Thursday, January 31, 2019

Red Square, 1919

One hundred years ago, on 31 January, 1919, Glasgow’s George Square witnessed tens of thousands of striking workers, many accompanied by their families, being baton-charged by police. Panicked officials read the Riot Act and the government later sent troops and tanks into the city. The Scottish historian Tom Devine says, “They thought a Bolshevik uprising was about to begin in Glasgow.”

Factory owners wanted to maintain the 47-hour working week, while workers wanted a 40-hour week so that everyone could get a job.

John Foster, an emeritus professor at the University of the West of Scotland. “The factory owners wanted them to do more work so there would be fewer jobs and they would have a permanent unemployed workforce at their beck and call.”

The workers went on strike on 27 January and asked the city’s lord provost to put their claim to the national government. On the 31st, they gathered in George Square, outside the city chambers, to hear his response. Without warning, police made "a savage, totally unexpected assault." The authorities decided to read the Riot Act, a formal process giving them rights to unleash martial law and as the sheriff began to read the act it was torn from his hands.

In London, the war cabinet met at 3pm. The Scottish secretary, Robert Munro, claimed a Scottish Bolshevik revolution had begun and it was decided to send in troops from barracks in Scotland and northern England – but not from Glasgow’s own Maryhill barracks because men there might have sided with their embattled neighbours. 

Fighting raged across Glasgow. In one skirmish, two policemen were stripped of their uniforms and let loose semi-naked. 

Then the troops arrived. Machine gun posts were placed in George Square. Soldiers were sent to protect power stations, and six tanks were stationed in the city’s Cattle Market. By Saturday, the city was under military control. “The city chambers is like an armed camp,” the Observer reported that Sunday. “The quadrangle is full of troops and equipment, including machine guns.” By Sunday, however, Glasgow had returned to calm.

Willie Gallacher suggested that “Had there been an experienced revolutionary leadership, instead of a march to Glasgow Green there would have been a march to the city’s Maryhill Barracks. There we could easily have persuaded the soldiers to come out, and Glasgow would have been in our hands.” But it was only wishful thinking on his part.

 “This was a widely supported trade union dispute but it was a reformist not a revolutionary gathering and it turned into anarchy only because of political nervousness in London and maladroit policing,” explained Foster.

The workers lost the strike for a shorter working week although better working hours were slowly introduced by employers. The revolution never materialized. It did not trigger the downfall of UK capitalism. In fact, the Battle of George Square was not so much an outburst of revolutionary fervour as the outcome of hostile policing and a loss of nerve by the cabinet.

According to Devine, “The experience of being harshly treated helps explain the election success of Red Clydesiders.” 

In 1922, the Independent Labour Party – won 10 out of 15 Glasgow constituencies. Shinwell, Kirkwood and others became MPs

And the events of January 31st acquired a mythical status in the city.

1 comment:

ajohnstone said...

The BBC account of the event