Scots and the early Australian labour movement

I’ve written before on the subject of Scotland’s radical diaspora and Scottish involvement in the Australian labour movement. With regard to their contributions to Australian politics, Scots have, by and large, been stereotyped as either radical liberals or conservatives. While their influence in those arenas of political thought shouldn’t be downplayed, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some further Scottish contributions to early workers’ organisations in Australia.

This discussion is by no means exhaustive, but perhaps it will give an insight into what Senator Doug Cameron meant when he told the Australian Senate in 2012, “We talk about globalisation and we hear a lot about some of the things the Scots have done, such as bringing culture and engineering excellence to the world. They have taken economics around the world, and they have also taken trade unions around the world … the Scots are well-known for their contribution to engineering and to capitalism, so Scottish entrepreneurs always had that check and balance from the Scottish trade unionists.”

Scots were visible in the early Australian labour movement, and there more than a few rebels and radicals in the convict era, too. We’ve already met William G. Spence, who migrated to Victoria from Orkney in 1852 in the midst of the Highland Clearances. He was eight years old when he witnessed the rebellion at Eureka; twenty years later he was one of Victoria’s most influential union activists.

There were prominent Scottish voices beyond Spence. When Melbourne stonemasons staged a protest and demanded an eight-hour day in 1856, they were led by the secretary of the Stonemasons Union, James Galloway, who had been part of the Chartist movement in Glasgow before emigrating in 1854. Charles Don, from Coupar Angus, was also a leader in the Stonemasons Union, and would become the first trade unionist to be represented in any colonial legislature in 1859. Angus Cameron, who emigrated from Edinburgh in 1854, became the first trade union representative in the New South Wales parliament. In the 1870s, William Miller, from Glasgow, successfully led Sydney engineers to demand an eight-hour day, and became president of the New South Wales Trades and Labor Council.

In the cultural sphere, one Australia’s most important socialist writers and poets in the late-19th and early-20th centuries was Scottish Australian, Mary Gilmore, whose parents were from Inverness; well into her nineties, she was still publishing in radical newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s. In New South Wales in the final decades of the 19th century in particular, Scots were prominent among labour journalists, including Hector Lamond, George Mure Black and James Edmond.

In 1898, William G. Spence was one of the early successful candidates of the Labor Electoral League, a forerunner to the Australian Labor Party, in the wake of the industrial activity of the 1880s and 1890s. After Federation in 1901, Spence was elected to the Commonwealth parliament. In 1907 he stood for the leadership of the Labor, but fellow Scot, Andrew Fisher, defeated him.

Fisher was born in the Ayrshire mining village of Crosshouse. His father had been a union activist, and at seventeen Fisher was made secretary of the Crosshouse branch of the Ayrshire Miners Union. In 1881 he was sacked from his job for participating in Keir Hardie’s ten-week miners’ strike, and 1885 was placed on an employers blacklist. A short while later, he and his brother emigrated to Queensland. Fisher found work in the mines near Gympie, and became involved in community organisations, including becoming branch president of the local Amalgamated Miners Association; in 1890 he was again fired for leading a strike.

Fisher had arrived in Australia as the political wing of the labour movement was taking shape and making electoral gains across the country, and he was increasingly interested in these developments. By the end of the decade, Fisher was a parliamentary member of the first Labor Party to hold government anywhere in the world; Queensland’s Labor Party was lead to victory again in 1906 under Falkirk-born William Kidston. A key figure in these formative years for Labor in Queensland was Matthew Reid, a trade unionist from Glasgow, who was elected to parliament in 1893. One of the successful Labor candidates in the 1891 New South Wales election was Edinburgh-born George Black, who became an influential figure in the fledgling party. In 1892, John McPherson, from Aberdeen, was the first Labor member for the assembly in South Australia.

The inaugural elections for the new parliament of Australia were held in 1901, and Andrew Fisher won the Wide Bay electorate with 55 per cent of the vote; Labor won fourteen lower house seats and  eight seats in the senate. It continued to increase its gains in the first decade of the twentieth-century, and Scots remained prominent in its ranks. In the first parliament, seven of the twenty-four Labor members were from Scotland. Gregor MacGregor, from Argyllshire, was leader of Labor in the senate and deputy chair of the Parliamentary Labor Party. Labor’s chief whip was Hugh de Large, a miner and unionist from Airdrie. In 1903, Bob Guthrie, born in Glasgow and one of the highest-ranking union officials in Australia, was elected to the senate. As Doug Cameron remarked in 2012, “I would not have had a problem with my accent in that caucus—I think I would have been understood pretty well.” Although, unionist and author Pat Kelly notes, Fisher in particular “was not noted for eloquence as a public speaker. His harsh voice and pronounced Ayrshire accent made him difficult to follow.”

Nevertheless, in 1907, Fisher defeated Spence and Billy Hughes to become leader of the Australian Labor Party, and in 1908, after the Liberal government lost support in the parliament, Fisher formed government and became Prime Minister of Australia. Their position was consolidated at the 1910 federal election. In 1911, Fisher returned to Britain to represent Australia at the coronation of King George, after which he travelled to Scotland — accompanied by Keir Hardie — and was received with much enthusiasm at his home village of Crosshouse.

What we witness in the late-nineteenth century and the early-twentieth century is the transferal, via migration, of the dominant political movements of ‘home’. In the mid-nineteenth century, Scotland’s political discourse was dominated — to generalise — by liberalism. By the 1880s, it was, as Malcolm Prentis puts it, “in the vanguard of British socialism. The nation that was quintessentially liberal in 1850 gradually came to be dominated by labour during the next century.” From the 1880s, Scottish migrants were increasingly likely to support workers movements and the Labor Party; Prentis argues that the descendants of earlier migrants remained liberal or conservative, and I have explored the consequences of this elsewhere.

Fisher left parliament due to ill-health shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, and the years that followed would be tumultuous for the Labor Party. They would also see the rise of new socialist organisations in Australia, in which, again, Scots played no small part. The Labor split over conscription to the war in 1916-17 divided Australian labour politics along sectarian lines, pushing Protestant Scots away from their Irish and Catholic counterparts in the Labor Party.  Scottish migrants would continue to contribute to the labour movement, however, but the place of Scots in twentieth century workers’ organisations will be the subject of its own blog post sometime in the future.



One comment

  1. Find your blog so interesting as a Scot from working class background and mining families both Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. The psychology of the Scots is not easy to analyse without causing a rammy. Too often feel frustrated when conversing with some of my fellow Scots both here and in Scotland. Am inclined to agree with James Kelman that we’re a colonised people. Thanks so much for your references and insight – always enjoy.

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