Professor Sir Donald MacKay, a major figure in Scottish academic and political life, died on November 5th, at the age of 79. Born in February 1937, the son of William and Rhona MacKay he was educated at Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire, before going on to study political economy at the University of Aberdeen.
After graduating in 1959, he worked in the private sector for English Electric but decided after three years, on a primarily academic career by returning to Aberdeen as a lecturer. After a number of years at Glasgow University (1965 to 1971) he returned to Aberdeen as Professor of Political Economy. In 1976 he was appointed to the chair of Economics at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and remained linked to Heriot-Watt (first as professorial Fellow and then from 1990 an honorary professor). He is fondly remembered by many of his students (other obituaries have quoted the broadcaster Andrew Neil as saying ‘I remember him as a lucid and expert teacher who had a great ability to explain the toughest concepts and who fired up my enthusiasm for economics. He was always courteous, humorous and formidably informed. He was a brilliant economist who linked the theoretical with the practical.’) But ‘respect’ rather than ‘affection’ might be a better description of colleagues' sentiments. His support for prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s monetarism was not widely shared and the ‘practical’ with which he linked the ‘theoretical’ devoured a great deal of his time and attention. He was also a persistent critic of the planning process in Scotland which he saw as overly bureaucratic and discouraging to enterprise and of the tendency to see the solution to Scotland’s economic problems as involving more public spending. These views were not universally popular.
However, his contribution to business and public policy debate was enormous. He will be remembered especially for his support for Scottish independence, based strictly on economic grounds. This had first emerged in a 1977 paper, anticipating actual devolution by some 22 years. In the run-up to the referendum he was regularly engaged in close-quarter debate with the UK Treasury over estimates of North Sea oil reserves, which he insisted were seriously underestimated, and consequently over the strength of Scotland's fiscal position in the event of independence.
He served as economic adviser to Secretaries of State for Scotland for more than 25 years. Ian Lang appointed him to chair Scottish Enterprise, the successor to Labour's Scottish Development Agency and through this he helped build a network of local enterprise companies. He was strongly convinced that the ‘business birth rate’ was too low in Scotland and worked hard to reverse this. He was a co-founder of economic and planning consultancy Pieda and chairman of Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust. He co-founded the Policy Institute, a think tank set up in 1999 to coincide with the first election to the Scottish parliament. When the Institute later became Reform Scotland, Sir Donald served on the advisory board. He was aslo a governor of the National Institute of Economic Research.
Amongst numerous honours he was knighted in 1996 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1988.
Donald MacKay married Diana Raffan in 1961. She survives him with their two daughters. A son, Gregor, a political and media advisor, died of cancer in 2005 aged 36.