Professor Sir Donald MacKay - an appreciation

Professor Sir Donald MacKay - an appreciation

by Bill Jamieson
article from Wednesday 7, December, 2016

A CHAMPION of home rule, a stout defender of liberal economics and an unswerving supporter of enterprise and the market economy: Professor Sir Donald Mackay who died last month aged 79, made a unique and distinctive contribution to Scottish public life, and often against the tide of prevailing political opinion.

He was a professor of Political Economy, the discipline originated by Adam Smith. He was a co-founder of economic and planning consultancy Pieda. He advised Conservative and Labour Scottish Secretaries, was chairman of Scottish Enterprise between 1993 and 1997, served on the advisory board of Reform Scotland, and was chairman of the giant Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust during one of the most testing periods for financial markets. 

His intellectual contribution to Scottish public debate was formidable. For more than 30 years he authored a stream of books and papers on Scotland’s political economy. He co-founded the Policy Institute and spoke at or chaired countless conferences on public policy and wrote countless articles for newspapers and periodicals.

But what he will be most remembered for was his unfailing ability to stimulate, enliven and inspire. His approach to political economy was shot through with an iconoclasm and a disruptive wit and humour. Some would say that his contributions bordered on the mischievous. Often, it seemed, mischief was at the core.  And for these qualities he leaves behind many devotees and admirers.

 A public policy luminary once recalled at a conference on housing policy Sir Donald silencing an interventionist arguing that there was more to the market than supply and demand. “What else”, Sir Donald retorted, “is there?”

On subjects ranging from planning policy in Scotland to the contribution of North Sea oil, he was often the agent provocateur. To the conventional wisdom of the day Sir Donald excelled in rolling a hand grenade. This unfailing ability to stimulate and engage not only endeared him to many but also endowed those whom he taught with a lifelong interest and enthusiasm for matters economic. 

To the end he pressed fundamental questions. And they are more pertinent today than ever. “What are the factors”, he once wrote, “that have held back our economy and our people? What, in a troubled and highly uncertain global context, when the future of Europe is being rewritten before our eyes, are the constraints and the opportunities for an empowered Scottish Government? What is it that we may now be able to undertake, that opens a future that is different to, and better than, what we have had until now?”

In constantly pressing these questions, and commanding our attention to finding answers, Sir Donald’s contribution to political economy will long endure.


An appreciation By Geoff Mawdsley, Director, Reform Scotland

Professor Sir Donald MacKay joined the Advisory Board of Reform Scotland in June 2008, shortly after Reform Scotland merged with the Policy Institute.  From the start, his enormous enthusiasm meant he was a constant source of new ideas for papers and was always willing to make constructive suggestions on upcoming reports or write trenchant blog pieces.  His deep knowledge and understanding of the Scottish liberal tradition and its relevance to the current policy debate ensured that all his contributions were telling.  In particular, he edited a publication for Reform Scotland in 2011 entitled ‘Scotland’s Economic Future’.  Many of the contributions are still relevant today, including Donald’s own chapter on what Home Rule means for Economic Policy, a subject on which he was both passionate and insightful.  It is testament both to his warm and engaging personality and the enduring friendships that he had cultivated over the years that he managed to cajole such a diverse range of distinguished academics and business people to write chapters for free.  However, it was not surprising given his unfailing courtesy and good humour.  It is this, as much as his keen intellect, that will be missed most by everyone at Reform Scotland.


An appreciation By Brian Monteith, Editor, ThinkScotland

It was always a disappointment to me that although I was at Heriot Watt in the 80s I was never in a class taught by Donald MacKay, who had a great reputation amongst my friends. I was up the road studying architecture at the Art College and although I sought to transfer to one of Donald’s degrees my own Professor unfortunately talked me out of it. Thankfully we soon crossed paths in a variety of other fields in the 90s and I found him more than worthy of his reputation. He was warm, witty and always welcoming, with an engaging smile and friendly eyes. When we discussed political economy he always could get to the heart of the matter very quickly, and while I often found I agreed with him he could still make you think about a subject in a manner you had maybe not considered. The passing of such a considerable personality will no doubt be keenly felt by his family and close friends, but it must be said the loss of his intellect and rigour will be significant to the body politic of Scotland. Even when you disagreed with his argument, Donald always came over as talking common sense and made you feel at a disadvantage for all that. He could therefore offer a very timely corrective on some of the dafter ideas that governments of the day proposed. If we had not had Donald MacKay contributing to Scottish life in the way he did those last forty years we would had to have invented him, and no more sincere thanks can I give than that.


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