In the eyes of many, Glasgow during the First World War and its aftermath gained the reputation of being a centre of socialist ideas, a hotbed of revolution. The city acquired the nickname "Red Clydeside". There remains a debate on the Left, over whether the Red Clydeside movement constituted a genuine revolutionary opportunity for the working class, or that the revolutionary potential of the Clydeside working class has been exaggerated. Prior to the Red Clydeside, Glasgow was quite solidly Liberal at elections and did not have a significant history of workers’ militancy. The city shared the jingoistic wave which swept Britain at the outbreak of the First World War. Thousands of Glaswegians signed up for the armed forces of their own volition. The trade unions, supported by the overwhelming support of their members, agreed not to call any strikes and didn’t bat an eyelid at repressive pieces of legislation such as the Defence of the Realm Act. To undermine the war effort was to risk alienating the working class, which many labour leaders were unwilling to do.
Although, at Clydebank, there was a fore-taste of the militancy in 1911 when 1,000 workers at the largest factory of Singer sewing machines factory went on strike in March–April, ceasing to work in solidarity of 12 female colleagues protesting against work process reorganisation. Following the end of the strike, Singer fired 400 workers, including all strike leaders and purported members of the Industrial Workers of Great Britain , the Socialist Labour Party affilated offsping from the Industrial Workers of the World, among them Arthur McManus. Labour unrest, in particular by women and unskilled labour, greatly increased between 1910-1914 in Clydeside, with four times more days on strike than between 1900 and 1910. During these four years preceding World War I, membership of those affiliated to the Scottish Trades Union Congress rose from 129,000 in 1909 to 230,000 in 1914.
When war broke out excepting John Maclean, none of the labour leaders on the Clyde developed a class analysis of the war, nor did they seriously consider threatening the power and authority of the state. Some of the labour leaders, including Maclean opposed the war; others, including David Kirkwood, who later became manager of an ammunitions factory, did not. It was the behaviour of those conducting the war, not the war itself that really provoked opposition within the labour movement. As the war dragged on, a disenchantment with politicians, who had claimed the war would be over by Christmas, grew as those in power were exposed as liars.
The Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC) was formed, with Willie Gallacher as its head and David Kirkwood its treasurer. The CWC led the campaign against the Liberal government of David Lloyd George and their Munitions Act, which forbade engineers from leaving the company they were employed in. While another core issue was the skilled workers' protest against "dilution", which meant bringing in unskilled men and women to do parts of skilled trade jobs. Dilution was a calculated move by the state and employers to free up engineers, to fight and die in the fields of France and Belgium. This movement has received a great impetus from the introduction by the Government of a measure for extending the power of Conscription by the military authorities, usually referred to under the misleading but catchy title of the “Man Power Bill.” It was seen that trusted and prominent men, both parliamentarians and trade union officials, were associated with every piece of legislation that fettered the workers more. The growth of the “Shop Stewards” movement up and down the country helped to undermine the influence of the “official” cliques in the trade unions, as shown by the numerous “unauthorised” strikes. It would be a big mistake to suppose that these strikes and threats to strike indicate an acceptance of the principles of socialism, or even a general awakening to the fact that they are slaves to the master class, on the part of those engaged in this movement, nevertheless, the oppression became so unbearable, the injustice so apparent, that little scrappy revolts and outbreaks ensued.
The Socialist Standard wrote at the time
"The Clyde trouble of Christmas 1915 is perhaps the best specimen of these sectional and local revolts. The principle of the men was strong, but they were driven down by lies, hunger, victimisation, deportation of their leaders, and, what is more important still, because the strike was local. Instead of abandoning the political machine to ambitious wiseacres and unscrupulous plotters, and letting them, in the secrecy of Cabinet conclaves, everlastingly scheme to set the social changes on you, see to it that those who are now proven the enemies of your class are no longer sent to represent you. Fill their places with class-conscious men of your own ranks, controlled and guaranteed by the political organisation of your own class.Engineers! At an early date you will be confronted with other trouble. We want your demands to be more exacting, and more deep the principles you struggle for. Fight with your brothers of other industries for these bigger and nobler things as earnestly and solidly as you recently fought. Fight politically as well as industrially, then, with the principle of the class struggle to guide your fighting."
