‘Don’t you dare let them put me in Westminster Abbey.’
- John Maclean’s last words
Red Clyde Rising: John Maclean (1879-1931)
Any student embarking on a degree in Political Biography will tell you that the first essay they will ever be told to write is about John Maclean. The man known as ‘The Great Compromiser’, ‘The Father of the Republic’, ‘The Red Giant’, and, according to Hugh McDiarmid, ‘Beautiful’ has, perhaps more than any other leader of our Union, been immune from real criticism or serious evaluation. Perhaps it is his status as the first Chair of the Congress of the Trade Unions, or his death at the relatively young age of 51, that have created this air of an invulnerable historical opinion around him. But one thing should be made clear about this article – I neither come to bury Maclean nor to praise him. There is no agenda here, no attempt to undermine the years of veneration that Maclean has been subject to. What there will be, however, is some investigation into what failings he may have had – notably the ‘collapse of compromise’ that took place at the end of the 1920s and nearly sent the Union into a spiraling nosedive to anarchy. So here, in the spirit of this volume, is a picture of John Maclean – warts and all.
John Maclean was born in 1879 to Calvinist parents in Pollokshaws on the outskirts of Glasgow. A bright boy, he trained as a teacher under the Free Church and gained a Master of Arts degree in 1904 from the University of Glasgow. It was here that he met James Maxton, forging a friendship and partnership that would last until Maclean’s death. Both were fiery orators who engaged heavily with University politics, but Maclean’s background in politics had come about through his involvement in the Pollokshaws Progressive Union and the local co-operative movement. His experiences there led him to conclusion that the conditions of the working classes would only be improved by social revolution, and this in turn led him to Marxism. He joined the Social Democratic Federation, which then became part of the British Socialist Party.
As the First Great War broke out across Europe, Maclean found himself utterly at odds with the imperialist conflict that was separating workers from one another because of ‘dented reactionary pride’. Fuelled by a revolutionary spirit, he worked with his comrade Maxton to agitate against the war. His fiery speeches attracted great attention among the dockers of Clydeside, and he along with Maxton is credited with radicalising that generation of workers who became known as the ‘Red Clydeside’ movement. In 1915, however, he was arrested under the hated Defence of the Realm Act and sacked from his teaching post. Though not imprisoned, he was stripped of official standing within ‘society’ and consequently turned to Marxist lectures and organization, continuing his hard work as an educator of the workers in Glasgow, eventually founding the Scottish Labour College, which survives to this day as the Maclean Institute. In 1916 he was arrested once again and imprisoned – but released in 1917 following agitation by loyal socialists inspired by the ultimately doomed rebellion underway in Russia. This freedom was shortlived, however, for upon continuing his anti-war organising and speeches he found himself arrested for ‘sedition’. On 9 May, he conducted his own defence when his trial began. He refused to plead and, in a confrontational style typical of his early career, replied ‘I object to the whole lot of them’ when asked if he objected to any members of the jury. The trial was a sham, with sections of speeches and notes being quoted completely out of context to make it seem like Maclean wanted to bring some bloody harm upon the British people, when his quarrel had always been with ‘the trickery of the British government’.
As the trial drew to a close, Maclean addressed the jury in an impassioned speech lasting 75 minutes, which he used to attack the capitalist system:
‘I had a lecture, the principal heading of which was “Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill", and I pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilised countries today, our respective countries have had to keep armies, and that inevitably our armies must clash together. On that and on other grounds, I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed. My language is regarded as extravagant language, but the events of the past four years have proved my contention! I wish no harm to any human being, but I, as one man, am going to exercise my freedom of speech. No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.’ He was sentenced to five years penal servitude, and imprisoned in Peterhead prison near Aberdeen. However, a militant campaign was launched for his release:
The call, surprisingly, was heeded. After being told that continued force-feeding would result in ‘irreparable damage to the prisoner’s health’ the authorities presented Maclean with a bargain that he initially refused: leave prison without charge but on the understanding that no further agitation will be made against the war. This changed, however, when news of the French capitulation reached Britain. The authorities, terrified that the mobs gathering around the prison would resort to violence to free their hero, freed Maclean that same day.
‘The call “Release John Maclean” was never silent. Every week the socialist papers kept up the barrage and reminded their readers that in Germany Karl Liebknecht was already free, while in 'democratic' Britain John Maclean was lying in a prison cell being forcibly fed twice a day by an India rubber tube forced down his gullet or up his nose. “Is the Scottish Office” asked Forward, “to be stained with a crime in some respects even more horrible and revolting, more callous and cruel, than that which the Governors of Ireland perpetrated on the shattered body of James Connolly?”’ 
