Glasgow 1919: The Rise of Red Clydeside || by Kenny MacAskill


Open rebellion in European cities, troubling brewing in Ireland… now, a century on, history is repeating itself. Back then, whilst war had ceased, peace most certainly did not reign. Berlin was facing the Spartacus uprising and Sinn Féin were soon to have an election victory and establish the Dáil Éireann. Films such as Nae Pasaran and Peterloo have confirmed a radical heritage across Scotland. But no city is perhaps richer in that legacy than Glasgow with Red Clydeside, never mind the week of rioting that brought about the deployment of cavalry in nearby Paisley, when news of the Manchester massacre broke.

Cover dfdgA century ago, Glasgow, as the hotbed of radicalism, home to many who sought to emulate revolutions sweeping across Europe, was on edge. It had been a thorn in the side of the British government throughout the war. Its industrial strength as the second city of the British Empire made it vital to the war effort. But a radical heritage and appalling social and economic conditions also made it the hotbed of both anti-war sentiment and industrial disputes. Leading protestors were imprisoned, whilst the shop stewards in charge were deported under draconian wartime laws. Revolutionary heroes like John Maclean were feted on their release from prison, whilst the Prime Minister had required a military escort to visit the city the year before.

Peace brought its own challenges, with the spectre of the return of mass unemployment and consequent poverty haunting many. Demands were made across the country for a reduction in working hours. In Glasgow that was to lead to the 40-hour week strike to lessen hardship for all. A National Coalition government had swept away all before it, even in Glasgow, in the December 1918 election. But there were reasons for that and neither the cause nor morale of the radicals was dimmed. In any event, in many of the factories in Glasgow it was the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) who were the real power.

January 1919, therefore, saw a huge strike that brought tens of thousands onto the streets and saw the Red Flag hoisted in Glasgow’s George Square. The threat had been real and the War Cabinet had been preparing in kind. A riot broke out on Bloody Friday and the civil authorities were overwhelmed. Over 10,000 troops, 100 lorries and 6 tanks were immediately despatched to Scotland’s largest city. The barracks in Glasgow were locked down and soldiers from the West of Scotland confined to base.

January 1919 marks the centenary for what the Secretary of State for Scotland termed the ‘Scottish Bolshevik Revolution’. An open rebellion it was not, and the industrial struggle was lost, but the political fight would be won in the 1922 election. There, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) enjoyed a resounding win in the city, and political Red Clydeside was born. As Santayana wrote, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’