In Germany and Austria strikes began on the dire problem of securing of food, but nearly always accompanying this demand, and in some cases forming the sole object, was the call upon the governments to declare an armistice and enter into negotiations for peace. In this country a similar movement spread. A resolution moved at Glasgow at a meeting resolved: “That having heard the case of the Government, as stated by Sir Auckland Geddes
[the manpower Director of Recruiting], this meeting pledges itself to oppose to the very uttermost the Government in its call for more men. We insist and pledge ourselves to take action to enforce the declaration of an immediate armistice on all fronts; and that the expressed opinion of the workers of Glasgow is that from now on, and so far as this business is concerned our attitude all the time and every time is to do nothing in support of carrying on the war, but to bring the war to a conclusion.”
Better late than never the Clyde workers realised that they have nothing to gain but a good deal to lose by the continuance of the war.
As these outbreaks were only spasmodic they were easily over-ridden by the ruling class. Of course, the Government soon arranged for a counterblast. Government propaganda denounced the strikers for their self-interest. "Even now your protest is not on behalf of the working class, but a claim that a small section – the members of the ASE. – should not be placed in the Army until the ‘dilutees’ have been taken. Surely if you did not complain when we smashed agreements and pledges given to the whole working class it is illogical to complain now when a section of that class is being similarly treated.”
This latter fact is the fatally weak point in the ASE. case, and was being used effectively by the capitalist press and spokesmen against them, keeping alive the jealousies and divisions that are so useful to them in their fights with the workers. A. G. Gardiner, of the Daily News was easily the cleverest of their agents at the game of misleading the workers by using a style of seeming honesty and openness to cover up a substance of slimy deceit. A good example of this was his ‘Open Letter to the Clyde Workers’. His articles, while appearing to condemn the government, were strenuous attempts to defend the existence and maintenance of capitalism. Their purpose was to persuade the workers to still leave in the hands of the bosses the manipulation and direction of affairs. And there was a great danger that the workers, so long used to following this course, so long in the habit of following “leaders”, would succumb to this influence. Some of them not daring to trust themselves to manage their own affairs, believe it better to leave the management to their "betters" ” If only half of the blunders and appalling crimes of this war had been brought into the light of day, these timid workers would have had a rude shock concerning the ability of those “experts.” The biggest danger that confronts them – the biggest mistake they can make – is to place power in the hands of “leaders” under any pretext whatever. It is at once putting those “leaders” in a position to bargain with the master class for the purpose of selling out the workers. It allows the master class to retain control of the political machinery which is the essential instrument for governing society. All the other blunders and mistakes the workers may make will be as dust in the balance compared with this one, and not until they realise this fact will they be on the road to socialism.
The Rent Strikes
Class struggle activity also took place outside the workplace and on the streets in general. Many working class women were outraged that while their husbands were off fighting and dying for King and country they and their children lived in worse conditions and with less money. Was the war really worth it? Was it really being fought in the interests of all sections of British society? The drastic rent increases of 1915 proved massively unpopular. With their men fighting at the front, the women left behind were seen as vulnerable by landlords, and massive rent increases became the norm. With the city becoming a major centre of arms manuafacture during the war, it was necessary to bring in workers from outside the city, which only added to the overcrowding problem and pushed up rent. Existing tenants who could no longer afford the rent were evicted, causing widespread alarm among the now mainly female populace. By October of that year, some 30,000 tenants were withholding rent and huge demonstrations were called whenever bailiffs dared to attempt an eviction. When three engineers were arrested for non-payment of rent, some 10,000 workers in Govan downed tools and marched to the court to demonstrate. The initial failure of the government to restrict the raising of rents revealed that the interests of working people in Glasgow were not the real priority of the government. In Govan, an area of Glasgow where shipbuilding was the main occupation, the women organised an effective opposition to the rent increases. The main figure in the movement was Mary Barbour, later to be elected a Labour Party city councillor, and the protesters soon became known as "Mrs. Barbour's Army".The usual method of preventing eviction was to block the entrance to the tenement. Photographs of the time show hundreds of people participating. If the sheriff officers managed to get as far as the entrance, another tactic was to humiliate them - pulling down their trousers was a commonly used method. The mood of the placards carried by the protesters was that the landlords were unpatriotic. A common message was that while the men were fighting on the front line the landlords were in league with the enemy e.g. "While my father is a prisoner in Germany the landlord is attacking us at home".
