Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros7The Radical Thread - Liberalism a...

The Radical Thread - Liberalism and the rise of Labour in Scotland 1886 - 1924

Catriona MacDonald

Texte intégral


1This paper is a revised version of a lecture delivered to the Liberal Democrat History Meeting at the Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference in 2009. It was the subject of a report in the Journal of Liberal History (Winter 2009-2010), pp. 32-38. See also Catriona M.M. Macdonald, The Radical Thread: Political Change in Scotland, Paisley 1885-1924 (John Donald, 2000).

2Contemporary resonances are seductive when reflecting on the historic and recent past of the Liberal Party in Britain and its modern manifestation, the Liberal Democrats. Yet a very brief look at the current electoral map of the UK immediately alerts us to the regional dynamics in electoral behaviour that call into question the utility of generalisations that have as their foundation macro-level data.

3For my own interests, when one looks at the component nations of the UK, it is clear that Scotland is simply different. While experiencing a massive defeat at the polls in the south, at least back home Gordon Brown had something to smile about. Last year, all the parties in Scotland retained the same number of seats in the Westminster parliament they had won in 2005: Labour, 41; Liberal Democrats 11; Scottish National Party, 6, and the Scottish Conservatives just one. Indeed, north of the English-Scottish border, Labour’s share of the popular vote grew, and the so-called Clegg-factor appeared to have little impact on the Liberal Democrats whose share of the popular vote actually declined.

4It is not my intention to explain this, but rather to suggest that such Scottish distinctiveness is nothing new, although it has taken a variety of forms. For our purposes today, it pays to be reminded that in the late Victorian period, Scottish party politics were distinctive within the UK for three important reasons: the continuing strength and dominance of the Liberal Party; the relative weakness of Conservatism in the north (except on exceptional occasions), the very slow emergence of the Labour alternative.

5In the Edwardian and early inter-war years, this would change – as the graph here suggests. Nevertheless, it took some time for Scots to abandon their Liberal faith, and the reasons why the eventually did so, are perhaps not quite as straight-forward as one might assume.

6Popular histories and commonly-held assumptions regarding Scotland’s radical sensitivities have created something of a liberation narrative for Labour in the north that has its genesis in the immediate post-war years on Clydeside. In this regard, the events and characters associated with successful rent-strike action in 1915, and ‘Bloody Friday’, on 31 January 1919 are fundamental. These events suggested that Labour had finally won the mantle of Scottish radicalism and that – empowered by war-time struggle – had become the natural inheritor of a Liberal movement which – in comparison – had lost its common touch. But is this tale we tell our selves actually founded on convincing historical evidence? Graph 2 suggests that even after the radicalising experience of war and industrial strife, Labour took some time to win the hearts, votes and seats of the Scottish electorate. In 1922, for example, while Scottish Labour secured its best result to date – 29 seats – the combined forces of Liberalism and National Liberalism still secured 27 seats, and in 1924, the Scottish Conservatives won ten more seats than the Labour Party. Indeed, in these years, England appeared more radical than its northern neighbour, with 138 seats going Labour in 1923. Certainly, in Glasgow the notion of a Red Clyde does bear scrutiny: in each of the polls in 1922, 1923 and 1924, Labour’s share of the poll in the constituencies in which the party stood never fell below 50%.

Nevertheless Glasgow is very far from being representative of Scotland as a whole.

The Paisley by-election of 1920

7In an attempt to explain the complex electoral geography of Scotland in these years and to reach below the national to local determinants of voting patterns, I am going to turn to a Scottish town, not so very far from Glasgow, which Benjamin Disraeli some years before had considered a political and economic barometer of his age. Paisley. After all, it was here in 1920 that Herbert Asquith, the former Liberal Premier, won an iconic victory for Liberalism that – at least in the short-term – seemed to speak to the continued virility of the Party and the relevance of its creed.

  • 1 National Library of Scotland, (Y.172), ‘The Message of Paisley’ (Pamphlet, 1920).

