I can’t remember what the topic was but recall being impressed both by Neil’s knowledge and also by the quiet confidence of his delivery.
Both of these qualities have been much in evidence over the three decades since then. No one who has read any of Neil’s many books and articles can fail to have been impressed by the sheer breadth of reading which they demonstrate.
Moreover, in contrast to the narrow subject specialism of many academics, Neil’s mind ranged over a very wide range of topics including the nature of bourgeois revolutions, the origins of nationalism (especially in Scotland), Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, and the impact of neoliberalism on working-class consciousness and organisation.
And he confidently defended his position on these different topics in debates with leading members of the SWP at the Party’s annual Marxism events. He was, in Robert Burns’ phrase, “a man of independent mind”.
Neil was never simply a left academic. For much of his working life, he worked in the Scottish civil service, only latterly taking up teaching posts at Strathclyde University and then Glasgow University.
Rather, he was a revolutionary socialist, for many years an active and committed member of the SWP.
He saw Marxist theory not as an abstract intellectual exercise but rather as a guide to overthrowing a capitalist system which continually threatened to destroy humanity and the planet.
He saw the working-class as key to the transformation of society and strengthening working-class organisation and confidence as the central task for socialists. To that end, he played an active role in building strong union organisation wherever he worked, most recently as a member of the UCU union.
Beyond the workplace, Neil was an active participant in Scottish politics. In the early 2000s, he was a widely respected member of the Scottish Socialist Party, which the SWP in Scotland joined in 2001, defending and developing a Marxist understanding of the national question in Scotland.
He threw himself into building the great G8 protests at Gleneagles in 2005. And more recently, he was an enthusiastic participant in the 2014 Referendum campaign in Scotland.
Neil left the SWP in 2013 following a number of disagreements.
But he remained active in the Scottish independence movement and in the development of Marxist theory, not least through his involvement with the journal Historical Materialism.
His early death is a loss for all of us who valued his theoretical and political interventions, even when, as occasionally happened, we strongly disagreed with them.
Neil leaves behind, however, a rich body of work which will continue to engage those of us seeking to build revolutionary organisation and develop revolutionary theory for many years to come.
We send our condolences to his family, in particular to his partner Cathy Watkins.
Anwar Ditta, a heroic anti-racist campaigner, died last week.