THURSDAY is St Andrew’s Day and the feast of our patron saint will be celebrated by Scots everywhere. More than a few Scottish people will also mark the centenary of the death of a hugely influential man who never held elected office but was seen as a great leader of the working class.

The death of John Maclean on November 30, 1923, must have made the British ruling class think they had finally been rid of a thorn in their side, a menace to capitalism and a campaigner for a Scottish republic.

How little they knew, for since his death Maclean’s fame has continually grown and even 100 years on, his legacy inspires the left not just in Scotland but abroad.

He passed away at the age of just 44, and I personally consider him to have suffered martyrdom for his causes, given the treatment he received from the British state. Warning – I will be mentioning the specifics of that treatment.

The facts of Maclean’s (below) life are well known. He was born on August 24, 1879, to a Gaelic-speaking couple in Pollokshaws, the second youngest of seven children of Daniel Maclean and his wife Anne.

The National: John Maclean

Maclean was raised in a Calvinist household and trained as a teacher for the Free Church of Scotland. He attended Glasgow University on a part-time basis, graduating MA in 1904.

At university he met the future leading figure of Red Clydeside Jimmy Maxton and they became friends. Maclean studied the political economics of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and taught socialist theory in night classes in Glasgow before the First World War. He joined the Social Democratic Foundation (SDF), forerunner of the British Socialist Party which he jointly founded.

He founded the Pollokshaws branch of the SDF, assisted by James MacDougall, then just 16, who would become Maclean’s chief supporter and assistant. Working as a teacher, Maclean met and married his wife Agnes and they would have two children, his daughter, the late Nan Milton, writing her father’s biography and doing much to preserve his memory.

A brilliant and compelling orator, in the years before the First World War, he began to promote communism, republicanism and independence for Scotland and by August 1914, he had been warning for many months that a war of empires was on the way, using information he had gathered from his many international links with fellow socialists. He was one of the first people in the UK to condemn the war and urge the working classes not to get involved and was thus one of the early targets of the British state.

In Glasgow, he spoke before thousands during the rent strike of 1915 and composed letters to the Westminster Government which helped bring about the law that froze rents.

His opposition to conscription won him many supporters on Clydeside and elsewhere, but cost him his job as a teacher – he was sacked the day before his arrest on October 27, 1915, on charges under the Defence of the Realm Act. He became a full-time lecturer on Marx and socialism but his card had been marked. After a farce of a trial in 1916, he was sentenced to three years of penal servitude.

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The Russian Revolution and a public campaign for his release the following year saw Maclean freed early but it was clear to his family and friends that he had suffered greatly in prison.

After the revolution in Russia, Lenin appointed Maclean the Soviets’ honorary consul in Great Britain, but the British Government refused to accept his appointment. He continued to speak against the war, and in May, 1918, he was put on trial for sedition.

His speech from the dock is generally reckoned to be one of the greatest speeches in Scottish history.

“I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed. My language is regarded as extravagant language, but the events of the past four years have proved my contention ... no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

This time he was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude and in Peterhead Prison he went on hunger strike and was force-fed on government instructions with a tube put down his throat to fill his stomach.

We know from his own words what conditions were like in prison: “The cell in Peterhead is about four feet broad, eight feet long, and less than seven feet high – just a little box. The cell window is very small and broad spars outside prevent much light entering the cell.

“The glass is so twisted that the prisoner cannot see out. The purpose is to make him brood and fret. Imagine, if you can, how dreary a Sunday must be to a man who cannot read or to whom reading is a difficulty and not a pleasure! And many convicts are illiterate.

“The only relief on a Sunday is 20 minutes’ exercise, service at the chapel and Sunday School for Protestants if they care to attend. Most cells are very cold in winter as the method of heating is of no use, and to wrap oneself round with blankets is a crime the governor can punish by sending a man to the ‘separate’ cells, each more miserable than the others.”

The campaign to free him was again successful. Thousands gathered to greet him on his return to Glasgow.

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His health had been utterly broken in Peterhead, however. His wife Agnes wrote that he had been going through torture and “slow murder”.

He was out speaking in November but after an incident in which he gave his overcoat to a West Indian, Maclean contracted pneumonia and died at his home in Auldhouse Road in Pollokshaws just days later.

At his funeral, many thousands lined the streets of Glasgow to pay tribute to the hero of the working classes. A century later, he is still revered.