8On March 10 1920, in the wake of her father’s victory at the recent by-election in Paisley, Lady Violet Bonham Carter –Asquith’s daughter - breathlessly confessed to a meeting in the National Liberal Club that ‘there’s not an inch of Paisley that isn’t hallowed ground to me.’1 Just how a Scottish industrial burgh on the banks of the Cart river came to occupy such a cherished place in the heart of this Liberal aristocrat in 1920 requires explanation.

9Paisley, as many of you may know, was famed for its textiles. After a trade depression in the 1840s, the iconic Paisley shawls were replaced by thread as the town’s most famous export. (The Coats empire has its birthplace here.) But other manufacturers were also evident in the early decades of the twentieth century: Brown and Polson’s (corn flour and starch producers); Robertsons, makers of preserves, and a variety of engineering and shipbuilding companies whose futures were tied to the health of the thread giants, all offered employment to a community dominated by industrial manufactures. Not surprisingly, in 1911 over 77% of the occupied population of Paisley worked in industry. If we take only class as our guide, it was not obvious territory for Scottish Liberalism’s last hurrah.

10Yet, there was a Liberal tradition of long-standing in this burgh. In every parliamentary election and by-election since the Great Reform Act of 1832 Paisley’s citizens had elected Liberals, and – except when the Liberal candidacy was contested - at no time had the Liberal majority dropped below 10%. By 1920, then, Paisley Liberalism had survived the various threats posed by Chartism in the 1840s, Liberal Unionism in the 1880s and beyond, and the emergent Labour interest in Scotland that asserted itself most forcefully in the opening years of the twentieth century.

11For each generation, Liberal loyalties had a unique dimension, but over the years well-known local candidates, the influence of Liberal inclined employers (most notably the Coats family), an unrelenting commitment to free trade, a certain vocabulary of democratic rights, an appeal to community, the uncomfortably close relations between Unionist and Orange interests in the burgh, and a Labour movement plagued by disunity and hampered by residual Liberal sympathies had grounded Liberal success in this proud burgh. On first appraisal, then, there seems little to explain when it comes to the Liberal victory of 1920. But then again, things were not that simple.

12War had changed for ever the political environment of Scotland. In Paisley a generation of women whose working lives in the thread mills would end on marriage became aware of their own potential as they worked on the town’s trams, in munitions factories and as leaders of rent strikes. A generation of young men had been radicalised as a result of their war-service; the inspirational influence of Red Clyde leaders like John MacLean or Jimmy Maxton, or their experience of what state intervention in the economy could achieve in the ship-yards and engineering works of Clydeside. Whole families had become acutely aware of their power as consumers as membership of the co-operative movement rose dramatically during the war years. Finally, whether disheartened by the fractured Liberal leadership in war-time, the introduction of conscription, the militarisation of society or the compromises of Versailles, many Liberal stalwarts questioned their loyalty to a party that seemed strangely out of step with both the harsh realities of the modern world, and the Liberal radicalism of the past.

13At the 1918 general election, the sitting Liberal MP, the soap manufacturer, Sir John McCallum, faced two opponents. Brandishing the Coalition ‘coupon’, the Unionists promoted the Glasgow furniture-maker, John Taylor, a member of the staunchly patriotic British Workers’ League. With the hope of a new constituency on his shoulders, the third candidate was J.M. Biggar, a housing factor by profession, and the new Co-operative Party’s candidate endorsed by the local Labour movement. McCallum won with a slim 0.5% majority – just 106 votes ahead of the Labour hopeful. It’s not surprising, then, that when McCallum died less than two years later, many feared the Liberal tradition of the burgh would die with him.

14The Paisley by-election of 1920 necessitated by McCallum’s death was the first contest in an independent Liberal seat since the 1918 election. While Asquithian Liberals had notched up some memorable by election victories in Leyton West, Hull Central and Central Aberdeenshire since then, after May 1919, it was clear that the initiative in the constituencies had passed to Labour.

