A hundred years ago: great John Maclean comes home to the Clyde—part 2

Two days before the Imperial War Cabinet meeting of 28 November, George Barnes drafted a memo suggesting the Cabinet (imagined above in a painting by Scottish artist Sir James Guthrie) authorise John Maclean’s release, ‘along with any others who might be in like plight for similar offences.’

‘The continued agitation about John Maclean constitutes a serious danger for the government,’ Barnes wrote. ‘Mass meetings have been held in many places, including London, and resolutions continue to pour in demanding his release.

‘I think that no good purpose is being served by keeping him in prison, and that a favourable opportunity presents itself for his release. I should not take any notice of the agitation but release him as a matter of amnesty in consequence of the signing of the armistice. I note that there is to be a meeting in the Albert Hall next Saturday (30 November), convened by (George) Lansbury and those with whom he is associated, and I have little doubt but that John Maclean will bulk very largely in the speeches. That will no doubt be followed by many similar meetings in the next two to three weeks, with, I think, bad results on the public mind.

‘Mr Munro (Secretary for Scotland) has said he would be willing to release Maclean if it was a matter of general amnesty. But the position is that in England and Wales there are no political prisoners convicted, as Maclean is, under D.O.R.A. (the Defence of the Realm Act). There are only two in Scotland; the other being a tram conductor called Milne, who has served about forty out of a sentence of sixty days.

‘I think it would be an act of grace therefore, to release both of them before the agitation assumes larger and more dangerous dimensions.’

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Once the first two items had been dealt with at the Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister David Lloyd George introduced the final matter on the agenda and the following discussion ensued.

‘The next question concerns the release of a man named John Maclean, who is a Bolshevist,’ Lloyd George said. ‘He has a great deal of ability, but has used the whole of this ability to prevent he manufacture of munitions. We had to prosecute him for inciting sedition, and he was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. We let him out after only thirteen months because the workmen said it would ease things. On his release he again started making seditious speeches, and he was prosecuted once more and is now in gaol. Now exactly the same agitation has started again. He is Mr Barnes’ political opponent, and Mr Barnes thinks it will help him.’

George Barnes

George Barnes

‘I do not base it on that ground,’ Barnes (pictured left) countered. ‘I want to say this, Prime Minister, that all the forces of opposition to the government are focusing on John Maclean, including not only the Bolshevists, but the Labour Party. They are threatening to do all sorts of things and I am afraid they will put their threats into execution one of these days. For instance, I have heard it whispered that there is on foot some scheme for cutting off the light on the Clyde and Mr George Lansbury has a meeting at the Albert Hall on Saturday and also on Sunday and I know that John Maclean will feature largely in the program there.’

‘Demanding his release?’ asked the Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes.

‘Yes,’ Barnes replied. ‘I am getting resolutions every day and I suppose every Member of Parliament is getting the same thing. Meetings are being held all over the country focusing all attention on the release of this man. As far as I remember the Irish objection was to the general release of all prisoners. It was thought at the time that there were a lot of these people, but there are not. There is not a single one in England or Wales; there are only two in Scotland, namely John Maclean and a man named Milne.’

‘Do you propose to let out De Valera?’ asked Hughes.

‘No,’ said Barnes, ‘his case is quite separate from this case and from the case of conscientious objectors.’

‘All the forces of opposition to the government are focusing on John Maclean, including not only the Bolshevists, but the Labour Party. They are threatening to do all sorts of things and I am afraid they will put their threats into execution one of these days.’

‘There is this difference in regard to the release of John Maclean,’ said Lloyd George. ‘John Maclean was imprisoned for using seditious language, but the Sinn Feiners were imprisoned for being engaged in active rebellion. There is no doubt that preparations were in hand for a German invasion of Ireland and the Sinn Feiners were to get rifles and guns. That is rather a different thing to using seditious language.’

‘From the English point of view, I wish to point out that this man John Maclean is backed by the revolutionary party,’ said Viscount Cave, the British Home Secretary. ‘I am told that the agitation in his favour in Scotland is rather dying down, but that he is being supported by the revolutionists in South Wales and in London. If you release him, I have no doubt he will be brought to London and South Wales to make speeches and it will be treated as a great triumph for them.’

