, and his wife, Margaret Isobel, née Miller (1908–2003), social worker. He was educated at Glasgow high school and attended Glasgow University (1959–63) where he graduated with first-class honours in philosophy and English. A Snell exhibition allowed him to continue his studies at Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated in jurisprudence in 1965, again with first-class honours. A first teaching post followed at Queen's College, Dundee (part of St Andrews University), and in 1967 he returned to Balliol to teach jurisprudence and legal philosophy. In 1972, at the exceptionally young age of thirty-one, he was appointed to the regius chair of public law and the law of nature and nations at Edinburgh. This was a position he held until his retirement in 2008. On 6 November 1965 he married Caroline Rona Barr (b. 1940), economist, and daughter of Archibald Craig Barr, farmer. They had three daughters. The marriage was dissolved on 13 January 1992, and on 12 June that year he married Flora Margaret Britain, née Milne (b. 1946), personal assistant, daughter of Andrew McKenzie Milne, bank teller, and former wife of David Leslie Britain.

Neil MacCormick (as he was always called to distinguish him from his cousin Donald MacCormick, a prominent television journalist) achieved eminence both in academia and in the world of politics and public affairs. Academically, he made a significant contribution to legal philosophy over more than thirty years. He was the author of nine books and editor of five others, as well as contributing literally hundreds of essays and comments to academic journals and collections. Legal Reasoning and Legal Theory (1978) established his early reputation as an incisive analyst of legal reasoning and argumentation within a broadly positivist tradition, according to which law is understood as a human construction rather than as the articulation of a higher moral or religious truth. H. L. A. Hart (1981), his intellectual biography of the father of Anglo-Saxon legal positivism who was a great influence on MacCormick in his Oxford years, reinforced his position as a lucid, creative, and far from uncritical exponent of the positivist approach. Another early work, Legal Right and Social Democracy (1982), a collection of essays, forged a strong and abiding set of links between the positivist emphasis on the social nature of law's pedigree and his strong commitment, as important to his public and political persona as to his intellectual vision, to a political philosophy grounded in liberal premises and in the democratic right of collective self-government.

MacCormick's body of work was a highly versatile one. No significant contemporary legal philosopher was more adept than him at illustrating and developing his theoretical reflections by practical example. In so doing he made important contributions or developed novel insights in areas as diverse as statutory interpretation, judicial precedent, children's rights, the right to die, official secrecy, obscenity, the nature of intellectual property, and the relationship between constitutional and international law. Even though his academic qualification was in English law his examples and case studies were often drawn from the more immediate environment of Scots law, whose special qualities he explored with typical erudition and flair. Few in contemporary legal scholarship sustained such a distinctive voice over such a long period. His style was engaging yet challenging, his tone conversational yet precise, his temper sometimes critical but always generous and constructive.

While many of his early positions survived, the breadth of his intellectual curiosity, the scale and depth of his involvement in public affairs, and his unwavering capacity for critical self-reflection meant that MacCormick's legal philosophy was always a work in progress. The four late books produced under the rubric of Law, State and Practical Reason provided an eloquent and integrated statement of his mature thought. The first, Questioning Sovereignty (1999), was arguably the most influential work of his later career, as well as the most obvious link to his active political philosophy. It made a path-breaking contribution to contemporary understanding of the autonomous yet overlapping character of contemporary systems of state, supranational (European Union), and sub-state (Scots) positive law, and challenged the adequacy of a traditional conception of unitary and indivisible sovereignty to capture this multipolar pattern. Rhetoric and the Rule of Law (2005) provided a fuller statement of his earlier work on the rational and reasonable attributes and argumentative structure of legal discourse. Institutions of Law (2007) also marked the completion of an earlier project, in this case begun as his inaugural lecture at Edinburgh in 1972. In this work MacCormick specified the parameters for a general jurisprudence in the positivist tradition, setting out in comprehensive fashion the conceptual furniture and institutional anatomy of a typical modern legal system. His final and most personal monograph, Practical Reason in Law and Morality (2009), supplied his developed thoughts on the relationship between law and other modalities of practical reason. Drawing, as he had often done before, on the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, he offered a richly innovative exploration of the manifold relationships between living according to law and living a good life.

