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James Maxton – Independent Labour Party MP, socialist, orator, Scotsman and the subject of a biography written by Gordon Brown twenty years ago – was not a successful leader, although some of his contemporaries in the 1920s thought he might become one. ‘Maxton was never a government minister,’ Brown wrote of his subject, ‘and his failure to achieve any high office may have been the result of a proper disinclination on the part of a man who knew that his talents were inappropriate. He was accused by some of laziness.’

One conclusion of Brown’s biography, which was based on his Edinburgh PhD, was that the charge of lethargy wasn’t fair. Nor was it accurate to say that Maxton had failed to achieve high office: he never wanted to hold it, although he was twice chairman of the ILP, in the 1920s and again in the 1930s. Maxton didn’t see himself as a leader in the way that his contemporary Ramsay MacDonald did. He thought of himself more as a representative than a politician, and as Brown’s biography shows, it’s striking how certain he was that he expressed the views of those he represented and on whose behalf he fought: children and the unemployed mainly. An ‘agitator for socialism’ is how Brown describes him in his book. A ‘utopian fool’ was how Maxton sometimes described himself.

MacDonald thought Maxton was a rival for the Labour leadership in the 1920s. The party didn’t have many public speakers as forceful as Maxton: admirers turned up to hear his speeches, whether or not they agreed with what he had to say. But MacDonald’s sense of rivalry – if it was that – wasn’t shared by Maxton, who never treated politics as a clash between personalities. Which didn’t mean he was afraid of delivering personal attacks. He was twice banned from the House of Commons for being out of line: once, in 1923, after he called the Conservative MPs who had economised on child welfare ‘murderers’. On another occasion he got into a fight inside the House with the Conservative MP Leo Amery, who in Maxton’s view had slandered a colleague. He was no Parliamentarian: he didn’t spend his time building alliances or toeing party lines.

As Brown portrays him, Maxton was always in opposition, whatever the government. He was suspicious of MacDonald, with whom he had been friendly at the beginning of his career. In 1924, he predicted that the Labour Party’s first prime minister would eventually betray the socialist movement. ‘Ramsay will become leader of the Conservative Party,’ he said, ‘and he will be in for twenty years.’ He wasn’t right about the duration of MacDonald’s National Government, but he was right that MacDonald would turn to the Conservatives to prop his government up. At the end of his life, MacDonald told Maxton that he had been staying with J.M. Barrie, and that Barrie had inquired ‘most kindly’ about him. ‘It’s good to think that we can have mutual friends,’ MacDonald said, ‘even if fate has separated us from each other.’ Even his enemies wanted to be friendly with Maxton, however hard they had tried to discredit him.

‘Third Way’ is now a term associated with Tony Blair’s New Labour and the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton; it represented their attempt to make their parties more attractive to those who didn’t usually vote for them – Conservatives and Republicans. There is something MacDonaldish about Third Way politics: it has nothing in common with the ‘third way’ the ILP called for in 1919, or the Third Alternative it proposed in the mid-1920s. Socialism in Our Time, an ILP pamphlet to which Maxton contributed, explained that their third way politics would agitate for the formation of a united government whose purpose would be ‘to make the necessary changes through an elected national assembly and to suppress by ordinary legal power backed up by labour organisations any attempt at revolt, to avoid long continued strife of the working class and to reach a decent stable foundation quicker than by any other method’.

Maxton exhausted himself attempting to steer this middle course between what he perceived as the unrealistic demands of the Communists and the too tentative, gradualist approach of the Labour Party. He said Britain should become a socialist commonwealth, that the Empire should end and that there should be home rule for Scotland. All this, he said, could be achieved by Parliamentary legislation and by the direct action of trade unions.

Maxton and the ILP were popular in the 1920s, but a decade later his influence, along with the popularity of the ILP, had disintegrated. He and his party had been outmanoeuvred: by the Labour Party leadership, which accused Maxton and the ILP of being too subversive; and by the more radical left, which said the ILP was too dreamy. It was the Communist Party that accused Maxton of being ‘unbelievably lazy’.

In the final chapter of his biography, Brown returned to the theme of power and why Maxton didn’t win it. At the beginning of his career, the ILP was a party within the Labour Movement affiliated to but independent of the Labour Party, with its own membership and its own manifesto. By the late 1930s, the ILP had disaffiliated from Labour and Maxton hardly had a party to be a member of – the ILP had been reduced to a pressure group. Brown quoted from Maxton: ‘The leader who may be the best man for one stage of the journey is not necessarily the right leader for the next stage.’ At 60, he looked ghostly; a diet of tea and cigarettes hadn’t helped. A.J.P. Taylor said that Maxton had wasted his political life: ‘He was a politician who had every quality – passionate sincerity, unstinted devotion, personal charm, a power of oratory – every quality save one – the gift of knowing how to succeed.’ A flaw in his character, Taylor implied, had led Maxton to political oblivion, but it’s not as if he was so unsuccessful: there was an achievement in his resistance.

‘Is this man simply not cut out for the job?’ David Cameron asked at Prime Minister’s Question Time. Unlike the subject of his biography, Brown has held high office, but he’s a less successful public speaker, he doesn’t have Maxton’s enormous smile and he doesn’t exude either warmth or useful anger. Nor does he have Maxton’s ability to be wounding without being malicious. And he isn’t a socialist. Compare the characters of Maxton and Brown, and distinctly different men emerge, but successful as Brown has been, he, too, now seems to be lacking what Taylor said Maxton lacked: the gift of knowing how to succeed.

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