Barrister and politician

Born: June 26, 1936;

Died, January 18, 2020.

ROBERT Maclennan, who has died after a long illness at the age of 83, served as a Scottish Member of Parliament for three different parties and was, albeit briefly, the last leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which had sought to “break the mould” of British politics during the Thatcher era.

When David Owen resigned as SDP leader following the 1987 general election, Maclennan tried to convince him to change his mind and, when that failed, was initially reluctant to stand himself. Then Shirley Williams, another of the original “Gang of Four” who had split from Labour in 1981, persuaded the rather diffident Maclennan to do the honourable thing.

His tenure was brief; he served as leader for just a year (although it was long enough to earn a Latex puppet on the popular ITV show, Spitting Image), and Maclennan was almost entirely preoccupied with the creation of another new party, initially known as the Social and Liberal Democrats (or “Democrats” for short), of which he became joint interim leader. Eventually this morphed into the Liberal Democrats, with Paddy Ashdown at the helm.

Robert Adam Ross Maclennan, later known as Bob, was born in Glasgow on June 26, 1936, one of four children to Sir Hector, the eminent gynaecologist and chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board, and his wife Isabel Adam, also a doctor and public health activist. Educated at Glasgow Academy and later Balliol College, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge, Maclennan also studied in the United States, at New York’s Columbia University.

A lawyer, Maclennan was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in 1962, thereafter specialising in international law, as he did back in New York with the Wall Street firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, between 1963-1964. Also interested in Labour politics (as a child he had been close to the Greenock MP Hector McNeil, a friend of his father’s), he made becoming an MP appear easy. Shortly after expressing an interest in standing for Parliament, he was selected to fight Caithness and Sutherland at the 1966 general election and won, ousting Liberal George Mackie by just 64 votes.

Within a year, Maclennan had been appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to fellow Scots MP George Thomson, who was Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs and, from 1969, Minister without Portfolio. In 1968, he married Helen Noyes of Cambridge, Mass., daughter of the US Judge Ammi Cutter and widow of Paul H. Noyes, a friend of Maclennan’s. Noyes brought a daughter from her previous marriage and went on to have another daughter and son with Bob.

“Gentle Jenkinsite laird-reformer and Highland idealist,” observed one profile of Maclennan, “pro-Market and pro-American; a devolutionist with strong, centuries-old local roots.” The Jenkins in question was Roy, leader of Labour’s pro-Common Market wing. Bob was an ardent Europhile when his party was not, serving on the Council of Europe and Western European Union in the early 1970s.

In 1971 he delivered a letter from 89 pro-Market Labour MPs to the party’s chief whip and later resigned from the front bench over Harold Wilson’s commitment to a referendum on continuing membership, which was held in 1975.

Back in office after 1974, Maclennan was appointed Parliamentary under-secretary at the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, where he served under Shirley Williams. In Brussels on ministerial business, he occasionally saw Roy Jenkins, now President of the European Commission; together they developed a tacit agreement that it was a matter of when they both left the increasingly fractious Labour Party, not if.

In 1981 Maclennan, back on the opposition front bench as foreign affairs spokesman, declared his support for the Council for Social Democracy and became one of the first dozen Labour MPs to defect to the new SDP. Lacking a formal constitution, it fell to him and William Goodhart to draw one up. Siding with the new party’s radicals, Maclennan incorporated social democratic principles, including a one-member-one-vote party electoral system.

Although the SDP polled well at the 1983 election, it failed to win a significant number of seats, with most defectors losing their constituencies. Maclennan, in Caithness and Sutherland, was a rare exception, and thereafter he played an active role in Parliament and the media.

Having backed Roy Jenkins as SDP leader in 1982, he worked well with David Owen in the 1983-87 Parliament, although he was acutely aware of his shortcomings (“he ignores everyone who doesn’t play the role of Little Sir Echo”).

Reflecting his rural constituency, Maclennan was the SDP’s spokesman on agriculture, fisheries and food for six years from 1981. At the 1987 election, Maclennan and Charles Kennedy, with whom he was close, significantly increased their majorities, but the mould of British politics remained unbroken and the SDP and Liberals finally embarked upon a merger. Although Maclennan was keen, in his own words, to keep Owen “on board”, it was not to be.

After a troubled fusion process – Maclennan was partly responsible for a shambolic joint policy declaration with Liberal leader David Steel – he became Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs and the arts, switching to constitutional affairs and culture in 1994, when he also beat two former Liberals to became president of the new party, a post he held until 1998.

Appointed to the Privy Council in 1997, Maclennan retired from the House of Commons at the 2001 election and was appointed to the House of Lords as Baron Maclennan of Rogart. In the Upper House, he served on its EU sub-committee and was Liberal Democrat spokesman on the Cabinet Office and Scotland from 2005.

Often a nervous and hesitant public speaker, Maclennan was a transparently honest politician with few enemies, highly intelligent, deeply humane (as a barrister, he had acted against police entrapment of gay men in 1984) and a diligent constituency MP.

He is survived by Helen and their three children. His brother David, a theatre producer, and sister Elizabeth, an actress, pre-deceased him in 2014 and 2015 respectively.