From the pits to parliament via Glasgow rebellion, IAN S WOOD charts the often turbulent life and political career of John Wheatley.
John Wheatley was born on 19 May 1869 in Bonmahon, a village in the county of Waterford, in Ireland, the son of John Wheatley, a miner, and Johanna (née Ryan). Throughout an eventful and often turbulent political career Wheatley remained proud of his Irish origins.
The Wheatley family emigrated to Scotland in 1869 and Wheatley grew up in Braehead, later called Bargeddie, near Baillieston. The district was then the centre of a rapidly growing north Lanarkshire coalfield in which his father found employment.
Wheatley often recalled the bleak poverty of his childhood spent with his parents, seven brothers and sisters, and often two lodgers in a single-room miner’s cottage without plumbing. Water was carried from a pump 100 yards away, and a dry closet 50 yards from the house served the needs of both sexes in all weathers.
The family shared the Catholicism of the Irish immigrant labour force, and the children all attended St Bridget’s School which was attached to the local parish. Wheatley was taught there by a Dutch mission priest of outstanding talents and personal magnetism, Father Terken.
He arrived in Baillieston parish in 1879 and gave Wheatley his first Communion, made him an altar-boy, and encouraged his membership of the Catholic Young Men’s Society, the League of the Cross, and the Irish National Forresters’ Friendly Society in which he later became an office-bearer after moving to Shettleston.
Promise revealed at school, and at Father Terken’s religious instruction classes, could not save Wheatley from going down the pits at the age of 12 or 13. Baillieston pits were known for their narrow wet faces, and the companies that ultimately had a controlling interest in most of them, the Glasgow Iron and Steel Company and United Colleries, were slow to mechanise even basic processes.
For perhaps 12 years Wheatley worked underground and the memory of it never left him. In 1908 he wrote a pamphlet, Mines, Miners and Misery, a savage polemic against the coal owners which emanated from his own experience. His reaction to the dust and dirt of pit labour perhaps helped to make him the fastidious dresser whose careful appearance in later years formed, for many people, an amusing contrast to James Maxton on the many platforms they shared.
Wheatley’s years as a miner shaped decisively his view of industrial capitalism as a system. But they were also years of widening horizons, for he found time and energy to read and to attend evening classes in Glasgow. These involved a round trip from Baillieston of 10 miles, usually on foot, to reach the city’s Athenaeum, a remarkable institution founded by voluntary subscription in 1847 to sponsor part-time public instruction on a wide range of subjects. His studies there provided Wheatley with a way out of the pits, though he was never to break faith with the miners as a community.
In 1893 he left the pits and worked locally as a publican, although he was a total abstainer himself, before joining his brother Patrick in running a grocery shop in Shettleston, then a community on the eastern edge of Glasgow where many miners lived.
Wheatley remained in this business with his brother until 1901 when indebtedness led them to close it. He got work with the Glasgow Observer, a paper with a large circulation among Catholics of Irish descent in and around Glasgow before going into partnership with ‘Mandy’ McGettigan in 1906 to launch a printing and publishing company.
The venture, under the name, Hoxton and Walsh, prospered and became a limited company in 1911 with nominal capital of some £2,000. By 1918 the firm was getting steady work from local Labour Party and Catholic church contracts, though Wheatley and McGettigan broke up their partnership through disagreement about the company’s future.
Court action liquidated Hoxton and Walsh but Wheatley re-formed it under his sole control, proving himself an efficient manager of his affairs, and by 1921 the turnover was £71,000. The best-known Hoxton and Walsh paper was the Glasgow Eastern Standard which ran from 1923 until 1960 and gave very full coverage to Wheatley’s activities and speeches until his death in 1930. These business ventures made Wheatley a comparatviely wealthy man, able to secure fee-paying Catholic schooling for his family prior to university education, and later to buy an imposing stone-built family house in Shettleston.
