John Wheatley

John Wheatley

John Wheatley, the eldest child of Thomas Wheatley, a labourer, and his wife, Johanna Ryan, was born in Bonmahon, Ireland, on 19th May 1869. John had nine brothers and sisters and in 1876 the family moved to Braehead in Lanarkshire. At fourteen, John became a miner like his father.

Wheatley attended St Bridget's Catholic Parish School in Baillieston, where the local church and its priests, were a powerful influence upon him. According to Ian S. Wood: "All his life Catholic beliefs would be a point of reference for his political thinking and activism".

In 1893 Wheatley left the mine and became a publican and later he joined his brother to run a grocery shop in Shettleston, a mining village on the outskirts of Glasgow. The business failed in 1901 but Wheatley, who had been attended evening classes for many years, found work as a reporter for the Glasgow Catholic Observer, a newspaper with an impressive circulation among Catholics of Irish descent in west and central Scotland.

Wheatley was greatly influenced by the teaching and support of his parish priest, Peter Terken. Wheatley read widely including Catholic Socialism, a book written by Francesco Saverio Nitti. In 1906 Wheatley was converted to socialism and formed the Catholic Socialist Society in Glasgow. The following year he joined the Independent Labour Party.

In 1907 Wheatley start a printing business, Hoxton and Walsh. It handled regular Catholic church and Labour Party contracts. He also began publishing political pamphlets. Wheatley wrote a large number of these including How the Miners are Robbed? (1907), The Catholic Workingman (1909) and Miners, Mines and Misery (1909). Wheatley was elected to the Lanarkshire County Council and the Glasgow Corporation. Wheatley's great interest was working class housing and he proposed a scheme for the building municipal cottages instead of tenements in Glasgow.

Wheatley began working closely with other socialists in Glasgow including David Kirkwood, Emanuel Shinwell, James Maxton, William Gallacher, John Muir, Tom Johnston, Jimmie Stewart, Neil Maclean, George Hardie, George Buchanan and James Welsh.

Like many socialists Wheatley was opposed to Britain's involvement in the First World War and in August 1914 Wheatley was one of just two of Labour's nineteen Glasgow councillors to oppose Britain's declaration of war on Germany. He helped to create the Glasgow branch of the Union of Democratic Control, which campaigned for a negotiated peace. In 1915 he took a major role in the Glasgow Rent Strike. The following year he played an important role in the fight against conscription.

David Kirkwood argued in his autobiography, My Life of Revolt (1935): "I had never heard a speaker state the case for Socialism with such simplicity and power. I recognized in him a true leader of men. We became friendly, and began the habit, which we maintained for years, of walking together in the country on Saturday afternoons."

In 1920 Labour Party representation on Glasgow Corporation increased to forty-four. Wheatley was now the leading political figure in Glasgow and in the 1922 General Election was one of the ten Labour candidates elected to represent the city in the House of Commons. Others elected included David Kirkwood, Emanuel Shinwell, James Maxton, John Muir, Tom Johnston, Jimmie Stewart, Neil Maclean, George Hardie, George Buchanan and James Welsh.

Wheatley was a passionate politician and in June 1923 he was suspended from the House of Commons for calling the Conservative government's proposed cut in grants to child-welfare centres as murder. Ramsay MacDonald disapproved of Wheatley's style, but respected his administrative ability. When MacDonald became Prime Minister in January 1924, he appointed Wheatley as his Minister of Health.

C. F. G. Masterman later recalled: "The house has found a new favourite in Mr. Wheatley, the former revolutionary member for Glasgow, now Minister of Health. He has been the one conspicuous success in the new Parliament. A short, squat, middle-aged man, with a chubby face beaming behind large spectacles. He possesses a perfect Parliamentary manner; a pleasant voice, confidence without arrogance, a quick power of repartee, a capacity of convincing statement, and above all a saving grace of humour."

After one debate in February, Ramsay MacDonald told George V that "Mr. Wheatley's speech was a masterpiece. Quiet and fluent in its delivery, clear in its exposition of facts, logical and precise in its marshalling of arguments, vigorous in defence, humorous and decisive in attack." Wheatley's Housing Act which became law in August 1924, was one of the few achievements of the first Labour Government. The legislation involved developing a partnership between political parties, local authorities and specially appointed committees of building employees and employers. The plan was to build 190,000 new council houses at modest rents in 1925, and that this figure would gradually increase until it reached 450,000 in 1934.

As Ian S. Wood has pointed out: "Wheatley's Housing (Financial Provisions) Act was the only major legislative achievement of the 1924 Labour government. Until its subsidy provisions were repealed by the National Government in 1934, a substantial proportion of all rented local authority housing in Britain was built under its terms and sixty years later there were still people in Scotland who spoke of Wheatley houses. The act was a complex one, bringing together trade unions, building firms, and local authorities in a scheme to tackle a housing shortage which was guaranteed central government funding provided that building standards set by the act were adhered to. The act did little for actual slum clearance but it hugely enhanced Wheatley's reputation despite the loss of a companion measure, the Building Materials Bill, which would have given central government a wide range of controls over supplies of building materials to local councils operating the Housing Act."

