The soapbox folk hero who waged war at home

THE First World War was a backdrop in which heroes emerged.

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John MacLean
John MacLean

But those heroes weren't confined to the battlefields.

Former schoolteacher John Maclean's war was not with the Germans in the fields of France; his battle was waged against the British Establishment, against local politicians and the police force.

And the man who would become part of Scottish folklore died in 1922 as a result of his fight for the right NOT to fight against the working classes of other nations.

Pollokshaws-born Maclean, the son of a potter from Mull, became a teacher but he had already become politicised via the Pollokshaws Progressive Union. The Marxist joined the British Socialist Party - and was convinced the living standards of the working-classes could only be improved by social revolution.

But his beliefs were regarded by authorities as seditious.

At first, Maclean's battles were local; he petitioned local school boards to provide facilities for adult classes in economics. But when the First World War broke out, he believed it to be a war of imperialism, an opportunity to land-grab.

And so Maclean became the voice of anti-war sentiment in Glasgow. In 1915, he was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act and sacked by Govan School Board.

He became a full-time Marxist lecturer and organiser, later founding the Scottish Labour College but the authorities demanded his activities be curtailed and he was jailed for a year in 1916. He was released only after demonstrations following the February Revolution in Russia.

Maclean soon took to the soapbox once again. And his speeches of the time has resonances with the independence debate of today.

"For some time past, the feeling has been growing that Scotland should strike out for national independence," he declared.

"This has recently been strengthened by the English Government's intention to rely mainly on Scottish troops to murder the Irish race.

"Genuine Scotsmen recently asked themselves the question: 'Are we Scots to be used as the bloody tools of the English against our brother Celts of Erin?' And naturally the instinctive response was - No!"

Maclean's belief was that Scotland had been contained and controlled by English capitalism, with Scotland's leaders being in league with English business to clear the Highlands, with Highland regiments used to extend the English empire.

He wasn't a Nationalist as defined in today's terms; his hope was Scotland would become a Socialist republic.

"Scotland must again have independence," he claimed, "but not to be ruled over by traitor chiefs and politicians. The communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis.

"The country must have but one clan, as it were - a united people working in co-operation and co-operatively, using the wealth that is created."

He added: "Irishmen must remember that communism prevailed among the Irish clans as among the Scottish clans, so that, in lining up with Scotsmen they are but carrying forward the traditions and instincts of the Celtic race."

Such was Maclean's international reputation, his image was imprinted on Soviet postage stamps.

In January 1918, the Scot was elected to the chair of the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets and a month later appointed Bolshevik consul in Scotland.

HE established a Consulate at 12 Portland Street in Glasgow but, not surprisingly, was refused recognition by the British Government.

Indeed, on April 15, 1918, Maclean was arrested for sedition.

The Marxist, who had faced several trials, conducted his own defence "in a defiant manner", refusing to plead and when asked if he objected to any of the jurors replying, "I object to the whole lot of them".

The prosecution case was based on the weighted testimony of witnesses who had attended his meetings.

"I want to expose the trickery of the British government and their police and their lawyers," said Maclean, using the platform to make his case against the war.

"My contention has always been that capitalism is rotten to its foundations, and must give place to a new society. 'Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill.' 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."

He added: "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."

But Government, afraid of hampering the war effort, did take away his right to speak. Maclean had won the hearts and minds of the Scottish working classes, but not the jury.

He was sentenced to five years penal servitude, and imprisoned in Peterhead prison near Aberdeen.

However, a militant campaign was launched for his release and following the armistice on November 11, he was freed, returning to Glasgow to a tumultuous welcome.

Yet although he became a folk hero, Maclean failed to make the political impact his talent and conviction should have produced. (Maclean was so driven to change the political order, his work was always a priority before his family.)

As has been so often the case throughout history, left-wing political groups failed to unite under one banner, and the divide was exploited.

Yes, Red Clydeside came alight in January 1919, and tanks and troops were sent to George Square to contain the 10,000 protestors.

But the incendiary mood, lit for years by appalling living conditions, rent hikes and deprivation, didn't produce the concerted action Maclean and other activists hoped for.

Maclean went on to be the official Labour Party candidate at the General Election for Glasgow Gorbals but failed to unseat the sitting MP, a former Labour MP who had defected to back for Lloyd George's coalition.

Meanwhile, his health had deteriorated rapidly as result of being force-fed in prison during hunger strikes. His wife, Agnes, claimed his time in prison was "a slow murder".

Maclean died in 1923, aged just 44. Thousands people lined the streets of Glasgow to see his funeral procession pass.

But such is his influence today, both Labour and Independence movements lay claim to his political legacy.

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