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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

XIV. Political and social unrest

94. The Trial of John MacLean, 10 May 1918

Texte intégral

  • 6 Quoted in M. Lynch, op. cit., p. 427.

1John MacLean (1879-1923) joined the Social Democratic Federation, the first Marxist organisation in Britain, in 1903. In 1911 he joined the newly formed British Socialist Party (BSP) and became an anti-war and anti-conscription campaigner. On 11 April 1916 Maclean was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. However, massive agitation on his behalf forced his release from prison on 30 June 1917. When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in 1917, Maclean was appointed Soviet Consul to Scotland. In April 1918 John Maclean was arrested and sentenced to a period of five years of penal servitude. After sustained national and international pressure, the government of Lloyd George agreed to release him a few months later. MacLean was arrested and imprisoned two more times, in May and September 1921. Hugh MacDiarmid described MacLean as “the greatest leader the working class of Scotland have yet had”6. The following article from The Scotsman records MacLean’s trial and conviction for his anti-war work in 1918.

2The Scotsman, 10 May 1918.

Sedition trial in Edinburgh. Bolshevist Consul sent to penal servitude

In the High Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, yesterday, John Maclean, ex-teacher, who was recently appointed Russian Consul in Glasgow by the Bolsheviks, appeared for trial before the lord Justice-General and a jury on a charge of sedition. The charge was that on certain stated dates and at various places, and in each case to an audience forming part of the civilian population, and consisting in part of persons engaged in the production, repair, or transport of war material, or in other work necessary for the successful prosecution of the war, he made statements which were likely to prejudice the recruiting, training, discipline, and administration of His Majesty’s Forces […]. Maclean had previously been convicted of contravening the Defence of the Realm Act and Regulations.

In view of the trial some thirty or forty sympathisers with the accused set out on Wednesday night to march from Glasgow to Edinburgh, the march being intended as a demonstration against the prosecution of Maclean. As the march proceeded the number taking part gradually diminished, and having got so far those that remained were glad to finish their journey yesterday morning by motor bus. Half an hour before the proceedings commenced the Court was crowded and a large number of people who sought admission had to be turned away by the police.

  • 7 A barrister appointed as counsel to the British crown. Used when the sovereign is a man.

Mr Clyde, K. C.7, Mr Blackburn, K. C., and Mr C. H. Brown appeared for the Crown. Maclean conducted his own defence and on being asked by the lord Justice-General if he adhered to his plea of not guilty replied ‘I refuse to plead.’ His Lordship intimated that that would be taken as a plea of not guilty. Evidence was then led.

Accused’s statements

Lawrence Marshall, solicitor, Glasgow, said he was a special constable, and attended a meeting in Glasgow on 20th January. He estimated that there would be present about 450 men of military age. Maclean, in his speech, advocated the ‘downing of tools,’ and said that the Socialists should break through all laws and establish their own rules and regulations; that the Clyde district had helped to win the Russian revolution; and that the revolutionary spirit on the Clyde was at present ten times as strong as it was two years ago.

Detective-Sergeant Gordon spoke to having been present at a meeting addressed by the accused at Wellpark Football Field, Shettleston. Maclean made a very seditious speech and one of the accused’s statements was that the Government thought that the only way to tame the workers was to starve them and that in the event of a revolution the working class would not starve, as there was plenty of food in Glasgow.

  • 8 The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a peace treaty signed on March 3, 1918, at Brest-Litovsk between t (...)

James S. Forrest, shorthand writer, Hamilton, said that on 10th February 1918 he attended a meeting at Cambuslang, along with Superintendent Taylor and other police officers. There were present at the meeting some four to five hundred people, the greater proportion of whom were men of military age. Witness took a shorthand note of a speech made by the prisoner. Witness remembered the prisoner saying—‘The capitalist class don’t care how many women and children are destroyed so long as they belong to the working class.’ Another passage was—‘Women are out in the cold, and some deaths are taking place in consequence, not killed by Germans, but killed by your British Government.’ That, said witness referred to the queues waiting at the food shops. Prisoner on that occasion also said that the workers should give the Government a chance of going to Brest-Litovsk8, and if they did not take that chance they should ‘down tools’; and the workers would have to capture the City Chambers in Glasgow, to destroy the police offices and disorganise the police; to close down half the mines in Lanarkshire and keep the other half going to supply coal for the working classes; to go to the farms and get food, and burn the houses if they did not get food; to capture the general Post Office, to capture the banks in Glasgow; and that as soon as they had done these things, they would get the stores and food in Glasgow as well; and that they should capture the ships on the Clyde; that the workers should make no mistake, but profit by the experience of their Russian comrades, and that the experience of the workers in Russia would be the experience of the workers in this country.

