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Section 4: Enduring Controversies around Glasgow 1919: (Mis)representing Red Clydeside?

Updated Thursday, 22 August 2019
Red Clydeside has given rise to many competing historical interpretations, arguments and 'alternative facts'. How can we make sense of these continuing debates?

"It is a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a Strike - this is a Bolshevist uprising." These were the words of the Secretary of State for Scotland, Robert Munro, to describe what was happening in Glasgow at the beginning of 1919 and in particular, what came to be known as the "Battle of George Square".

Secretary of State for Scotland, Robert Munro, (1916-1922), February 1919

(Source: Christopher Harvie, 1998, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p.17)

‘We Were Carrying on a Strike When We Ought to Have Been Making a Revolution'

(Willie Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde (1936), London, Lawrence and Wishart, (1978 ed), p.221)

Perhaps not surprisingly, such a momentous period as that of the Red Clyde has given rise to many competing historical interpretations and arguments. What is surprising is that 100 years later it is still generating academic output, media coverage and, importantly, ongoing political debates as well as arguments about ‘the history’ of the key events of the period. Getting the history ‘right’ is an ongoing process of debate, argument, and counter-argument. The controversies that continue to this day help to keep the Red Clyde in focus. However, there are myths and problematic interpretations that need to be debunked or at least approach much more critically. As new studies emerge, new arguments are generated, hidden histories are excavated and given expression and the debate moves on, at least to some extent. There is no one universally accepted history of Red Clydeside, but several competing histories.

Dave Sherry, Author and Political Activist

There is much continuing interest with Red Clydeside, and key events such as the Battle of George Square in January 1919. While some may claim that the entire idea of a Red Clydeside is largely mythical, a legend shot through with holes, nonetheless what is without question is that it continues to encourage a fascination which gives lie to the claims that it was less of an event than some accounts would have us believe today.   

Strike Bulletin page from 1919 showing Glasgow Bloody Friday story Strike Bulletin page from 1919. The representation and interpretation of 1919 and the wartime events preceding it have been contested since 1919 until the present day. The reconstruction of contemporary understandings and representations is not always straightforward. The views of employers, landlords and state functionaries, at both local and national levels,  can be gleaned from a variety of primary sources with a reasonable degree of certainty. To a lesser extent the same could be said for elements of the working-class leadership. Working class understandings and views are much harder to reconstruct because these represent the experiences of the mass of ordinary Clydesiders who left little in the way of sources which historians can access. These are the men and women, skilled and unskilled, Catholics and Protestants, Socialists and Conservatives, internationalists and (Irish, Scottish and British) nationalists who made the Red Clyde. With these caveats in mind, we try to summarise below a range of responses to and understandings of Red Clyde, from contemporaries and historians.

One of the first reactions by contemporaries was to see the Red Clyde as an anti-patriotic, extremist inspired series of events. This was the view of many Conservative and Liberal politicians, employers and mainstream newspapers. Those taking this line tended to stress the seriousness of the threat: in the war years this was the threat to the war effort; in 1919 it was the fear of Bolshevism and the spread of revolution. Modern versions of this hostile response tend to downplay the seriousness of events, suggesting that contemporary concerns were rather panicked reactions, which overstated the influence of radicals and underestimated the essential patriotic moderation of the majority of workers.

919 Battle of George Square - David Kirkwood on the ground after being struck by police batons David Kirkwood on the ground after being struck by police batons, George Square, Glasgow, January 31 1919

An academic historians’ response which shares some of the above concerns focuses on the claim that Red Clydeside is largely a myth. Its modern expression was set out in the early 1980s with the publication of two books: Christopher Harvie’s No Gods and Precious Few Heroes, first published in 1981 and reprinted several times thereafter. More significant for the Red Clydeside debate was Iain McLean’s monumental study, The Legend of Red Clydeside, published in 1983. Emerging from an earlier thesis, the arguments presented by McLean were influential and provoked a powerful critical response. Not only did McLean and Harvie playdown the significance of Red Clydeside, they claimed that it was largely mythical. This myth, it was argued, was largely a product of dramatic overreactions by contemporary politicians and journalists and then the subsequent reinterpretations of the events on Clydeside by later generations of Marxist writers and left-wing political activists.  

Strike terrorism in Glasgow headline - Aberdeen Journal 1919 Aberdeen Journal headline from 1919 McLean suggested a working class divided along multiple lines: sectarian (Catholic/Protestant), political (reformist/revolutionary) and occupational (craft/unskilled). The events of 1914-22 were interpreted as a series of discrete disputes, in which groups of workers pursued immediate, pragmatic goals (e.g. rent restrictions); defended specific, sectional interests (e.g. over the dilution of skilled by unskilled labour); or pursued limited, reformist  strategies (a 40-hour week to combat unemployment). The most consistent theme which McLean detects was the attempt to protect the craft privileges, in terms of wages and workplace control, of highly skilled workers, especially in the engineering trades. He suggests that this pitted them against, not only employers and the state, but also against unskilled workers, thus undermining any sense of class solidarity. In none of this were revolutionaries in the ascendant. The post 1922 parliamentary and local domination of Glasgow politics by an increasingly moderate Labour Party was due to an entirely separate set of circumstances which owed little to the war years.