On the other hand, however, the affairs of Hoxton and Walsh exposed him to rumour and open attack over a strike by journalists in the Eastern Standard office in December 1926, and much more seriously over alleged connections between the firm and local publicans whom his detractors claimed had been allowed to buy shares. These accusations figured prominently in the unsuccessful libel acton brought by Wheatley in 1927 against his general election opponent of December 1924.
Wheatley served his political apprenticeship in the United Irish League (UIL). In the aftermath of Parnell’s rise to leadership of the Irish Home Rule movement, organised support for its aims grew rapidly among the immigrant Irish in Britain.
After his move to Shettleston, Wheatley became president in 1901 of the local Daniel O’Connell branch of the League. The UIL had many working class branches and did not devote itself exclusively to the politics of ritualistic nationalism. In 1901, when Robert Smillie stood in a North-East Lanarkshire by-election for Labour against a Tory and Liberal Imperialist, Wheatley appears to have had no difficulty in holding the Shettleston branch in line with the UIL’s directive that Smillie, a Protestant of Ulster descent, be supported against two opponents with nothing to offer on Home Rule.
Wheatley’s activity can be identified in the League’s Shettleston branch for some time after he left office as its president in October 1903. Indeed, he stood down leaving the branch the fourth largest in Scotland and its reputation assured for good organisation and efficient fund-raising.
Politically, the League’s raison d’être still lay in the Liberal alliance and Wheatley’s acceptance of what this alliance involved was wearing thin. In the 1905-6 general election he acted for another Labour candidate, Joseph Sullivan, in North-West Lanarkshire, though in an individual capacity as his polling agent. Shortly after this he described himself as a socialist in a letter published in theGlasgow Observer.
The exact point at which Wheatley made a final break with the UIL membership has never been quite certain but he stood in Shettleston for the ILP as a Lanark County Council candidate in 1907 and appears to have been active in the local branch before that. Wheatley was either a member of the ILP or about to join it when on 27 October 1906 the Glasgow Observer published a letter signed by him in which he invited all Glasgow Catholics attracted to socialism to attend an open meeting. He himself took the chair at the gathering and stressed that he had in mind the creation of a Catholic Socialist Society (CSS) in which “they would have socialism preached in an atmosphere free from any irreligious taint”.
It was indeed to be from the standpoint of a radical Christian that Wheatley always justified his socialism. This was apparent in his controversy earlier that year in theGlasgow Observer with the Catholic Truth Society, when he had argued that the Catholic church had always belonged to the poor and invoked its teaching down the years to condemn the acquisitive capitalist ethic.
The CSS never claimed or achieved a mass membership, but its regular meetings enhanced Wheatley’s reputation, especially when he drew the fire of certain elements within the church. 1907 saw a protracted debate in the Glasgow Observer’s letter columns between Wheatley and Belgian Jesuit priest, Father Puissant, who was the parish priest of Muirkirk.
Puissant was a bitter anti-socialist who accused Wheatley of espousing an ideology that posed a threat to the very fundamentals of faith: yet he advocated wide-ranging social reform through a confessional political movement over which the church might exercise a guiding hand. Wheatley, for his part, challenged Puisssant to what items of British Labour or ILP policy posed any dire threat to Catholic faith or morals and borrowed Daniel O’Connell’s belief that the church should not dictate political decisions.
The next year, under the auspices of the CSS, Wheatley brought out a pamphlet entitled The Catholic Working Man. Essentially this was a restatement of the position he had taken up against Father Puissant but shrewdly reinforced with his own reading from the church fathers.
Still more effectively he quoted from Archbishop Maguire of Glasgow, whose address to the 1908 Eucharistic Congress had given a qualified welcome to the emergence of a political Labour movement in Britain. He denied that the socialism which had won him over as an Irish Catholic in Scotland had anything in common with the anti-clerical excesses of continental socialist parties. His socialism he declared to be that which emanated “from the spirit of brotherhood which is ever present in the hearts of men but which is often suppressed by the struggle for existence”.
