Tom Johnston: A Portrait of the Statesman as a Young Man

Liam Payne explores what we can learn from this pioneer activist

Born in the small town of Kirkintilloch in 1881, Tom Johnston is a seminal figure from Scotland’s 20th century history, but one who is generally little known and appreciated in his homeland or beyond. Johnston was the Secretary of State for Scotland during the majority of World War Two (1941-45), and was described by his appointee, Winston Churchill, as the “uncrowned King of Scotland”. Compared to other figures of the wartime national government with similar positions, Johnston’s legacy as a whole is one which deserves more attention than it is currently given. The formative political activities and approaches of this early socialist can be of particular interest to the current British left.

The Known Unknown

By the time of his promotion to Secretary of State for Scotland, Johnston had been a long time Labour MP. He was first elected to the seat of Stirling and Clackmannan West (then West Stirlingshire) in 1922, and then served as MP for Dundee from 1924 until his re-election in his old Stirling constituency in 1929. He served as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland in the disastrous minority MacDonald-led Labour government of 1929-31, and fell victim to the electoral fallout of MacDonald’s deeply emotive betrayal of the labour movement at the end of 1931. Once again victorious in the same seat in the election of 1935, Johnston served the constituents of Stirling and Clackmannan West from then until his retirement from electoral politics in May of 1945.

When Johnston’s memory is invoked these days, it is usually in conjunction with his exploits as Secretary of State and afterwards. During the war, Johnston instigated a prototype national health service in Scotland. Utilising the under-used capacity of hospitals constructed to deal with prospective casualties from German bombing of Scotland, Johnston made this capacity available to the general public, free at the point of use. This was highly successful in dealing with several endemic health crises existent in Scotland at that time, while also providing general medical care to a population that had never experienced such provision.

After his electoral retirement, Johnston became President of the Scottish Tourist Board and the Scottish National Forestry Commission. In both roles he had a lasting impact. Perhaps most memorable was Johnston’s instigation and chairmanship of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. This publicly owned and operated project delivered reliable (and green!) electricity across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. These environs had been almost entirely bereft of access to electricity prior to this, and Johnston’s initiative became world-renowned for its successful implementation, the social and economic benefits it created in its wake, and the pleasingly aesthetic manner in which it brought these changes to a site of well-known natural beauty.

It’s these achievements that linger in the minds of certain politicos in Scotland and beyond whenever the topic of Tom Johnston is raised. He is considered by those in the know to have been a consummate statesman and political operator. Admirers of Johnston span the political spectrum: the latest edition of his biography by journalist Russell Galbraith contains a foreword from both Gordon Brown and Nicola Sturgeon.

But this is not the full story of Tom Johnston. Prior to his promotion to high-ranking cabinet member in the war, Johnston had been most easily recognised as an impassioned and impressive socialist agitator and politician. Founder of the Scottish socialist bulletin Forward, Johnston was also the author of several excoriating books on the class system in Scotland. Elected to parliament as part of the ‘Red Clydesiders’ grouping, it is this increasingly marginalised Tom Johnston that this article will focus on, and explore the lessons that his early life can teach to the latest composition of the labour movement left in Scotland and Britain today.

Municipal Beginnings

Johnston launched his long political career in 1903, when he stood as an Independent Labour Party (ILP) candidate for the School Board in his hometown, Kirkintilloch, and won. Standing on a platform of better remuneration for teachers, a higher school leaving age, and adult evening classes on citizenship, Johnston vowed he wished to see a Kirkintilloch “purged from poverty” starting “with the children”.

Following this, in 1913, Johnston successfully stood for a seat on the Kirkintilloch Town Council. Serving in this capacity until his election to parliament in 1922, Johnston proclaimed of this iteration of Scottish local government – “we pioneered”. Rallying around the nascent ideas of ‘municipal socialism’, Johnston averred that a local community should aim to “capitalise on its own resources to the general advantage of all its citizens” (Galbraith, 1995, p.20). To this end, as the convenor of the Law and Finance Committee from 1920, Johnston moved to set up a municipal bank in Kirkintilloch. Johnston filed the new venture under the then Companies Act purely through a majority vote on the council, and thus the Kirkintilloch Municipal Bank Ltd was launched.

