Kristy Dorsey

For a man less than three months from retirement, Sir Neil MacCormick's 2008 diary is surprisingly busy.

On January 31 he will step down as Regius Professor of Public Law at the University of Edinburgh, where he has worked for the last 36 years. Before he goes, he will have to clear some 25 metres of bookshelves in the Old College office he has occupied since 1983, and winnow down the contents to fit into just seven metres of shelving available at his home in Edinburgh.

"It is going to be a big job," he said. "My wife has been looking nervously at the walls of our house for the past several weeks."

Despite her apprehensions about storage space, MacCormick said wife Flora was also looking forward to seeing more of her husband in his retirement years. However, a quick run-down of his commitments for the ensuing 12 months suggests MacCormick may not have as much spare time on his hands as might be expected.

During the month of April he is scheduled to tour through Brazil, Argentina and Chile, giving lectures on his lifelong passion, the philosophy of law and justice. Thereafter he will spend four months on a visiting lectureship at New York University, while his continuing role as president of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy means that conferences and speaking engagements will still be part of MacCormick's agenda until his term expires in 2011.

"That sort of stuff, if you want to do it, is always there," he said, "although my wife would certainly like me to do less of it."

His political work as special adviser on Europe to the Scottish Government will also continue "at the first minister's pleasure". A leading legal expert on the European Union, SNP stalwart MacCormick was appointed to this post after Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party came into power earlier this year.

Although a member of the SNP since his university days in Glasgow, as well as being the son of SNP co-founder John MacCormick, the professor said he would not describe himself as "ferociously partisan". While his career has encompassed teaching, writing and politics, he said there had been a unifying theme across all of his work.

"I have above all enjoyed communicating ideas about the philosophy of law and justice," he said. "I have lived on a sort of see-saw between law and philosophy all of my working life."

The link between laws and justice, and how this can break down, has been a focal point in MacCormick's work. "The established rule of law is essential to achieving any kind of justice in society," he said, but added that laws alone are not sufficient to ensure justice.

This is reflected in the issues that concern him today. At the top of his list is what he describes as the "corruption of fear" in legal systems, which has led to controversial events at places like the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. He believes this fear has also allowed the CIA to operate rendition flights that take terrorism suspects out of the US for interrogation techniques that would be illegal if used on US soil. "It is to yield to terrorism, rather than combat it, if we yield our traditions of justice to combat terrorism."

He is regarded as one of the world's foremost philosophers of law, a status which helped him to a knighthood in 2001, followed by a gold medal for outstanding achievement from the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2004.

MacCormick, who speaks Italian, Spanish, French, German and Latin, said his language skills had served him well both in his field of study, and during his stint as a Scottish Member of the European Parliament between 1999 and 2004.

"There is a tendency in academic life to think very much in English terms, but here in Scotland we have strong links with Europe," he said.

"If you are interested in these areas, you would miss out on a lot if you didn't."

While serving as an MEP, MacCormick was named Scottish Euro MP of the Year at the 2000, 2002 and 2003 Scottish Politician of the Year awards. Before retiring from elected office in 2004 to resume his Leverhulme Research Professorship at Edinburgh, he helped draft the European Union Constitutional Treaty.

Although the treaty foun- dered after French and Dutch voters rejected it in 2005, MacCormick said the experience had still been a unique opportunity to put theories into practice after years of studying the evolving situation in Europe.

"What we have with the European Union is a very interesting new constellation of legal aggregates," he said.

He noted that although the word "constitution" had been withheld from the current Reform Treaty that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is promoting, the two documents were still "about 90% the same thing". He described both as "sensible" efforts to "deal with things that need dealt with".

Glasgow-born MacCormick is credited with having never lost touch with Scotland. He said he had only once been "seriously" tempted to take up a permanent post abroad, but eventually decided against it.

Although he could have earned more money elsewhere, he said his academic surroundings and the beauty of his home country made Scotland an ideal place to live.

That said, there are still areas in Scottish life that MacCormick believes should be improved.

"I think it is a matter of concern that inequality in society has grown so sharply, both under conservative leadership in the past and liberal ones more recently," he said.

"In Scotland, we need an awful lot done to improve the lot of those who are poorer off."