Gallacher worked closely with other socialists in Glasgow including David Kirkwood, John Wheatley, James Maxton, Emanuel Shinwell, John Muir, Tom Johnston, Jimmie Stewart, Neil Maclean, George Hardie, George Buchanan and James Welsh.
Gallacher, like other left-wing figures from this period such as Keir Hardie, Bob Stewart, Ben Tillett, J. T. Murphy, George Howell, Philip Snowden, Ethel Snowden, Will Crooks, Arthur Henderson and Henry Snell, became active in the Temperance Movement. Both his father and elder brother were alcholics. He remained a lifelong teetotaller. As Francis Beckett has pointed out in his book, Enemy Within (1995): "They not only abstained all their lives, but saw abstaining from alcohol as part of their socialism."
Gallacher was a member of the Independent Labour Party before joining the Social Democratic Federation, where he became a close friend of John Maclean and John R. Campbell. Later he joined the British Socialist Party.
Gallacher was opposed to Britain becoming involved in the First World War and was president of the Clyde Workers' Committee and organisation that had been formed to campaign against the Munitions Act, which forbade engineers from leaving the works where they were employed. David Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson met Gallacher and the CWC Committee in Glasgow but they were unwilling to back down on the issue.
In February 1916 the Clyde Workers' Committee became involved in a dispute at Beardmores Munitions Works in Parkhead. The government claimed that the strike was a ploy by the CWC to prevent the manufacture of munitions and therefore to harm the war effort. On 25th March, Arthur McManus, David Kirkwood and other members of the CWC were arrested by the authorities. Sir Frederick Smith was the prosecutor. Tom Bell argued that: "It is doubtful if a more spiteful, hateful enemy of the workers ever existed... he threatened to send them to the front to be shot." The men were eventually court-martialled and sentenced to be deported from Glasgow to Edinburgh. The men lived with John Clarke until they could find other accommodation.
In 1916 the Clyde Workers' Committee journal, The Worker, was prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act for an article criticizing the war. Gallacher and John Muir, the editor were both found guilty and sent to prison. Gallacher for six months and Muir for a year.
After the war Gallacher was involved in the struggle for a 40 hour week. The police broke up an open air trade union meeting at George Square on 31st January, 1919. The leaders of the union were then arrested and charged with "instigating and inciting large crowds of persons to form part of a riotous mob". Gallacher was sentenced to five months and Emanuel Shinwell got three months. The other ten were found not guilty.
In April 1920, Tom Bell, Willie Paul, Arthur McManus, Harry Pollitt, Rajani Palme Dutt, Helen Crawfurd, A. J. Cook, Albert Inkpin, Arthur Horner, J. T. Murphy, John R. Campbell, Bob Stewart and Robin Page Arnot joined forces to establish the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). McManus was elected as the party's first chairman and Bell and Pollitt became the party's first full-time workers.
Willie Paul argued strongly against the strategy suggested by Lenin that the CPGB should develop a close-relationship with the Labour Party. "We of the Communist Unity Group feel our defeat on the question of Labour Party affiliation very keenly. But we intend to loyally abide by the decision of the rank and file convention... The comrades who voted in favour of the Labour Party were undoubtedly influenced by the arguments put forth on this question by Lenin, Radek, and many other Russian Communists. We believe that these heroic comrades, in urging Labour Party affiliation, have erred on a question of tactics. But we frankly admit that the very fact that Lenin, Radek, Bukharin, and the others advise such a policy is a very good reason why a number of delegates thought we were perhaps in the wrong."
Gallacher supported Willie Paul and was also opposed to affiliation with the Labour Party. However, he changed his mind after meeting Lenin in Moscow. He later recalled: "It was on... the conception of the Party that the genius of Lenin had expressed itself... Before I left Moscow, I had an interview with Lenin during which he asked me three questions. Do you admit you were wrong on the question of Parliament and affiliation to the Labour Party? Will you join the CP when you return? Will you do your best to persuade your Scottish comrades to join it? To each of these questions I answered yes."
