The Radical Atmosphere of the Red Clyde
Glasgow 1919: The Rise of Red Clydeside
by Kenny MacAskill
Biteback Publishing; 310 pages
January 22, 2019
When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside
by Maggie Craig
Birlinn; 313 pages
ISBN: 978 1 78027 506 2
John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside
by Henry Bell
Pluto Press; 256 pages
December 15, 2018
ISBN: 978 0 7453 3838 5
(All books, by British publishers, available in the US at Amazon.)
In the general election of 14 December 1918, the Labour Party disappointingly won only one of the 15 constituencies in Glasgow; in the next election, on 15 November 1922, it won ten. Nine of these seats, or their successors, remained Labour for the next ninety years, until in 2015 it lost every single one of them to the SNP, and not narrowly: the SNP majorities in all seven Glasgow constituencies were around ten thousand. Labour’s hegemony in the city, which had seemed eternal, had suddenly evaporated. It was easy enough to find reasons for it, but the abruptness and scale of the party’s fall were still shocking.
In 1922 thousands had gathered to watch the new MPs take the night mail to London. James Maxton, the most charismatic of the group, assured the crowd that ‘they would see the atmosphere of the Clyde getting the better of the House of Commons.’ Maxton and his colleagues were members of the Independent Labour Party (until 1918 you couldn’t join the Labour Party directly, only an affiliated organisation like the ILP, the Fabian Society or a trade union), which was by far the most powerful body in the Labour Party in Scotland. The atmosphere of the Clyde in the early 20th century was in large part its creation. In When the Clyde Ran Red, Maggie Craig quotes an article published in the Times just after the 1922 election which suspiciously lists some of the things organised by the ILP: ‘Socialist study circles, socialist economics classes, socialist music festivals, socialist athletics competitions, socialist choirs, socialist dramatic societies, socialist plays – these are only a few of the devious ways in which they attempted to reach the unconverted.’ There were also socialist Sunday schools, cycling and hiking clubs, several newspapers and, unsurprisingly, endless meetings. The city in 1915 was described by the Daily Herald as ‘a place of many meetings; a place rumbling with revolt ... I seemed to see a meeting at every street corner, and late in the evening the theatres poured forth huge masses of people who had been, not at entertainments, but at serious deliberations.’ There was a belief that the people, once properly informed, would seize the opportunity to control their own fate: ‘We are out for life and all that life can give us,’ the revolutionary John Maclean said at his trial for sedition in 1918.
My grandparents met at a Glasgow ILP branch sometime around the end of the First World War, and I’ve always had a rather romantic view of the party and of that period, helped along by my mother’s stories of their family friend John S. Clarke, an ILP MP not very happily in the late 1920s, a pretty terrible political poet, but also a lion-tamer (he’d joined the circus at 17) who cured Lenin’s dog when he was in Russia as a delegate at the Second Congress of the Third International in 1920. My mother remembers his signed photograph of Lenin, addressed to ‘comrade Clarke’. I was struck, too, by another photograph, which shows a large crowd gathered in George Square in January 1919. A huge red flag is being waved above a sea of men in bunnets, a tramcar stands unmoving in the background, while a single policeman turns to look at the camera. Soon after it was taken, there was a pitched battle when the police charged demonstrators, leading the secretary of state for Scotland to warn of ‘a Bolshevist rising’, send in tanks and (non-Glaswegian) soldiers, and set up machine-gun nests in the square.
There hadn’t been much sign at the turn of the century that Glasgow would become a centre of socialist activism. Keir Hardie founded the ILP in 1893, five years after the foundation of the Scottish Labour Party, itself formed after Hardie, a local miners’ leader, lost badly as an independent labour candidate in the Mid-Lanark by-election of 1888 (the two organisations soon merged). In the 19th century the Liberals had been totally dominant in Scotland, but men like Hardie, who had tried to get the Liberal nomination in Mid-Lanark, had come to doubt the party’s willingness to allow working men into positions of power. The views of these early socialists remained close to radical Liberalism: land reform, evangelical Protestantism and temperance were important to them. They saw socialism as a moral crusade, not as class war.
The Labour movement grew slowly in Scotland. Union membership was smaller than it was in England (under 3 per cent of the population as late as 1910) and the Liberal Party remained powerful. In 1896 the ILP had 17 branches in Glasgow; that number didn’t increase until 1910. Although the ILP was easily the biggest socialist organisation in Scotland, two smaller groups which emerged not from the Liberal tradition but the Marxist one also became important: the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), set up in 1881, which in 1911 became the British Socialist Party (BSP), and the syndicalist Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which split from the SDF in 1903. Before the First World War, however, there was ‘no clear demarcation between “revolutionary” and “reformist”’, as Joan Smith points out in The ILP on Clydeside, 1893-1932, and, in Glasgow at least, the ILP and BSP ‘shared similar policies and held joint demonstrations’ and were involved in both political and industrial activism (nationally, the SDF/BSP was much less radical, opposed to industrial unrest and in favour of rearmament, than Maclean’s Scottish section). The left remained a small minority: George Barnes, who won Glasgow Blackfriars and Hutchesontown in the 1906 election, was still the only Labour MP in the city during the First World War. ‘The world is gettin’ socialism now like the measles,’ John Buchan’s old Borders radical Andrew Amos says in Mr Standfast (1919), but most people remained unaffected by the epidemic.
