A cen­tury after work­ers’ tu­mult on Clydeside, ex­perts ask just how close was Scot­land to rev­o­lu­tion? Au­thors on why strike still res­onates

The Sunday Post (Dundee) - - THE ISSUES - By Krissy Stor­rar [email protected]

Strikes had brought the coun­try’s largest city to a halt, thou­sands packed the cen­tral square to be con­fronted by trun­cheon-wield­ing po­lice, and troops were sent to quell the threat­ened rev­o­lu­tion.

A cen­tury ago, Glas­gow was in tu­mult but just how close did Scot­land come to a work­ing-class re­volt, a Rus­sian- style rev­o­lu­tion on Red Clydeside?

Well, not that close, ac­cord­ing to Kenny Macaskill, the for­mer SNP min­is­ter turned au­thor, but he be­lieves the febrile months of Jan­uary 1919, the fight for work­ers’ rights that pro­voked the un­rest, still res­onate today.

He has writ­ten a book to mark the cen­te­nary of the day tens of thou­sands of work­ers strik­ing for a 40-hour week clashed with po­lice in the heart of the city.

Tanks were sent in and ma­chine guns po­si­tioned in Ge­orge Square amid fears that a “Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion” had be­gun fol­low­ing the 1917 work­ers’ re­volt in Rus­sia.

But, ac­cord­ing to Macaskill, the Red Clydeside era is be­com­ing “in­creas­ingly rel­e­vant” as work­ers’ rights con­tinue to be eroded.

The for­mer jus­tice sec­re­tary, who has writ­ten Glas­gow 1919: The Rise Of Red Clydeside, said: “It was a febrile at­mos­phere. There was con­cern ev­ery­where.

“The First World War had ended but there was an un­holy peace.

“There was great con­cern be­cause peo­ple were sad­dened by the war but they were also fear­ful for the fu­ture.

“They were about to de­mo­bilise two- and- a- half mil­lion men and they were go­ing to come back look­ing for work.

“Glas­gow was a poor, poor city with poverty ram­pant.

“Peo­ple were wor­ried about a re­turn to hunger be­cause there would be mass unem­ploy­ment.

“There were con­cerns about the fu­ture with pover ty and de­pri­va­tion, there were con­cerns from the es­tab­lish­ment be­cause of what was hap­pen­ing in Rus­sia.

“These were febrile times. Nerves must have been jan­gling on both sides.”

The build up to the Bat­tle of Ge­orge Square came after the First World War drew to a close.

Glas­gow had played a vi­tal role in the mu­ni­tions in­dus­try and there was a 54- hour work­ing week in fac­to­ries and ship­yards.

But work­ers wanted to see it cut to 40 hours as an “al­tru­is­tic” mea­sure to en­sure there were enough jobs to go around for the de­mo­bilised sol­diers.

Au­thor Mag­gie Craig, who wrote the book When The Clyde Ran Red, said: “After the years of the war, peo­ple were so weary.

“The year started with the tragedy of the Io­laire sink­ing off Stornoway with the loss of 200 men who were be­ing de­mobbed.

“There had been the Representation of the Peo­ple Act and an elec­tion, which peo­ple felt had been rushed.

“There was a flu epi­demic as well, which wiped out about 4,000 peo­ple in Glas­gow. “Peo­ple had just taken so much suf­fer­ing, they couldn’t take any more.

“There was a build up of a few days when they met to work their way up to the strike.

“There must have been ex­cite­ment build­ing with some form of trep­i­da­tion, be­cause they prob­a­bly knew there was go­ing to be some sort of re­sponse.

“They might have wor­ried about a mil­i­tary re­sponse but although the tanks came to Glas­gow it was the po­lice who re­sponded.”

The strike, led by the Clyde Work­ers’ Com­mit­tee, be­gan after an of­fer of a 47- hour week was re­jected by shop stew­ards.

On Jan­uary 31, 1919, 60,000 peo­ple gath­ered in Ge­orge Square to hear the out­come of a pe­ti­tion de­liv­ered to the Lord Provost.

Demon­stra­tors then clashed with po­lice and the Sec­re­tary of State declared a Bol­she­vik upris­ing was un­der way on the streets of the second city of the Bri­tish em­pire.

Troops were de­ployed from Scot­tish reg­i­ments – though not those in the west of Scot­land – and tanks were sta­tioned close to the city cen­tre.

The fears of a full-blown upris­ing

were un­founded and the clashes pe­tered out with an agree­ment over a 47-hour week.

But Jan­uary 1919 had a last­ing im­pact on the po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

Mr Macaskill said: “It saw a po­lit­i­cal sea-change. Glas­gow went deep­est red.”

And 100 years on, there has been an up­turn in aware­ness of Red Clydeside amid a shift to­wards zero- hours con­tracts and a gig econ­omy.

Mr Macaskill added: “There are many young peo­ple who would bite your hand off if they were of­fered 40 hours a week be­cause t h e y ’r e re­quired to work con­sid­er­ably longer than that.

“So that’s why it’s im­por­tant that we re­call not just the mem­ory but try to take les­sons from what hap­pened be­cause this was done to try and al­le­vi­ate unem­ploy­ment.

“A cen­tury on when you tell peo­ple that this was a strike for a 40-hour week, they can’t be­lieve it. That says a lot about the time of the strike but a lot about our time too.

“I like to think les­sons will be learned from this, that there has to be a bet­ter way, and not zero-hour con­tracts or the gig econ­omy.”

A worker waves the red flag be­fore Glas­gow’s sky­line on the cover of Kenny Macaskill’s book, Glas­gow

1919: The Rise Of Red Clydeside

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