Gallacher joined the Communist Party and attempted to be elected to the House of Commons at Dundee (1922 and 1923). On 4th August 1925, William Gallacher, Tom Bell, Jack Murphy, Wal Hannington, Ernie Cant, Tom Wintringham, Harry Pollitt, Albert Inkpin, Arthur McManus, William Rust, Robin Page Arnot and John Campbell were arrested for being members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and charged with violation of the Mutiny Act of 1797.
John Campbell later wrote: "The Government was wise enough not to rest its case on the activity of the accused in organising resistance to wage cuts, but on their dissemination of “seditious” communist literature, (particularly the resolutions of the Communist International), their speeches, and occasional articles. Campbell, Gallacher and Pollitt defended themselves. Five of the prisoners who had previous convictions, Gallacher, Hannington, Inkpin, Pollitt and Rust, were sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment and the others (after rejecting the Judge’s offer that they could go free if they renounced their political activity) were sentenced to six months." It was believed that this was a deliberate action of the government to weaken the labour movement in preparation for the impending General Strike.
At the time of the General Strike in 1926 the Communist Party had 10,730 members. In 1929 Harry Pollitt was elected as General Secretary of the CPGB. In 1931 General Election the Communist Party won only 74,824 votes and membership of the party fell to 6,000. However, in 1935 General Election William Gallacher was elected for West Fife, after defeating William Adamson by 593 votes.
Harry Pollitt was a loyal supporter of Joseph Stalin in his attempts to purge the followers of Leon Trotsky in the Soviet Union. In the Daily Worker on 12th March, 1936 Pollitt argued that the proposed trial of Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other party members who had been critical of Stalin represented "a new triumph in the history of progress". Later that year all sixteen men were found guilty and executed.
Gallacher went to Moscow to express his concerns about the Great Purge. He went to see Georgi Dimitrov who told him: "Comrade Gallacher, it is best that you do not pursue these matters." Gallacher took this advice and remained a staunch Stalinist. He told his family that "not speaking the language and being shepherded about everywhere, it was hard to know what was really going on."
In 1936 Gallacher joined members of the Labour Party such as Ellen Wilkinson, Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan and Charles Trevelyan in arguing for giving military help to the Spanish Popular Front government fighting for survival against General Francisco Franco and his right-wing Nationalist Army. He later wrote in The Chosen Few (1940): "Then, after visiting the American section, we came back to our own lads. All of them came outside and formed a semicircle, and there, with as my background the graves of the boys who had fallen, I made a short speech. It was good to speak under such circumstances, but it was the hardest task I have ever undertaken. When I finished we sang the Internationale with a spirit that all the murderous savagery of fascism can never kill."
Gallacher was against appeasement. In a speech he made in the House of Commons on 28th September 1938 he argued: "The Chancellor of the Exchequer, after Prague was invaded, told the House that the Government had no knowledge that Hitler was going to invade Prague, despite the fact that on 6th March the Daily Worker published an interview which stated that every public man in Prague expected Hitler to march in on 15th March. Yet the Government knew nothing about it."
Gallacher remained a loyal supporter of the Soviet Union. However, in September 1939 Harry Pollitt welcomed the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany. Joseph Stalin was furious with Pollitt's statement as the previous month he had signed the Soviet-Nazi Pact with Adolf Hitler.
At a meeting of the Central Committee on 2nd October 1939, Rajani Palme Dutt demanded "acceptance of the (new Soviet line) by the members of the Central Committee on the basis of conviction". He added: "Every responsible position in the Party must be occupied by a determined fighter for the line." Bob Stewart disagreed and mocked "these sledgehammer demands for whole-hearted convictions and solid and hardened, tempered Bolshevism and all this bloody kind of stuff."
Gallacher agreed with Stewart: "I have never... at this Central Committee listened to a more unscrupulous and opportunist speech than has been made by Comrade Dutt... and I have never had in all my experience in the Party such evidence of mean, despicable disloyalty to comrades." Harry Pollitt joined in the attack: "Please remember, Comrade Dutt, you won't intimidate me by that language. I was in the movement practically before you were born, and will be in the revolutionary movement a long time after some of you are forgotten."
