Born in 1942 in Edinburgh to a Scottish medical family, he was brought up in Yorkshire, England, where his father, John, accepted a job as a surgeon on return from service in India during the Second World War. Maxwell was educated at Pocklington School, Yorkshire, and at 17 won a scholarship to study Moral Sciences at St John's College, Cambridge. After graduating from Cambridge he made an unsuccessful attempt to move into journalism before going on to study for an MA in International Relations at the London School of Economics. On completion of the MA (for which he was awarded a distinction) he spent two years working on a PhD thesis on the irrationality of nuclear deterrence, also at the LSE.
In the late 1960s he abandoned academia in England and returned to Scotland, where he balanced his work at the University of Edinburgh with campaigning for the Scottish National Party (SNP). In 1973, at the age of 31, he was appointed Head of Press for the SNP. His friend Owen Dudley Edwards, an Irish-born Edinburgh historian, remembers his press briefings as unique: "Hostile journalists were staggered to hear him explain that their objections to this or that in the party were not really rewarding subjects but that a more useful question to raise would be this other."
During the 1970s Maxwell played a formative role in developing the SNP's industrial and defence policies and became known as one of the most radical and articulate figures in the party. In 1979 he directed the SNP's campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum on Scottish devolution. The campaign was ultimately unsuccessful and heralded the start of a period of decline in the SNP's fortunes.
In 1979 Maxwell, together with Margo MacDonald, Owen Dudley Edwards and a number of younger nationalist activists (including Alex Salmond and Kenny McAskill) established the 79 Group, a left-wing faction within the SNP. Maxwell stood as the group's candidate in the Scottish National Party leadership election, 1979, taking a distant second place. In 1981 Maxwell wrote and published a pamphlet, The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism, which became the 79 Group's defining statement. Later that year, the 79 Group was expelled by the party leadership, partly because of its alleged affiliations to Irish republicanism.
Throughout the 1980s Maxwell wrote extensively for left-wing publications including Radical Scotland. Following a second failed attempt to move into journalism, he became involved with the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO).
He worked for the SCVO until he retired from his post as Associate Director in 2009. Between 2010 and his death in April 2012 he chaired the Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum and worked on a book, Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues, which examines six cases for Scottish independence: the democratic, the economic, the social, the international, the cultural and the environmental. It was published in September 2012.
Upon his hearing of Maxwell's death, Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond said, "During Stephen’s long career he made an immense contribution to the national movement in Scotland, and was a key figure in the development of the modern SNP. But Stephen’s loss will be felt much more widely than just politics. Over a quarter of a century with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Stephen was a tireless campaigner for the third sector in Scotland, helping it through the difficult days of the 1980s and establishing it as a major force in post-devolution Scotland. Above all, I will remember Stephen’s courtesy to all, his extraordinary intellect combined with gentle persuasiveness, and his lifelong service to others."
He died on 24 April 2012, aged 69. He is survived by his wife Sally, his children Luke, Katie and Jamie and his brother Peter.
- Torrance, David (18 March 2009). "SNP fall-out that saw Salmond expelled but put party on new path". The Scotsman. Retrieved 4 April 2014.
- Peter Lynch, "SNP - The History of the Scottish National Party" (Welsh Academic Press, 2002), p. 170.
- Scott, David (1 November 2006). "Rip it up and start again". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 April 2014.
- Devine, Tom (21 October 2012). "Raising the state of debate". Glasgow Herald. Retrieved 4 April 2014.
- "First Minister pays tribute to Stephen Maxwell". Scotsman.com. Retrieved 2012-04-27.
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