Maclean immediately rejoined the anti-war movement and wreaked havoc for the government. In the final months of the war before the ‘Peace with honour’ he was pushing for a General Strike to cripple the economy – only loyalty to British workers who would face violence kept the TUC from complying. Maclean had established himself, through links with the leaders of dockworking Unions in Glasgow, as a respected figure among Trade Unions, while his friend James Maxton had begun a campaign to enter Parliament as a radical Labour MP. By 1923, Maclean was seen as the spiritual leader of workers across the country, offering lukewarm support for the Labour Party (except when introducing Maxton as a speaker) and appearing at rallies to encourage actual revolution. The security services, knowing that arrest would simply result in all-out rioting, plotted to kill him and on the 11 January 1924 an ‘unknown assailant’ fired a pistol at him from the window of a moving car as he left a working men’s club in Leeds. The bullet completely missed him, but struck a companion in the shoulder. Maclean, in a rage, wrote an open letter to The Times (a daily newspaper of the day) and challenged those who wanted him dead to explain why ‘in broad daylight, before their peers – the workers and poorest of this country – to see how their argument for my demise is received’. The Times published it, remonstrating quite how seriously the establishment was taking Maclean by this time. There were no more attempts on his life, but his wife Agnes wrote in her diary that since that day he had seemed ‘a little more worried, and, oddly enough, a little more interested in what other people had to say’. It is likely that this assassination attempt is what made Maclean so suitable as the ‘champion of compromise’ that the Union needed in those early years.
My colleague John Durham has already enlightened readers of this book on the events of the Revolution and Maclean’s role in the Inaugural Congress, so I shall add no more on that subject. However, the real business of evaluation requires a careful inspection of Maclean’s actions as Chair at the end, not the beginning, of his tenure. It was in 1928 that the first cracks in the Union’s ‘utopian’ structure began to emerge. It started a minor disagreement between two Syndicates – those of Devon and Cornwall, to be precise. Devon was home to the thriving port of Plymouth, upon which Cornwall relied for much of its overseas tin sales – its main product. The Republic of the Sicilies and the Commune of France both had great need for cheap tin, but Cornish ports lacked the capacity to take the strain of large freighters moving freely day-by-day. The dispute emerged when Devon wanted to limit Cornish Mining Unions’ access to the port, saying that Devon, too, had goods to export. Cornwall, led by the charismatic John Spargo, respectfully stated that Devon was not a different country to Cornwall, and under the Constitution of the Union of Britain all resources were to be shared and provided where needed. Devon’s reply to Spargo was that a port was not a resource. Spargo’s reply was that actually, it was.
This argument over semantics was in danger of boiling over into something far more dangerous, thanks to Sunderland-based Unions in the Tyne and Wear Syndicate deciding to take umbrage with Newcastle’s dockers restricting their own access for similar reasons. The Federal Council watched with alarm, and John Maclean decided to exercise his impeccable compromising ability by calling a meeting between all the affected parties. The meeting was a disaster. Spargo accused Maclean of being ‘an irrelevant Scotsman’ who had no moral authority to ‘dictate on Cornish matters’. The Sunderland Unions believed they were being underrepresented and patronised, comparing Maclean to ‘a nice man from the government’ that the old regime would have sent up to assuage their fears. To compound this, their leader Joseph Havelock Wilson threatened to strike indefinitely until access to Newcastle’s ports was completely open to them as well as any other Union in the country. Maclean was rapidly losing control, and by the time the Congress of 1929 came around, he was faced with the first seriously contested Chairman’s election of his political life.
John Spargo – would-be Chairman of the CTU, 1929
The candidate who challenged him, with real regional support, was none other than John Spargo. Highly popular in Cornwall and, ironically, Devon after his stance against the meddling of ‘an irrelevant Scotsman’ in local matters, he appealed to a great many Autonomists at the Congress and was privately endorsed by Arthur James Cook and Oswald Mosley as ‘the perfect ferret to get rid of that soft rabbit Maclean’, with the intention that Cook would easily take the Chair from Spargo at the 1930 Congress. Spargo gave a powerful speech before the election, promising to reform the ‘utterly non-regionally sensitive’ Federal Council and ‘never again permit spurious meddling’ into the affairs of local Syndicates and Unions. He was met with rapturous applause, with some Congress delegates rising to their feet. Maclean sat in his Chair, the blood draining from his face and looking like a broken man. Where was the fire of his youth now? Had he tried to compromise too much? James Maxton, sitting nearby, leant over to him and looked him straight in the face. Allegedly pausing to flick a strand of his unruly fringe out of his right eye, Maxton spoke a simple sentence to Maclean.
‘Are you going to let that Sassenach do this to you?’