John R. Campbell, the editor of the Daily Worker, thought the Comintern was placing the CPGB in an absurd position. "We started by saying we had an interest in the defeat of the Nazis, we must now recognise that our prime interest in the defeat of France and Great Britain... We have to eat everything we have said."
Harry Pollitt then made a passionate speech about his unwillingness to change his views on the invasion of Poland: "I believe in the long run it will do this Party very great harm... I don't envy the comrades who can so lightly in the space of a week... go from one political conviction to another... I am ashamed of the lack of feeling, the lack of response that this struggle of the Polish people has aroused in our leadership."
However, when the vote was taken, only Gallacher, Harry Pollitt and John R. Campbell voted against. Pollitt was forced to resign as General Secretary and he was replaced by Rajani Palme Dutt and William Rust took over Campbell's job as editor of the Daily Worker. Over the next few weeks the newspaper demanded that Neville Chamberlain respond to Hitler's peace overtures.
On 22nd June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. That night Winston Churchill said: "We shall give whatever help we can to Russia." The CPGB immediately announced full support for the war and brought back Harry Pollitt as general secretary. Membership increased dramatically from 15,570 in 1938 to 56,000 in 1942.
Gallacher and his wife lost their two children in infancy. Later they adopted his brother's two sons after his death. Both boys were killed in action during the Second World War.
Gallacher was elected to represent East Fife in the 1945 General Election. Another member of the Communist Party, Phil Piratin, was elected to represent Stepney. Piratin later recalled: "Gallacher was the straightest man in the world, we were like father and son." He was asked how the relationship worked: "It's quite simple: there are two of us and Gallacher is the elder, and therefore I automatically moved and he seconded that he should be the leader. He then appointed me as Chief Whip. Comrade Gallacher decides the policy and I make sure he carries it out."
In the House of Commons Gallacher and Piratin associated with a group of left-wing members that included John Platts-Mills, Konni Zilliacus, Lester Hutchinson, Ian Mikardo, Barbara Castle, Sydney Silverman, Geoffrey Bing, Emrys Hughes, D. N. Pritt, Leslie Solley and William Warbey.
Gallacher's opposition to the Cold War and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made him an unpopular figure in post-war England and he was defeated when he stood in the 1950 General Election. Gallacher remained in politics and served as President of the Communist Party between 1956 and 1963.
William Gallacher died on 12th August 1965.
The Worker, the organ of the Clyde Workers' Committee, came out with an article against those violent extremists who proposed to use force to stop the War. It ridiculed the idea.
The military people, who by this time had gone daft, read the article as an incitement to the use of force. My old friend, John W. Muir, the editor; Walter Bell, the, printer; and William Gallacher, the President of the Committee, were arrested.
John Muir was charged with having written the article. He did not write it nor did either of the other two arrested men. The man who wrote the article was married and had a family of five children. John Muir was unmarried. He accepted the responsibility. There were only three persons who knew the author - John Wheatley, Rosslyn Mitchell, and myself. It was suggested that Muir should reveal the secret. He refused, saying : " Some one is going to jail for this because the Military has read it the wrong way. If ---- goes, there will be seven sufferers. If I go, there is only one, so I am going."
The trial was fought to the last word. But there had been found in the office of the paper copies of an Irish paper containing a foolish and flaming article by the Countess Markowitz. Great play was made of these papers. "You see what sort of literature this man harbours." The jury returned a verdict of Guilty. John Muir was sent to prison for twelve months, Gallacher for six, and Walter Bell for three.
Many years later John Muir was elected to Parliament and became Under-Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions. To the day of his death he never by word or suggestion went back on his word, nor did the others who knew his secret.