Beginning with only deposits of supportive councillors, and with Johnston naturally appointed chairman, the venture was soon having a positive impact on the town and its inhabitants. Gaining added financial security for deposits through the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society, the bank was “bound by its constitution to invest its monies only with municipal departments”. Interest rates on municipal loans were set at 3.5% or higher, and as the bank could only invest in municipal ventures, this represented a greater return on deposits than could be found elsewhere. With the decision to cap the interest rate at 3%, deposits still soon multiplied, and Kirkintilloch council was able to clear its debts, finance municipal services and projects, and introduce a three pence reduction in the local rates. Johnston felt that a municipal bank provided:

“a standing illustration of the developing civic spirit, an essential support to all the other municipal enterprises and partial relief to the community from the terrible exactions of private banking.”

He took great satisfaction from the fact that funds deposited in his municipal bank were directed toward social and community ends, instead of ending up as grease for the venal speculations and gambling of private finance.

Alternative Media

In 1906, Tom Johnston launched the socialist newspaper Forward. Based in Glasgow, this exercise in alternative media aimed brazenly at “socialist propaganda”, to counteract the prevailing conservative and liberal media landscape of the time. Forward proclaimed to herald “the beginning of a new era in the progress of Socialist, Trades Unionist and Democratic thought in Scotland.”

The success of this new left-wing media platform can be amply gauged by the impressive list of contributors to the paper during Johnston’s editorship: Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, James Connolly, John Wheatley, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Harold Laski, to name a few. The paper’s London-based sister production, the Daily Herald, considered Forward “full of fact and fire and punch, shining with idealism and sparkling with humour.”

In its pomp, Forward sold 30,000 copies a week. It was an early and vocal champion of the cause of women’s suffrage, and Johnston’s publication was at the forefront of many of the major causes and struggles of the labour movement of the first-half of the twentieth century. Johnston combined the roles of founder/editor with the more combative endeavour of writer for the paper itself. One set of thematic articles published in Forward soon found themselves compiled into book format. These became the infamous 1909 broadside Our Noble Families. This book was a firebrand socialist polemic against the aristocratic class in Scotland. In it, Johnston excoriated the “selfish, ferocious, famishing, unprincipled set of hyenas from whom at no time, and in no way, has the country derived any benefit whatever.” The book became a best-seller, with Johnston claiming sales figures of 120,000 copies.

Books such as this were a cogent and deliberate attempt by Johnston to repatriate history from the dominant and traditional celebratory view of aristocratic positions and privileges – and the obfuscation of their origins and material basis – to the perspectives and experiences of the ordinary Scottish person. A second successful book followed in this vein, 1920’s The History of the Working Classes in Scotland: “A catalogue of misery, full of anger and contempt for a system which treated ordinary working people without regard, it recounted the horrors of working-class existence across several centuries of bitter struggle.” (Galbraith, 1995, p.41).

Despite the propitious sales figures and the continued relevance of these arguments, the latter statesman Tom Johnston appeared to largely repudiate his earlier work. In his 1952 memoirs, Johnston recanted that Our Noble Families was “historically one-sided and unjust and quite unnecessarily wounding.” Long-time Forward assistant editor, Emrys Hughes, scolded this turn by the elder Johnston, stating in defence of the original tract: “Vehement and vitriolic as it was, was it not for the most part true? Indeed…I thought it rang truer than the apologia. The fierce, abusive young radical was far more readable than the unconvincing elder statesman.”  

Mutual Aid

After losing his parliamentary seat in the 1931 electoral bloodbath for Labour, Tom Johnston accepted a senior position at the City of Glasgow Friendly Society (now Scottish Friendly). The society specialised in life assurance policies, and had been formed by local Glasgow working people in 1862 after a schism in an existing Friendly Society. It had caught Johnston’s attention when, during the totemic miners’ strike of 1926  – beginning in conjunction with the great general strike of the same year, and continuing far beyond – the Glasgow Friendly Society had refused to let any of the striking miners’ policies expire, despite their inability to contribute any premiums for the duration of their long struggle.

