John Maclean, Clydeside socialist, democrat, educator and trade unionist served six terms of imprisonment between 1916 and 1923 for the offences of sedition and incitement to strike. These convictions all related to his efforts to oppose the First World War and to organise the labour movement on the Clyde. His health was broken by these spells of hard labour and he died in 1923 at the age of 44. The prison regime he experienced was a terrible one. Eight hours day of breaking rocks, long periods of silence, little exercise, denial of books and newspapers and poor diet were his daily experience. As a consequence he began to have health problems which led to his transfer to the Infirmary of Perth Prison in February 1917.
Maclean had been born in Pollokshaws, Glasgow 24 August 1879 as the sixth of seven children of a family that were victims of the Highland Clearances. He worked as a primary school teacher for many years before being sacked from his post in Govan for his political activity. He went on to form the Scottish Labour College and continued to teach to classes of several hundred. Maclean was involved in campaigns against rising food prices and was a leader of the victorious rent strikes of 1915, in which 30,000 tenants withheld their rent. The 1916 sentence of three years servitude was like the other convictions for his opposition to the war, which he saw as an imperialist adventure. The mechanism for his arrest and sentence being the Defence of the Realm Act and the physicality of it being his taken as a prisoner of war to Edinburgh Castle. This time was a major moment in history – ten days after his incarceration the Easter Rebellion began in Ireland and a year later revolution broke out in Russia. Typical of Maclean’s anti-war effort was a speech he made to a crowd of 50,000 attending a May Day rally in 1915, in which he informed the audience that they should; “fight for freedom and liberty at home before going to Flanders to die for it.”
The Labour Movement failed to organise and defend Maclean because much of the leadership was supportive of the war in Europe. When trade union leaders called on Lloyd George’s war cabinet for leniency or mercy, this was rejected every time by John Maclean who whilst in prison was working for rights for political prisoners such as himself and exposing the brutality of prison life. On the outside his wife Agnes whom he had married in 1909 made great efforts on behalf of her husband and the other political prisoners but in vain.
With major international events and pressure the Labour Movement were forced to act in some way and Harry Hopkin, Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, set up a release committee. However, it was mass worker agitation that eventually secured his release on two occasions, not the rather weak efforts of the committee. When Lloyd George was given the freedom of Glasgow City in 1917, 90,000 marched in protest calling for the Maclean’s release. Freed on 30 June 1917. Maclean was later rearrested, charged with sedition and given a five-year term. Whilst awaiting trial part of the 100,000 May Day demonstrators in Edinburgh marched to Duke Street jail where Maclean was being held. Again the government of the day had to respond and Maclean was once more set free.
It was at his trial in May of 1918 that he made his most famous speech from the dock of Edinburgh High Court: “ 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”.
Maclean went on to become the Soviet Consul for Scotland and to stand in the General Election of 1922. He was also elected alongside Lenin and Trotsky an Honorary President of the Worker’s Government of Russia (First All Russian Congress of Soviets).
On 30 November 1923 John Maclean died from pneumonia and a combination of physical exhaustion and poverty exacerbated by his prison experience of hard labour, hunger striking and forced feeding. Over 15,000 people turned out in Glasgow to line the streets as Maclean’s coffin went by and to attend the funeral.
“Germany in ferment. In Britain the Government holds John Maclean in (Perth) prison.”
Lenin arriving at the Finland Station in early April 1917.