Saturday, 14 July 2012

Bob McLean: An appreciation

Most of those who read this will already have learned, earlier today, of the tragically young death of Dr Bob McLean.

No one person will ever be able to pay full tribute to his life for, even to me, it had so many aspects that I could not hope to follow them all.

I didn't even meet him until after his time at Aberdeen University and, not being, despite best personal effort, at an NUS affiliated University, much of what he did within NUS, although later spoken of warmly by others, did not really impact on me at the time.

His work at the Edinburgh Museums and Galleries was even something that you had to work out for yourself as Bob was never one to boast of his own role in the numerous ground breaking events and exhibitions he had been key to.

And as for his stamp and coin interests..............each to their own as they say.

But all of these things, which others would have regarded in themselves as major life achievements, were, in the end, secondary to the great cause of his life, the fight for a Scottish Parliament.

Bob was one of the least sectarian politicians I had ever met. He was in the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly when association with the SDP/ Liberal Alliance, never mind the SNP, was regarded as bordering on treason by many in the Labour Party. He realised however that the defeat of the 79 proposals had come about precisely because an insufficiently broad coalition had been built in their support. He also realised that this very coalition needed to embrace a much wider enthusiasm in the Labour Party itself. It was to that he set his hand.

His masterwork, to my mind, was never his acclaimed PhD thesis on Michael Collins, or even his History of the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament but two pamphlets he wrote for Scottish Labour Action under the title "Labour and Scottish Nationalism" in which he tried to show both how Home Rule had been so central to the Party's mission since its inception and also how Labour and what ultimately emerged as the SNP had not always been the mortal enemies they became.

He was a natural recruit to the founding of Scottish Labour Action and Chair of the organisation throughout its existence, not least because his reputation as a constituency activist and election agent was always a shield against internal opposition based on accusations of disinterest in the wider Labour cause.

Above all however he was a man who believed that if you were not going forward you were inevitably doing worse than standing still. For many years we would speak almost daily and his opening line was always "What's happening", for he always believed something must be happening on which we ought to be trying to exert some influence. And no-one had more ability to exert that influence than Bob.

For he was always a great strategist. He saw, long before any of the rest of us, the necessity of a Constitutional Convention, and of Labour playing a full, but not arrogant, part in that Convention's deliberations.

And he also saw the compromises that might be necessary to bring about the ultimate goal. "Eyes on the Prize", quoting Dr King,  was his suggested title for one of the SLA Conference briefings. No-one had  a greater sense of that ultimate prize than Bob.

Friends will know that sadly his health had been failing in recent years and although his death at such a young age is of course a shock  it is perhaps not entirely a surprise. He was always a "big" man in a way that did not only embrace his intellect and that undoubtedly took a toll on his health, as did the death of his beloved mother to whom he devoted so much care and time. But it is also often the case that those who burn brightest do so for a shorter span. Never more so than here.

No-one who ever met Bob McLean would ever forget him. And when the history of his time in politics comes to be written, neither will Scotland


  1. A lovely tribute Ian, many thanks.

  2. Ian, huge thanks for this lovely tribute to Bob. We were schoolmates at Lasswade High and although we stopped being close when we were both at University (largely due to distance and the then lack of the internet!) we never stopped being friendly despite our political differences. A gentle giant of a man I remember him as a gifted speaker, a committed socialist and a true "patriot". Though I didn't see him often we used to meet on our way out to Bonnyrigg to see our Mums. I know the loss of his own Mum affected him greatly. Because of his great modesty he remains one of our lost leaders. Honoured to have been his friend.

  3. This is a lovely tribute to Bob and tells me things I didn't know about him. I have very fond memories of him mostly from student politics days but more recently from mostly chance encounters in Edinburgh. Bob was all that you say - he was a great intellect, a thoughtful man, a strategist and genuinely committed. As well as all this, I remember him for his big heart, his gentleness and connectedness. Somehow whenever you met Bob he seemed to have time and a genuine interest in the other person. He had that rather rare talent of being able to connect in a very direct and caring way person to person and to translate that into the political sphere. He was such a good man. No matter that I didn't see him often, I will miss him being around.

