Real Scots aren’t communists: Politics and identity in the 20th-century Scottish diaspora

This is an edited excerpt from my article on Scottish Australian workers and radicals in Scottish Labour History, Vol. 48, 2013. Further research on working-class migration from urban industrial Scotland in the early-twentieth century will be published in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies in May, 2016.

Scottish migrants in 1930s Australia were prominent in the workers movements that had emerged in defiance of the conditions experienced during industrial conflict and economic strife in the 1920s and 1930s. Also important, however, is the position and reputation of these migrants in Australian society. As William Kenefick notes, “some of the more important aspects of Scottish political radicalism may be better revealed in the context of how well left-radical ideas were received by the imperial working class.” To this end, Stuart Macintyre writes that in the first half of the twentieth century in Australia, “the Scots and indeed other working-class immigrants from the United Kingdom had an ambiguous status.”

Indeed, in Australia from the late nineteenth century until well into the twentieth century, the popular ideal of Scots was that they were ‘Empire-builders’ and staunch supporters of Britain. The Lord Mayor of Sydney claimed in the late 1930s that wherever Scots settled they retained their “national characteristics” and the Scot “was always a supporter of British culture and everything that was for the welfare and advancement of his adopted country.” The virtuous, Empire-building Scots were “never revolutionary”, he said.

A speaker at a Rockhampton Caledonian society function said in 1938, “In Australia there were thousands of Scottish people of the second and third generations, and while they were Australians first they still felt themselves to be inextricably and sentimentally bound to Scotland.” He cites the preponderance of Scottish festivals and cultural traditions still thriving in Australia as evidence for the fact that “we still feel a deep sense of pride in our racial kinship with such men of genius as Scott and Burns.” There is an important qualification, however: Scotland is part of a “great empire”, and Scots have made “the best settlers in the dominions and colonies.”

This kind of imperial sentiment was widespread during the interwar years in Australia, and as a result those Scots who involved themselves in the workers’ struggles in the early twentieth century were viewed as outcasts in their adopted land, and by the older, established Scottish migrant community. Here we have an example of how, over time, identity and culture in the diaspora can ossify and become disconnected from the realities of home

Interwar Scotland experienced traumatic social, economic, cultural and political dislocation that caused the Scottish imperial identity to deteriorate into a state of crisis. For many in Scottish society, the Empire had become irrelevant. Those committed to imperial visions of Scottish national identity struggled to adapt these notions to the new circumstances of postwar Scotland; although, Empire-building Scots would limp through the Second World War and their favourite image of imperial Scotland – the Highland regiment – would linger well into the twenty-first century.

Replacing popular imperialism was a new brand of socialism. From the middle of the nineteenth century, working-class campaigns for Scottish self-government and sympathy for the ideals of international socialism developed in parallel, and the subordinate role of Scotland as an internal British colony was a common theme in leftwing discourses. In the aftermath of the First World War, British patriotism in Scotland was in decline, and in the period from 1919 to the

Replacing popular imperialism was a new brand of socialism. From the middle of the nineteenth century, working-class campaigns for Scottish self-government and sympathy for the ideals of international socialism developed in parallel, and the subordinate role of Scotland as an internal British colony was a common theme in leftwing discourses. In the aftermath of the First World War, British patriotism in Scotland was in decline, and in the period from 1919 to the mid-1930s the nation’s political sphere was coloured by a complicated mix of nationalism and socialism, throughout which the latter seemed to have dominated political life. Through the interwar era, radical Scots coupled national independence with improved domestic conditions for workers and for the nation as a whole.

During this period, workers recast the historical icons of Scotland in support of their cause. In the 1930s, Scottish communists marching against unemployment could be seen parading with placards of William Wallace alongside posters of Karl Marx. The Scottish Labour leader Tom Johnston characterised Wallace as a radical: “If at the bottom of Wallace’s revolt was not a last effort to cast off feudalism from Scotland, why did the Scoto-Norman nobles hate him so?” Indeed, most left wing home-rule proponents in this period interpreted Wallace as a proto-socialist – some observers even note that the English saw him as “almost a Bolshevik.” The combination of socialism and nationalism was evident in working class anti-war demonstrations. At one rally, the prominent socialist leader John Maclean told 50,000 working men and women that they ought to fight for “freedom and liberty at home before going to Flanders to die for it.”

As the strongholds of Scottish imperial identity in Australia, however, Caledonian societies were engaged in downplaying the influence of socialism in contemporary Scotland. On St Andrew’s Day 1938 the Brisbane Caledonian Society and Burns Club, to the sound of bagpipes, welcomed a haggis – carried on top of a shovelful of burning peat – to their celebrations. Grace was said in Gaelic, before the Rev. Scott Macdonald gave a revealing speech on his attitude to socialism and communism. “The Australian fibre is being weakened by economic witchdoctors,” he said. “There were even Clydesiders in that hectic company in the days of depression; but there is something in the Scottish constitution that resists that social microbe with its discontents and fevers … in an unstable world, rocking between Fascism and Communism, Scots at least will shut their ears to all the theoretical blather about a new age and new ways.”

In response to the comments, Caledonian society members – who “spoke for all Scots and descendants of Scots” – toasted their adopted country, and reiterated their loyalty to the British Empire: “if the call came, they would willingly go to the aid of the Mother Country.”

Newspaper reports and reader correspondence from the 1930s reveal the lengths to which Scottish Australians and others went in their attempts to exclude radicals from associating with the Scottish community, providing evidence of efforts to ‘exonerate’ Scotland and Scots of the communists through genealogy. In June 1933, an anonymous letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald about the preponderance of Irish “Sinn Feiners” holding high offices in the Labor and Communist parties.

