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The Myth of Red Clydeside

 "We will support the officials just so long
 as they represent the workers,
 but we will act independently immediately
 they misrepresent them"
 From the April/June 1976 issues of the Socialist Standard

The "Red Clydeside" first put itself on the map in the agitated years of the First World War. Since then, it has received plenty of examination. It has been portrayed as a possible revolution in the making; one that could have formed a link with the Bolsheviks and the Spartacists. The Clyde Workers' Committee was the main body in the agitation of the period. It was an unofficial industrial organization of the type that is today favoured by various claimants to the Bolshevik title.

When Britain entered the war in August 1914, the Clyde area joined in the nationwide enthusiasm. Yet soon after, it proved to be an area that would tolerate opponents of the war who were elsewhere reviled. John MacLean, in particular, soon became noted for his pugnacious attitude. A member of the British Socialist Party,[1] the local members shared his stand along with Independent Labour Party and Socialist Labour Party members. All three groups were relatively strong in the area although only the ILP had any significant strength.

 At first the recalcitrance of part of the population was not strong enough to warrant any special attention. More important was the production of munitions from the local engineering works. The government had soon realized that success in the war depended as much on the armaments as the bodies that could thrown into the fray. Clydeside as an engineering centre was thus under heavy scrutiny on the home front.

Trouble first arose over the negotiation of a wage agreement by the local engineers. The skilled craftsmen who had lost out on the last deal, put in a pace-setting claim for 2d an hour which the employers rejected. Early in 1915, an overtime ban and then a strike in support of the claim brought patriotic wrath down on them. The executive of the men's union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, had already pledged its support for the war effort and condemned the strike. With no official support, the strike was organized by the shop stewards — a growing influence in the Union. A ballot conducted by the ASE showed a 10-1 majority against the acceptance of an offer by the employers. However, with no strike money and in an atmosphere of slander and government threats, the strike folded after two weeks. In the end they half of their original claim.

The gulf between the Clyde militants and their union widened during the year. The ASE executive signed the Treasury Agreement and a referendum endorsed this.[2] Then the passing of the Munitions Act in July established the ground on which the CWC was to form. The Act, to be applied to munitions work, outlawed strikes, abolished restrictive practices and limited the right to leave a job. Prosecutions and convictions followed and the weak response of union officials to this prompted the establishment of the Clyde Workers' Committee in November.

The CWC was based on the organization that had developed during the second strike. Their manifesto proclaimed the Committee's aim as the defence of the trade union rights summarily abolished by the Munitions Act. It claimed to be " . . . composed of Delegates from every shop . . . untrammelled by obsolete rule or law . . . We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file." This was a challenge to the government and was soon recognised as such. Government officials began discussing the best way to dispose of this obstacle to their plans.

Unrelated to the activities of the CWC, the 1915 rent strike was coming to a conclusion at about the same time. The war had brought an influx of workers into an area already infamous for its housing and the landlords had been raising rents to an extent that earned them the title — "the Huns at home". A rent strike had been in progress and in November some men were taken to court to get unpaid rent stopped from their wages. On the day of the case a number of sporadic strikes took place and a demonstration outside the courtroom threatened a wider strike unless the rises were stopped. The cases were dismissed and soon after rents were frozen. This was done seemingly on demand in order to avoid what would have been, in the government's eyes, unnecessary trouble (and, even more important, more wage disputes).

Meanwhile the CWC was more concerned with the looming threat of dilution. In recent years, the development of new techniques had been making the skills of the engineering craftsman increasingly redundant. The ASE, in which most of them were organized, had resisted this threat to their livelihoods by a closed-shop policy designed to keep semi-skilled workers and their lower wages out of the craftsman's traditional preserves. In this they had a measure of success with the results that their skills were often under-used and the employers reluctant to introduce new methods. This was an obvious obstacle to the government's demand for the maximum output of armaments and they were determined that it should go. A greater division of labour was to be brought in and dilutees, mainly women, were to be put on much of the work. In the short term this would have no effect on the engineers as there was an overwhelming demand for them. However, when the war was over it was likely that ASE members would find a restricted market for their abilities in a modernized industry.

The CWC was now operating regularly with 250-300 delegates attending their weekly meetings. The most representative delegations came from the heavy engineering works and this was reflected in the composition of the small working committee. This included men from the ILP, BSP and SLP with the latter having the most coherent influence.

The CWC was not an anti-war organization and this was shown by the policy adopted to meet dilution. This, in contradiction to the ASE, accepted the inevitability of dilution but wanted nationalization and workers' participation in management in return. This led to the expulsion from the CWC of two of MacLean's associates who wanted opposition to the war effort, not workers' participation in the management of it.

It was wishful thinking to believe that any great opportunity was missed by the consequent split between the CWC and MacLean. Quite simply, when it came to the crunch they were concerned with industrial matters where he was concerned to oppose the war. After this, he and a small band of supporters, interrupted by jail sentences, continued with tenacious opposition gaining much sympathy but no real support. Despite his principled stand, MacLean's optimistic illusions about the development of the Irish nationalist and Bolshevik movements show that he did not understand Socialism and what was required to achieve it.

