Neil Davidson

Author, academic and activist

Born: October 9, 1957

Died: May 3, 2020

NEIL Davidson, who died last Sunday aged 62, was an author, academic and activist who helped redefine the Marxist theory of nationalism. He contributed dozens of books and hundreds of articles on themes ranging from Scottish history to the role of uneven development in capitalism. As an activist, he influenced the referendum of 2014 as co-founder of and chief theoretical influence on the Radical Independence Campaign.

Neil’s dual interests in socialism and rural Scotland were shaped by his Aberdonian origins. His parents, Margaret and Dougie, felt a strong ancestral link to the countryside. Neil would often recall the excitement his family felt at moving to a council house that gave them separate bedrooms, a garden and an indoor toilet. As he grew up, Aberdeen would be transformed from a sleepy market town economy to an oil boom town driven by advanced American technology. His later works of historical sociology, tracing the interplay of tradition and modernity, reflected these conditions, and there are clear parallels with the themes developed by one of Neil’s main influences, the great Grampian socialist Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Always a rebel at heart, Neil’s first encounter with radical politics came as a teenager courtesy of the punk counterculture, which introduced him to Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. He became a fully-fledged socialist in the late 1970s. The rest of his life would be devoted to the traditional Marxist concerns of historical analysis, class politics and internationalism. In all these fields he made contributions of global note.

However, for all his recent academic reputation, Neil was a career civil servant until he reached his late fifties.

From humble beginnings in the Grampian Health Board, he would eventually become a senior policy advisor to First Minister Alex Salmond. While at the Scottish Office, he would meet his beloved partner Cathy Watkins, with whom he shared flats in Wester Hailes and Leith before settling in West Lothian.

Neil was renowned for his time and patience with others, but he imposed punishing self-discipline on himself. Having become mesmerised by theoretical debates while at the Open University, he would famously rise at 5am to work on his reading and writing. It was these stoic habits that would eventually lead him to abandon a comfortable career in pursuit of his academic obsessions.

While maintaining a senior civil service job, and a full portfolio of trade union duties, Neil’s books were already influencing scholarly debate. His Discovering the Scottish Revolution won both the international Deutscher Memorial Prize and the Saltire Society’s Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun Award. The Origins of Scottish Nationhood, meanwhile, was a biting critique of the corruption of Scottish socialism by the historical myths of nationalism. Driven by a passionate belief in the working class as a modernising force, Neil was devoted to eradicating all Jacobite traces from Scotland’s literary culture.

He was also scrupulously honest, and quick to realise that Scottish Labour’s hold on the working class was collapsing. With his gift for humour, he observed that Labour’s Holyrood representatives amounted to “a cohort of shifty election agents, superannuated full-time trade union officials and clapped-out local councillors.” Without ever embracing nationalism, he would become a key academic supporter of Scottish independence long before it was fashionable. He would eventually tour the country to speak at campaign meetings and debates.

Neil’s academic career blossomed at the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow. Here his work ethic paid off with dozens of books and perhaps hundreds of articles. In a scholarly sense, his most notable contribution was the magisterial How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, which synthesised his interests in the Scottish Enlightenment and Marxism.

More recently, he helped reshape attitudes to the problem of racism in Scotland. Together with his University of Glasgow colleagues, Neil edited the taboo-busting volume No Problem Here, a devastating expose of civic nationalist mythology. The volume continues to play a central role in combatting Scotland’s post-Brexit political comfort zone.

Always an unapologetic critic of British imperialism, Neil played a guiding role in establishing the Stop the War Coalition in Scotland. Internationalism was the bedrock of his politics. Yet his intellectual honesty also made him perhaps Scotland’s most prominent critic of the European Union (EU), which he saw as a tool of market liberalism and corporate power. There were no brownie points to be won defending that position in a Scottish university. Yet it is testament to Neil’s character that, far from making enemies, he won newfound respect for holding his nerve with a consistent critique of the EU’s moral and economic failings.

Those who knew Neil recall him as a caring and cultured friend. He possessed none of the narrowness often associated with far-left politics. In his final months, Neil was developing a project to connect the literary modernism of Joyce with Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development. He was also an encyclopaedic authority on disco, punk, crime fiction and horror movies. He hated snobbery and pomposity just as much as anti-intellectualism. His own life, after all, was testament to the ideal of working-class self-education and cultural advancement.

Neil is survived by his partner, Cathy Watkins, his mother Margaret and his sister Shona.

Dr James Foley