It was this socialism, shaped by his own church upbringing, that Wheatley continued to argue for and defend in a long remembered debate with Hilaire Belloc before a full house in the Pavilion Theatre in November 1909, and against John Maclean who argued his case for Marxist socialism to the CSS. Wheatley never abandoned this commitment to a socialism that would change society and people’s relationships within it, in the image of God rather than of Marx.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow avoided declaring itself on the issue of Wheatley’s increasing local prominence as a socialist and clerical attacks upon him and the CSS subsided. In 1912, however, a campaign against him by a priest in his own Shettleston parish, Father O’Brien, culminated in what could have been an ugly episode when a crowd burned Wheatley’s effigy outside his house and maintained a hostile presence until Wheatley out-faced them with a cool courage that was remembered long afterwards.
His belief in the need to achieve a working synthesis between radical Christianity and socialism was unaffected, and later in 1912 another pamphlet appeared under his name, entitled A Christian in Difficulties, which reinforced and restated his already firmly held views on this.
Forward to Labour
His growing stature as a speaker, lecturer and writer of pamphlets brought Wheatley into contact with the ILP’s most active members in Glasgow. Tom Johnston from Kirkintilloch had launched the weekly Forward in 1906, and encouraged Wheatley to write for it. James Maxton also became a close friend and always readily admitted the influence Wheatley had on him.
His carefully chosen suits and increasingly comfortable girth made him an incongruous figure and his voice was not remembered as a compelling one, though he was already turning into a debater to be feared. “He wore thick glasses,” Willie Gallacher wrote later, “which added to his mild and benevolent appearance, but behind the glasses was a pair of keen, watchful eyes that spoke of a brain ever active and subtle.”
In his first attempt to enter local municipal politics as a Labour candidate Wheatley failed narrowly to get elected to Lanark County Council in 1907. Three years later, however, Wheatley won the Shettleston seat on the council against the same opponent, a fellow-Catholic ‘independent’ whose complacent view of the relationship between his council work and his building interests had become a local scandal.
As a county councillor between 1910 and 1912 Wheatley fought hard for the rights of the quite substantial labour force employed by the council on much heavy and dirty work, and began to acquire a reputation for expertise on health and housing policy. On the council’s behalf he attended important medical conferences on the causes of consumption and campaigned for a proper analysis of the disease’s incidence in the working-class and mining localities under the county’s jurisdiction.
The formation of a Glasgow Labour Party in 1912, and Shettleston’s incorporation by private bill within the city’s boundaries, enabled Wheatley that year to contest and win election as one of Shettleston’s city councillors.
From the beginning Wheatley was active in the council Labour group. Being self- employed and relatively prosperous, he could give much of his time to council work and between 1912 and 1914 accepted nomination to eight council committees, including those concerned with tramways, health and the city’s Improvement Trust.
Together with James Stewart, later Labour MP for St Rollox, he pressed hard for the council to accept responsibility for using the profits of successful operations like the city tramways to fund cottage building on a large scale for the city’s labour force. He argued his case to the 1917-8 Royal Commission on the Housing of the Industrial Population of Rural and Urban Scotland.
The following year he brought out a pamphlet, Eight-Pound Cottages for Glasgow Citizens, setting out his scheme as part of a larger long-term strategy for re-housing and planned re-development out of which “a greater and grander Glasgow could arise … a city which would be a worthy monument to the capture of civic power by the common people”. In this pamphlet, and in much else that he was later to write, he emerged as the prophet of a decentralised socialist future in which self-sufficient municipalities would have major powers devolved to them.
Since they would have involved the use of funds from profitable municipal enterprises, the council would not have adopted Wheatley’s housing proposals, but the outbreak of war gave them an excuse to shelve the whole issue.
