May 20, 2007


Brown's hero - the lost prophet of Glasgow: He treated Tories with contempt. But Maxton achieved little in Parliament beyond beautiful words (Johann Hari, 21 May 2007, Independent)

Brown has written that "the story of James Maxton and the Clydeside MPs who descended on Westminster in 1922 has fascinated me since I was a teenager." He wrote his PhD thesis on him, and as a young man even seemed to model his appearance on Maxton, growing a long forelock ("definitely not for tugging", he added).

So who was this lost prophet, and is he still lurking somewhere in Gordon Brown's psyche? James Maxton was the child of two middle-class schoolteachers born on the South Side of Glasgow in 1885 - and within a few decades he became the best-known revolutionary socialist in Britain. His politics were formed in a jolt in his early twenties when he was sent to teach in the Glaswegian slums. Confronted with "a class of pale, stunted tenement-dwelling slum children", he discovered that a thousand kids died every year in Glasgow of tuberculosis, and that emaciation and rickets were virtual infestations.

Maxton became prominent in a series of socialist strikes that brought Glasgow to a halt. When he opposed the First World War, he was tossed into prison for a year for "sedition". On his emergence, he announced: "Everyone should have at least 10 days in prison annually for the good of both their health and their immortal souls."

Maxton was the most famous of the "Red Clydesiders" elected as an MP in 1922, where Labour washed away the Liberals as the main opposition party. His manifesto called for a minimum wage in industry, family allowances at home, and a windfall tax on the super-rich. But he wanted much more, including mass nationalisation without compensation.

He treated the Tories in parliament with contempt. When he was accused of being "improper" and showing "bad breeding" in the chamber of the House of Commons for referring to a Tory MP by his name rather than his constituency, Maxton replied about Conservative policies: "I think it is the very worst form, that it shows bad breeding, to kick a man who is in the gutter, or to withdraw a crust from a starving child. That is the Glasgow idea of conduct and breeding."

Brown clearly saw a lot of himself in Maxton. In fascinating passages of Freudian projection, he wrote in his PhD: "Many of his beliefs sprang from the Christian principles of duty and service and not a little perhaps from a middle-class social conscience. 'I always feel guilty when I have something denied to the majority of my fellows', he once explained."

But Maxton achieved little in parliament beyond beautiful words. He ended his career hideously, calling for appeasement of the Nazis. He was unable to see the difference between the unjust catastrophe of the First World War and the necessary horrors of the Second. The great historian AJP Taylor said in an obituary: "He was a politician who had every quality, save one - the gift of knowing how to succeed."

To read a young Brown wrestling with the legacy of James Maxton is to wade into the first great political dilemma for anyone on the left. Do you stand outside the existing contaminated political structures, describe them with total honesty, and demand they be totally remade? This poses the risk of impotence. Or do you sully yourself, enter into the political process with all the ugly compromises that requires, and try to incrementally change it from within? This poses the risk of becoming corrupted.

We all know Gordon Brown's decision. But in the process - of sucking up to Rupert Murdoch, the CBI and all the rest - does any flicker of Maxton survive? would be sufficient if he were only contemptuous of the Right.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2007 8:10 PM
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