By 1913, according to T.C. Smout in A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950, Glasgow made ‘one fifth of the steel, one third of the shipping tonnage, one half of the marine engine horsepower, one third of the railway locomotives and rolling stock, and most of the sewing machines in the United Kingdom’. It was the eighth largest city in Europe and called itself the Second City of the Empire (other cities called themselves that too). Its workforce was around 70 per cent skilled, mostly employed in the shipyards on the Clyde and in engineering workshops. Uneven demand since the turn of the century meant that many had experienced periods of unemployment, and employers had exploited their advantage by bringing in new machines and making productivity demands that antagonised a conservative workforce used to feeling that it had some special status and some control over its working conditions.
The strike that is often seen, as it is by Kenny MacAskill (the new SNP MP for East Lothian) in Glasgow 1919, as marking ‘the start of “Red Clydeside”’ took place not in the shipyards or engineering workshops or in the mining towns around Glasgow, but in the Singer sewing-machine factory in Clydebank and involved many female workers. The factory employed 11,000 people making a million machines a year across a huge site that had its own railway station, also called Singer (it’s still there; the factory shut in 1980). The strike began after the introduction of working practices influenced by Taylorism, or scientific management, and intended, as in the engineering works, to increase productivity and reduce the need for skilled workers. The Singer factory had 41 departments: employees in one sharpened the needles; in another, they tapped them to make sure they hadn’t been bent during the machining process; in a third they polished the wooden cabinets that housed the machines. The strike began after three of the 15 young women in this department were moved elsewhere and the remaining 12 told to do the same amount of work for a weekly wage of 12 shillings: a pay cut of two shillings. They walked out, followed by two thousand other women workers, and soon afterwards by the men. A few days later, led by the strike committee, they marched back into the factory en masse to collect their pay packets and then left again. It’s ‘curiously hard’ to work out who the strike leaders were, Craig writes: their names aren’t mentioned in the mainstream press or the socialist papers (she thinks it’s because some of them were women), though it’s known that Arthur MacManus of the SLP, who worked pointing the needles, was involved. The strike collapsed after three weeks when Singer wrote to its employees asking them to sign and return a postcard with a printed message promising they’d go back to work when ‘you assure me that at least 6000 persons have signed this agreement’ (Singer claimed to have got 6015 cards back). Afterwards, around four hundred people – all the strike leaders and anyone thought to be a political activist – were sacked.
When war began, opinion on the left was divided. Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, who resigned as Labour leader over it, and many of the prominent members of the ILP and the other socialist organisations active in Glasgow opposed it, but most workers, trade unions, Labour MPs and 16 of the 18 ILP councillors in the city backed it (as did Barnes, Glasgow’s only Labour MP, who left the ILP over its opposition). More men per capita joined the army in Scotland than in any other part of Britain; a battalion was formed in less than a day just from employees on the Glasgow trams. Maxton and Maclean, both of whom worked as teachers and had met a decade earlier because they got the same train to Glasgow University (Maclean introduced Maxton to Marx), made themselves unpopular with the school board by speaking at anti-war meetings. The Sunday night meetings on Bath Street in the city centre that Maclean began in late 1914 are Henry Bell’s nomination, in his biography of Maclean, for ‘the birthplace of Red Clydeside’.
The city itself became a huge armaments factory: the Clyde Munitions Area. Most of the industrial unrest during the war took place in the engineering works: Beardmore’s (ships, steel armour plate, naval guns; its enormous site at Parkhead Forge is now a shopping centre), Weir’s (pumps, compressors), Albion Motors, and Barr and Stroud (rangefinders). There was a steep increase in the cost of living after war began, and the first trouble came early in 1915 when the engineers demanded a wage rise of tuppence an hour. A strike was called when it became known that Weir’s had been recruiting workers in the United States, and paying their passage to Glasgow, as well as higher wages and a bonus at the end of their contract. The strike committee was the first incarnation of what would become the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC), which led most of the industrial action during the war, sidestepping the national trade union leadership. ‘I’m a shop steward,’ Andrew Amos says in Mr Standfast. ‘We represent the rank and file against office-bearers that have lost the confidence o’ the working man. But I’m no socialist.’ Here, Buchan moved away from reality. The CWC was led by the senior shop stewards at the major engineering firms: at Weir’s, Arthur MacManus of the SLP, the needle-pointer from Singer; at the Albion Works, William Gallacher of the BSP; at Beardmore’s, David Kirkwood, who had recently joined the ILP and was a reluctant supporter of the war (‘I was too proud of the battles of the past to stand aside and see Scotland conquered’); and at Barr and Stroud, John Muir, also of the SLP.
