Was John Wheatley really a working-class hero?

The unsolved riddles that remain around the Scottish socialist.

John Wheatley (left) arriving at Parliament
John Wheatley (left) arriving at Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images

A few miles outside Glasgow, east along the A89, is Shettleston, an area of deprivation that boasts “Glasgow’s friendliest college”. This institution is named after the man who sat as Independent Labour MP for the district from 1922 to his death in 1930 – John Wheatley. The college website describes him as a “popular local hero”. Yet 100 years ago, in July 1912, an angry mob of working men burned Wheatley’s effigy outside his home. Eighteen years later, an obituary in the Daily Worker was headed: “A sham left dies”.

I started to investigate his life after my father, shortly before he died, declared that he had always believed that he was Wheatley’s illegitimate son. I discovered a man of contradictions. He was the founder of the Catholic Socialist Society and a regular churchgoer but it was his local priest, Father O’Brien, who whipped up that mob in 1912.

Though he was born into a family of poor Irish immigrants and followed his father down into the pit when he was 12 years old, Wheatley, in his twenties, had accumulated enough money to fund the publishing business that made him rich. In 1927, when he was tipped by his Clydeside colleagues as a future prime minister, he sabotaged his own political future. Wheatley was aged 43 when O’Brien’s mob arrived outside his house. He had established himself in business and was already comparatively wealthy. The accepted story is that there was a struggle between the politician and the priest for the minds of the working class in east Glasgow: God on one side, organised labour on the other. But was there something else driving Father O’Brien’s enmity?

Where had the capital for Wheatley’s business come from? His biographer Ian Wood described Wheatley’s success as a night-school student and how, after he left the pits, he became an assistant in his elder brother’s grocery business. When it failed, he started selling advertising space for local news-sheets. Neither his education nor these jobs would have offered a shortcut to wealth.

During and immediately after the First World War, Wheatley became a leading light among Glasgow’s socialists. He served on the city council and became an MP in 1922. He had earned his left-wing credentials by impressive Labour activism, notably during the rent strike of 1915 and the Bloody Friday riot four years later. Nevertheless, some of his fellow Red Clydesiders viewed him with suspicion. They wore the workers’ flat cap or the supervisors’ trilby. Wheatley’s customary bowler marked him out as a member of the boss class.

His career as a parliamentarian started in notoriety when the speaker suspended him and other Clydesiders after an orchestrated scene in which they called a Tory minister a murderer. Success came as a minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s government, though Wheatley later fell out with his leader over the pace of reform. Their differences came to a head during the general strike of 1926 and he manoeuvred to replace MacDonald. (He propounded a “third way” between MacDonald’s snail’s pace gradualism and outright revolution.) His career imploded when he offered his resignation from the opposition front bench in order to pursue a libel action against W Reid Miller, his most recent election opponent. Bringing the case merely publicised his accuser’s slurs and he eventually lost.

Discredited, he now had to content himself with offering support to James Maxton and Arthur J Cook in their manifesto for reform Socialism in Our Time. These were MPs who had once looked up to Wheatley. A political dalliance with Oswald Mosley followed, the latter seeing Wheatley as a dependable counter to his cavalier approach. Yet this came to nothing when Wheatley died in 1930, aged 60, leaving a fortune equivalent to over £5m in today’s money.

Wheatley was ambitious and successful in both business and politics but some riddles remain unsolved. Where did his fortune come from? Was it, as Reid Miller alleged (an allegation Wheatley never properly rebutted), that he had interests in illegal betting and moneylending businesses? Did he, supposedly a teetotaller, have money invested in bars throughout the East End of Glasgow?

Shortly before Wheatley died, one of the founders of the New Statesman, Beatrice Webb, described him thus: In the USA, he would have succeeded as a local boss. He is a good mob orator and would have revelled in the intrigue and corruption of the machine; he would have been acute and good-natured in dispensing offices and bribes among his followers. But he lacks the sanity and honourableness needed for success in British politics.

Was Wheatley, as this seems to suggest, an East End racketeer? Were his alleged protection and money-lending rackets the reason for Father O’Brien’s outrage? If this were true, one could understand the Socialist Worker’s declaration, upon his death, that: “The passing of Wheatley will not be regretted by the revolutionary workers. It serves to remind us of the pressing necessity of a relentless struggle against these ‘left’ leaders who are the most dangerous enemies of the working class.”

Anyone investigating Wheatley’s life soon discovers that he left no private papers that would either substantiate or refute Reid Miller’s charges. Clearly the denizens of John Wheatley College and the people of Shettleston choose to believe in the accepted version of Wheatley as left-wing paragon. But my research has turned up inconsistencies and mysteries that cast doubt on the standard narrative and threaten his place in history.

As for the question whether my father was Wheatley’s son, I don’t think I’ll ever know.

Robert Ronson’s “No Mean Affair”, a fictional account of the relationship between John Wheatley and the author’s grandmother, will be published by Foxwell Press in October