‘You are against his release?’ Lloyd George asked.

‘Yes,’ Lord Cave replied.

Lloyd George then went around the table. Viscount Milner, the British Secretary of State for War, Sir Joseph Cook, the Australian Minister of the Navy and Earl Curzon, the British Leader of the House of Lords were also against Maclean’s release. Then he came to Billy Hughes.

Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes

Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes

‘I favour his release,’ said Hughes (pictured right). ‘This question is mixed up with politics. I have had to deal with this kind of thing in Australia over and over again and I think it would create a bad precedent in terms of Ireland for this very good reason, that Sinn Fein is now quite distinct from Bolshevism. If they got up at the Albert Hall and asked for the release of De Valera, they would lose 50 per cent of the seats they are trying to get. But this man, John Maclean, has a Scotch name and he is a trade unionist, and I say you will do well to let him out. His voice will be lost in the turmoil of the election if he is outside, but if he is inside, everyone will clamour for his release. If he is out, let him say what he has to say and you will be perfectly safe.’

The Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden agreed with Hughes. ‘From the point of view of Canada, I am inclined to let him out,’ he said. But his Canadian Minister of Trade and Commerce, Sir George Foster disagreed, saying ‘I think he is a bad man and a condemned criminal and I would keep him there to the end.’

The Earl of Reading, Lieutenant-General Jan Smuts and Sir Eric Geddes, British First Lord of the Admiralty, came down in favour of release while Walter Long, British Secretary of State for the Colonies was for keeping him in.

Andrew Bonar Law, British Chancellor of the Exchequer said, ‘From the point of view of Great Britain, I would let him out, but I would not do so until I knew what the effect would be in Ireland.’

Arthur Balfour, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs agreed. ‘Like Mr Bonar Law, I consider myself on the hedge in regard to this question.’

‘I favour his release,’ said Billy Hughes. ‘This question is mixed up with politics. I have had to deal with this kind of thing in Australia over and over again and I think it would create a bad precedent in terms of Ireland for this very good reason, that Sinn Fein is now quite distinct from Bolshevism.’

‘I am in favour of letting him out,’ said Edwin Montagu, British Secretary of State for India. ‘You can let him out this week, but if you wait until after the meeting Mr Barnes talked about, it would be very difficult to do so. We shall probably have to do battle with the revolutionaries in this country sooner or later, but do not let us bring it about over the issue of a miserable creature of this kind.’

‘We agree to let him out,’ said Bonar Law, ‘but we must first send a telegram to the Irish Government to see whether they regard it as dangerous.’

‘I prefer to talk to the Lord Lieutenant on the telephone about it this afternoon,’ said Walter Long. ‘I know their views, but I do not believe myself that you can let him out and keep Sinn Feiners in.’

‘Then the balance of opinion,’ said Lloyd George, ‘leaving out of account Mr Bonar Law and Mr Balfour, is in favour of letting him out.’

‘As I understand the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s hedge and my hedge,’ said Balfour, ‘it depends a great deal on the Irish aspect of the question. If the Irish Government consider his release makes their position impossible, then I am for keeping him in; but if the Irish government raises no objection then I do not mind.’

‘The feeling in the Cabinet is that they would like to release John Maclean, but that the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I would like to release him if it did no harm in Ireland. I do not think it is worth having an agitation about a man who does far more harm in prison than outside.’

‘It really is a different case,’ said Lloyd George. ‘The Sinn Feiners were imprisoned not merely for making seditious speeches, but for being concerned in an active conspiracy for a rebellion in Ireland against British authority. One man who was arrested had in his pocket a document showing the number of troops that could be brought together when the Germans landed. Then there was another document, if you remember—I think we had it from De Valera—referring to a rebellion in two months from that date. That I put in a totally different category to John Maclean.’

‘The difficulty I see,’ said Bonar Law, ‘is that it will probably be said that we are letting this man out as an act of grace because he is a political prisoner. What will the Irish Government say about these other political prisoners who have been put in prison, but not tried?’