  4. Thanks to Ian for posting this tribute so quickly – and for therefore encouraging additional comments and reflections.
    When we hear the sad news of the death of a friend, thoughts and memories swirl around, and it is often hard to make the time to put down words for others to share, as a small tribute.
    I knew Bob a bit from NUS days and in the 1980s, but lost touch.We bumped into each other again in the public gallery in the Scottish Parliament in 1999, at a civic Scotland event marking the opening of the session, and hearing from many different organisations of their visions for the future. Bob was a welcome friendly face when I moved back to Edinburgh from Glasgow that summer with my 4 year old son, as we worked hard to settle into a new school, finding work, renewing and establishing friendships in Edinburgh. Bob was an immensely kind and perceptive person, enjoyable company, and, as Ian says, strategic in his political thinking.
    I worked in the Scottish Parliament from October 1999 to 2007, and valued the occasions when I met up with Bob for a meal, coffee, blether.
    At home my son has a poster from the Star Wars exhibition which came to the City Arts Centre in 2002. That's one of my son's memories, he was 7 at the time. In our experience Bob always had time to stop, talk, and think of how a child might view the world.
    Ian's last paragraph touches a chord for me too - when the history comes to be written of the last political period, Bob's place must be recorded. More recognition should have been given at the time, but at the very least let this sad and untimely death remind us to value our history, and I am reminded again that those who make contributions to change and social progress, will not always be the first to tell you about it.
    For the politicians and political activists who have grown up since 1999 in a Scotland with a Scottish Parliament, and who can imagine no other scenario, remember on whose shoulders you stand.
    I heard that Bob had died when I was on my way back from the Durham Miners Gala. Another reminder of the struggles of the past - and a reminder of the commitment of so many people to principles of solidarity and equality, and to representation for working people. Memories of the NUM, the Edinburgh Miners Gala, and Bob's close connections with that whole community too.
    Thanks for providing a space for me to write something down.
    The Scottish Parliament, a Star Wars poster, and memories of a timely and welcome helping hand - Bob won't be forgotten here.

  5. Thanks for posting this moving tribute, Ian and thanks for taking the time on Saturday night to let me know that Bob had died.

    Like many people, I first met Bob through student politics. I was also lucky enough to work with him in the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament and proud to join him as one of the founding members of Scottish Labour Action. His contribution to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament has been praised in many tributes from people across the political spectrum, which is a testimony to the non-sectarian and ecumenical approach that Bob had to the Home Rule movement throughout the 80s and 90s.

    I would echo all of these tributes and agree that Bob’s contribution to Scottish politics was both immense and at the same time, often, under appreciated. However, what has struck me most over the last couple of days is the number of people who have commented on how Bob’s death has touched them at a deeply personal level.

    I remember three particular occasions that sum up the man, as I remember him.

    The first was in 1984, when I was conducting research into the policing of the miners dispute. Bob invited me to stay with him and his beloved Mother in Bonnyrigg. He introduced me to many of the striking miners and their families in the community and on the picket line. It immediately became apparent to me that the politics he believed in were deeply rooted in his sense of belonging to family and community.

    The second occasion was when I was working in local government and Bob spent a day with me showing me around Edinburgh illustrating how councils could transform the way they used sport, culture and leisure services to engage with local communities.

    The final memory, which will live with me for ever, is lying in hospital after a serious road accident when Bob arrived to visit along with a group of other friends. They presented me with a book, which I already had already read and had at least three copies of in my bedside cabinet. Little did I know that Bob and the others already knew this. Everyone kept a straight face for over an hour until Bob burst out laughing and asked for the book back saying he knew I had moaned about getting multiple copies of the book.

    The final story doesn’t seem that significant…unless you know the name of the book concerned. It was “The Big Man” by William McIlvanney. That is one of many reasons why, along with many others, I will always remember Bob Mclean as “The Big Man”.

  6. I have fond memories of Bob from our work together at Edinburgh Council in the mid-1980s. From 'The Emperor's Warriors' to the Commonwealth Games and Festival, to the 'Thunderbirds Are Go' exhibition Bob was a volcano of enthusiasm and creativity. An unforgettable character, his memory will live on, and will always bring a smile to my lips and to all those who knew 'the big man'.

  7. Ian, many thanks for this touching tribute to a very loveable and fine man. Despite being on the opposing side of the argument on so many issues Bob always offered a warm smile and a handshake to me and we would then have some enjoyable banter, especially when travelling down memory lane about our student days and laughing about what we would get up to. I met him many times at the City Art Centre and at Parliamentary events and I am genuinely saddened to think I shan't bump into him again and relive those formative times of the 80s and 90s.