William Gallacher has been chairman of the Clyde Workers' Committee since its formation in 1915. To understand what that means I must try to explain the Shop Steward Movement, or the "unofficial" movement as it is now commonly called in Glasgow. It seems to be a movement within a movement, a system of workshop committees within the existing trade unions. It is an attempt to capture the trade union movement for the workers, to take it out of politics and bring it back home. Its leaders attack the trades union system not only because it separates the workers into 100 different unions but also because its unit is the branch, (i.e., all the members who live in a certain area irrespective of where they work) instead of the workshop. They would apply the Soviet idea now to trades-union organization, making a small number of workers (15 to 200) in a certain shop of one plant the unit, and one of their number, called a shop steward, elected and recalled at any time, the representative. The stewards in each shop form a shop-committee. There is a convener of shop stewards for the whole plant, and a plant committee on which each shop committee is represented. From these various plant committees a local workers' committee is chosen, such as the Clyde Workers' Committee, of which Gallacher is chairman.
Sheffield and Coventry also have local workers' committees, and others are just about to be formed. But these committees, designed of course to represent all the industries of a district, actually represent so far only the engineering, shipbuilding and kindred trades. And the further development of the scheme by the formation of national industrial committees, and a single national workers' committee elected from these, is as yet only sketched in the literature of the movement.
The shop steward idea offers a radically new plan of representation for the labor movement; the unit of production is made the unit of representation, and it is kept small enough so that there can come no separation between the leaders and the rank and file. There is nothing revolutionary about this; in fact many employers strongly favor the formation of shop committees because they obviate the necessity of dealing with outside trade union officials. But the revolutionary purpose is clear in the minds of the founders of the movement; it aims at establishing industrial unionism ad workers' control just as definitely as the I.W.W. And the machinery of representation lends itself to revolutionary activity. Moreover it gives the workers a strong weapon for organized defiance of the trade union leaders when they prove false, and for forcing their hands if they go too slow.
At the Central Police Station some of my friends were also being charged. Willie Gallagher was there, despite the fact that he had actually been given police protection so that he could bawl out to the crowd: "March off, for God's sake." David Kirkwood had also been arrested. He was excitable but was really a peaceable soul and had, as a matter of fact, been hit on the head by a policeman almost as soon as he ran down the steps of the City Chambers, being attacked from the back as he raised his hand to quieten the crowd. That might not have meant his discharge at the subsequent trial except for the lucky fact that a press photographer took a picture of the policeman's baton raised and Kirkwood collapsing - evidence which, of course, meant his dismissal from the case when the picture was exhibited.
I had 3 meetings in Fifeshire which, the local comrades were good enough to tell me, were successful, but there was a strong Catholic opposition. I understand that Gallacher's meetings in his constituency, which borders Cowdenbeath, were broken up by Catholics. While I was speaking I realised the force of the opposition and its effectiveness as it was led by a local priest, who was no fool, and the secretary of the Young Catholics League... I expect the same opposition again and am naturally collecting material so that the documentation which you have sent me is distinctly useful.
Emerging from the entrance door of the City Chambers, I saw William Gallacher coming in, his face streaming with blood. I saw the police using their batons mercilessly. I did not know that the Sheriff had read the Riot Act. Stones and bottles were flying through the air; the crowds were surging this way and that, driven by policemen.
I ran out, with arms widespread, to appeal for restraint and order. Then I knew - no more. I had been struck with a baton from behind.
When I came to, I was lying in the quadrangle surrounded by police, one of whom was bandaging my wounds. News flies quickly.
My first thought was to ask John Muir to go to my wife to tell her I was all right. He went at once, but before he arrived my wife had already been told that I had been killed.
During the election campaign my opponents, when devoid of all other arguments, always fell back on the following: "Don't vote for Gallacher. If he is returned, he'll be all alone and helpless. One man can do nothing. You'll simply be throwing away your vote." Such an argument, coming from those who were wont to brag of Keir Hardie and the work he accomplished single-handed, represented no actual judgment of the qualities or capabilities of a representative of the Communist Party; it was a desperate attempt to retrieve a weakening position. Nevertheless, it is a very fair criticism of the type of candidate that, in many cases, these very same people are most anxious to support.
