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Section 3: Red Clydeside: Key Issues and Key Events

Updated Thursday, 22nd August 2019

Explore the background to the struggles of Red Clydeside.

Any attempt to impose a solid periodisation on history is fraught with difficulties: where to begin, where to conclude, and then there are continuities as well as changes throughout the period in question. The ongoing debate around Red Clydeside is no exception to this. While many associate it with the start of the First World War, it is already apparent that its antecedents were laid down during the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century. To identify a year when ‘it’ came to 'an end' is also problematic, 1919, 1922, 1926 or the early 1930s? It is clear that its legacies were continuing until well after World War Two. Importantly, Red Clydeside is not a single event, but represents an interwoven and volatile landscape of industrial conflict, community strife, opposition to war, struggles for political change, the rise and spread of workplace trade union organisation, increasing worker militancy, the spread of socialist and communist ideas, and the ever-present politics of Irish nationalism amidst struggles for an independent Ireland.

David Kirkwood being detained by police during 1919 Battle of George Square on 31 January 1919. Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Wikimedia David Kirkwood, one of the key activists involved in the struggles of the period and who became an Independent Labour Party MP at the 1922 General Election, being detained by police during the Battle of George Square on January 31, 1919.

When the period of Red Clydeside began and when it could be said to have come to an end is not surprisingly also a matter of interpretation and argument. As has been shown it has its origins in the pre-World War One era. While not usually viewed as a key part of Red Clydeside itself, a major strike that broke-out at the American-owned Singers Factory in Clydebank in 1911, is one illustration of the growing tensions in the Clydeside region in the period leading-up to the First World War.

In most of the key sources and publications, the following events and developments are usually taken as key episodes during the period of the Red Clyde:

  • The Glasgow Rent Strike, 1915
  • The anti-war movement
  • The formation of the Clyde Workers Committee (the world’s first workplace shop steward’s organisation), in 1915
  • The 40 Hours Strike and the Battle of George Square, 1919
  • Election of Independent Labour Party MPs, ‘Red Clydesiders’, to the UK Parliament, 1922
Clyde Valley (Lanarkshire & Renfrewshire) Electoral Results - 1918 and 1922 elections Creative commons image Icon Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right (year) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] under Creative-Commons license 1918 and 1922 General Election outcomes for the Clydeside region showing the huge advances by the Labour and Independent Labour Parties

The roots of Red Clydeside are located in the rapid growth and growing militancy of the largest industrial working class in the British Isles. This was one of the most distinctive aspects of the Glasgow-region. Glasgow was at the epi-centre of the Empire, with trading links across the globe but in addition to its status as an important port, it was the paramount centre for shipbuilding, engineering and other heavy industries. A large proportion of its workforce were engaged in work in these sectors.

This large concentration of workers in a few closely interrelated sectors of the economy, and in relatively close geographical proximity, also helped to create the conditions for a growth in workplace trade union organisation, leading to the establishment of the first ‘shop stewards’ movement, the Clyde Workers Committee, in 1915. While it was established during wartime, there had been a significant upswell in trade union action, strikes and other forms of militancy since the early 1900s and this was a pattern emerging across Scotland as well as other parts of Britain and Ireland.

Stewart McLennan, Secretary, Scottish Labour History Society

Robert Keith Middlemass (1965) The Clydesiders, London: Hutchinson.

Russell Leadbetter, ‘100 years since red tide rose up in Glasgow: High drama of workers’ struggle that turned to serious unrest’, Evening Times (Glasgow), January 31, 2019

BBC Online, ‘Clydeside: When the Workshop of the World Shut Up Shop’

Historic Environment Scotland: Red Clydeside and The Battle of George Square

Gerry Mooney, ‘Tanks on the streets of Glasgow to stop revolt in 1919’, Socialist Worker, January 28, 2019

‘When the Clyde flowed red – Kenny MacAskill on the Battle of George Square and the legacy of Glasgow's labour movement', January 27, 2019

Robin McKie, ‘One hundred years on: the day they read the Riot Act as chaos engulfed Glasgow’, The Observer, January 6, 2019

STV News on Twitter: 

Steven Brocklehurst, ‘The Battle of George Square: How a strike led to fears of a workers' revolt’, BBC News Online, January 31, 2019

This article is part of the Revisiting Red Clydeside: 'Bloody Friday': The Battle of George Square, Glasgow, 1919 collection. All the media-rich articles in this collection provide an introduction to Red Clydeside and consider the developments that led to the Battle of George Square in Glasgow in January 1919, and also reflect on the enduring legacies of this period. 
 

 

 

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