The strike ended after a couple of weeks, with the engineers accepting a rise of a penny. ‘This is an engineer’s war,’ Lloyd George, then munitions minister, warned. ‘And it will be won or lost owing to the efforts or shortcomings of engineers.’ Keen to stop any further interruptions to production, he made William Weir (an adherent of Taylorism and the author of a pamphlet called Responsibility and Duty, which stressed that ‘every hour lost by a workman could have been worked, has been worked by a German workman’) munitions controller in Scotland, and in July 1915 saw a Munitions Act through Parliament that severely restricted workers’ rights. Three workers at Fairfield’s shipyard were sent to prison by the new munitions tribunal after failing to pay fines for refusing to work (they’d been striking over the dismissal of two colleagues). With more general strike action threatening, the fines were mysteriously paid (MacAskill says Lloyd George told the unions to pay). As well as making strikes illegal, the Munitions Act forbade workers to leave a job without permission, forced them to accept any new job offered by an employer, even if it paid less, and in an attempt to increase production, allowed for the employment of unskilled workers, many of them women: this was known as dilution. Maclean and Gallacher saw it as an opportunity to take on the employers and radicalise the workforce; Kirkwood, who could see the need for higher production, worried about the threat to union rights; the engineers worried about loss of status, pay and, possibly, the protected nature of their work.
Rents were rising steeply, with landlords taking advantage of the scarcity of housing caused by the influx of at least 20,000 munitions workers to a city already acutely overcrowded (a council report of 1912 said 65,000 new homes were needed, but only 1400 had been built when war began). Even before the war, wages on Clydeside had been lower, living costs higher and overcrowding much worse than in similar English cities. In 1911 nearly half of the population of Glasgow lived in two-room tenement flats, known as a room and kitchen; more than an eighth lived in one room (a single end); toilets were shared between several flats. This had obvious effects on health: in 1911 234 babies out of every 1000 born in the Broomielaw died in infancy; tuberculosis was common. Glaswegians were often suspicious of landlords and of the factors who acted for them: many of them had come to the city from Ireland or after being cleared from the Highlands. Maclean’s father, for example, had been ‘swept out’ from the Isle of Mull, and his mother from Corpach, near Fort William. As a young child she’d walked with her own mother all the way to Glasgow, around a hundred miles of rough mountainous country. Tom Johnston, founder and editor of Forward, which became the mouthpiece of the Glasgow ILP, wrote a popular series of polemical but impressively researched articles on the iniquities of Scottish landowning families. When it was published in book form in 1909 as Our Scots Noble Families it sold more than 100,000 copies. He hoped, he wrote in the introduction, to ‘shatter the Romance that keeps the nation dumb and spellbound while privilege picks its pockets’.
In the spring of 1915 a rent strike was organised in Govan by Mary Barbour of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, which had been formed by female ILP members the year before. In the summer it began to spread, after the threatened eviction of a Mrs McHugh in Shettleston, whose husband had been wounded on active service and who had two sons serving in France (and five other children at home). She owed the landlord less than a pound. The factor was prevented from entering her house by a crowd including the local ILP councillor, John Wheatley (one of the ILP MPs elected in 1922, and responsible in 1924 for the Housing Act, which enabled central government to subsidise the building of council housing). An effigy of the factor was burned in the street, and he was chased all the way back home. The plight of soldiers’ wives and families was made much of by the leaders of the rent strike, most of whom were against the war. One photograph taken during the strike shows children carrying placards with variations of the lines: ‘My father is fighting in France. We are fighting the Huns at home.’ They were adept at publicity: notices appeared in thousands of windows reading ‘rent strikes against increases. we are not removing.’ Craig writes that they cost a penny and had written on them: ‘Please tack this to top of lower sash of window.’ Soon at least 25,000 households were taking part. Threatened evictions were thwarted by Mrs Barbour’s Army: a woman would sit on the stairs outside a flat and ring a bell if an eviction was attempted. ‘The women came from all parts of the building,’ according to the suffragette Helen Crawfurd, one of the strike leaders. ‘Some with flour, if baking, wet clothes, if washing, and other missiles. Usually the bailiff made off for his life, chased by a mob of angry women.’
