Sir Donald Maclean had greatness thrust upon him. Until 1918, everything in his career suggested that he was living a useful public life which would one day merit an obituary notice in The Times, but would hardly bring him into the first rank of politics – yet he was to play a critical and unexpected role in Liberal history.
Maclean was born on 9 January 1864 in Farnworth, Lancashire, the son of John Maclean, a master cordwainer, and Agnes Macmellin, a Highland lady who habitually spoke Gaelic. He was educated at grammar schools in South West Wales and later qualified as a solicitor. After an unsuccessful attempt to enter Parliament as Liberal candidate for the two-member seat of Bath in 1900, he was elected for that constituency in the Liberal landslide of 1906. In the following year he married Gwendolen Devitt of Oxted, Surrey. They had several children, including his namesake son, who was to achieve notoriety during the cold war, spying for and then in 1951 defecting to, the Soviet Union along with Guy Burgess and Kim Philby.
In the general election of January 1910, Maclean was defeated at Bath, but he was returned for Peebles & Selkirk in December of the same year. His selection for this Scottish constituency may have owed something to the Master of Elibank, soon to be the Liberal Chief Whip, who had sat there from 1901-10, and was currently occupying the adjoining seat of Midlothian. In any event, Maclean soon became Elibank’s Parliamentary Private Secretary.
In 1911, he became Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. Years later, The Times wrote of his mastery of Parliamentary procedure and of his combination of gentleness and sweet reasonableness with firmness in that office. In 1916 he became a Privy Councillor, and in the same year was appointed Chairman of the Treasury Committee on Enemy Debts and also of the London Military Appeal Tribunal. In 1917 he was created KBE, and received another Chairmanship, this time of the Reconstruction Committee on the Poor Law.
When Lloyd George’s coalition government was formed in December 1916, a serious split in the Liberal Party began to appear. Asquith, who had been Prime Minister for the previous eight years, and most of his closest associates continued to control the machinery of the party. In time, Lloyd George’s Liberal followers began to establish a separate organisation. When the Armistice came in November 1918, Lloyd George and the Conservative leader Bonar Law resolved to keep the coalition intact, awarding a coupon to their supporters at the general election in December. Asquith and most of his associates were denied the coupon, and the great majority of them, including all the leading Asquithians, were defeated. Maclean, whose constituency had been redrawn as Peebles & South Midlothian, was one of the few non-couponed Liberals who did not have a couponed candidate against him, and he was elected in a straight fight with Labour.
It was in these circumstances that Maclean suddenly shot to prominence. When the new Parliament met, twenty-three Liberal MPs, most of whom were uncouponed sceptics of the coalition, attended a meeting of their own. It is not clear on what basis they were selected, and their meeting was marked by differences on several important matters. It was by no means a foregone conclusion what general position they would adopt, but they eventually constituted themselves the Liberal Parliamentary Party, and elected Maclean as their Chairman. They also elected their own Whips, and thus effectively required Liberal MPs to choose between taking the Coalition Liberal or the Independent Liberal Whip.
In the months which followed, the Liberal split became increasingly profound. In February 1920, Asquith was returned to Parliament at the Paisley byelection, and inevitably overshadowed Maclean as a public figure. But Maclean remained Chairman of the non-coalitionist Liberal MPs. He played an important part in the selection of candidates and control of party finances until 1921. In the month after Paisley, he pledged support for independent Liberals who decided to organise in opposition to the coalitionists at the constituency level.
In October 1922 the coalition collapsed, and a general election was held shortly afterwards. The independent Liberals made considerable electoral advances, but Maclean, who had to face a three-cornered contest at Peebles & South Midlothian, was defeated. In 1923 he sought election unsuccessfully at Kilmarnock, and in the following year was again unsuccessful at Cardiff East. In 1929, however, he was returned as Liberal MP for North Cornwall, winning the seat from a Conservative. By that time the Liberal split had been – at least in form – repaired: Asquith was dead and Lloyd George leader. Maclean found himself able to cooperate with his former antagonist in the testing period which followed.
When the National Government was formed in August 1931, Maclean was appointed President of the Board of Education, though without a seat in the Cabinet. He strongly opposed Conservative pressure for an early general election with the National Government intact, which he described as autumn madness. When the election was held nonetheless, Maclean, like Sir Herbert Samuel, found himself opposed by a Conservative, whom he managed to defeat. When the government was reconstituted after the election, Maclean retained his post at the Board of Education and was elevated to the Cabinet. Early in 1932, he was one of the four free-trader ministers who dissented from the decision to introduce tariffs, avoiding resignation by the agreement to differ, permitting them to retain their offices and yet oppose government policy on protection.
The last phase of Maclean’s career was a tragic paradox. All his life, he had been interested in social causes. He was one of the founders of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and in his spell out of Parliament in the 1920s he had chaired two important committees on social matters. In other circumstances, the office of President of the Board of Education, with, for the first time in his life, a seat in the Cabinet, would have given him the opportunity to develop new and visionary ideas. As it was, he was forced to defend the National Government’s retrenchment policies against growing hostility from the teaching profession. It is not surprising that this undermined his health, and he died suddenly from a heart attack at his London home on 15 June 1932.
Roy Douglas is author of The History of the Liberal Party 1895 – 1970 and Land, People and Politics.