Maclean’s response is famous. Saying nothing to Maxton, he rose to his feet and clapped Spargo himself, before striding to the podium to make his own speech. Clearing his throat with a characteristic return to form, he raised his hands to the Congress. ‘Comrades,’ he began, ‘my Comrade here makes a number of very good points.’ The rest of the speech was not quite so pleasant to Spargo. Maclean highlighted the problems with what Spargo proposed, and viciously attacked what he perceived as the man’s hypocrisy – he had wanted to force a deal through with Devon yet objected to the elected mediators on the Federal Council helping him do so. Maclean pointed out Spargo’s other faults – his lack of real Union credentials, and how he had allegedly been elected as Chair of the Cornwall Syndicate because each Union leader voted for themselves with Spargo as a second choice. True or not, the comment led to a ripple of laughter around the room, which was said to create a glint in Maclean’s eye as he continued to lambast the man while playing up his own successes and plans for the future. ‘As we approach a new decade, Comrades, now is not the time for a novice!’ he cried, banging his fist into the lectern. ‘I may have faltered, but I put to you that I have not failed – if re-elected, my first action will be to meet with Comrade Wilson and thrash out an agreement that is suitable for all – and I promise you now that I will not sleep until it is written in the law of this Union that ports are open to all, and no longer under the direct jurisdiction of whichever Syndicate they happen to be in!’. The Congress Hall erupted – for the most part. The election was still closer than it could have been, with Maclean winning by just 13% of the votes cast, a far cry from his 97% of the previous year.
Nevertheless, evaluating Maclean requires not only a report of his actions, but an analysis of them. His true motivation for that powerful speech is called into question by Maxton’s words just before it – was it heartfelt, or brought on by a genuine Scottish dislike for this arrogant Cornish man who threatened Maclean’s personal popularity? We cannot know for sure, but it does not bode well for the picture of Maclean as a constant unwavering and committed socialist who always put the Union before his own ambitions. Similarly, the whole affair damages Maclean’s credibility as a great compromiser, for it was here that compromise failed. The Sunderland strikes were averted, yes, but through luck rather than Maclean’s work – Joseph Havelock Wilson died in April 1929, and the movement for striking fell apart without his leadership. Maclean also did not put in as much work as he said he would on introducing greater legislation to free ports from local authority, instead passing this duty to Jimmy Thomas and Arthur Horner, the latter of which added ‘Commissary for the Independent Port Authority’ to his ever-expanding list of titles when the work was completed. Maclean was, above all, a tired man. He was elected unopposed one final time in 1930, and appeared ‘visibly older’ to all present. The strain of the Ports Crisis has taken its toll on him, and he fell sick with influenza at the end of 1930, with most work now being done behind the scenes by the triumvirate of Maxton, Snowden and Horner. On 15 January 1931, aged 51 years, John Maclean took to his bed somehow knowing it would be for the last time. It is said that he turned to Agnes before he closed his eyes and muttered ‘Don’t you dare let them put me in Westminster Abbey.’
John Maclean’s casket passing through his home town of Pollokshaws
True to her word, Agnes ensured that his instructions were followed to the letter. Tom Mann (taking over as interim Chair until the Congress the following month) and Maxton agreed to have a State Memorial Service rather than a State Funeral, and the casket itself traveled by train overnight to Scotland, where it was eventually carried through Pollokshaw to the graveyard Maclean’s home had overlooked as a child. He is buried there to this day, although a plaque commemorating him also sits in Chairs’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
In conclusion, then, John Maclean is in many ways an enigma to evaluate. A decisive, defiant agitator in his youth, and apparently morally upright for his entire life. But a closer look at his actions in his final years tells a different story – a story of a man potentially more motivated by personal ambition and pride, a man whose complacency with his abilities as a compromiser nearly wrecked the fabric of the Union during the Ports Crisis of 1928-29. However, it would be all too easy to reach the incorrect conclusion that his zeal for socialism disappeared during this time – it did not. Even when suffering in his final months, he would answer letters and attend factory openings as much as he could, always seeming genuine and full of pride with what the workers of this country had and would continue to accomplish. Flawed? Yes. Disingenuous? Perhaps. A failure? Never.
 Max Hastings, The Long Walk to Revolution: John Maclean’s Story (London: Penguin Publishing Cpv., 1994) p.89.
 James G. Brown, Maxton: A Biography(Edinburgh: October Books, 2002) p.153.
 Agnes Maclean, John (Glasgow: Red Flag Publishing, 1945) p.231.
 This quotation made it into The Chartist, further embarrassing Maclean and calling into question his very authority outside of Scotland to some more prejudiced Autonomists.
 The Maximists, Autonomists and Congregationists had all declined to back candidates against Maclean in the previous two years, in light of his enduring popularity and success.
 Pejorative term for Englishman in Scottish slang.
 Margaret Cole, Living for Britain: My Diaries (London: Penguin Publishing Cpv., 1945) p.73.
 Eric Hobsbawm, The Ports Crisis (London: Forward Books, 1967) p.432.