On this side of the House we represent and speak for the workers of this country, the men who toil and sweat. (Hon. Members: "So do we.") Oh! You do speak for the workers, do you? (Hon. Members: "Yes.") All right. We shall see. The leader of the miners says that theirs is the hardest, most dangerous and poorest paid job in the country. Is there anybody who will deny it? The miners make a demand. They ballot for it, and the ballot is a record, and we who speak for and on behalf of the miners demand an increase of 2s. a day for the miners. We demanded it from these benches. Now it is your turn. Speak now. Speak, you who claim to represent the workers. We say not a penny for armaments. It is a crime against the people to spend another penny on armaments. Every penny we can get should go in wages for the miners, towards the health and well-being of the mothers and the children and adequate pensions for the aged and infirm. Ten shillings a week. I would like the Noble Lady (Lady Astor) to receive only 10s. and then she would change her tune. Last night the Chancellor of the Exchequer was meeting some friends, and they were having a dinner, the cost of which was 35s. per head. Thirty-five shillings per head for a dinner, and 10s. a week for an aged man or woman who has given real service to this country and has worked in a factory or mine.
We require every penny we can get in order to make life better for the working class. If the £7,000,000,000 which we spent during the War in ruin and destruction had been spent in making life brighter and better for the people of this country what a difference it would have made.
I would make an earnest appeal to those honourable members of the House who have not yet become case-hardened in iniquity. The National Government are travelling the road of 1914, which will surely lead to another and more terrible war, and to the destruction of civilisation. Are honourable members s going to follow them down that road?
The party which is represented on these benches, from which, at the present moment, I am an outcast, has set itself a task of an entirely different character, that of travelling along the road of peace and progress and of spending all that can be spent in making life higher and better for all. We invite those of you who are prepared to put service to a great cause before blind leadership of miserable pygmies who are giving a pitiful exhibition by masquerading as giants, to put first service to a great cause, not to a National Government such as is presented before us, but to a Labour Government drawing towards itself all the very best and most active and progressive elements from all parties and constituting itself, as a consequence, a real people's Government concerned with the complete reconstruction of this country, with genuine co-operation with the other peace nations for preserving world peace, and a Government that follows the road of peace and progress.
I make an appeal even while I give a warning. Do not try to stop us on the road along which we are travelling. Do not try to block the road by the meshes of legal entanglements or by fascist methods."
Around Easter, 1937, I paid a visit to Spain to see the lads of the British Battalion of the International Brigade. Going up the hillside towards the trenches with Fred Copeman, we could occasionally hear the dull boom of a trench mortar, but more often the eerie whistle of a rifle bullet overhead. Always I felt inclined to get my head down in my shoulders. "I don't like that sound," I said by way of an apology.
"It's all right, Willie, as long as you can hear them,"
I was told. "It's the ones you can't hear that do the damage."
We got into the trenches and I passed along chatting to the boys in the line. From the British we passed into the Spanish trenches and gave the lads there the peoples' front salute. Then, after visiting the American section, we came back to our own lads. All of them came outside and formed a semicircle, and there, with as my background the graves of the boys who had fallen, I made a short speech. It was good to speak under such circumstances, but it was the hardest task I have ever undertaken. When I finished we sang the Internationale with a spirit that all the murderous savagery of fascism can never kill.
The following morning I went into the breakfast room of the Hotel in Madrid to see Herbert Gline, an American working in the Madrid radio station, about a broadcast to America from the Lincoln Battalion. When I got in who should be sitting there but Ellen Wilkinson, Eleanor Rathbone and the Duchess of Atholl. We had a very friendly chat, and I was fortunate in getting their company part of the way home. But whether in Madrid while the shells were falling or in face of the many difficulties that were inseparable from travelling in a country racked with invasion and war, those three women gave an example of courage and endurance that was beyond all praise.
William Gallacher, Communist MP lived through some of the most vivid hours of all his life of struggle yesterday and today, when he visited comrades in the front-line trenches on the central front.
The news that Gallacher was in the trenches roused scenes of enthusiasm like those seen when Pollitt visited the comrades. It is easy enough to describe how the men of that battalion greeted Gallacher, how they cheered and how they sang the International. What is not so easy to describe or to make real to you who are reading this a long way off is just what that enthusiasm, that cheering and that singing means when it is done by men who have endured what these men have endured in their struggle for the independence of Spain and the freedom of Europe.