15Paisley Liberals were realistic about their chances: their first plan was to seek a compromise Coalition candidate with the Unionists to unify the anti-Socialist vote. But just as a consensus was forming, rumours began to circulate that Asquith would be willing to contest the burgh as an Independent. The Daily Record commented:

  • 2 Daily Record, 17 Jan 1920.

There are Liberals who want Mr Asquith and no other. There are those who want any Independent other than Mr Asquith. There are others who are ‘swithering’ between Mr Asquith and Coalition… [and] in the last division of the Liberal forces are those who are determined to stand by the Coalition.2

16In the end, Asquith won the Liberal nomination with only an 18 vote majority over J.C. Watson – an Edinburgh advocate, and son of the editor of the Paisley Daily Express – whose joint candidature would have been popular with the Unionists.

  • 3 Kelley, ‘Asquith in Paisley: the Content of British Liberalism at the end of its era’, Journal of B (...)

17Asquith’s celebrity and gravitas had no doubt carried much weight in a constituency eager to affirm its proud reputation against Glasgow’s claims that – by the 1920s – Paisley was little more than a suburb of the Second City of Empire. Nationally, the contest of 1920 would be hailed as a second ‘Midlothian’ – a reference point in the history of Liberal thought in Britain.3 Yet, from a local perspective, Asquith’s candidature merely papered over cracks within the local constituency party and left unresolved many of the dilemmas that war had brought to the surface.

18Asquith’s campaign sought to reaffirm the relevance of party identities that post-war Coalition politics had undermined. ‘We are perfectly contented with our old name and our old creed’, Asquith emphasised. This ‘old creed’, however, did have an air of novelty. Asquith’s Paisley speeches were collected and published as ‘The Paisley Policy’, in an attempt to assert the contemporary relevance of rather well-worn Liberal shibboleths : dominion self rule for Ireland; proportional representation; the establishment of a partially nominated second chamber; cuts in public expenditure; the taxation of land values; opposition to nationalisation; the local veto and free trade. None of these would have appeared out of place in a pre-1914 manifesto. But there was something about 1920 that affirmed their potency in this constituency at least, and set Paisley apart from the rest of Scotland.

19Asquith’s close association with Irish Home Rule in the pre-war years also paid dividends. Paisley boasted a long-established Irish community, and one that had been loyal to Liberalism despite Labour’s promises. Indeed, it was not until 1919 that a Paisley branch of the Catholic Socialist Society was formed – far later than the Glasgow counterpart. When the election was called, Labour had had insufficient time to entirely secure the Irish vote for their candidate, and evidence of division within United Irish League ranks was evident throughout the contest.

20Asquith’s record on the female franchise hardly endeared him to the womenfolk of Paisley – he had consistently resisted the female suffrage throughout his premiership. However, in 1920, his entourage included secret weapons that would establish Liberal claims to the female vote and divert attention from his pre-war record – namely his wife, Margot Asquith, and – more importantly, his daughter, Lady Violet Bonham Carter. The Paisley Daily Express commented that Lady Violet had ‘won the sympathy of women voters. Her unostentatious manner and her racy speeches have secured for her a large following.’

21Asquith’s message of community over class was also pertinent for Paisley in 1920. Memories of Bloody Friday and the 1919 Forty Hours strike were all too fresh in the minds of workers on the eve of the polls. Over 15,000 in Paisley alone had been involved in strike action and picketing. The failure of organised Labour made many re-think their flirtation with socialism. To them, Asquith’s words that ‘no interest and no class is entitled to prevail over the predominant interest of the community as a whole’ offered reassuring consolation even if it eschewed the creation of a new world order.

22Despite their protestations to the contrary, Labour in Paisley was also divided in 1920. J.M. Biggar was the candidate again, and – as a Co-operative candidate – was treated with suspicion on the part of many on the left of the party. Indeed, his Labour endorsement had been carried by only 13 votes to 12 in 1919, and on his defeat, the ILP asserted what they saw as their right to nominate a more thorough-going Socialist candidate.