On 9th May 1924 H. G. Wells led a delegation to ask for birth control reforms. The delegation asked for two things: that institutions under Ministry of Health control should give contraceptive advice to those who asked for it; and that doctors at welfare centres should be allowed to offer advice in certain medical cases. As a Roman Catholic Wheatley held strong views on birth control and refused to support this campaign.

Wheatley retained his seat in the 1924 General Election but the Labour Party did badly and the Conservatives formed the next government. Wheatley criticised MacDonald's move to the right and as a result was not appointed to the Labour Government formed after the 1929 General Election.

As Philip Snowden pointed out why Ramsay MacDonald did not ask him to join the government: "During the time we had been in Opposition (1925-29), Wheatley had dissociated himself from his former Cabinet colleagues, and had gone to the back benches into the company of the Clydesiders. In the country, too, he had made speeches attacking his late colleagues. MacDonald was strongly opposed to offering him a post in the new Government. Wheatley had deserted us and insulted us, and MacDonald thought the country would be shocked if he were included in the Cabinet, and it would be taken as evidence of rebel influence." However, Arthur Henderson, disagreed with MacDonald. So did Snowden, who argued: "Arthur Henderson took the view, and I was inclined to agree with him, that it might be better to have him inside than outside. I took this view from my experience of him as a Minister. he was a man who, when free from the responsibility of office, would make extreme speeches; but as a Minister I had always found him to be reasonable and practical."

Wheatley refused to support all the measures proposed by MacDonald's government and led the fight against the National Insurance Act that Margaret Bondfield tried to persuade Parliament to pass. However, Wheatley had lost his influence in the Independent Labour Party and at its conference in January 1930 he was strongly criticized for his attacks on the government.

John Wheatley, who had suffered from high blood-pressure since 1924, died from a cerebral hemorrhage on 12th May 1930. His burial at Glasgow's Dalbeth cemetery was the biggest political funeral the city had seen since that of John Maclean.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) John Wheatley, The Catholic Workingman (1909)

It was the duty of Catholics to oppose the revolutionary confiscatory anti-religious methods of the early, modern continental socialists. But the methods and aims of the legal evolutionary socialism of Great Britain do not merit opposition. Socialism in Great Britain means substitution of the public - the municipality or the State-ownership for private ownership.

(2) David Kirkwood, My Life of Revolt (1935)

When I first met John Wheatley, he was in trouble. He had declared himself a Socialist and founded the Catholic Socialist Society. This was too much for his co-religionists and their spiritual leaders. There was little they could do. They decided to do the little. They could not burn the heretic, so they made an effigy of him, which they carried through the streets and burnt amid much pious rejoicing at John Wheatley's front gate. He had been warned of the danger of being in the house, for an Irishman under the influence of religious mania, like one under the influence of alcoholic drink, is reckless. To the consternation of the inquisitors, John Wheatley stood with his wife at his open door, smiling at the fanaticism as if it had been fun. The following Sunday morning he appeared at Mass as usual, and the trouble died down.

Now he was a Socialist candidate for the Parish Council, one of the humblest and most useful phases of public service. The rumour ran that the fanatics were going to give him a rough time. Some of us resolved to attend the meeting, ready to hand out fair exchange for anything that was coming. Nothing came. The meeting was orderly and attentive.

I had never heard a speaker state the case for Socialism with such simplicity and power. I recognized in him a true leader of men. We became friendly, and began the habit, which we maintained for years, of walking together in the country on Saturday afternoons.

(3) C. F. G. Masterman, The Nation (1st March, 1924)

The house has found a new favourite in Mr. Wheatley, the former revolutionary member for Glasgow, now Minister of Health. He has been the one conspicuous success in the new Parliament. A short, squat, middle-aged man, with a chubby face beaming behind large spectacles. He possesses a perfect Parliamentary manner; a pleasant voice, confidence without arrogance, a quick power of repartee, a capacity of convincing statement, and above all a saving grace of humour.

(4) Ian S. Wood, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

Wheatley's Housing (Financial Provisions) Act was the only major legislative achievement of the 1924 Labour government. Until its subsidy provisions were repealed by the National Government in 1934, a substantial proportion of all rented local authority housing in Britain was built under its terms and sixty years later there were still people in Scotland who spoke of Wheatley houses. The act was a complex one, bringing together trade unions, building firms, and local authorities in a scheme to tackle a housing shortage which was guaranteed central government funding provided that building standards set by the act were adhered to. The act did little for actual slum clearance but it hugely enhanced Wheatley's reputation despite the loss of a companion measure, the Building Materials Bill, which would have given central government a wide range of controls over supplies of building materials to local councils operating the Housing Act.