The munitions factories began to get involved; the rent rises were seen, like the Munitions Act, as evidence of the way the war was being used to break a compact with the working class. Finding evictions too difficult to carry out, the landlords had started making claims against tenants in the small debt court instead (this allowed arrears to be deducted directly from tenants’ pay). When a factor in Partick, Mr Nicolson, brought actions against 18 households, 15 containing munitions workers, in November 1915, the strikers, accompanied by men from the shipyards and engineering works, marched to the Sheriff Court: ‘on we went, leaving the factories empty and deserted, shouting and singing,’ Gallacher wrote. Mary Barbour and the marchers from Govan went past Lorne Street School, where Maclean was working out his notice: he’d been sacked after being found guilty a week or so earlier under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) of making statements likely to prejudice recruiting during his weekly meetings on Bath Street. Maclean came out of the school and joined the march. The judge knew that the government was planning, belatedly, to bring in rent controls and, hearing the crowd outside, must have worried about the consequences of finding in favour of the landlord. He managed to persuade the factor to drop the cases (Lloyd George had already tried to intervene), and a week later the government introduced a Rent Restrictions Bill, which froze rents at prewar levels. (Again, as Bell notes, no record of Barbour’s speeches survives, though she continued to be a significant figure: a councillor, Glasgow’s first female magistrate and responsible for opening the city’s first family planning clinic in 1926.)
This was a clear victory, and one that was popular even with those unsympathetic to the anti-war activism of the now ex-teacher Maclean or the sectional demands of the engineers, but as Maclean realised, the government had to ‘do something to balance the victory’ and so they needed to ‘prepare for the enemy’s counter-stroke’. Lloyd George set off for Glasgow to make the case for dilution and the introduction of conscription, though a press release made clear he wouldn’t meet ‘unofficial’ representatives like the leaders of the CWC. He did, despite this, ask to meet Kirkwood at Beardmore’s, presumably because he was thought, not incorrectly, to be the least radical of the CWC leaders. But Kirkwood told Lloyd George his Act had ‘a taint of slavery’ and that they would agree to dilution only if the workers were put in control of the means of production. As MacAskill says, Lloyd George seems to have felt that he might do better with a large audience of workers on whom he could work his charm, and so a rally was planned for Christmas Day (not then a holiday in Scotland). He wasn’t confident enough to let just anyone attend, however, and compliant officials from the Amalgamated Society of Engineers were given tickets to hand out, together with ‘expenses’ of seven shillings and sixpence for each attendee (remember the weekly wage of the polishers at Singer: 12 shillings). Gallacher discovered what was going on and made it impossible for the audience to be vetted. When Lloyd George got up to talk, according to Forward, he ‘was received with loud and continued booing and hissing ... Two verses of “The Red Flag” were sung before the minister could utter a word.’ The meeting ‘broke up in disorder’ and reporting of it was restricted, with newspapers told to reproduce a press release stating that Lloyd George had been given a sympathetic hearing.
Forward was shut down for six weeks, under DORA, after publishing its uncensored account of the meeting, though Johnston had been careful, as he thought, not to print anything that contravened it (William Beveridge, assistant secretary at the Ministry of Munitions, found it correspondingly difficult to make a case against him). Johnston wrote in his memoirs that Lloyd George ordered the police to remove copies from every newsagent in Scotland, and ‘had the police search the homes of known purchasers’. Eventually he was summoned to London to meet Lloyd George. He ‘walked out free to start again, and “it had all been a mistake, and these happen in the best regulated families, Ha! Ha! And we must see more of each other and be better friends in future.”’
In Forward’s absence, the CWC began to publish a paper (funded by the expenses paid to those who attended the Christmas Day meeting), but the Worker was soon shut down in turn, after carrying an article called ‘Should the Workers Arm?’ (the piece said they shouldn’t). Muir, its editor, and Gallacher were arrested on 7 February 1916, the day after Maclean was arrested for breaching DORA. While they were under arrest, Kirkwood signed an agreement with the government over the implementation of dilution at Beardmore’s. The other shop stewards weren’t happy about this unilateral action, and Kirkwood, it turned out, had unwittingly agreed that shop stewards should be confined to their own departments. When Beardmore’s wouldn’t budge on this, he resigned as senior steward and the workers at the forge came out on strike on 17 March.
A week later, the government, keen to get rid of what a government paper described as the ‘whole gang’, got Kirkwood out of the way too: as MacAskill writes, ‘the state chose simply to deport leading shop stewards from Glasgow under DORA.’ Kirkwood was woken at 3 a.m. and told by armed detectives that he had been court martialled the day before and sentenced to deportation from the Clyde Munitions Area. He was asked where he wanted to go. He said Edinburgh and was taken to the station, where he was given a single ticket and a ten-shilling note and told to report to the police when he got there. Kirkwood wrote later that he worried ‘they might shoot me, as they had shot my friend James Connolly in Dublin a few days previously’ (Connolly was born in Scotland, a founder of the SLP and wrote for Forward).