23There were therefore clearly important local determinants of Asquith’s success in 1920. Few of them had much to do with the specific detail of Asquith’s manifesto, and his election should not therefore be considered as an unequivocal expression of Scotland’s deepest political sympathies or indeed an anachronistic throw-back in the face of a modernising political agenda. Rather 1920 was a reflective stage in the evolutionary process of political conversion. As the Paisley Daily Express put it: a point ‘where men halt between two opinions’.

24The election results for the 1922 and 1923 contests reveal – if one wanted to take an uncharitable view – that Asquith firstly…held on to the seat by the skin of his teeth in 1922 against a unified Labour opposition, and secondly… would have lost it in 1923 had it not been for a divided Labour candidature and the emergence of a Unionist challenger who – having dared to split the anti-Socialist vote - probably did Asquith a greater favour by bringing to life the real danger of a Labour victory and the comfort to be had in sticking with what you know.

25Yet, here is obviously more to these results than simple number crunching suggests. The 1922 election found Asquith attempting to fight both as a local MP and as a national party leader: roles which were at times irreconcilable. Asquith’s national profile also meant he spent many days away from Paisley during the exciting days of campaigning. Paisley citizens did not appreciate coming second – not even to the gravest affairs of state. (He should have learnt this lesson after his defeat in East Fife.) In Paisley, the left was also getting its house in order, and tensions between the Labour and Co-operative movements were resolved by 1924. The Irish also had little reason by 1924 to maintain their traditional Liberal sympathies. With partition a reality, and a minority Labour government experiencing its first taste of power there was every reason to believe that Ramsay Macdonald as much as/ if not more so than Asquith would deliver on the questions that now mattered to the Irish community. Finally, the worsening economic conditions of the times showed that Free Trade would not guarantee Paisley’s fortunes as it had once done. Unemployment and short-term work were the hallmarks of the labour market in the early 1920s, and quite simply, Liberalism no longer appeared to have the answers as to how this situation might be reversed.

26By 1924 Labour’s message had become more attractive. However, while J.M. Biggar had nursed the constituency for Labour since 1918, his record as a housing factor had besmirched his otherwise impeccable Labour credentials. A new champion was needed. Labour would find their champion in the handsome and charismatic figure of E. Rosslyn Mitchell.

27Mitchell – a lawyer, and well-known Glasgow councillor and magistrate – had been an enthusiastic progressive Liberal before the war years. However, as an influential advocate of the tenants’ cause during the rent strikes, he was radicalised, and in 1918 joined the Independent Labour Party, announcing that ‘the future of radicalism lay in the Labour and not the Liberal Party [where] it would have a broader base from which to work.’In 1919 he fought Bonar Law as the Labour candidate in the Central Division of Glasgow, reducing the Conservative majority from 12,877 to just 2,514. Thereafter, against Sir William Alexander in 1923 the Conservative majority was cut again, this time to just 416. Debonair, articulate, middle-class, and with the experience of having fought a major parliamentarian, he was the ideal choice for Labour in Paisley. What is perhaps more telling is that he would also have been the ideal choice for Liberalism, had the party in Scotland been more adept at accommodating such radicals in the 1920s.

28There was little in the Labour message that would have distinguished it from Asquith’s proposals – except, perhaps, for the nationalisation of industry. Mitchell was no firebrand – no wild Clydesider in the Maxton mould. Indeed, Mitchell joked that the ILPer Davie Kirkwood had offered him membership of the Clydeside fraternite only on the condition that he removed his spats! Mitchell’s Labourism owed much to his Liberal roots and to a moral – as opposed to a class-based – vision of society. His election pamphlets read like a modern catechism:

Labour wants you to fall in love with your country and to love the world.
The world is my parish’, is the motto of statesman as of preacher.
LOVE and SERVICE are eternally and in all things the laws of life.
The glory of a nation is the splendour of its manhood, the goodness of its womanhood, and the godliness of its government.

If the message, then, was ostensibly a Liberal one, why was Asquith defeated in 1924? Here resonances with the present are only too much apparent.

