A radical, MacLaren fought not
for right or left, but for justice. Long before George Orwell, he
recognised the dangers of bureaucratic socialism, while attacking the
Tories for blocking the one reform that would eradicate the poverty and
social injustice of the 19th century, without diminishing the
liberty and sturdy independence of the individual.
Born in Glasgow the
year Karl Marx died, his was not a privileged beginning: aged ten his
first job was a tailor's errand boy, followed by an engineer's
apprenticeship at sixteen, though he had little feel for engineering. Art
was his love, but times were hard and he had to help support the family.
However, his fierce denunciation of the degrading effects of poverty and
his gift for public speaking soon brought him to the fore.
dominated the thinking of radicals at the time: Karl Marx and Henry
George. The latter is scarcely remembered today, but his was the
inspiration behind the Liberal government swept to power in 1906. George's
influence was also considerable in the emerging Labour Party, enjoying the
support of Ramsay MacDonald and Phillip Snowden, respectively the first
Labour Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
parliament in 1922 as a Labour member, supporting the Georgist approach to
social reform rather than bureaucratic socialism. He was an outstanding
constituency MP, twice winning against the national swing. So what was
The way MacLaren described it was that, "whist a man
had the right to possess what he produced or received in exchange for his
work, there is no such right to private ownership of the elements upon
which all men depend - air, water, sunshine and land. Indeed, he held that
the right of access to these basic elements is as strong and equal for all
men as the right of life itself, and that if such private ownership of the
basic elements is permitted, the suppression and exploitation of one class
of the community by another is inevitable. The consequent hardship and
injustice must become more acute as the community develops". The
accuracy of this forecast is borne out by the fact that the gap between
rich and poor has continued to widen during the 20th century,
despite the huge increase in wealth and all the efforts to redistribute
income through taxation and welfare.
This biography is a timely reminder
of an unbureaucratic method of undoing the social injustices of the 19th
and 20th centuries.