'Without Quarter, A Biography of Tom Johnston' by Russell Galbraith (Birlinn)
Originally published in 1995 by Mainstream Publishing, this new edition contains prefaces by Gordon Brown and Nicola Sturgeon, both of whom agree on the lofty status and major achievements of Tom Johnston (1881-1963), secretary of state for Scotland in Churchill's government during the second world war, and a leading figure in the Labour movement from 1908 until his retiral from politics in 1945.
Detailed and comprehensive as it is in tracing Johnston's public life both inside and outside politics, there is nonetheless a somewhat surprising limitation to this account of so major a Scottish figure. Ever since the appearance of Lytton Strachey's 'Eminent Victorians' in 1918, with its iconoclastic accounts of such celebrated figures as Florence Nightingale and Matthew Arnold, biographers have generally felt free to discuss and analyse their subject's life in all its aspects. Russell Galbraith's biography does not do this.
Let me make it clear what my point is. A good biography certainly does not have to involve any 'cutting down to size' of its subject. But to my mind it does have to provide a great deal more than a history of a person's successes or failures within the society of his or her time. We all have private lives as well as public ones. Russell Galbraith has almost nothing to say about Johnston the man.
In the opening pages of the introduction, we learn of his birth in Kirkintilloch in a comfortable middle-class family. His father, a licensed victualler, apparently left the family when his children were quite young. The circumstances are unexplained and Johnston subsequently refused to talk about it with his own family. Galbraith has nothing to add. Then we learn that Johnson's own marriage in 1914 to Margaret Freeland Cochrane lasted until his death in 1963, but according to their daughter, Mary Knox, his wife remained a dedicated housewife, and 'politics were never discussed at home.'
It also emerges that the bow-tie wearing Johnston, unlike his left-wing colleagues, was always a snappy dresser. In the over-300 pages that follow, we learn very little more about Johnston's private, personal, feeling life. Clearly Tom Johnston was a highly reticent man, but what is surprising is the extent to which his biographer seems to share that reticence.
This overwhelming focus on his subject's public life and career perhaps also helps to explain his biographer's failure to explore in any real depth the most intriguing and surprising decision of Tom Johnston's entire life. In 1945, at the age of 63 and in good health, he retired from the House of Commons. Admittedly, back in May, 1937, he had told the West Stirlingshire Labour party that he would be retiring at the next election. He explained that his parliamentary duties, his journalism, and his work with the City of Glasgow Friendly Society had all become too much. He also looked forward to researching and writing historical books.
But then came the second world war and his outstanding success in Churchill's war cabinet as Scottish secretary of state. Already a major figure in the Labour party, his role during the war enhanced his prestige still further. Churchill and others spoke of him as the 'Uncrowned King of Scotland.' After Attlee's triumph in the post-war election, Johnston could certainly have played a major role in the new Labour government. So why did he retire?
Russell Galbraith tells us that people at the time were puzzled by Johnston's decision to retire – and all the more so when it became clear he was not retiring from public life. But his biographer appears to share the puzzle rather than explain it. He picks up a point made by Johnston's daughter who suggested her father 'didn't miss not being in government after the war,' adding 'the freedom he had as a result enabled him to further his aims and ambitions for Scotland without hindrance.'
Now, it is true that Johnston throughout his political career was a strong believer in home rule for Scotland. Galbraith has no trouble proving this case. Johnston was committed to devolution, and looked forward to a restored Scottish parliament in the old Royal High School building in Edinburgh. On the other hand, he was against any break-up of the United Kingdom. But could he really have believed he could do more for Scotland from outside rather than inside government – given that the government was the first ever Labour one with a thumping parliamentary majority?
Another biographer would surely have tried harder to explain what it was in Johnston's character that led him to choose to abandon British politics to become head of the Scottish Forestry Commission, subsequently head of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electricity Board, and finally head of the Scottish Tourist Board. And this is in no way to undervalue his extraordinary achievements in the second and third of these roles in particular.
Let me finish by insisting that 'Without Quarter' fully deserves its republication. The reservations I have been articulating would be resolved by a simple change of title to 'A Political Biography of Tom Johnston.' Because that is what it is, and a very good one too.
From his emergence as the editor of Forward magazine in 1906, until his 1945 retiral, Tom Johnston was a central figure in Scottish and UK Labour politics. On its initial publication, Forward promised to be 'the beginning of a new era in the progress of Socialist, Trades Unionist and Democratic thought in Scotland.' That promise was fulfilled. Soon selling 30,000 copies a week, its contributors over the years came to include H G Wells, Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, James Connolly, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Harold Laski. Johnston would remain the brilliant editor of Forward for the next 30 years. 'Millions of words I must have written in propaganda,' he later recalled.
'Without Quarter' goes on to provide a densely detailed account of Johnston's public career from this 1906 beginning until his death in 1965. Given the centrality of Johnston's role, what this amounts to is a history of Labour politics from its origins in the 1890s up to its triumph in 1945. Initially Johnston was a member of the Independent Labour party (ILP), founded by Keir Hardie in 1893, and dedicated to the cause of radical socialism.
Affiliated to the mainstream Labour party from 1906 to 1932, the relationship between the two groups was never an easy one. Johnston's colleagues in the ILP included James Maxton, John Wheatley, Emanuel Shinwell and David Kirkwood. Once elected to parliament, they soon became known as the red Clydesiders. Inevitably their advocacy of 'Socialism in Our Time' sometimes led them into opposing the less radical policies of the Labour party. Tension between ILP and Labour party MPs proved to be a major destabilising factor in the two Ramsay MacDonald-led minority Labour governments in the post-war years. Disaffiliation finally occurred in 1932, and the demise of the ILP soon afterwards.
'Without Quarter' provides an illuminating account of Johnston's significant role throughout these turbulent years of Labour party politics. Anguished as he was by the fall of the second Labour party government in 1931 – and even more by Ramsay MacDonald's remaining prime minister of a national government committed to a drastic programme of austerity – Johnston refused to join in the eventual humiliation of his former leader. 'The MacDonald who died in 1931,' he suggested, 'was a great and noteworthy figure in the march to the povertyless commonwealth.'
Such humanity was entirely typical of Johnston. A moving instance is the account he provides in his 'Memories' of his visit to the shattered and devastated Clydebank after the bombings in 1941. Likewise, he is yet another to testify to the dire condition of much of Scottish society before the second world war. Writing after the war, he said: 'We had serious emigration of our healthiest stocks of citizenry; we had 300,000 houses without water closets; our maternal mortality was 50% higher than in England and Wales, our infant mortality was 25% worse; our army rejects were 6%.'
The political life he led was one dedicated to the betterment of us all. One can only agree with Gordon Brown that he deserves to be remembered as one of the great leaders of modern Scotland. But given the clarity of his knowledge of how much remained to be done, I am still puzzling over his decision to retire from politics in 1945.