Political activist and arts administrator;
Born: November 13, 1956; Died: July 14, 2012.
ROBERT McLean, who has died aged 55, was a leading figure in the "Nationalist wing" of Labour politics in Scotland. He was a key figure of those who, in the front room of Jack McConnell's then Stirling home, established Scottish Labour Action (SLA), a pro-Home Rule grouping impatient to deliver a devolved Assembly in Edinburgh, and equally impatient with old-fashioned Scottish Left politics.
The impetus came during a special Scottish Labour conference held a few months after a third consecutive Conservative victory at the 1987 General Election. Instead of tackling this new political dynamic head on, the party leadership produced what Dr McLean called a bland "business as usual" agenda that failed "to address the critical questions facing the party in Scotland".
Thus the SLA was launched at the March 1988 Scottish Labour conference, drawing its members mainly from the Labour Co-Ordinating Committee and led by stalwart constituency activists like Dr McLean, Alan Bell and Susan Deacon. Pro-devolution MPs including Dennis Canavan, John McAllion and Robin Cook also leant their support, as did the future MSPs Jackie Baillie, Frank McAveety, Sarah Boyack and Pauline McNeill.
As Gerry Hassan put it in a recent history of the party, this grouping "proved over the next decade to be a small group in number but one which had tenacity and the commitment to challenge some of the central tenets of Scottish Labour". As a party within a party it was inevitably viewed with suspicion by the leadership, but nevertheless achieved its central aim: a full-blooded commitment to establish what became the Scottish Parliament.
Bob McLean, as he was always known (in politics if not by his family), was born in Penicuik to his father, also Bob, an HGV driver, and his mother Sarah. An only child, he was educated at Lasswade High School before heading north to study history at Aberdeen University. At the end of his degree, he took a sabbatical upon his election as president of the Students' Representative Council, through which he then became Scottish president of the National Union of Students.
Like many of his political generation, he was heavily influenced by the failure of devolution at the 1979 referendum. He realised it had come about because an insufficiently broad coalition had been built in support, something he set about rectifying via the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (CSA), later the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament (CSP). Always ecumenical in approach, he sought alliances with the SDP/Liberal Alliance and the SNP, something he later recounted in his 2005 book, Getting It Together.
Concurrent with his campaign to transform the Scottish Labour Party from within was his work as a marketing manager for the City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries. He took to this, recalled the then Labour councillor (and later MP) Mark Lazarowicz, "like a duck to water". The highlight of his tenure was probably the 1985 exhibition The Emperor's Warriors, although he was equally enthusiastic about the 1986 Thunderbirds Are Go! show. "Bob displayed a passion to make art and culture accessible and popular," recalled Mr Lazarowicz, "without undermining its quality and integrity."
He demonstrated similar zeal for the SLA, which he chaired from its inception in 1988. His reputation as a constituency activist shielded him from accusations of disloyalty, while his strategic sense foresaw the necessity of a Scottish Constitutional Convention – with Labour playing a constructive part – long before many of his contemporaries. He also realised that Labour would have to compromise, most notably over a PR electoral system, in order to get other parties on board.
As a historian, he sought to demonstrate an extensive provenance to Labour's commitment to Scottish devolution. In the early 1990s he produced two under-appreciated pamphlets on this theme entitled Labour and Scottish Home Rule; the subtitle of the second, "Unionist Complacency to Crisis Management" neatly summed up his view of Labour's post-war constitutional strategy.
In 1998 he completed a PhD (at Edinburgh University) on the freedom fighter Michael Collins, Irish history being his other main passion. That same year he was approved as a candidate for the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but when the East Lothian constituency was twinned (to promote gender equality) with Midlothian, the incumbent MP John Home Robertson was favourite in the former, leaving him without a seat.
Although disappointed not to be playing a part in the institution he had long championed, he remained loyal to Scottish Labour, remaining secretary of the Midlothian constitution Labour Party until his death. He also watched as his SLA contemporary and close friend Jack McConnell (Dr McLean had been his best man) became First Minister following the resignation of Henry McLeish in 2001.
A warm, generous and open-minded man, he took early retirement from Edinburgh City Council early last year. A keen stamp collector, he was also devoted to his family – particularly his mother, who predeceased him – and was busy researching a history of pirate radio as his "retirement project". He was found dead at his home on Saturday morning.
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