‘He has been imprisoned for making seditious speeches, for the good of the country, and the case is quite different,’ said General Smuts.

Nodding in the direction of Walter Long, Lloyd George said, ‘I suggest the Colonial Secretary, who I am sure will be quite impartial in spite of the fact he takes a strong line one way, should get through to the Chief Secretary in Dublin and say that the feeling in the Cabinet is that they would like to release John Maclean, but that the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I would like to release him if it did no harm in Ireland. I do not think it is worth having an agitation about a man who does far more harm in prison than outside.’

‘Can I tell the Irish government Prime Minister that whatever happens over this man, the Cabinet will support them in keeping the Sinn Feiners in order?’ Long asked.

‘I think you might say that we reached this decision on the grounds that there was a distinction between the two cases, and that John Maclean is not in the same category as the Sinn Feiners,’ Lloyd George replied.

‘Does this apply to the other man?’ George Barnes queried.

‘Yes,’ said Lloyd George, ‘he has practically served his time.’

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There being no objection from the Irish government, the Secretary for Scotland, Robert Munro authorised the discharge of Charles Milne from custody the following day (Friday 29 November) and Maclean was released from penal servitude on ticket-of-leave on Monday 2 December. The ticket-of–leave was rescinded by means of a King’s pardon later in the month.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Maclean’s case was certainly a live one on the hustings. On the evening before the War Cabinet meeting, the Coalition Liberal candidate Winston Churchill (pictured left) addressed a meeting at the Kinnard Hall in his Dundee electorate. Lively scenes characterized the gathering, according to a report in the Glasgow Herald. ‘His handling of the Bolshevik elements in the hall won the admiration of the vast majority of the audience. “If this country had been full of John Macleans we would have been conquered by the Huns”—that is but one example of many sharp words addressed to the extremists by Mr. Churchill, who reminded them that the strong forces in this country which had enabled us to overcome so many difficulties were not afraid of John Maclean and all his backers.’

Meanwhile in Edinburgh on the evening of 28 November, the Lord Advocate James Avon Clyde—Coalition Unionist candidate for the seat of Edinburgh North—addressed a meeting of electors in the Abbeyhill Parish Church Hall. Clyde, the prosecutor at Maclean’s May 1918 trial, was asked if he believed that the introduction of British and Allied troops into Russia was not in the direct interests of British and Allied capitalists. Clyde’s response, according to the Glasgow Herald, was the suggestion was a gross slander.

‘The idea that we had conducted either in Russia or anywhere else in this war military operations in defence of the interests of a class was a slander,’ the Herald reported. ‘There was not a word of truth in it. Asked if he was in favour of the immediate release of John Maclean, Mr Clyde answered, “Certainly not. I should like to know why a man who did his best to incite his fellow citizens to burn houses, to abolish their institutions and to establish the rule of force in this country is entitled to special consideration? He will get none from me.” (Loud applause.)
The Elector—Why were the same steps not taken with Sir Edward Carson?
Mr Clyde—Because Sir Edward Carson’s was not a like case. His action was purely political; the other was a direct attempt to upset the social order.’

“If this country had been full of John Macleans we would have been conquered by the Huns”—that is but one example of many sharp words addressed to the extremists by Mr. Churchill.

The Carson case was indeed different from Maclean’s, but not in the way Clyde stated.

In 1892, the prominent Dublin barrister Edward Carson was elected as an Irish Unionist member of parliament for the University of Dublin. He became leader of the Unionist Party in 1910 and led its fight against Home Rule—the establishment of a devolved Irish parliament in Dublin. In 1913, he formed the loyalist paramilitary organisation the Ulster Volunteer Force. When Home Rule seemed inevitable in 1914, he authorised the purchase and smuggling into Ulster of 20,000 rifles and 2,000,000 rounds of ammunition for the UVF. Only the outbreak of the Great War prevented an Irish civil war in 1914.

To smuggle guns and ammunition in preparation for an armed rebellion against an Act of Parliament was obviously considered less serious by the first law officer of Scotland than speaking out about how the existing order oppressed those at the bottom of society.

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Continued in Part 3

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