The CWC ignored political reality in pursuing their dilution policy. Regardless of the implications of their demands, they made no provision to back them up. On a visit to Glasgow in December, Lloyd George, the Minister of Munitions, contemptuously dismissed the proposals. Later, after the Minister's stormy meeting with 3,000 workers, and ILP and a BSP paper were suppressed for printing truthful accounts of the proceedings.
Con Friel

[1] The BSP was basically the Social Democratic Federation under a new name. Statements in some publications that the BSP was a breakaway from SDF are wrong.
[2] Of 190,000 eligible to vote, 18,000 were for and 4,000 against. (Quoted in "The First Shop Stewards Movement" by James Hinton.)

Part 2

The Clyde Workers' Committee resistance was broken after government intervention in Glasgow. In January 1916, workers at Beardmore's (whose strong representation in the CWC proved to be a maverick one) accepted a dilution scheme contrary to the CWC policy. Next month, the suppression of the CWC's paper, three associated arrests, a dispute at Beardmore's over the working of the dilution agreement, and subsequent strikes on these issues provided the opportunity for the removal of those identified as the trouble-makers. Eventually, seven were jailed and a further ten deported to other parts of Britain.

The Government's attack revealed disunity and a lack of resolve within the CWC and they went down without much of a fight. It was basically a weak organization. Like all so-called "rank-and-file" groups, the most significant thing about them was that they embraced less of the rank and file than the parent unions. Unable to gain any support from them, the place where their particular concerns were most relevant, they were never likely to do anything more substantial. Mindless of this, they challenged a government with dictatorial powers and were slapped down.

Till late 1917 the truncated CWC was subdued, taking no part in the engineers' struggle as it developed in England. In the same year, the political climate on Clydeside began to change. The liberation of the prisoners and deportees, the turmoil in Russia and the growing war-weariness all combined to raise the temperature. The CWC revived and in January 1918 stated opposition to the war. However, no action was ever taken to support this. Possibly, they had realized by this time that David only beats Goliath in fairy tales.

After the war's end, unemployment began to grow. The idea had also been developing that the time was ripe for cutting the working week. Inevitably, the two issues became linked with the aim of cutting hours to reduce unemployment. Early in 1919, local union officials and shop stewards met with Glasgow Trades Council and eventually resolved to issue a call for a general strike in support of a 40-hour week.

The strike began on January 27th with mixed success. There was a wide response from shipbuilding and engineering but power and transport, two prime targets, continued. After a few days, 100,000 were claimed to be out. Contact with the authorities began on the 29th when a deputation asked the Lord Provost of Glasgow to put the strikers' demands to the government. This he did, but not in the way that the strikers intended. He wired to London representing the strike as an unconstitutional threat and indicated that the strikers' request was an ultimatum. This was partly true, as the mass picket had been introduced to "induce" recalcitrant workers to come out. The government decided to hold fire in the absence of a more obvious challenge but to make the preparations to enable quick military intervention if necessary. Mindful of similar discontent in Belfast and recent events in Russia and Germany, they were prepared to take no chances.

Oblivious to these developments, the strikers returned on the 31st to hear the reply to the Provost's telegram. While a deputation went to see the Provost, trouble broke out among the thousands outside in George Square. A tramcar trying to pass through the throng was stopped and police drew batons to try to clear a way. Violence then spread throughout the Square and the Riot Act was read. Although there were allegations of plots by both sides no proof of any premeditation was produced.

By morning, troops were on guard in the city and six tanks were being held in reserve. Attempts were now made to spread the strike but the most hopeful effort was averted by the government. Power workers in London threatened to black-out the city but after the wartime Defence of the Realm Act was invoked to make the strike illegal, the Electrical Trades Union backed down. Within another week the strike was over.

The strike failed to go outside the West of Scotland and had failed to become general within that area. The need for mass pickets was proof of the lack of support from many workers, and any "induced" to strike were hardly likely to be reliable.

The end of the strike was claimed to be a tactical retreat to organize a better effort, but the movement died. The most significant political outcome of the period was the election to parliament in 1923 of 10 ILP members from the 15 Glasgow constituencies. The Labour Party has dominated politics in the area ever since. Others joined the new Communist Party, and that has also remained relatively strong in the area. From then on, energies were concentrated on the mainstream of British politics, and the idea of Clydeside as a maverick area within the nation was largely dead. Against this trend was MacLean. He formed the nationalist Scottish Workers' Republican Party which withered away after his death in 1923.

The most notable thing about the period was the parochialism of the activities. They were always centred on Clydeside and mainly in the engineering industry. However, they faced a capitalist class organized nationally and proved no match. This lesson seems to have been realized by the end of the 40-hours strike.

As a possible revolutionary movement, the Clydesiders were non-starters. Apart from the occasional pronouncement, nearly all their actions were in support of purely industrial aims. The exception was the rent strike. As the government had no real opposition to their aims, however, the achievement was not great.

The events of early 1916 and early 1919 show that the power of the state must be treated very seriously. Capitalist democracy, paltry though it may be by Socialist standards, is well enough organized to defeat any minority. Just as important, on the same basis it is possible for a revolutionary majority to gain control of political power. However, this is not enough. Capitalism is organized on a world scale operating through national units and, thus, any serious challenge to this order of society must follow the same pattern. This is an enormous task but it is the only one that fits the measure of the Socialist aim.
Con Friel
Glasgow Branch


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