War and strikes
Apart from John S Taylor, Wheatley was the only Labour councillor to oppose from the start Britain’s declaration of war. He supported the formation of a Glasgow branch of the Union of Democratic Control and never departed from a principled opposition to the war. Yet working class patriotism, more conspicuous in Glasgow than in many other cities, was something he never mocked, and he fought hard to prevent it being exploited to the disadvantage of the families and dependents of volunteers.
Indeed, it was the eviction of a serving and wounded soldier’s family by house factors in his own Shettleston ward in 1915 which drew Wheatley into angry and passionate support for the rent strikes which compelled the coalition government to adopt a measure of rent control later that year. Wheatley’s support for the strike, in the council and in the mass- agitation outside it, made him a popular hero in Shettleston, securing a political base on which he could later build his parliamentary career.
Even more than the rent strike, it was of course the militancy of engineering workers in the earlier stages of the war that was instrumental in shaping the legend of the ‘Red Clyde’. Wheatley worked closely with the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC), though Gallacher clearly was uneasy over the influence he acquired over Kirkwood and blamed him for the 1916 agreement, which indeed Wheatley may well have drafted, between the Parkhead Forge stewards and the government’s special commission on dilution of labour in the area.
Gallacher later represented this as a move masterminded by Wheatley to isolate the shop stewards at the Forge, thus securing his influence over Kirkwood but breaking the prospects of a real united front by all Clyde workers against further dilution and government control over working conditions. Yet when Gallacher and others were arrested shortly before this, it was to Wheatley that the funds of the CWC were entrusted.
In his own memoirs, Gallacher recorded this verdict on Wheatley:
“He was the only one of the outstanding Labour leaders who participated in any way in our activities, always of course from the outside. But if ever he was wanted for advice, encouragement or help of any kind his services were at our disposal day and night. Often we turned to him and made use of his services but all the time we had to take care he didn’t simply swallow us up.”
Overlapping with these events was the Easter Rising in Dublin. That Wheatley’s identity still mattered to him was clear in his condemnation of the courts-martial which condemned to execution the rising’s leaders, including of course James Connolly who had been a visitor to Wheatley’s very political Shettleston household before the war.
The UIL’s branches in Scotland mostly condemned the rising and the labour movement was confused by it, especially by Connolly’s decision to support it. Writing in Forward, Wheatley invoked the precedent of Britain’s magnanimity to the defeated Boers in 1902, though his comments were coloured by his continuing view of Irish independence as being essentially marginal to the real interests of workers there and in Britain.
As the war dragged on Wheatley kept up his fight against the grosser crudities of government propaganda and showed a growing relish for challenging the patriotic majority on the council, for example, over its offer in 1917 of the Freedom of Glasgow to Lloyd George, an insult, as Wheatley described it, to the city’s war-dead and its many working-class families existing in the slums in near-famine conditions because of war-time inflation and shortages.
Although Wheatley supported the campaign for John Maclean’s release from prison, he never accepted his revolutionary stance, looking instead to the post-war possibilities of elections with the certainty of a vastly enlarged working-class electorate. In 1916 he accepted adoption as prospective parliamentary candidate for Camlachie, but transferred his candidature to the new constituency of Shettleston where he just failed by only 74 votes to win the seat in the ‘khaki’ or ‘coupon’ election of 1918.
Class struggle seemed to reach a fresh climax on the Clyde in 1919 with the engineering workers’ strike for the 40-hour week and the celebrated events of ‘Red Friday’ on 31 January when a heavy police presence was indiscriminately used to break up a strike demonstration in Glasgow’s George Square. Wheatley was present in the city chambers when the police charge took place, though not arrested himself, and was Gallacher’s first caller in the police cells with the offer to arrange his legal defence.
The defeat of the 1919 strike and the onset of serious post-war unemployment shifted the struggle back to the political arena. Wheatley, as chairman of the Scottish Labour Housing Association and chairman of the Labour group on the council, led renewed campaigns against rent increases, and took part in some unruly and turbulent scenes in the city chambers which were almost a trial run for Clydeside’s first impact on Westminster.