I cannot tell you in detail the story of these men's struggle during the past week, because that would amount to giving information to the enemy.
I can only tell you that among all those who have fought here side by side with their Spanish comrades during the battles and the long, wearisome vigils of the past seventy days, there are none who have surpassed the heroism of the men who yesterday and today greeted Gallacher with a spirit which even he had no words to describe.
I suppose Gallacher has seen in his life as many examples of heroism as any living man. He told me that in all his life he had never seen anything to surpass what he saw in those trenches on his visit there yesterday.
It is no exaggeration to say that many prominent representatives of the Conservative Party, speaking for powerful landed and financial interests in the country, would welcome Hitler and the German Army if they believed that such was the only alternative to the establishment of Socialism in this country.
Their blatant and noisy approval of German and Italian ferocity and frightfulness in Spain, and their utter lack of concern for the sinking of British ships and the sacrifice of British lives, provides abundant proof of this contention.
The Nazis knew that in all capitalist countries there were men such as these ready to betray their own people, if by that means they could save their own property and privilege.
The first indication we got of the policy that led to Munich was in a speech by a young gentleman named Lennox-Boyd, M. P. for Mid-Bedfordshire. Until his elevation to Ministerial office, Mr. Lennox-Boyd had been a member of the notorious pro-Franco propaganda organisation, the Friends of National Spain.
This gentleman had been one of Mr. Chamberlain's first Back Bench selections for a Government post. The only reason anyone could see for his appointment as assistant to the Minister of Labour was his ferocious hatred of the democratic. Government of Spain and his open expression of brutal glee at every advance of its German, Italian and Franco enemies. He was chosen because he had all the qualities and all the connections of a good fifth-column supporter. It was from this pro-fascist junior Minister we got the first statement of policy on Czechoslovakia. In a speech delivered at Biggleswade, to the local Conservative organisation, he informed his audience and the country as a whole that the Prime Minister had no intention of doing anything to defend Czechoslovakia.
This declaration of policy created a sensation in the Press and in the country and was immediately made the subject of a question in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister smilingly said that his young friend had probably allowed his feelings to carry him away, but that he was only stating his own opinion and was not claiming to put the policy of the Government.
He treated the matter in the most casual manner, and unfortunately, after Mr. Lennox-Boyd had made an apology for what he claimed was an "indiscretion," the House of Commons allowed the matter to drop.
I am absolutely opposed to this idea of Parliament being out of session and the Prime Minister carrying on negotiations and then calling Parliament together. The attitude of Members supporting the Prime Minister is an evidence of what we can drift into. He has a whole crowd of supporters who would be quite prepared to come to the House periodically and, whatever the Prime Minister put before them, they would give their assent and depart.
The exhibition that was given while the Honourable Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) was speaking is an indication that you have Members here who are better suited for the Reichstag, who would come in when the Prime Minister wants them and go out when he does not. When the Prime Minister spoke about Austria being invaded while the House was in session, the friends of Ribbentrop, who associated with the Cliveden gang, had already been busy on the job. Everything was covered up until the last moment. It was the same with Prague.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, after Prague was invaded, told the House that the Government had no knowledge that Hitler was going to invade Prague, despite the fact that on 6th March the Daily Worker published an interview which stated that every public man in Prague expected Hitler to march in on 15th March. Yet the Government knew nothing about it. We have the finest Secret Service in the world.
Efforts have been made by enemies of the Soviet Union to associate the Non-Aggression Pact with the invasion of Poland. Nothing could be further from the truth. Poland was betrayed when Colonel Beck, supported by Chamberlain and Daladier, refused the aid of the Red Army. There was no other means in this world of saving Poland. Hitler had an army over a million strong in East Prussia and along the Polish frontier, a great mechanised army, capable of carrying through the encirclement of Warsaw. The only possible way to stop such a movement was for two great Soviet armies to move into Poland, one from the north-west towards East Prussia, the other from the south- west towards Cracow. With such a deployment, Warsaw and all Poland would have been safe.