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Author: Gerry Mooney

From the 'Red Clyde' to the 'Blue Clyde'?

Updated Wednesday, 30 September 2015
Gerry Mooney looks at how colour represents various forms of protest - particularly with regards to the struggles and protests on Clydeside during WW1 and the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum.

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Take a look at the images below. They are from very different historical periods but are of the same place, George Square, Glasgow, and capture movements for social and political change in their respective contexts.

raising of the Red Flag in George Square Glasgow in 1919

The first image (above) depicts the raising of the Red Flag in George Square Glasgow in 1919.

The Yes campaign supporters in George Square, Glasgow 2014 as part of the Scottish referendum

The second image displayed above is from a demonstration of pro-Independence supporters in the city almost a century later. 

George Square Glasgow image used during the independence campaign showing Scotland's flag

The final image (see above) was produced by activists in the pro-Independence movement following the September 18 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, a referendum that saw victory for the NO to Independence campaign by 55% to 45% who voted YES – and which is depicted in the bottom right hand corner of the image.

The colours displayed are very different of course – or at least at the surface level they seem to be very different.

The period 2014-2019 sees many hundred years anniversaries coming about – many relating to the First World War or to particular events associated with it and its immediate aftermath. The period around WW1 and immediately after was one of far reaching and rapid social, economic and political change in the UK. Arguably few places were gripped by such change as the city of Glasgow and the wider Clydeside area more generally.

In 1919 the flying of Red Flags in Glasgow during protests by thousands of shipyard and industrial workers took place at a time when the British Government was hugely fearful of social unrest in cities such as Glasgow. Tanks were put on the streets around George Square to quell any threat of a ‘Bolshevik’ type uprising, to use the language deployed at the time.

During WW1 witnessed a series of major industrial disputes and protests over social conditions, not least over the supply and quality of housing and the huge costs of renting.

The emergence of workplace based trade union organisations during the War threatened the production of armaments and therefore represented a real problem for Britain’s ruling classes at the time who were fearful of the consequences of such a movement. These protests and disputes, culminating in the threat of some kind of uprising contributed to the coining of the term Red Clydeside. The subject since of many books, films, cultural events and academic studies, the period of ‘the Red Clyde’ continues to shape our understanding of the history of Glasgow and of the West of Scotland more generally.

The colour red generally denotes socialism – and this is by no means confined to Glasgow or the UK of course. However, other issues that were to the fore in protests in Glasgow at this time reflected demands for Scottish home rule – as well as among many of those Glaswegians who were Irish or from Irish backgrounds – for home rule for Ireland and the establishment of an Irish Republic. Famous Clydeside revolutionary socialists such as John MacLean were internationalist and anti-imperialist in outlook and supporting the demands of an Irish Republic was a strong feature of their socialist outlook.

In the well-known Scottish protest song, The John MacLean March, one of the lines refers to the ‘red and the green marching side by side’, reflecting the fusion of demands made by socialists and the struggle for Irish Independence.

MacLean was hugely supportive of the 1916 Easter Rising, the centenary of which is now less than a year away, and of other Scottish born revolutionary socialists such as James Connolly who is also famous among other things to see in no small part that protests for Irish Independence from Britain was also a struggle for far-reaching social change involving the socialist transformation of society.

The coming together in some senses of red for socialism, blue for Scotland (absolutely not The Conservatives!) and green for Ireland, gave struggles and protests on Clydeside a multi-colour feeling. As we jump forward almost 100 years, we see that in other images it is the sky blue Scottish Saltire that is the predominant flag that colours pro-Scottish Independence protests. But once more we need to look beneath the surface to gain deeper insights as to the factors that propelled the demands for Scottish Independence. And in doing so, the multi-colour theme emerges once again – albeit in a very different context and in different ways.

The struggle for Scottish Independence today has been widely represented – misrepresented – as representing little more than a rising feeling of Scottishness, reflecting a greater sense of national identity. In the SNP and other nationalists, such sentiments are of course prominent and cannot be ruled out. Yet the YES movement for Independence was not a nationalist movement in any narrow sense – but represented another political fusion of the kind that shaped the period of the Red Clyde – bringing together a diverse social movement characterised by demands for far reaching social transformation, anti-war, anti-imperialism and demands for equality and social justice for all.

Two distinct periods, therefore, with apparently little to connect them except location (even if the demand for Scottish Independence was not confined to Glasgow – though all Glasgow constituencies voted YES for Independence). However, as we have seen here, flags of different colours informed and shaped both struggles. Social movements of the kind represented by the YES campaign in Scotland are rarely ‘pure’ in colour – but more usually represent multi-coloured forms of protest.


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