When Robert (Bob) Maclennan was first elected President of the Liberal Democrats in the summer of 1994, few realised just how much this seemingly self-effacing politician would come to represent so completely the ethos and values of the Liberal Democrats. Still fewer would realise quite how hard he fought for those values. It is characteristic of Robert Maclennan that his career has often been more successful than visible, and that his active and respected participation in the world of the arts and media, which would make him more renaissance man than career politician, is not widely known within the party.
Robert Adam Ross Maclennan was born on 26 June 1936 in Glasgow, to Sir Hector Maclennan and his wife Isabel, both doctors. He was educated at Glasgow Academy, proceeding to Balliol College, Oxford and continuing his academic career at Trinity College, Cambridge and Columbia University, New York. He was called to the bar in 1962 and developed an interest in international law, which he was able to pursue in London and New York. After only four years, he took the opportunity to take up full-time politics, able in the future to draw upon his legal experience to become a considerable authority on constitutional law and constitutional change.
At the 1966 general election, Maclennan was elected as Labour MP for the seat of Caithness and Sutherland, defeating the Liberal incumbent George Mackie, by a majority of just sixty-four votes. He continued to represent the seat with an increasing majority for 31 years.
His career in Parliament began quickly and in 1967 he was made Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs. In 1970-74, during Labour’s period in opposition, he was a spokesman on defence and Scottish affairs, giving him his first platform from which to speak about the future role of his native country. Labour returned to power for the Wilson and Callaghan Governments of 1974-79 and Maclennan became a minister in the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, introducing, among other legislation, the Consumer Credit Act.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, Maclennan, like many other long-standing members of the Labour Party, became concerned over Labour’s position and future direction. He was one of the first Labour MPs to join the new Council for Social Democracy in 1981. Unlike many of his former colleagues, he held on to his seat at the 1983 election (with a doubled majority) and the 1987 election. He was given many responsibilities in the SDP, from 1983 being spokesman on both agriculture (which he had covered since 1981) and home and legal affairs.
When merger was proposed after the 1987 election, Maclennan was initially sceptical, but changed his mind after the SDP membership voted to open negotiations with the Liberals. Following David Owen’s August resignation of the SDP leadership, in protest at his party’s decision, Maclennan was elected unopposed as the third, and last, leader of the party. He led the SDP team which negotiated the constitution for the new party. It was perhaps at this point that many of his future colleagues realised how steely and principled he was. He tried harder than most to persuade Owen to reconsider and stay with the party he had founded.
In 1988, Maclennan decided not to contest the leadership of the newly merged party, which was won that summer by Paddy Ashdown. In 1994, he succeeded his friend and former SDP colleague Charles Kennedy as President of the Liberal Democrats. This was a role which gained him wider recognition in the party, and there was no challenger when he stood for a second term in 1996.
Within the Liberal Democrats, Maclennan became an increasingly well-respected figure, holding the home affairs and arts spokesmanships from 1988-94. He also retained his place on the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, on which he served from 1970. It is perhaps, however, as constitutional affairs spokesman (from 1994) that he made the greatest impact. He was influential in shaping the party’s position on home rule for Scotland and Wales. More significantly still, he saw the opportunities latent in the growing rapprochement between Blair’s New Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the months running up to the 1997 general election. The eponymous Cook-Maclennan talks led in due course to the participation of a number of key Liberal Democrats, including Maclennan, in a special cabinet committee.
That agreement was controversial within the Liberal Democrats but Maclennan’s presence was seen by many, including many radical Liberals, as a guarantee of integrity. Some part in the extensive package of constitutional reform introduced by the Blair government, including devolution for Scotland and Wales, the reform of the House of Lords, and moves toward freedom of information, must have been influenced by his thoughtful understanding of constitutional and legal affairs.
After standing down from the House of Commons in 2001, Maclennan was elevated to the peerage as Lord Maclennan of Rogart. He became the Liberal Democrats’ spokesman on Europe in the Lords and, in 2002-03, served as a member of the Convention on the Future of Europe, which sought to replace existing EU treaties with one, simpler treaty, and tackle the reforms necessary as a result of EU enlargement. Maclennan was peculiarly well-suited to this exercise, given that it required the application of both legal expertise and an interest in European politics. Maclennan also spoke regularly in the Lords, both on European affairs and on a wider range of legal matters.
In a life which has encompassed many significant political events, Maclennan has maintained an active interest in the arts and media. These are areas of life which, as well as forming part of his political portfolio, reflect his own wide-ranging interests and connections. He has been married to Helen since 1968, and they have two children and a step-son.
Helen Bailey was Deputy Chair of the Liberal Democrats Federal Executive at the time of writing this piece. She works as a management consultant with public sector organisations.