Labour won 44 seats in the council in the 1920 elections and Wheatley’s ascendancy in local Labour politics was secured by his skilful leadership of this group, his able work on committees and as a baillie, and by his growing authority on health and housing matters.
In November 1922 Wheatley was the driving force in Labour’s election campaign and was one of the 10 Glasgow Labour victors seen off in triumph by huge crowds packed into St Enoch’s Station on the night of Sunday 19 November. Wheatley arrived at Westminster already a committed supporter of Ramsay MacDonald, supporting his successful bid for the parliamentary leadership and himself winning a place on the parliamentary party’s executive.
Relations with MacDonald cooled somewhat over Wheatley’s support for Maxton’s defiance of the Speaker in the famous scene on 29 June 1923 over the Scottish Home and Health Department cutting its grant to child welfare centres. This led to his suspension from the House but did not affect his growing stature as a debater, and when the first minority Labour government was formed in January 1924, his position was strong enough for him to refuse MacDonald’s first offer of the under secretaryship of health and hold out for a full ministerial appointment.
Within weeks of taking office, Wheatley was at the centre of a major controversy over the left-wing socialist rebels who controlled the Poplar Board of Guardians in East London. These rebels, led by George Lansbury, challenged both the London County Council and central government itself over the levels of benefit which they should pay out in an area of much poverty and high post-war unemployment.
Much to MacDonald’s discomfort, Wheatley supported Poplar by rescinding the 1921 Mond Order which had been an attempt, though a less than successful one, to set limits to the relief which might be granted. Although he came under sharp attack for the administrative fiat by which he had annulled this order, Wheatley was able to win a striking and much-praised debating victory in the Commons in a censure motion over his action. The Liberal Charles Masterman, Philip Snowden and Beatrice Webb were among those who wrote at the time or later of how this episode heralded Wheatley’s arrival on the scene as a formidable front bench debater.
As health minister, Wheatley found himself under considerable pressure from the increasingly vocal birth control lobby. They had built up strong support within the Labour movement, especially its women’s organisations, and had hopes of a Labour government authorising public health authorities to give contraceptive advice. In May 1924 he carefully avoided giving any such commitment, though pressed hard by an influential deputation that included HG Wells and Dora Russell, and stone-walled on the same issue before later deputations and in the Commons.
His case for inaction was the deep division of opinion within the working class over birth control and the need for the express authority of parliament, rather than an individual minister’s sanction, before contraceptive advice from public bodies could be authorised. He was bitterly attacked by the birth control lobby who accused him of inconsistency and hypocrisy. Wheatley’s handling of the whole issue was perhaps the only instance in his career of church teaching being the deciding factor in a political decision he made, or in this case, avoided making.
His Housing (Financial Provisions) Act was the only major legislative achievement of the Labour government of 1924. Until the Act’s subsidy provisions were withdrawn by the national government in 1934, a substantial proportion of all local authority housing was built under its terms and a generation survives in Scotland who still speak of ‘Wheatley houses’.
Wheatley’s scheme provided for a progressive expansion of central government funding of local authorities who undertook to build for rent houses conforming to the standards laid down by the Act, and it set its sights on an ultimate completion rate of 450,000 houses a year.
Wheatley argued the case for his Bill with eloquence and a passion based on intimate knowledge of what slum housing meant, but he was careful to deny that his Bill was an explicitly socialist measure. He justified it, and probably secured its passage through parliament, in the face of many amendments and Treasury hostility, on the basis of what it had to offer as a practical use of available resources to tackle an urgent problem.
In its completed form, and once in operation, the Act in fact did little for actual slum clearance, and the better-off section of the working class were its main beneficiaries in terms of being able to meet the required rents. Nonetheless, it enhanced Wheatley’s reputation immeasurably despite the loss of its companion Bill on building materials which would have given central government a wide range of controls over suppliers of building materials to local authorities operating the Housing Act. This other Bill, in fact an integral part of Wheatley’s housing strategy, came under some heavy attack from the interests it affected before it languished with the fall of the government at the end of September 1924.