That dealt with the CWC, which Lloyd George described in the House of Commons as ‘purely an organisation for sedition’, and its threat to munitions production. But the arrests continued, with Maxton, James MacDougall, a friend of Maclean’s who was also in the BSP, and Jack Smith, another shop steward, held after speaking at a demonstration in favour of the deported men. ‘Not a rivet should be struck on the Clyde until the deported engineers are returned to their families,’ Maxton had said. ‘In case there are any plainclothes detectives in the audience I shall repeat that statement for their benefit.’ The deported men didn’t attract much general sympathy, however, and the strike soon petered out. Maxton’s dog Karl (named after Liebknecht) was stoned. The first of those arrested to be tried was Maclean, whose case was heard in Edinburgh a few days after a Zeppelin raid there killed 11 people and hardened opinion against anti-war activists. He was sentenced to three years’ hard labour, essentially for speaking against conscription; Gallacher and Muir received a year; Maxton and MacDougall were also sentenced to a year, and Smith to 18 months. Kirkwood and his fellow deportees remained in Edinburgh (where they at first stayed with my grandparents’ friend John S. Clarke, then of the SLP, who soon went on the run to escape arrest), though some eventually moved to England to get work. The decapitated CWC became moribund, and industrial unrest and anti-war activity were much reduced for the rest of the war, though the ILP, which was largely responsible for the success of the rent strike and less dependent on industrial organisation, continued to grow strongly. Its membership tripled between 1914 and 1918, by which time it had around 10,000 members in Scotland, and most of its leaders, with the exception of Maxton, remained out of prison.
Most of the convicted men were held in Calton Jail in Edinburgh, where Maxton is said to have persuaded some of the warders to set up a union branch, while Maclean was moved to Peterhead, where, according to Bell, he was ‘kept in a cell four feet wide, eight feet long and seven feet high and spent his days working in a quarry’. His plight was arousing interest among the still exiled Bolsheviks, and Lenin wrote several times of ‘the Scottish schoolteacher and socialist, Maclean’. After a year in prison, he became ill: he was prone to respiratory illnesses, and he wasn’t eating properly, believing his food was poisoned. This, as Bell says, is a contentious subject. After the war, and especially after Maclean’s death, former friends like Gallacher would claim he had had a breakdown in prison that had permanently affected him. It’s clear that later political disagreements, notably Maclean’s refusal to join the Communist Party of Great Britain, despite Lenin’s pleas, made it convenient for them to portray him as a hero during the war and a madman after it, but it’s clear too that he was suffering from paranoia: he saw spies everywhere (though he was of course being spied on) and blamed government agents for his wife Agnes’s decision to leave him after the war. Then again, as Bell points out, his letters and articles are unchanged ‘in tone and rationality ... after this episode’.
Apart from Maclean, all those imprisoned were released early in 1917. When Lenin returned to Petrograd in April he told the waiting crowd, Bell writes, that ‘the struggle was the same in Glasgow and Berlin’. As many as 80,000 people took part in that year’s May Day procession, at which speakers celebrated revolution in Russia and called for Maclean’s release (the Daily Record said that speakers included ‘a Jew, a Lett, a Russian and a Lithuanian’). New rules on conscription led to strikes in some English cities, but not in Glasgow, to Gallacher’s disgust, partly because the engineers were still in a protected occupation, but largely because there was little enthusiasm. In June Lloyd George, by now prime minister, visited the city again. A few days earlier, the deportees had finally been allowed to return, and had spoken at a large meeting: ‘The greatest Huns in Christendom are the capitalist class of Britain,’ Kirkwood said. Protesters were kept well away from Lloyd George, but, according to Gallacher, Mrs Reid, an ‘old stalwart of the movement’, lived in the flats beside the hall where Lloyd George was to speak, and, as he arrived, she ‘was waving a great red flag’, ‘her white hair crowning a face alight with the flame of revolt’. Lloyd George saw her, raised his hat and gave her a bow. As he was spirited out of the city, Maclean’s wife received a telegram saying he was to be released. ‘I think the Russians secured it,’ George Lansbury, then the editor of the Daily Herald, wrote to Agnes.
‘I am quite unrepentant, and more revolutionary than ever,’ Maclean told one reporter, insisting that there was nothing wrong with him other than ‘a slight nervous strain and a general catarrh’. He began teaching economics at the new Scottish Labour College, which he had been instrumental in founding, with the object of training workers ‘for the battle against the masters’, holding eight classes a week for more than a thousand pupils. After the October Revolution, he was made Bolshevik consul in Scotland, although the funds to support his consulate were confiscated and the Post Office wouldn’t deliver to it (Maxim Litvinoff, the ambassador in London, who’d been irritated by Maclean’s failure to respond to his messages, received a bundle of returned letters marked: ‘Consul not recognised by HM government’). By now the government was beginning to wonder whether Maclean, who was speaking to large crowds all over Britain, might not be better back in prison (the Scottish Office checked with the Foreign Office whether he should be classed as having diplomatic immunity). He was particularly keen to challenge Kirkwood’s encouragement of workers to hit record production figures (Beardmore had eventually agreed to take him back, and Kirkwood, Gallacher and MacManus were all working in Beardmore’s shell factory). Kirkwood boasted that ‘records were made only to be broken’ and that Beardmore had given him the ‘best hat in Glasgow’ (a ‘fine Austrian velour bonnet’) as a reward; Maclean argued that workers should ‘ca’ canny’, otherwise they would find they are ‘speeded up again and again’.