Bloody Friday - The Battle of George Square
After the war a campaign for a 40-hour week and improved conditions for the workers took hold of organised labour. 40,000 Glasgow workers came out on strike on Monday 27 January and 70,000 on the following day. On January 31, 1919, a massive rally organised by the trade unions took place on George Square in the centre of Glasgow. It has been estimated that as many as 90,000 were present, and the red flag was raised in the centre of the crowd. The riot which ensued on between the police and protesters is widely believed to have been started by a police baton charge against what was, up until that point, a peaceful demonstration. Some sources indicate that trams running through the strike may have started the riot. City magistrates had been forewarned of the dangers of keeping trams on the streets at a time when thousands of strikers were marching to occupy George Square. But the warning was ignored, and the riot started after a tram tried to make its way through the square. The peaceful protest having been provoked changed the scene and the mood almost immediately and the rally transformed into what is generally considered to now have been a police riot, with the Riot Act being read. The police were now confronted by an angry crowd of workers who met baton charges with fists and bottles. As they exited the City Chambers, Davie Kirkwood and Emmanuel Shinwell to try and quell the riot and before they could reach the crowds outside Kirkwood was beaten to the ground by police and both himself and Shinwell arrested.
The police had anticipated that their baton charge would drive the crowd out of the square - not so. Not only did the strikers and their supporters stand their ground but drove the police back. Eventually there was a re-grouping and the workers began to move off from George Square to march towards Glasgow Green. When they reached the Green the police were waiting, ready to charge again. Undaunted the strikers, including many ex-servicemen, pulled up the park railings and chased off their attackers. For the rest of the day and into the night, further fighting took place throughout the city.
Troops based in the city's Maryhill barracks were locked inside their post, with troops and tanks from elsewhere in the country sent into the city to control unrest and extinguish any revolution that should break out. No Glaswegian troops were deployed, and few veterans, with the government fearing that fellow Glaswegians might sympathise with the strikers if a revolutionary situation developed in Glasgow. Young, mostly untried, troops were transported from camps and barracks around the country and stationed on the streets of Glasgow specifically to combat this possible scenario. Howitzers were positioned in the City Chambers, the cattle market was transformed into a tank depot, machine guns were posted on the top of hotels and, remembering Easter 1916, the main post office, and armed troops stood sentry outside power stations and patrolled the streets. New regulations were also introduced by the government to legalise whatever violence the troops might need to use to break the strike. If the troops were used to suppress any fighting involving the strikers the Riot Act must first be read - but only "if circumstances permit"
. Similarly, the commanding officer had to consult with the magistrates before opening fire - but again only "if time permits"
. Most revealing of all was regulation 965: "It is undesirable that firing should take place over the heads of rioters or that blank cartridges should be used."
Willie Gallacher, as well as Harry Hopkins, secretary of the ASE and George Edbury, national organiser of the BSP were also arrested. Shinwell and Gallacher were found guilty and sentenced to 5 months imprisonment.
"It is a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a strike - this is a Bolshevist uprising."
were the words of hysteria from the Secretary of State for Scotland to describe what was happening in Glasgow at the beginning of 1919
William Gallacher, who would later become a Communist MP claimed that whilst the leaders of the rally were not seeking revolution, in hindsight they should have been. He claimed that they should have marched to the Maryhill barracks and tried to persuade the troops stationed there to come out on the protesters' side. "We had forgotten we were revolutionary leaders of the working class. Revolt was seething everywhere, especially in the army. We had within our hands the possibility of giving actual expression and leadership to it, but it never entered our heads to do so. We were carrying on a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution."
Plainly, that would have been a recipe for a disaster and a massacre, in light of the government's determination tosuppress sedition through use its military might.
At the 1922 General Election, 10 Red Clydesiders were elected to serve in the House of Commons. They included Maxton, Wheatley, Shinwell, Kirkwood, Neil Maclean and George Buchanan. Before leaving together from St Enoch Station to take their seats at Westminster, they had a send-off where the audience sang "The Red Flag" and Psalm 124, the Covenanters' "Old 124th", described as "Scotland's psalm of deliverance". Red Clydeside nurtured some people who later became prominent in the Labour Party or the Independent Labour Party or went on to be founders of the Communist Party.
The story of Red Clydeside is one of disappointment in that the "revolutionary" movement was not truly revoltuonay and was ultimately unsuccessful. Red Clydeside was far more pragmatic, from a trade union perspective, and not to mention more patriotic, than the Left's rhetoric asserts. But it does offer us a message of hope and a glimpse of what we can achieve. In 1919, Lloyd George in a memorandum remarked “there is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen… existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned… by the population from one end of Europe to another”.
That statement is as relevant today as ever when we witness the protests of the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring.