[Marxism] Red Clydeside

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 27 08:56:32 MST 2019


LRB, Vol. 42 No. 1 · 2 January 2020
The Atmosphere of the Clyde
Jean McNicol

When the Clyde Ran Red: A Social History of Red Clydeside
by Maggie Craig.
Birlinn, 313 pp., £9.99, March 2018, 978 1 78027 506 2

Glasgow 1919: The Rise of Red Clydeside
by Kenny MacAskill.
Biteback, 310 pp., £20, January, 978 1 78590 454 7

John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside
by Henry Bell.
Pluto, 242 pp., October 2018, 978 0 7453 3838 5

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,

                                      But
                                            ‘We are out
for life and all that life can give us’

was what he said, that’s what he said.




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