29Part of the explanation lies in the fact that Paisley Liberals had secured a pact with local Conservatives to eliminate the possibility of splitting the anti-Socialist vote. More so than anything else, this seemed to prove Labour’s long-held accusation that Liberalism, now a party of the Establishment, had surrendered its claims on the radical tradition. In comparison, Labour seemed to promise a way out of the economic problems that were undermining the health of the burgh; the parliamentary Labour party now had experience of executive office, and in any case, there was something recognisable and comforting in Mitchell’s message that seemed more plausible coming from his lips than those of Asquith, who was so seldom ever to be spotted in Paisley itself.

301924, therefore, represents the organic crisis of the Paisley Liberal Party, when the ‘traditional’ party of the burgh ceased to be recognised as such by the classes who had once identified in it the main champions of its political aspirations.

31Labour won again in 1929 – a year when the local Liberal Party was recording a deficit of £50, and beyond the whist drives and dances sponsored by the Women’s Section, this once thriving party seemed moribund.

32The Liberal victory in 1931 and again in 1935 proved a false dawn. The victor, Joseph Maclay was a candidate supported by a local Liberal-Conservative pact. The economic climate had encouraged the electorate to seek reassurance in parties that had weathered major crises in the past, but few had any confidence that the Liberal Party could have successfully fielded an independent candidate. The Paisley Daily Express condemned the pact: ‘By that action’, it noted, ‘the Liberal Party had ceased to exist so far as Paisley was concerned.’ Indeed, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the Liberal Party’s victory had been purchased at the expense of its history. As a consequence, Liberalism divorced itself from its past.


33The Liberal hegemony that had been sustained in Paisley throughout the nineteenth century by the influence of the thread giants and the final vestiges of a local radical tradition had been eclipsed.

34Labour victory in 1924, however, did not represent the birth of a new vision of the social order. Rather, 1924 marked the recapitulation of a community’s genuinely plebeian sense of its own radical dissenting past which had been domesticated by Liberalism. Labour victory was achieved not through the denial of the Liberal ethos, but through the appropriation of its vocabulary of popular collectivism in its local form.

35Pacts with the Conservatives, bought the Liberal Party short-term gain, but at a huge cost. In 1945 – despite fielding a member of the Coats family – only 10% of the vote was secured for Liberalism.

36Contemporary resonances are hard to resist and are in part borne out in recent by-election results. Eleven of the Lib Dems 57 MPs elected in 2010 represent Scottish constituencies. North of the Border, where anti-Conservative hostility appears at times a fundamental, nay, foundational characteristic of the political environment it is hard to suggest how the Lib Dems might profitably ‘spin’ their new intimacy with the Conservatives in the Westminster coalition.

  • 4 Editors' note: the conference was held and the paper produced before that date. The result in the S (...)

37In Scotland, this will come on 5 May 20114, when elections to the Scottish parliament will be held. Then, I suppose, will be the test as to whether history is a reliable guide to the present and whether Scotland’s radical thread is still part of the fabric of the nation.

Haut de page


1 National Library of Scotland, (Y.172), ‘The Message of Paisley’ (Pamphlet, 1920).

2 Daily Record, 17 Jan 1920.

3 Kelley, ‘Asquith in Paisley: the Content of British Liberalism at the end of its era’, Journal of British Studies (IV, 1964).

4 Editors' note: the conference was held and the paper produced before that date. The result in the Scottish Parliament elections on 5 May 2011 for the 129 SMPs was 69 for the Scottish National Party, 37 for Labour, 15 for the Conservative Party, 5 for the Scottish Liberals, and 2 for the Scottish Green Party.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Graph 1
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Titre Graph 2
Fichier image/jpeg, 83k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Catriona MacDonald, « The Radical Thread - Liberalism and the rise of Labour in Scotland 1886 - 1924 », Les Cahiers du MIMMOC [En ligne], 7 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2011, consulté le 07 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Mémoire(s), identité(s), marginalité(s) dans le monde occidental contemporain – Cahiers du MIMMOC est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search