The aim of the society was to provide a decent and dignified burial for its members and adequate provision for dependants left behind after the event. Formed and owned by its working class participants, the City of Glasgow Friendly Society was a poignant example of the mutual aid structures that were historically created by the labour movement in Britain to use combined working class strength in the interest of these very same communities: a powerful example of the age-old adage ‘solidarity, not charity’.

Johnston took to the role with his customary verve. He streamlined the society so that it offered an ‘all in one’ insurance scheme; covering unemployment, health and pensions. He opened this and the rest of the society up to people who earned over £250 annually. Such a relatively high level of income had previously been a bar on those wishing to join. This idea of universality of coverage would be a vital component of the coming welfare state in Britain, with such institutions as the NHS and the state pension adopting it. It was an example of the types of provisions being offered by the Friendly Society becoming kernels of the developing policy and ideological platforms of the growing socialist movement in Britain, which they would carry into government and the fabric of the country after 1945. Members of the society were also given access to opticians and dentistry care, which was a novelty at the time, and Johnston is said to have materially improved the conditions of the workforce at the Friendly Society, in line with his trade union beliefs.  

Red Clydesider

The ‘Red Clydeside’ Labour MPs are seminal figures in the history of the British labour movement. Elected as part of the breakthrough election of 1922, these left-wing stalwarts have been considered to be the electoral manifestation of the turbulent political climate of Clydeside in the early 20th century. Encompassing significant strikes against rents, sexist employment practices at the local Singer sewing factory, and for the 40 hour working week – resulting in the infamous ‘riot’ in George Square of 1919 – this movement was also prominent in its opposition to the First World War, with leading figures such as Maxton imprisoned for their principled and intransigent positions. Along with Tom Johnston, this group included such luminaries of the left as James Maxton, John Wheatley, David Kirkwood and George Buchanan: “Immortalised in Labour lore, they are remembered still, with affection and pride, as the Clydesiders.” (Galbraith, 1995, p.52).

Standing as the ILP candidate in the then West Stirlingshire seat, Johnston secured 52.4% of the vote, up from 28.7% in 1918, and 8,919 votes, with a majority of 815 (4.8%) from a turnout of 17,023. This victory made Johnston the parliamentary representative of both the Duke of Montrose and Lord Younger, the then Tory chief whip – a satisfactory turn of events for the iconoclastic writer of Our Noble Families. Sharing cheap accommodation in London, these socialist MPs wasted little time in making their presence felt in the ‘mother of Parliaments’, despite Labour being in opposition. Quickly making exclamatory speeches on such topics as the endemic poverty in Scotland and the case for progressive taxation measures, they soon courted notoriety – and, crucially for the issues they raised, attention –  across the chamber and the press.

When they weren’t causing a stir in the capital, this group, along with associates outside of Parliament, used to convene in Miss Cranston’s tea-room to discuss political events, strategies, and the ideas and practices of socialism and socialists. Out of this intellectual grounding came some of the Clydesiders’ most lasting achievements for the British labour movement. As Minister for Health in the first and short-lived Labour government of 1924, John Wheatley passed the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act, which allowed for the first widespread provision of council housing in Britain. Against the shifting of the MacDonald-led Parliamentary Labour Party to the right, James Maxton published and propagated alternative socialist strategies; first through the axis of his partnership with the militant Miners Federation union leader Arthur Cook (the Cook-Maxton manifesto), then again through his leadership of the ILP with its ‘Socialism in Our Time” policy platform. Johnston, for his part, used his penmanship to leave for posterity a clear and cogent account of the failures and treachery of ‘MacDonaldism’ to the cause of labour.   

Conclusions and Contemporary Lessons

In summary, it isn’t hard to see the relevance of these different aspects of Tom Johnston’s early political life to the current British left. In terms of his political beginnings, municipal socialism has seen a resurgence in the past few years with the popularity of the concept of community wealth building amongst socialists in this country. The prominent examples of this approach in Preston, Salford and North Ayrshire have adopted and modernised some of the theories behind Johnston’s drive for municipally owned and operated instruments of finance, being put to socially useful purposes within the communities from which the wealth is drawn.