Speaking in the Commons of Wheatley’s handling of the Housing Bill, Charles Masterman paid him this tribute:
“For over six months, with extraordinary patience and industry, and with a humour and willingness to compromise, and with all the arts of one who might have been in this House for 20 years on the front bench, he has conducted a difficult Bill in such a manner as to disarm opposition, and he has always been ready to accept proposals which he knew would make the Bill better.”
In office Wheatley had been able to immerse himself in his departmental work on health and housing, though he had clashed with the leadership over the celebrated issue of court dress worn by ministers for the new government’s investiture, and the financial implications of his legislation had alarmed the economic orthodoxy of Philip Snowden at the Treasury.
Out of office he moved rapidly into a position of opposition to the Labour leadership’s apparent infirmity of socialist purpose, and he made increasing use of his base within the ILP, to whose National Administrative Council he was elected in 1924. His espousal of the under-consumptionist economics of JA Hobson and HN Brailsford gave a coherent intellectual framework to his analysis of the crisis of the British economy in the 1920s. His anger at the human waste involved dominated much of what he wrote and said, and shows strongly through two important pamphlets, Starving in the Midst of Plenty (1923), and Socialise the National Income (1927).
He was paid back for his criticism of party policy in 1925 when he lost his seat on the executive of the parliamentary party, and the following year distanced himself still further from the leadership by the passion with which he supported the General Strike. “We want 10 million men who will fight rather than see Britain made a land of coolies,” he declared in the Glasgow Eastern Standard prior to the strike, and the fervour of his support was ammunition for opponents in Glasgow already implacably hostile to him over his Irish and Catholic origins.
1927 saw him in court suing one of them, J Reid Millar, his election opponent of 1924, in a costly and bitter action which he might have been better advised not to have embarked on at all. The action was prompted by Millar’s allegations that Wheatley’s business was funded in part from the drink trade, and exposed him to cross-examination over the whole range of his political beliefs. The failure of this action led him to consider retirement from politics, though MacDonald, with typical Quixotic generosity, urged him against any such course of action.
Depending increasingly on the ILP as his base, he returned to the battle to win Labour to more militant socialist policies. Yet the ILP in Scotland was an insecure anchorage once Patrick Dollan began to build up his own influence in it as a counter-weight to that of Wheatley and Maxton.
John Paton, with his experience as a full-time divisional organiser for the ILP in Scotland, was never under the misconception that the left stance of the original Clydeside group of MPs was echoed by the Scottish ILP as a whole. Writing in his 1936 book Left Turn! of the balance of opinion in Scotland, Paton wrote:
“… although it was the home territory of Maxton and the Clydeside MPs who were backing him, the prophets were without honour in their own country. The great majority of the Scottish Labour MPs who were members of the ILP were strongly opposed to us.”
The extent to which Wheatley and Maxton were beginning to be isolated even within the Scottish ILP became more apparent after Wheatley’s withdrawal in March 1927 to the Labour back benches in parliament and his involvement in the drawing up of the Cook-Maxton manifesto of June 1928. This was an attempt to pledge Labour to militantly socialist policies, based on a programme which some accounts credit Wheatley with having drawn up. A campaign based upon the manifesto failed to acquire momentum and Wheatley appears fairly soon to have abandoned any hopes he may have had of it.
The formation of a second Labour government in 1929 further widened the distance between him and the Labour leadership. He was already opposed to the idea of another minority government and was not invited to join it, though he had his contacts within it, such as Oswald Mosley, who greatly admired Wheatley and shared his impatience with the timid pre-Keynesian orthodoxies which were so irrelevant to the economic problems a new Labour government had to face.
