James Maxton

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James Maxton
Member of Parliament
for Glasgow Bridgeton
In office
15 November 1922 – 23 July 1946
Preceded byAlexander MacCallum Scott
Succeeded byJames Carmichael
Personal details
Born(1885-06-22)22 June 1885
Pollokshaws, Glasgow, Scotland
Died23 July 1946(1946-07-23) (aged 61)
Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland[1]
Cause of deathCancer
Political partyLabour (until 1932)
ILP (1932–1946)
Sarah McCallum
(m. 1919; died 1922)
Madeline Glasier
(m. 1935)

James Maxton (22 June 1885 – 23 July 1946) was a British left-wing politician, and leader of the Independent Labour Party.[2] He was a pacifist who opposed both world wars. A prominent proponent of Home Rule for Scotland,[3][4] he is remembered as one of the leading figures of the Red Clydeside era. He broke with Ramsay MacDonald and the second minority Labour government, and became one of its most bitter critics. As the leader of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), he disaffiliated the ILP from the mainstream party in 1932. Afterwards, he became an independent dissident outside front-line politics.


Early years[edit]

Born in then burgh of Pollokshaws (now part of the city of Glasgow) in 1885, James Maxton was the son of two schoolteachers. He would himself later enter that profession after his education at Hutchesons' Boys' Grammar School and the University of Glasgow.[5]

Whilst studying at the University of Glasgow, Maxton had described his political loyalties as lying with the Conservatives. He soon came to socialism, however, and in 1904 he joined the Barrhead branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Maxton's move to socialism was heavily influenced by John Maclean, a fellow student at Glasgow University. In addition to Maclean's influence, Maxton was moved towards socialism by a meeting which he attended in Paisley which was addressed by party leader Philip Snowden. He was also influenced by the written word, including books by Robert Blatchford and Peter Kropotkin.[6]

Later in life, Maxton claimed that the biggest influence in his decision to become a socialist was the grinding poverty experienced by many of the children he taught. He subsequently convinced all his siblings to join the ILP, with his sister Annie becoming a prominent figure in the organisation.

From 1906 to 1910, Maxton was active in the Schoolmasters' Union, where he refined his talents as a propagandist and orator.[7]

Personal life[edit]

On 24 July 1919, Maxton married teacher Sarah McCallum. They had one child, James, in 1921. Sarah died in 1922.[1] On 14 March 1935, Maxton married Madeline Grace Glasier, who had worked for him as a volunteer researcher and secretary for 11 years. [1][8]

Political career[edit]

Campaign leaflet from Maxton's first unsuccessful bid for parliament, 1918.

Maxton was known as an effective public speaker. Historian Keith Middlemas offers this vivid description:

He was well-known as a platform orator with a thin hatchet face and mane of long black hair which fell across his face giving it a saturnine and piratical appearance, but although he was an established speaker and propagandist for the ILP, his considerable intellect had been somewhat masked by the showman's facility. The genuine hero-worship which grew around him was restricted to his native Barrhead where the ILP branch was his private preserve.[9]

Maxton was a vociferous opponent of World War I. He was a conscientious objector, refusing conscription into the British Armed Forces, and instead being given work on barges. During this time he was involved in organizing strikes in the shipyards as part of the Clyde Workers' Committee. Maxton was arrested in 1916, and charged with sedition. He was subsequently found guilty and imprisoned for a year.[10]

In 1918, Maxton was elected to the National Council of the Labour Party.[11] He and Ramsay MacDonald were responsible for moving the motion at the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party which dictated that Labour members of David Lloyd George's wartime coalition government resign from it in preparation for the 1918 general election. He was also a keen supporter of Scottish Home Rule and was for a while the President of the Scottish Home Rule Association when Ramsay MacDonald was the Secretary of the London Branch.

Maxton stood for parliament in the 1918 general election as a Labour Party candidate but was defeated in this first effort.

In his next electoral attempt, Maxton was successful, winning a seat as Member of Parliament (MP) for Glasgow Bridgeton in the 1922 general election. Once in parliament, however, Maxton's forthright views often caused controversy. In 1923, his parliamentary privileges were temporarily removed when he called the Conservative MP Sir Frederick Banbury a "murderer", following the government's decision to withdraw school milk.[12] In 1933, when then-Prime Minister MacDonald made a particularly meandering and incoherent speech to Parliament, it was interrupted by Maxton calling out: "Sit down, man, you're a bloody tragedy."[13]