In a larger sense, this can also feed into the on-going debates around the role of Labour councils in the struggle against neoliberal capitalism in Britain. Such initiatives as Momentum’s councillor training programme illustrate that the potential role these local institutions could play in a re-energised and once again relevant Labour Party, is considered of vital importance to prominent socialist organisations in Britain today. Historic examples of the power of municipal socialism have proliferated in the left-wing media recently, with the Livingstone/McDonnell et al Greater London Council of the mid-80s acting as a celebrated lodestar in this discussion. Alongside these, Tom Johnston’s and Kirkintilloch’s early examples of this type of municipal socialist approach deserve to be studied and appreciated in the on-going development of this project.

The creation of alternative media platforms has formed a relatively successful component of the recent revival in fortunes for the British left. The re-launched Tribune and New Socialist, the Morning Star newspaper, Novara Media, the Scottish Left Review, and specific Labour Party media sources such as Labour Hub and Labour Briefing have provided a mostly new and vibrant media culture on the left in this country. Coupled with older and more theory-based publications such as New Left Review and the Socialist Register, these platforms have given the left a vocal outlet on current events, political incidents and the state of the contemporary British left.

With many of these organs also engaging in intense theoretical debates on wide-ranging topics such as Marxism, socialist praxis, and culture, they provide a vital rallying point and intellectual vehicle for the socialist movement to build understanding, theory and practical plans for the myriad of struggles the left must engage in. Tom Johnston’s Forward is an important precursor to this current media milieu, and the uses he put it to can be informative for those involved in this sphere currently.

In the current Tory-led pandemic age, the concept of mutual aid has become an essential topic of discussion amongst socialists. While perhaps perceived as less imperative and consequential than political machinations or left-wing theorising, mutual aid is a crucial and purposeful activity for the left to be engaged in. Ensuring that working people in this country and beyond can avoid, as much as possible, the stress and strain of material deprivations that capitalism inherently creates amongst the mass of people has many important ramifications. It allows these people to have the ability and time to engage progressively in the public, political and industrial spheres, while also giving the left an accessible, open and community-based action which can help to raise its profile in those areas which it has steadily lost since the advent of the neoliberal counter-revolution from 1979 on.

With political power currently not available through the centralised British state, the sorts of community activism that mutual aid provides is a readily available avenue for socialists to pursue in the aim to build left-wing power and institutions in the vein of Antonio Gramsci’s ‘war of position’ theory. Tom Johnston’s work with the City of Glasgow Friendly Society is a potent example of this type of activity in an institutionalised capacity, and could prompt discussion on the left about creating modern organisations of this stripe, while also encouraging a debate about the current British left’s engagement with the still large and mostly democratic Co-operative movement in this country.

The continued celebration of the ‘Red Clydeside’ MPs shows that their relevance and example is not a fading one. Their extra-parliamentary actions prior to becoming MPs are powerful exemplars of grassroots struggle against the vagaries and iniquities of capitalism. The strikes – some bordering on insurrections – and actions that this group were involved in before 1922 can act as catalysts to the current labour movement left in Britain in their search for meaningful ways to impact politics while being largely ‘outside the institutions’.

The deeds of these MPs when in attendance at Westminster should act as a lesson to the current Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs. Using the media glare of parliament to raise important issues and socialist alternatives in a vociferous and condemnatory manner should be the basic prerequisite for any members of this grouping. This approach has been well demonstrated by the recent interventions of Liverpool MP Dan Carden at Westminster. James Maxton’s work on creating and propagating alternative socialist policies and positions on current political issues is one that should also continue amongst Campaign members.

Alongside Tony Benn’s important intervention with the Alternative Economic Strategy in the 1970s, these should act as historical precedents for the continued policy platforms coming from MPs and councillors in the Campaign group and the recently created No Holding Back organisation – plus the looser Red Paper Collective in Scotland. Similar to Tom Johnston post-1931, socialist MPs should continue to use the pages of publications such as Tribune to communicate the socialist Labour message and offer constructive critiques of the Party and outright criticisms of the incumbent and incompetent government.

Liam Payne is a Labour Party member based in Edinburgh.


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