(5) John Wheatley, Why a Labour Party? (1925)

There still are people, I suppose, who question the need for a political working-class organisation, people who believe that alliances of employers and employed will solve industrial and political problems. I do not agree with those people.

Conditions bring forth men and movements, and no Labour Movement would have been possible unless conditions had been favourable to its birth. It is equally true that the conditions which called it into being have not changed. The collar on the neck has been eased in places where it hurt most, but the collar remains.

It is a fair assumption that had the Liberal or Conservative Party been willing and able to give the working-class economic security that security would have been given long ago. Each has had lengthy periods of power with majorities capable of carrying any measures it chose, and each has lamentably failed even to bring a decent standard of life to the major portion of the population.

There always will, I suppose, be ground for argument as to whether the Labour Party's programme can bring security to the working-class, but there is no room for argument as to its willingness. Our economic theories may fail, but any party or movement created for no other purpose than the abolition of social injustice is at least entitled to be given credit for the honesty of its intentions. No student of history will dispute the fact that this, and this only, was the reason which animated the minds of those men who first conceived the idea of a great independent political Labour Party. A great deal of the early struggle was doubtless merely undirected revolt against social injustice, and without any preconceived idea as to causes and still less to remedies. History shows one long series of revolts, each apparently quite unconnected with the other, but each, nevertheless, an expression of the same demand for human freedom.

(6) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

During the time we had been in Opposition (1925-29), Wheatley had dissociated himself from his former Cabinet colleagues, and had gone to the back benches into the company of the Clydesiders. In the country, too, he had made speeches attacking his late colleagues. MacDonald was strongly opposed to offering him a post in the new Government. Wheatley had deserted us and insulted us, and MacDonald thought the country would be shocked if he were included in the Cabinet, and it would be taken as evidence of rebel influence. Arthur Henderson took the view, and I was inclined to agree with him, that it might be better to have him inside than outside. I took this view from my experience of him as a Minister. he was a man who, when free from the responsibility of office, would make extreme speeches; but as a Minister I had always found him to be reasonable and practical.

(7) John T. Scanlon, The Book of the Labour Party (1925)

The next time he came into more than usual prominence in the House was on the night of the Scottish Estimates. On that occasion he and three Scottish colleagues were suspended for deliberately flouting the authority of the chair. Mr. Maxton had called Sir Frederick Banbury a murderer, and in spite of requests from Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, his own leader, he refused to withdraw. Whilst the commotion was at its height it appeared that Mr. Maxton was wavering, when Mr. Wheatley jumped to his feet, repeated the charge, and told Mr. MacDonald quite plainly that he need not ask him to withdraw. Both Mr. Maxton and Mr. Wheatley were promptly suspended, and the Press let itself loose on the wild men from the Clyde. In point of fact, the men from the Clyde were not so wild. The protest was made deliberately against the fact that that year, as always, the House had treated the Scottish Estimates as of no importance. The four M.P.s went off to Scotland, where they were received as national heroes and martyrs. Huge demonstrations were held in every town in Scotland, and the question of Home Rule for Scotland became for about the first time a live issue in Scottish politics. I can remember the attitude of the older men in the Labour Party during this episode. All of them were quite convinced that these scenes in the House and the revolutionary talk in the country would kill the party, and I can remember one of them who is now in the Cabinet telling me that it would cost the party fifty seats. Curiously enough, Mr. Wheatley's firm belief was that the party would gain seats as a result. His argument was that for the first time in British politics the working-classes could really feel that here was a party that was not prepared to sit quietly in their places and allow the bad old conditions to prevail without some protest. The General Election came in less than six months. and it was then found that, in spite of the scenes, or perhaps because of them, Labour had actually won over fifty seats. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that the Conservative member, Captain Elliot, who was in charge of the Scottish Estimates, was defeated in what had hitherto been considered a safe Conservative seat. Be that as it may, Mr. Wheatley's actions in the House had stamped him as a man who could not be ignored in politics, and because of that, as I said at the outset, those of us who knew him best were not surprised when he was chosen as a member of the first Labour Cabinet.

(8) John Beckett was a great supporter of John Wheatley and was devastated by his death in 1930.

James Maxton and I talked of the necessity for carrying on the work that Wheatley had left to our hand but in our hearts we knew that it could not be done. We were the men with whom Wheatley might have built civilization in Britain, but without him - we could only hope to fight on, whatever the consequence might be.

On Maxton's frail shoulders had fallen the sole burden of leadership, and I saw much of him at that time. I have never associated with a kinder, more impeccably honesty, loyal and courageous man; but he is without ambition, has no patience for detail, and a queer philosophy adapted to his inherent laziness which makes him an impossible leader for any movement. His politics are socialist, but his habits of thought and temperament are completely anarchist.