In April 1918 Maclean was again charged with sedition, on the basis of various phrases in his speeches (they included: ‘tools should be downed,’ ‘the revolution should be created,’ ‘the Clyde district had helped win the Russian revolution’), and tried the next month, again in Edinburgh. His address to the jury, which Bell calls ‘one of the most famous’ speeches ever made in Scotland, lasted more than an hour and was a defence and a restatement of the views that had led to his arrest, alternately stirring and analytic. ‘I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.’
I have squared my conduct with my intellect, and if everyone had done so this war would not have taken place ... I have nothing to be ashamed of. Your class position is against my class position ... My appeal is to the working class ... They and they only can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation ... That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.
The jury found him guilty without retiring to consider their verdict and he was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude. Lenin was among those who protested: ‘Maclean is in prison because he acted openly as the representative of our government; we have never seen this man, he is the beloved leader of the Scottish workers; he has never belonged to our party, but we joined with him.’
During his speech Maclean had said that he would ‘take no food inside your prisons’, and he immediately began a hunger strike. The prison doctor started force-feeding him. ‘He has aged very much,’ his wife wrote in October, ‘and has the look of a man who is going through torture.’ Still in prison, Maclean, whose party, the BSP, was affiliated to the Labour Party, was chosen as candidate for the Gorbals, despite the opposition of the national leadership; Barnes, the sitting Labour MP, was standing for Lloyd George’s ruling coalition. The government again started to wonder whether it was better to free him, perhaps under the Cat and Mouse Act, than to let him become a martyr. John S. Clarke wrote one of his bad poems: ‘He is one against an army, are you going to see him downed?/Are you going to let him die without a fight/He will pay you back in plenty. It’s you who stand to gain/His lion heart is yours if he is spared.’ When the war finally ended, the cabinet decided to release Maclean before, as Barnes put it to the cabinet, ‘the agitation assumes larger and more dangerous dimensions.’ When he reached Glasgow on 3 December around 100,000 people came out to meet him, though anger at his treatment didn’t necessarily translate into support for his programme.
He didn’t campaign in the ten days left before the election (Gallacher had given up his job to run the campaign), speaking only on the night before the poll; it’s unclear whether his physical or mental health was the problem, or his belief, as he wrote in the BSP magazine, the Call, that ‘the election in itself counts for nothing ... The real British crisis is coming and coming quickly.’ Later accounts, by Gallacher and others, describe him as rambling, disturbed, in ‘a very sick condition. He was seeing spies everywhere.’ As Bell points out, it’s strange that the mainstream press didn’t seem to notice this. The election results were disappointing – in Glasgow Labour only won Govan; Wheatley lost in Shettleston by 74 votes; Maxton and Maclean both polled respectably but lost easily – even if there were obvious reasons: a lack of organisation and funds; many soldiers hadn’t yet returned home; the electoral register was out of date; there was some unhappiness with the ILP’s anti-war stance; a low turnout.
In January 1919 there was a race riot in Glasgow after thirty or so black, South Asian, Arab and Chinese sailors looking for work at the Sailors’ Yard were attacked by a mob, a few hours after Manny Shinwell, the seamen’s leader, had spoken there and warned of mass unemployment unless foreign labour was restricted. None of the memoirs written by the Red Clydesiders mentions it, nor is there any record that Maclean ever spoke of it. The CWC had begun to argue for a forty-hour week, partly as a way of controlling the anticipated rise in unemployment. As during the war, events quickly escaped the control of union leaders. The CWC called a strike, which the ILP backed, as did Maclean, who was lobbying hard to get the miners, railwaymen and transport workers involved, hoping for a general strike. Even without them, around 70,000 men went on strike, and it spread quickly, with workers in power stations, for example, joining. Most of these strikers thought they were involved in a straightforward enough labour dispute, but on 28 January the home secretary’s Report on Revolutionary Organisations stated that ‘my Glasgow correspondent reports that the revolutionary movement is gaining ground.’ The next day, the strikers marched to George Square, where a delegation went into the City Chambers and asked the lord provost to discuss their case with the government (not a revolutionary move). They would return on Friday, en masse, to hear the response.