Cross-examined—Witness had not made a verbatim report of the accused’s speech, but the important passages were given.

Striking the first blow

Thomas Morrison McArthur, messenger-at-arms, Glasgow, stated that he was a special constable, and had taken notes of a speech by the accused at Kingston Lesser Hall, Paisley Road, Glasgow, in the course of which it was said that the workers should be prepared at any moment to throw themselves at the throats of the capitalist class.

Cross-examined, witness did not understand by the statement of the accused that the workers should get at the pockets of the capitalists.

William Tulloch Cuthbert, company secretary, Glasgow and William Galston, Glasgow, spoke to the accused having stated at a meeting on 13th March that the workers might strike the first blow for the revolution on the 1st of May.

John Syme, detective inspector, Hamilton, and Samuel Jordan, detective sergeant, Airdrie, as well as two shorthand writers, gave evidence regarding a speech by the accused at Harthill Public School, Shotts, on 4th April 1918. On that occasion the accused said that the working classes should refuse to share in the war, but should leave the owners of the land, the mines, and the factories to man the trenches, and if they killed one another the working classes could take the land, the mines, and factories; that he had been teaching classes in Lanarkshire and Fife, and developing the spirit of the revolution in Scotland, as it had been developed for the last ten or fifteen years in Russia, where the most enlightened workers in the world were to be found at the present time; that when the revolution came the workers must seize the pits, railways, works and land, and do their part in overthrowing their common enemy by putting society in the melting-pot; and that they should abolish class, capitalists, armies, and navies, and get hold of the land, as the Bolsheviks had done, either by force or by persuasion—it did not matter which.

The case for the prosecution having been closed Maclean stated that he did not intend to lead evidence nor to go into the witness box himself.

Mr Clyde in addressing the jury, said they had heard in the course of the evidence a good many references to Socialism, social revolution; and the like. However inappropriate these subjects might be to the moment, there was nothing in this country or in its law, even as that law had to be framed to meet the emergency with which they were faced, to prevent any man if he pleased, from talking about politics or about Socialism. If the prisoner had been content to expound what he knew, or what he thought he knew, about Socialistic theories, if he had been content to try to persuade other people of the soundness and expediency of the plans of Socialistic reconstruction in which he believed, nobody could have laid a finger on him. But there came a point at which discussion of Socialistic questions or discussion of any question changed its character. At that point there came the deliberate and persistent attempt to plant seeds of disunion, disloyalty, sedition and mutiny among the people. They could not afford at the present time to have the people incited to active violence and rebellion while the enemy was at their gates. He submitted that the case against the accused was absolutely and completely proved.

The prisoner’s address

The prisoner, in the course of a long address, said that for the full period of his active life he had been a teacher of economics to the working classes, and his contention had always been that capitalism was rotten to its foundation. His motives were clean and genuine and he was out for the benefit of society, and not to wrong any human being. He made reference to an article on Bolshevism which appeared last Saturday in The Scotsman, and said it was written specially to create an atmosphere against Bolshevism at that trial. As long as he lived he was going to exercise his liberty and freedom of expression. He had squared his conscience with his intellect, and if everybody did that, there would be no war. If he went to prison he would take no food. If anything happened as the result it would not be his responsibility, but that of the British Government.

The Lord Justice-General said a question of simple fact was submitted to the jury–whether on the eleven different occasions mentioned in the indictment the accused made the statements alleged. No attempt had been made by the defence to deny that the statements were made.

The jury without retiring, unanimously found the charges proved.

His Lordship in passing sentence said he had taken into account the fact that he had, so far as his Lordship could judge, over a year to serve of his former sentence. The sentence would be that he be sent to penal servitude for a period of five years.


6 Quoted in M. Lynch, op. cit., p. 427.

7 A barrister appointed as counsel to the British crown. Used when the sovereign is a man.

8 The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a peace treaty signed on March 3, 1918, at Brest-Litovsk between the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the Central Powers, marking Russia’s exit from World War I.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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