In response, one P. S. Cleary from North Sydney produced a list of twenty-four leading communists who were “maistly Scots”, and asked the original writer to “tick off a team of Irish Reds against those.”The next day an individual, writing under the pseudonym “Sardonyx”, claimed that the “long list of Communist leaders bearing Scottish names is certainly a staggering revelation.” The writer continues, “Need we accept this list as truly representing unadulterated Scottish blood? Mixed marriages … might put a different complexion on the matter, and supply a reason for this unhappy breakaway from the national character – English, Scottish, Welsh.”

Later on, focus was once again drawn to the prominence of Scots in Communist Party ranks and once again, the ‘purity’ of their Scottish blood was questioned. Uproar broke out in the federal parliament in June 1945 when Queensland Labor senator George Martens was railing against Ernest Thornton, the general secretary of the Iron Workers Union. Thornton had recently been elected as the Australian Trade Union Representative to the World Trade Union Congress in Paris. Martens announced that if he had his way he would deport “Thornton and every other Scotsman like him from the country.” He added that the two mines in his electorate were “mostly manned by Scotsmen and a worse nest of Communists I could not imagine. I do not think those Scotsmen had a decent feed until they came to this country; but now they are ‘in the money’. I suppose someone will say that there are also Irish Communists, but they are few. Unthinking people do fall for the Communist ideals.” The claims were described as “scurrilous”, and members of the parliament stated that they feared the remarks would cause the Scots in Australia to “rise in wrath”.

Reports soon appeared in which Martens absolved the Scots of any liability for Thornton. Brisbane’s Courier Mail ran an article headlined “Thornton’s Genealogy Exonerates Scotland” in which Martens tells the newspaper he found that “Thornton had an English father and an Irish mother – perhaps another injustice to Ireland… I regret I coupled him with the Scotch people and I want to tender my deepest sympathy to both England and Ireland for having been responsible for this excrescence.” The Advertiser in Adelaide published a piece – “Scotland Not To Blame For Mr. Thornton” – in which another senator, MacDonald, responded that, in any case, “he could not understand how a real Scot could be a Communist.”

George Martens’ suggestion that all Scots could be deported based on their association with communism was not entirely fanciful. Throughout the 1920s, immigration officials employed a variety of methods to restrict communists from entering or returning to the country. The most common method was to deny a known-communists access to a passport by simply asking the British government to withhold passport endorsements for individuals travelling within the Empire jurisdiction. This was the case with William Earsman, one of the Scottish founders of the CPA. Despite living in Australia since 1910, the Australian government attempted to have his endorsement withheld after he visited the Soviet Union in 1921.

After the election of the conservative Lyons government in the early 1930s, immigration restrictions increasingly targeted “undesirables” known to have associated with communists or communist parties. While the Immigration Restriction Act was amended in 1932 to make it easier for foreign-born communists to be deported as criminals, the easiest method was to subject individuals to a dictation test – usually in a language they did not speak. By September 1932, the Minister for Home Affairs, Archadale Parkill, was boasting that he had deported 109 communists – officially known as “prohibited immigrants”.

Antagonisms between the established Scottish conservatives and the new radicals sometimes went beyond mere words. On 13 June 1938, the King’s birthday holiday, a group of militiamen from the Victorian Scottish Regiment entered the CPA offices on Hosier Lane in Melbourne. The group, reported the Argus, damaged paintings of Karl Marx, harassed the party members, and stole what they claimed to be anti-war pamphlets and suspicious maps. The court charged Kenneth Baron Moore, who led the group of militiamen to the party rooms, with wilful damages and a charge of assault was dismissed.

This case echoes a wider movement in the 1920s and 1930s of clandestine paramilitary organisations aiming to stymie the so-called ‘Red’ social and economic reform agendas associated with not only communists, but also moderate socialists such as Jack Lang in New South Wales and E. G. Theodore in Queensland. These groups operated under various names – including the League of National Security, the Old Guard, the New Guard, the White Army, the King and Empire Alliance, and the Returned Serviceman League’s own Anti-Bolshevik Committee – and drew many leaders from conservatives and senior officers in the Australian army. That the Victorian Scottish Regiment was drawn into these rivalries is unsurprising given the predominance of ill will toward socialists and communists among ex-servicemen.

In all, while socialism and Scottish national sentiment could be combined in Scotland, the two seemed at odds in Australia, and this was in large part due to the persistence of an imperial vision of Scottish identity. Claiming a common ancestry was not reason enough to prevent tensions from rising between groups of Scots in public life in Australia during the early twentieth century.

The dominant notion of Scottish national identity in the 1930s was one in which middle-class British patriotism and imperialism was central, and it effectively excluded Scottish radicals from a sense of belonging to the diaspora in Australia. This identity both expounded loyalty to the British Empire and romanticised Scottish cultural traditions while celebrating Scottish achievements in Australia – the role of the Scots as Empire builders was one of the most common tropes in descriptions of the achievements of the Scottish people abroad. Yet, there was a sharp dissonance between what were viewed as the characteristics of a ‘proper’ Scot and the working-class realities of interwar migration from Scotland.

As Macintyre observed, Scottish Australian radicals always seemed ambivalent about locating themselves in a unique Scottish radical tradition. The coupling of nationalism and socialism in Scotland during the first decades of the twentieth century appears to have not taken hold among Scots in Australia, perhaps because Scottish radicals were received as outcasts in Australian society. They were especially scorned by the older established migrants and their descendants who acted as the keepers of an imperial identity that was ossified and disconnected from the realities of working-class Scotland. While radical Scots clearly made distinctive contributions to the working class and labour movements, they achieved this on the margins of the Scottish diaspora in Australia.


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