Enemies of Promise

Angus Calder

  • Breach of Promise: Labour in Power 1964-1970 by Clive Ponting
    Hamish Hamilton, 433 pp, £15.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 241 12683 5
  • James Maxton by Gordon Brown
    Fontana, 336 pp, £4.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 00 637255 4
  • Forward! Labour Politics in Scotland 1888-1988 edited by Ian Donnachie, Christopher Harvie and Ian Wood
    Polygon, 184 pp, £19.50, January 1989, ISBN 0 7486 6001 1

Just seventy years after Friday, 31 January 1919, when troops and tanks stood by to quell a mass rally, in Glasgow’s George Square, of West of Scotland workers campaigning for a forty-hour week, the event was remembered in the People’s Palace, the museum of labour history on Glasgow Green. A bronze bust of Willie Gallacher by Ian Walters was not so much unveiled as proclaimed. It sits at the top of the building, in the room where Ken Currie’s controversial Rivera-style murals of working-class history can be seen around the ceiling: but the speeches were made in the Winter Garden downstairs, where heavy rain dripping through the glass roof and a chill which gnawed one’s bowels did not dismay the two hundred people who had gathered to honour the man who from 1935 to 1950 was Honourable Member for West Fife (Comm.), and an activist long before that on the Clyde Workers Committee.

Speaker after speaker suggested that the bust was a tribute to countless nameless fighters as much as to Gallacher himself. The tradition of ‘Red Clyde’ was being celebrated, and this was an occasion for stirring songs and warm hearts, not for pedantic historians. Gallacher was one of those who put it about that John Maclean was out of his mind, literally hallucinating, when he ran his Scottish Workers Republican Party in opposition to the infant CPGB. Nevertheless, the name of the great Marxist dominie was repeatedly invoked, and Pat Lally, Glasgow’s Labour Provost, was much applauded when he seemed to promise that the Council would erect a statue to Maclean in George Square. The roll-call of Red Clyde heroes was fondly recited, Labour men, ILPers, CPers, heretics – Wheatley, McShane, Maxton ... And why was I there myself if not because I’d read as a boy a book about Maxton and fallen at once under the twin spells of the Red Clyde and of labour history?

The People’s Palace sells a postcard of Maxton. In an election advertisement of 1922, a man with a lovely smile wearing a huge cloth cap is holding up a solemn tot: VOTE FOR MAXTON AND SAVE THE CHILDREN. The image assimilates itself with that of Christ on the Sunday School wall: SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN TO COME UNTO ME. Complex crossovers between religion and politics help to explain why a version of socialism which is sentimental as well as pragmatic still dominates the political map of Strathclyde. Breach of Promise, the title of Clive Ponting’s study of Wilson’s governments of the Sixties, evokes, with its suggestion of sordid betrayal, a polarity which dominates structures of feeling within the Labour Movement. The shades of men like Maclean and Maxton whose failure in politics expressed a refusal to compromise are invoked against ‘traitors’ like MacDonald and Jenkins and wheeler-dealers such as Wilson. In particular, the highly intelligent Scottish politicians now so prominent on Labour’s Front Bench have to live with the oral history of folksong, and with comparison in young minds with Harry McShane, that Marxist saint who fought beside Maclean and died only recently, and with Mick McGahey, happily still with us, beaming serenely at the back of mat throng in the People’s Palace.

In this context, Gordon Brown’s biography of Maxton, now out in paperback, is a brave venture. Maxton did indeed try to ‘save the children’, with furious oratory at Westminster (sneered at as ‘pink’ by Maclean back home). He told how his own wife had lost her life struggling to save her baby’s. He denounced as ‘murderers’ those who voted to withdraw milk from the list of entitlements to mothers and children. In 1932, he led the ILP out of the Labour Party. Jennie Lee was a fellow Scot who went with him. ‘Yes, you will be pure all right,’ Nye Bevan chided her: ‘But remember, at the price of impotency.’ Others accused Maxton of being too lazy to want government office. Brown’s summing-up, which is more generous, sheds light on his own political values. Maxton was a ‘visionary’, and when he died in 1946, ‘the determined rebels of the Twenties had given way to the dark-suited grey men of the Labour establishment.’ Maxton was an ethical socialist who stood for individual freedom – ‘We must not allow ourselves to become ants in an ant-hill’ – and had ‘an inherent sense of human equality’.

For Brown and others who preserve a sense of socialist mission, it is hard to incorporate the heritage of protest into the public profile of Kinnock’s Labour Party. In Glasgow, exceptionally, people who know little history seem still to feel that Maxton and Maclean are somehow mixed in with the ethos of local councillors whose canny city-centre yuppifications stand in bizarre contrast to the miseries of the housing estates. Every Glaswegian inherits the Red Clyde. Elsewhere in Britain traditions have been ‘breached’ by the Wilson-Callaghan years when Labour’s chief raison d’être appeared to be to ensure that moderate trade-unionists and liberal dons got their share of chauffeur-driven transport and expenses-paid trips.

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