An appreciation of Ailsa McKay, 1963 – 2014

Scottish feminist economist Ailsa McKay died last week after a battle with cancer and a lifetime inspiring a better kind of economics in Scotland and across the world.

Michael Danson
10 March 2014
Alisa McKay

Listening to Radio Scotland this Sunday morning, in all the discussions on International Women’s Day there was a voice missing. That voice would have been full of commitment, informed, caring and inclusive. However, the issues covered and the way the conversations developed strongly echoed Ailsa’s contribution to Scotland and the world. They went beyond simple economics to encompass the whole spectrum of life – family, community, environment, rights, and especially the position and status of women. These were Ailsa’s academic subjects but they were much more than that, for she lived to change and to improve society.

There have been many words written about her life and work since the sad news broke and, like her whole approach, these were about a warm, honest and positive person. Even in these last few months, when she struggled through treatment and pain, Ailsa continued to do the action research that will be one of her lasting legacies. She was working with her colleagues to give the evidence to ensure there could be no excuses of ignorance over the gender pay gap, the heavy incidence of austerity and welfare cuts on women. Then she was delivering that in presentations to policymakers and the public, though many of our fellow economists did not listen or did not want to hear. When I heard of her passing, I was listening to some of our mainstream colleagues reasserting that economics and politics are separate and we should never allow the latter to contaminate the purity of our science. Ailsa will be remembered as a feminist economist, criticising such attitudes and failure to recognise that we need to include gender explicitly into our models, analyses and discussions; that agenda remains to be fought over and again. A long-held belief was that we need a totally different approach to how we organise society, and Ailsa’s collegiate and supportive contributions on the Jimmy Reid Foundation were appreciated by us all.

Integral to the Common Weal project was her work on welfare, continuing her arguments on “The Future of Social Security Policy : Women, Work and a Citizens' Basic Income” (Routledge 2005) with her forthcoming paper on welfare. As Robin McAlpine said in the Reid Foundation tribute last week: “I think it is one of the most important contributions to the welfare debate in Scotland and it represents exactly the caring, compassionate – and passionate – thinking that characterised Ailsa”.

She had an impressive record of influencing policy and practice: invited to give evidence and serving as a consultant to the Scottish Parliament, to the Scottish and Irish Governments, the UK Treasury, and the United Nations Development Programme. She was a leading authority on gender budget analysis in the United Kingdom, helping to establish the Scottish Women’s Budget Group which was listened to by the Scottish Finance Cabinet Secretary and by others, forcing issues onto the agenda that would have been neglected without that foundation. Since 2012 Ailsa was an appointee by the Scottish Government to the Expert Working Group on Welfare and Constitutional Reform. International recognition came with the visiting chair in gender studies at the Complutense University of Madrid, she was an invited expert witness to give evidence during the budget process to the Parliament of Canada as well as Scotland.

Her work was appreciated by feminist economics globally, and in her recent co-edited book "Advances in Feminist Economics in Times of Economic Crisis," she called for a reshaping of the economy, economic theory and the economics profession, taking into account "advances within feminist economics that take as their starting point the socially responsible, sensible and accountable subject in creating an economy and economic theories that fully acknowledge care for each other as well as the planet."

And that again captures her life and work: welfare reform, her campaigning for properly funded, free, universal childcare, a citizen’s basic income for all – these were not just as ends in themselves but to help us build a different world. One of the first to sign the ‘Academics for Independence’, as a socialist and internationalist she believed that a better Scotland was only possible and attainable through independence. Her address to the Radical Independence conference in Glasgow last autumn was warmly received by all, with all the arguments and passion of delivery we’d come to expect.

The last time I saw Ailsa was when she gave a presentation in the Scottish Parliament on the Citizen’s Basic Income. As always - and as I benefited from on many occasions - she was generous in her time, in her praise for others, in her encouragement of colleagues and in her professional preparation. She argued with passion and conviction for the adoption of this radical and society-changing policy instrument; interest from policymakers and politicians promise that this could be one of many fitting tributes. That commitment to use economics to show how to improve the lives of our fellow citizens, to challenge power and inequality contrasts so strongly with those feted by the media and the powerful who serve to protect privilege and the neoliberal paradigm. Project Fear and its fellow travellers were quaking under her feisty and rigorous analysis; indeed, her research proposals on this were scored oh so highly but this was too much of a challenge to the establishment, the orthodox and the hegemony for funding to be forthcoming.

The recording of her conversation with Edi Stark (on ‘Stark Talks’) last autumn was a wonderful advert for this professor of economics. All the humour and warmth that we know was there but also an honest expression of the mutual support within her family especially between her and Jim. The love of a wife and mother was to the fore, reciprocated and returned all round her. The joy she expressed in those final months of times with her children Annie and Rory was obvious on social media. They will miss her most of all, but in the words of Alex Salmond, First Minister, she made an astonishing contribution to this nation and the cause of gender equality. The working class have lost a friend, colleague and counsel, but what a legacy.

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