Maxton was chairman of the ILP from 1926 to 1931, and from 1934 to 1939; he was generally seen as the symbol of the ILP after its break from Labour in 1932. A militant socialist, he was horrified by the perceived class collaborationism of the Trades Union Congress after the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, and was co-author with the left-wing Miners leader, Arthur Cook, of the "Cook-Maxton Manifesto" of 1928 calling for class warfare in the overthrow of capitalism. As chairman of the ILP, he endorsed a "Living Wages" policy demanding high minimum wages for workers and nationalization of all private businesses unable to pay them.[14]

In 1927, Maxton was elected International Chairman of the League against Imperialism at its General Council meeting in Brussels; he was re-elected to the same post at the League's 1929 Conference in Frankfurt.[15]

In 1932, Maxton published a popular biography of Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin. Maxton wrote of him: "We are still too near to [Lenin] in time, too close to the happenings incidental to his work, too much under the influence of partisan antipathies or sympathies to venture final assessments. It is not yet possible to say that Russia has in practice realised the Utopian state of plenty, of liberty and of happiness, nor is it possible to say that other countries may not reach a better state in speedier and less harsh ways. It is possible to say that this man, quiet, unassuming, unimposing, set himself a task of immense size when still a boy, and stuck to it tenaciously to the end of his life."[16]

In 1936, following the abdication of Edward VIII, Maxton proposed a "republican amendment" to the Abdication Bill, which would have turned the UK from a monarchy into a republic. Maxton argued that while the Monarchy had benefited Britain in the past, it had now "outlived its usefulness". The amendment was defeated by 403 votes to five.[17]

In his diary for 3 September 1939, Sir Ralph Glyn reported that "James Maxton, the pacifist, rose, gaunt, a Horseman from the Apocalypse, doom written across his face," and declared, "Don't let's talk of national honour: what do such phrases mean? The plain fact is that war means the slaughter of millions. If the Prime Minister can still maintain the peace, he will have saved those lives, he mustn't be rushed."[18]

During the Second World War, Maxton visited HM Prison Brixton to see Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, who was then being detained under the Defence Regulations.

On 29 January 1942, Maxton was the only one out of 465 members of the House of Commons to vote against a Motion of Confidence in Winston Churchill's wartime government.[19]

Death and legacy[edit]

Maxton died of cancer at Largs, Ayrshire, in 1946, still sitting as MP for Bridgeton, and was cremated at Glasgow Crematorium.[1] After his death, the ILP stagnated until it ceased to be a viable independent political party.

Maxton was considered one of the greatest orators of the time, both within and outside the House of Commons. Churchill, whilst holding political opinions wholly inconsistent with those of Maxton, described him as "the greatest parliamentarian of his day".[citation needed] His biographer Graham Walker concludes:

Maxton was one of the most charismatic figures in twentieth-century British public life. He was essentially a Scottish radical whose propagandist skills for the wider British labour movement have earned him folk hero status in socialist circles.[20]

Maxton heavily influenced his family's political opinions, and his mother and all his siblings also joined the ILP. His brother John was also a conscientious objector in the First World War. His son James and his nephew John Maxton were conscientious objectors to National Service after the Second World War. John went on to become Labour MP for the Cathcart division of Glasgow from 1979 to 2001 and was made a life peer in 2004.

Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister, has published a biography, Maxton, based on his PhD thesis at the University of Edinburgh.


  1. ^ a b c d "Maxton, James [Jimmy]". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34957. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Peter Ackers; Alastair J. Reid (2016). Alternatives to State-Socialism in Britain: Other Worlds of Labour in the Twentieth Century. Springer. p. 195. ISBN 9783319341620.
  3. ^ Knox, William (1987). James Maxton. Manchester University Press. p. 49. ISBN 9780719021527. Retrieved 10 October 2009.
  4. ^ "Letter from the Scottish Home Rule Association to James Maxton, 16 Nov 1922". Glasgow Digital Library. Centre for Digital Library Research, University of Strathclyde. Retrieved 10 October 2009.
  5. ^ "James Maxton". The University of Glasgow Story. University of Glasgow. Retrieved 17 January 2023.
  6. ^ Robert Keith Middlemas, The Clydesiders: A Left Wing Struggle for Parliamentary Power. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1965. Page 48.
  7. ^ Middlemas, The Clydesiders, pg. 48.
  8. ^ "MR JAMES MAXTON DEAD". Dundee Evening Telegraph. D.C.Thomson & Co. Ltd. 23 July 1946. Retrieved 16 August 2022.
  9. ^ Middlemas, The Clydesiders, pp. 47–48.
  10. ^ "James Maxton", Spartacus Educational, Retrieved 7 September 2009.
  11. ^ Middlemas, The Clydesiders, pg. 106.
  12. ^ Knox, William (1987). James Maxton. Manchester University Press. p. 43. ISBN 0719021537. Retrieved 9 March 2021.
  13. ^ Jones, Bill, The Politics Today Dictionary of British Politics
  14. ^ Thorpe, Andrew (1997). A History of the British Labour Party. London: Macmillan Education UK. p. 66. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-25305-0. ISBN 978-0-333-56081-5.
  15. ^ Ellison, John (2017). "The League against Imperialism (British Section) - A Hidden History". Communist Party History Group: Our History. 15 (vol 2 new series): 8, 17 – via issuu.
  16. ^ Maxton, James (2018). Lenin: A Biography (PDF). Scottish Socialist Party.
  17. ^ Denis Judd, George VI London, IB Tauris, 2012 ISBN 9781780760711 (p.157).
  18. ^ The Mammoth Book of How It Happened, ed. Jon E. Lewis, London: Robinson, 2000, p. 399
  19. ^ "Motion of Confidence in His Majesty's Government (29 January 1942)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 29 January 1942. Retrieved 11 June 2021.
  20. ^ Walker (2011)