On friday morning a large crowd – somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000; as usual, accounts conflict – gathered to hear the news. There were rows of police lined up outside the City Chambers. Inside, a deputation including Kirkwood and Wheatley waited to see the provost. Then the fighting began. The chief constable claimed that his officers had been attacked, that the air was black with missiles, and (separately) that his men were trying to stop the crowd obstructing the tramcars moving through the square, but it seems that the police charged without provocation and with what MacAskill calls ‘shocking brutality’. Gallacher pushed his way through the crowd to remonstrate with the chief constable, ‘but batons were raised all around me, so I struck out.’ As usual, he makes his part sound a bit more heroic than it probably was. He missed the chief constable and was quickly ‘battered’ to the ground. Those inside, hearing the commotion, rushed out. Kirkwood saw Gallacher being dragged away by the police, went to object, and was hit on the head and knocked out. A lorry delivering (slightly unexpectedly) bottles of fizzy water on one of the streets that lead steeply uphill from the square was turned on its side and the bottles lobbed at the police. The Riot Act was read, at least in part (it was snatched out of the sheriff’s hand). The authorities, feeling they were being overwhelmed, asked Gallacher and Kirkwood (who were under arrest) to address the protesters from a balcony. They told the crowd to move to Glasgow Green, on the edge of the city centre. Skirmishes continued, but people began to drift away.
Gallacher says in Revolt on the Clyde that they should have marched instead to Maryhill Barracks: ‘If we had gone there we could easily have persuaded the soldiers to come out and Glasgow would have been in our hands.’ He blames the absence of ‘experienced revolutionary leadership’ (Maclean, if he fitted the bill, was speaking in England, trying to spread the strike). Of course, his own decision to tell the crowd to move out of the square shows that at the time he had no thought of attempting to exploit the moment in a revolutionary direction. The authorities, however, as a piece published in the Glasgow Herald a few days later makes clear, ‘actually believed a Spartacus coup was planned to start in Glasgow, and they were prepared to suppress it at all costs.’ (The Spartacist rising in Germany had taken place earlier the same month; Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were executed on 15 January.) That night troops began to enter the city (Glaswegian soldiers were confined to barracks, just in case), machine guns and a Howitzer were soon positioned on the roofs of the buildings around George Square, and six tanks were garaged in the cattle market. The strike didn’t last much longer: many workers went back on 12 February, to a shorter working day (a reduction from a 54-hour week to a 47-hour week had been agreed by engineering and shipyard union leaders), and by the 17th the soldiers had left the city.
Maclean continued to hope and organise for revolution, but he hadn’t expected it to come then (as his close colleague Harry McShane said, ‘We didn’t regard the Forty Hours Strike as a revolution. We saw it more as the beginning of things’). But rather than increasing, militancy faded as economic conditions worsened. The BSP began to reconstitute itself as the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), but Maclean refused to join: he wasn’t keen to submit to Soviet direction and had begun to favour a more nationalist and anti-imperialist position. ‘The Social Revolution is possible sooner in Scotland than in England,’ he wrote. ‘Scottish separation is part of the process of England’s imperial disintegration and is a help towards the ultimate triumph of the workers of the world.’ Lenin asked him to visit Russia to discuss uniting the various groups, but he never did (he had several passport applications turned down). Towards the end of 1920 he and Gallacher, by now of the CPGB, fell out publicly during a meeting at which Maclean had hoped to launch a Scottish Communist Party. ‘We can’t have a man going around trading on his past, and accusing everyone who disagrees with him of being a government agent,’ Gallacher said. Maclean’s ‘weakness ... is notorious throughout the whole movement’. Though still a popular speaker and lecturer, Maclean was now a man essentially without a party. (Gallacher would become the Communist MP for West Fife between 1935 and 1950.)
By this point the co-operation that had characterised the left in Glasgow during the war had broken down. ‘The formation of the CPGB,’ Alan McKinlay writes in The ILP on Clydeside, ‘signalled the total collapse of the interlocking networks of socialist activists’ that linked ‘the factory, the community and the state with a combination of direct action and institutional politics’. Before and during the war Maclean and Gallacher and others in the BSP and SLP had worked closely with ILP members, whose views more or less closely approached their own. Now the Labour Party had turned into an orthodox centralised party and was starting to recruit members, the revolutionary left was splitting off, with the foundation of the CPGB (although Lenin had insisted it affiliate to the Labour Party) and the isolation of Maclean, and the ILP, its membership dropping as the recession worsened, was focusing on electoral politics. Wheatley wrote in Forward in 1919 that he was ‘anxious not to minimise the value of industrial action’ but wanted ‘to impress upon the workers of this country the tremendous importance of political power’.