Guerrilla action from the back benches against Labour ministers such as Margaret Bondfield, who presented some contentious National Insurance legislation to parliament, and also against the hapless JH Thomas, brought Wheatley back into some prominence, showing that his debating skills had not left him. Yet when the NAC of the ILP carried a resolution congratulating Wheatley and Maxton on their stand against the Unemployment Insurance Bill, three of the ILP’s largest Divisional Councils in Wales, Yorkshire and Scotland, refused to support it.
Dollan by this time had built up a secure majority against what Wheatley stood for, a situation clearly echoed in the Scottish ILP’s January 1930 annual conference. The strongest speech against Wheatley came from Tom Johnston, who had been angered by some of Wheatley’s attacks on the government, of which he was a member. Johnston argued that the ILP could not for much longer remain an integral part of the Labour Party yet take policy decisions independently of it.
Beatrice Webb met Wheatley in the final months of his life when his health was in rapid decline, and recorded her impressions:
“As a rebel in the party he has been a failure, his expression is sullen, his words are bitter, his lips are blue and his complexion is patchy and he closes his eyes at you. He says that he has lost his faith in political democracy, the common people have no will of their own; they are swayed backwards and forwards. He would be a Communist if he were not a pious Catholic.”
The profile is as vivid as any of the author’s other assessments of Labour leaders, though it may constitute less than a fair appraisal of Wheatley. If his faith in political democracy had deserted him by this time, he kept it a secret and there is insufficient evidence for supposing that he was ready for a final break with Labour or for the ILP’s disaffiliation in 1932.
Wheatley died of a brain haemorrhage at his home in Shettleston on 12 May 1930. His burial, not far away at Dalbeth Catholic Cemetery, was the biggest political funeral Glasgow had seen since John Maclean’s in 1924. All parties were represented at it, and among the mourners were Neville Chamberlain, his most determined opponent in the Housing Bill debates of 1924, and Mosley, close to the point of resignation from the Labour government and within four years to become the ranting uniformed orator of Olympia. Wheatley’s niece indeed recalls that the largest wreath was one of red roses given by Mosley.
Wheatley left over £16,000, a substantial house overlooking Sandyhills golf course, and a controlling interest in Hoxton and Walsh. He was survived by his wife Mary, daughter of Bernard Meechan, an Irish railway foreman from near Baillieston, whom he had married in 1896, and by a son and daughter. His son was studying medicine at Dublin University when he died and later, after going on to do law, entered the family business. Elizabeth, his daughter, became a doctor and worked in England, first in Burnley and later in London as a schools’ medical adviser.
Politically, Wheatley’s career embodies the convergence of immigrant Irish nationalism with the politics of a Scottish working class feeling its way towards support for an independent political Labour movement. As a communicator and tireless propagandist his contribution to that convergence would have made him an important figure, even had he not gone on to achieve what he did in local government and at Westminster and Whitehall.
His political influence was achieved in a labour movement conscious of its Scottish identity and committed to Home Rule since its formation, a commitment which Wheatley supported. Had he been appointed Secretary of State for Scotland in 1924, rather than to a London ministry, it is tempting to speculate how acceptable he might have found the constraints involved in operating the devolved powers, such as they were, conceded piecemeal to Scotland since Gladstone’s time.
In the time given him as MP and minister, he had to act out his role on a stage created by the requirements of a British state. On that stage his achievements were considerable even if he ended his life close to a political isolation that some of his critics saw as self-inflicted.
Wheatley never had the charisma of Maclean or Maxton, but he had other qualities which seemed to give him the makings of an alternative leader to MacDonald. His death created a gap in Labour left-wing politics which was not an easy one for anybody else to fill.
This article was originally published in Scottish Labour Leaders 1918-1939: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by William Knox, 1984, and is re-printed with permission of the editor to whom we owe many thanks.
John Wheatley by Ian S Wood was published as part of the ‘Lives of the Left’ series by Manchester University Press in 1990.