Caledonian Communists

You can read more about my research on Scottish Australian radicals and communists in History Scotland (Vol. 13, No. 1, 2013) and in Scottish Labour History (Vol. 48, 2013). More details of these publications are available on my Academia website.

This post first appeared in The Scottish Banner (April, 2011).

There is a general idea out there that, when it comes to politics in Australia, Scots have been a mostly conservative lot. There may be some truth to this, as many conservative politicians have been Scottish or of Scottish descent. Robert Menzies would be the most obvious example here. The preponderance of Irish Catholic politicians in the ranks of the Labor party might have also helped to reinforce the idea the Scots should stand on the other side of politics.

But it is equally true that Scots have been prominent in radical and progressive politics. Indeed, as the historian Stuart Macintyre has found, ‘it is a well kept secret that Australian communism was a Caledonian conspiracy.’ The three founders of the Communist Party of Australia in the 1920s were Scots, as were many of the office bearers within the party over the years. Many CPA branch presidents were Scottish, as were prominent members of affiliated trades unions. One politician even caused public uproar in 1945 when he suggested that all Scots should be deported from Australia to help stem the rising tide of the workers movement.

Perhaps the most well known Scot to become involved in communist politics in Australia is John Bramwell Miles – Jack or J.B. for short. Jack Miles was born in September 1888 at Wilton, Roxburghshire, Scotland. He attended elementary school in Edinburgh before being apprenticed to a stonemason in the north of England. After finding a job at Consett, Country Durham, Jack joined the Independent Labour Party. In October 1911 he married Elizabeth Jane Black.

Together, Jack and Elisabeth emigrated to Queensland in 1913. After working for some years as a stonemason, he was recruited to the Queensland Socialist League in 1918. When the Communist Party formed in 1920, he joined its Brisbane branch. Over the next few years, Jack represented the Australasian Meat Industry Employees’ Union, and then the United Operative Stonemasons’ society of Queensland, on the Trades and Labor Council. He quickly became influential in the Communist Party.

In 1929 he took control of the Communist Party along with Bert Moxon and Lance Sharkey. By 1931 Jack had moved to Sydney, where his central committee determined policy and enforced its implementation. In this time, he was especially critical of middle-class converts to communism, including fellow Scot Professor John Anderson. Questions of the legality of the party made Jack’s preoccupation with control far worse, and he operated in a mostly semi-clandestine manner as a vigilant, powerful leader.

He visited the Soviet Union between 1934 and 1935, and returned to an Australia that was still in the midst of an unprecedented workers movement brought about by conditions in the Great Depression. He was a figurehead for this movement, and became well known for his pronounced Scottish burr. After speaking to a particularly unsympathetic group of Presbyterian clergymen, one reporter observed that ‘his Scotch accent did not help him at all.’

Indeed, many conservative Scottish Australians in the 1930s shunned the radical Scots, and went to pains to prove that the communists weren’t real Scots anyway. This was despite the fact that Scotland had been in the vanguard of British socialism since, at least, the workers uprising known as the Red Clyde in Glasgow in 1919. The Communist Party of Australia was banned in 1940 for its anti-war policy. Jack went underground, and began writing fierce polemics under the pseudonym ‘A. Mason’. Lance Sharkey, over time, overshadowed him and his influence in the party gradually declined through the 1940s. An Australian Security Intelligence Organisaton officer reported in 1953 that the ‘Grand Old Man of Australian Communism had developed into a kindly little man, aging and whimsical, but he still holds the fire of battle in his eyes. They are sharp, brilliant and magnetic, a strange contrast to the light, grey hair and wrinkled, puckish face.’

Jack had unsuccessfully contested five State and Commonwealth parliamentary seats between 1929 and 1952. Survived by his daughter and four of his five sons, Miles died on 17 May 1969 at Naremburn and was cremated without a religious service. He was the epitome of the radical Scot in Australian politics.

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3 comments

  1. This is really interesting stuff. I’m wondering whether Welsh and Irish migrants in Australia had a similar link with communism, particularly as the Welsh mining towns were a stronghold for the CPGB.

  2. While I can’t speak for communism, there is some new research from Pat Kelly coming out in the 2013 edition of Scottish Labour History that shows a very strong Welsh and Irish presence in Australian trade union leadership circles, along with Scottish migrants. Welsh union leaders rank first (Scottish are second), though that is a proportional score (leaders per 10,000 of pop.) and the Welsh population in Australia has always been small compared to Scottish and Irish numbers. All the same, it looks like a good number of Welsh miners came to Australia and were big contributors to the workers’ movement.

  3. […] In Scotland, stereotypes emerged of Scottish colliers as wild, irreligious, and socially isolated “serfs”. Historians note that the life of Scottish colliers was similar to that of most coal miners; there was an emphasis on masculinity, egalitarianism, group solidarity, and a notable support for radical labour movements. Indeed, Scottish miners in Australia contributed greatly to the labour cause during the 1920s and 1930s. […]

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