Publications by James Maxton[edit]

  • A Living Wage for All: Dr. Salter's Speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday, March 7, 1923. London: Bermondsey Independent Labour Party, 1923.
  • The Left Wing: Its Programme and Activities. London: National Left Wing Provisional Committee, n.d. [c. 1926].
  • Twenty Points for Socialism. London: ILP Publication Department, n.d. [c. 1927].
  • Our Case for a Socialist Revival. With A.J. Cook. London : Workers' Publications, n.d. [c. 1928].
  • The Roads to Socialism: Chairman's Address at the ILP Conference. London: ILP Publication Department, 1929.
  • The Case of Benn v. Maxton: Being a Correspondence on Capitalism and Socialism, to which is Appended the Report of a Broadcast Debate. With Ernest John Pickstone Benn. London: E. Benn, 1929.
  • Speech on the Government's Unemployment Proposals in the House of Commons 4 November 1929. London: ILP Publication Department, n.d. [1929].
  • Where the ILP Stands: Presidential Address of J. Maxton to the ILP Conference, together with the Declaration on the Relation of the ILP to the Labour Party. London: ILP Publication Department, 1930.
  • Lenin. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1932.
  • Widespread Poverty: "The Existing Social Order Must Go." London: Independent Labour Party, 1933.
  • A Clear Lead. With Fenner Brockway. London: Independent Labour Party, 1933.
  • Keir Hardie: Prophet and Pioneer. London: F. Johnson, n.d. [c. 1933].
  • Dictators and Dictatorship. London: Independent Labour Party, n.d. [c. 1934].
  • If I Were Dictator. London: Methuen, 1935.
  • The Unity Campaign. With Stafford Cripps and Harry Pollitt. London : National Unity Campaign Committee, 1937.
  • Maxton's Great Anti-War Speech. Glasgow : Civic Press, n.d. [1939].
  • Why We Oppose Conscription. London: Independent Labour Party, n.d. [1939].
  • Break Truce with Tories and Build Labour Unity! A Statement for Consideration by Men and Women of the Labour Movement. With Fenner Brockway. n.c. [London]: Independent Labour Party, n.d. [1943].

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Gordon. Maxton: A Biography. Mainstream Publishing Co., 1986.
  • Cohen, Gidon. "Myth, History and the Independent Labour Party." in The Foundations of the British Labour Party (Routledge, 2016) pp. 109–126.
  • Dawson, Alan. "Red Clydeside: a digital history of the labour movement in Glasgow 1910-1932." Dunaskin News 5 (2004) online.
  • Dowse, Robert E. Left in the Centre: The Independent Labour Party 1893–1940. London: Longman's, 1966.
  • Griffin, Paul. "Diverse political identities within a working class presence: Revisiting Red Clydeside." Political Geography 65 (2018): 123-133.
  • Kenefick, William. Red Scotland! The Rise and Fall of the Radical Left, c. 1872 to 1932 (Edinburgh University Press, 2007). Pp. 230.
  • Middlemas, Robert Keith. The Clydesiders: A Left Wing Struggle for Parliamentary Power. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1965.
  • Walker, Graham. "Maxton, James (1885–1946)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 accessed 2 Aug 2016

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Glasgow Bridgeton
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by
James A. Allan
Scottish Division representative on the Independent Labour Party National Administrative Council
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chairman of the Independent Labour Party
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chairman of the Independent Labour Party
Succeeded by