The ILP’s success in 1922 came in part from capturing the large Irish vote, thanks to Wheatley and Patrick Dollan, the first Catholic lord provost of Glasgow and the ILP’s supreme organiser, and the party’s decision to back Catholic schools, drop its support for prohibition (many of the ILPers were teetotal; so were Gallacher and Maclean) and back Home Rule in Ireland. Its reputation on housing and its demonstrations of the benefits of municipal socialism also helped. Johnston, for example, was a councillor in his hometown of Kirkintilloch, where he opened a municipal bank and cinema, organised evening classes in maths and English, with the carrot that attendance brought free entry to dance classes with a ‘first-class band’, bought baby food and sold it on at cost price (the local infant mortality rate halved in three years); he also set up a municipal jam factory and a restaurant, as well as a piggery and a herd of goats. Now the war was over, and the soldiers had returned, unhappiness with the way it had been conducted was becoming more obvious. More than 100,000 Scots had been killed (the exact figure is unclear), the vast majority working class. Meanwhile, the recession was badly affecting the shipyards and engineering yards, whose workforces had shrunk to a fraction of what they had been during the war. In the 1920s 60 per cent of Scottish workers had at least one period of unemployment. My grandparents wanted to get married, but my grandfather was sacked the day he finished his engineering apprenticeship because it was cheaper to take on another apprentice than pay a journeyman’s wage. All through the 1920s he worked in casual labouring jobs. They didn’t marry until 1931 – he was laid off days before the wedding, but they got married anyway.
The ten ILP candidates who won in Glasgow in 1922 included Maxton, Wheatley and Muir (who’d joined from the SLP); Kirkwood and Johnston won in nearby constituencies. Maclean, recently released from another prison sentence for sedition, polled 4000 votes in the Gorbals, but lost to the ILP’s George Buchanan, who got 16,000. (‘If you cannot agree with me then vote for George Buchanan,’ Maclean’s election address said. ‘On no account vote for anyone else. Yours for world revolution.’) But this was the high point: the atmosphere of the Clyde didn’t get the better of the Commons. Wheatley had some victories, notably the 1924 Housing Act, which resulted in the building of half a million council houses, before his death in 1930; Johnston became a highly efficient secretary of state for Scotland during the Second World War and afterwards founded the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, which brought electricity to the Highlands (he also chaired the Forestry Commission, which brought, less happily, serried ranks of Sitka spruce). In general, however, the story of the Red Clydesiders in Parliament is not very cheering. In 1932 the ILP disaffiliated from the Labour Party, with Maxton’s encouragement; only two of the 1922 Glasgow MPs went with him (my grandparents did too). Maxton argued that they had to disaffiliate to ‘regain their socialist soul’, but the ILP quickly declined into insignificance, ‘pure, but impotent’, as Bevan had warned. Maxton was treated indulgently by a House of Commons that no longer feared the power of the Glasgow socialists. ‘He is their raven-haired pirate, a Captain Hook who waves his finger but is really the most loveable of fellows,’ Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, wrote. By the time of Maxton’s death in 1946 the ILP had almost disappeared, as had the energetic, didactic, all-encompassing political culture it helped create.
Maclean, too, ended his life without a real party. In 1923 he tried to found one, the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party. ‘It had some queer people that I didn’t like,’ McShane, who’d now joined the CPGB, wrote. ‘They had never been to John’s economics classes, they knew nothing about socialism or revolutionary work.’ I don’t know whether he thought they were (more) spies, hangers-on of the sort Gallacher blamed for leading the later Maclean astray, or merely nationalists. A few months later the government split over Tariff Reform and another election was called for 6 December. Maclean planned to stand, although his health was worrying his friend Sylvia Pankhurst, who complained that ‘he spoke outside in all weathers and survived on pease brose.’ On 17 November his wife, who’d left him in 1919, returned, despite his continued refusal to ‘take a break from politics’. Eight days later, he had a coughing fit during a speech and had to be brought home. He died of pneumonia on 30 November. He was 44; only one of his six siblings survived him.
He’s not been much written about by historians outside Scotland, who seem to regard him as an insubstantial figure. Presumably, this is in part a consequence of the posthumous destruction of his reputation by his former friends, but his marginalisation, and indeed that of the Glasgow ILP, from accounts of the early history of the left, remains striking. He continued to be fought over in Scotland: the Communists (Gallacher and others) gave one account; the Labour Party (Maxton, a pallbearer at Maclean’s funeral, was going to write his biography) tried to claim him too. Then the poets took over: Hugh MacDiarmid, Hamish Henderson and Sorley Maclean saw Maclean as synthesising nationalism and internationalism (you could go on adding Caledonian antisyzygies, as Bell does: Highlander and Lowlander, atheist and Calvinist, hero and fool, teacher and revolutionary), linking Scotland with the wider world, Glasgow with Petrograd. They were also attracted by the vivid phrases that occasionally jump out from his speeches. The 1918 Speech from the Dock gives his analysis of the war, predicts the postwar depression, says that ‘in 15 years’ time we may have the first great war bursting out in the Pacific – America v. Japan’, but also gives, almost incidentally, glimpses of what he thought he was fighting for. ‘Maclean was not naive,’ Edwin Morgan wrote,
‘We are out
for life and all that life can give us’
was what he said, that’s what he said.
[Essayist Jean McNichol is deputy editor of the London Review of Books.]