MacCormick's scholarship won him wide recognition. He was appointed an honorary QC (England and Wales) in 1999 and was the recipient of seven honorary doctorates from five countries, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Italy, and, of course, Scotland. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1986 and a foreign member of the Finnish Academy of Sciences in 1994. In 2001 he was knighted for services to scholarship in law and in 2004 was a recipient of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's gold medal for outstanding achievement. (He had been elected a fellow in 1986.) Yet, proud as he was of his achievements, he was never remotely motivated to do what he did by the prospects of such rewards, nor changed by their receipt. He believed that the life of the mind was its own reward, and through his boundless intellectual energy and enthusiasm, his exemplary written and rhetorical style, his considerateness towards all who crossed his path, and his assiduous work in promoting his discipline nationally and internationally, he served as a model and inspiration to many generations of colleagues and students. He was a great servant to Edinburgh University, twice dean of the law faculty, provost of the faculty group of law and social sciences (1994–7), and vice-principal of international affairs (1997–9). He was just as assiduous a supporter of the global community of legal scholarship. At his death he was president of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, having over many years occupied an important bridging role between continental and Anglo-Saxon legal philosophy.

For all his academic accomplishment and accolades MacCormick was just as prominent in public and political life. His father was the founder of the modern Scottish nationalist movement, and his elder brother, Iain (b. 1939), was Scottish nationalist MP for Argyll from 1974 to 1979. The young MacCormick absorbed many of the particular lessons of liberal nationalism as well as a broader education in the virtues of a life of public engagement and political debate. His subsequent contribution to the vitality of the Scottish nationalist movement was immense. For many years one of the leading strategists and visionaries of the Scottish National Party (SNP), he played a key part from the 1970s onwards in reconciling the gradualist and fundamentalist wings of the party. With an eye to the future, he played a significant role in a number of cross-party constitutional initiatives, including the claim of right of 1989 and the Scottish Constitutional Convention of the early 1990s, which led to the establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament and government in 1999. He was also responsible for successive versions of a draft constitution for an independent Scotland, and for making a persuasive case for that new state's automatic membership of the European Union.

MacCormick would doubtless have welcomed the opportunity to serve as a member of the new Scottish parliament that he, and his father before him, had done so much to make possible. However, he and his party concluded that his talents as a full-time politician would instead be better deployed in the more cosmopolitan environment of the European parliament. Granted leave of absence by Edinburgh University, he served with distinction as an MEP for the 1999–2004 session. He was voted Scottish MEP of the year for three years running at the Scottish politician of the year awards, and was as effective in pursuing the interests of his constituents as he was in contributing to the wider affairs of the parliament. He also made a significant contribution as an alternate member of the Convention on the Future of Europe (2002–3), which had been commissioned to draft a first constitution for the European Union. Even after he decided to return to full-time academic life in 2004, the pull of politics remained strong. In 2007 he was appointed special adviser on European and external affairs to Alex Salmond, the first SNP first minister, a position he held until his death.

The two apparently disparate strands in MacCormick's life, academic and political, were actually in close harmony. This connection was clearest in his work on the affinity between law as a socially ‘posited’ phenomenon and the kind of liberal and democratic nationalism he espoused politically. Yet there was more to it than that, and the connection between the academic and the political was as much one of sensibility as of substance. As an intellectual and as a teacher he was always closely and vividly engaged with practical questions. Indeed, both in Edinburgh and far beyond, he did much to improve the standing of legal philosophy as an active component of a professional legal education rather than a niche interest for the excessively intellectually curious. And as a politician and public speaker he retained the best of the academic tradition. His approach was always inclusive rather than divisive, reasoned rather than emotive, clarificatory rather than distortive, open-minded rather than partisan, long-sighted rather than seeking immediate advantage.

MacCormick died at his home, 19 Pentland Terrace, Edinburgh, on 5 April 2009, of stomach cancer. He was survived by his wife, Flora, and the three daughters of his first marriage. There was a huge turnout from all walks of Scottish life at his funeral at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, on 17 April, testifying to the great affection, admiration, and respect in which he was held by the many whose lives he touched.

Neil Walker


The Scotsman (6 April 2009); (18 April 2009) · The Herald [Glasgow] (7 April 2009); (8 April 2009) · The Times (7 April 2009); (9 April 2009); (11 April 2009) · Daily Telegraph (7 April 2009) · The Guardian (7 April 2009) · Times Higher Education Supplement (7 April 2009) · The Independent (22 April 2009) · N. Walker, ed., MacCormick's Scotland (2012) · Burke, Peerage · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.


U. Edin. L.


photograph, 1999, Photoshot, London · obituary photographs