The position which McLean set himself against sees the events of 1914-19 as a revolutionary ‘might have been’: a Clydeside working class, radicalised by its wartime experience, poised to take the lead in pushing a revolutionary agenda onto the stage of national politics and industrial relations. Among the workers of wartime Clydeside there was an element, centred around John Maclean and some of the leading shop stewards such as Willie Gallacher, which undoubtedly came to hope for an extra-parliamentary, Soviet-style challenge. This was a minority view but for those looking for evidence of an extra-parliamentary, insurrectionary tradition it tends to be a focus of attention. Indeed, for some later left-wing activists and some popular, folk memories, the Red Clyde has been interpreted as the revolution which never was. It needs to be stressed, however, that there are few academic commentators, even left-wing ones, who would seriously argue that Glasgow was on the verge of a revolutionary moment in 1919. In targeting ‘the legend of Red Clydeside’ McLean seems to have set himself against a primarily activist/folk understanding of events.

Many historians have subsequently engaged critically with the Harvie/McLean interpretation of the significance of Red Clyde. They share a rejection of the romanticised vision of a stillborn revolution, because that vision can leave historians bogged down in fruitless attempts to answer the question: why wasn’t there a revolution on Clydeside? However, these historians share (unlike McLean) an understanding that in the period 1914-22 there was a significant process of political radicalisation of a substantial section of the Glasgow working class. The nature of that radicalisation and its effect on broader economic, social and political relations between classes are issues on which they differ.

One of the clearest alternatives to Iain McLean’s thesis was provided by John Foster (LR, D.iii & iv see section 6) who argued that the years 1914-19 represented a critical juncture where class struggle and consciousness took a qualitative leap forward to the edge of a revolutionary perception of relations between the working class, employers and state. This view emphasises the development of shop steward-led workplace militancy, where struggles and confrontations with the state produced a rapidly developing political consciousness. The crucial role of Clydeside industries in the war economy and the state’s involvement in regulating those industries meant that any industrial relations conflict involved workers in confronting employers and, ultimately, the state.

Foster also stresses the distinctly socialist nature of this emerging class consciousness, which was significantly shaped by the propaganda and educational work of small Marxist revolutionary parties such as the British Socialist Party (BSP) and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) (Duncan LR, D.ii see section 6). The 40 hours strike, the context for ‘Bloody Friday’ (the riot in George Square, Glasgow, January 31, 1919), was in many ways the culmination of this process of socialist radicalisation and mobilisation. The strike is presented, firstly,  as a political challenge to the post-World War One employer/government concession of an eight-hour day/47 hour week, without loss of pay, from a pre-war norm of 54 hours; and secondly, as a class-based, economic challenge to employers’ ability to use the growing numbers of post war unemployed as a reserve army of labour to ratchet down wages. Bloody Friday in George Square is, perhaps, the most obvious symbol of this interpretation of Red Clyde, with its focus on the potential of extra-parliamentary action to shape political struggle.

Tanks and soldiers billeted in the Saltmarket area of Glasgow in the weeks following the 1919 Battle of George Square on 31 January 1919. Tanks and soldiers billeted in the Saltmarket area of Glasgow in the weeks following the Battle of George Square, January 31, 1919.

An alternative interpretation perhaps represents something around which, by the end of the 20th century, some academic work (e.g. Brotherstone LR, D.i see section 6) was beginning to coalesce. This argues against Iain McLean, for the significance of the period 1914-22, taken as whole with important connections between the war years and the post war period. It is suggested that this saw the beginnings of a reconfiguration of relations within the working class towards greater solidarity and a heightened sense of antagonism towards dominant groups. In particular it stresses the centrality of the rent strikes and the struggle over housing (e.g. Damer LR, E.i, Melling LR, E .ii see section 6) which challenged the rights of property owners while simultaneously pressurising the state to intervene in the housing market. Rather than foregrounding the revolutionary/Bolshevik/Communist elements within the working class, this position also emphasises the organisational and ideological importance of the Independent Labour Party ILP (e.g. Smith LR G.v, McKinlay and Morris LR D.iv, Melling LR see section 6), suggesting that it became the focus for a radical-left working class politics of a socialist nature, but one which allied community based activism with a commitment to electoral and parliamentary politics, a position not shared by the BSP and SLP. In this view, if the rent strike victory was the great achievement of Red Clyde perhaps the symbolic equivalent of Bloody Friday and George Square is St Enoch’s Square in November 1922 when, following the 1922 General Election, the ten newly elected ILP/Labour MPs were ushered by thousands on to the London train and the track to parliamentary socialism (or not).   

A rather different understanding of Red Clyde and one of the most pertinent today is the representation of Red Clyde as a component of a distinctively radical Scottish identity. James Young, writing in 1979 in The Rousing if the Scottish Working Class , was highlighting two key elements of this argument: first, the legacy of John Maclean’s advocacy of a Scottish Workers Republic, which he had developed out of his commitment to supporting the struggle for Irish independence; second, the early 1920s support for Scottish Home Rule which developed within the Scottish ILP and was based on the perception of Scotland as more left-wing and socialist than England. This perception had been substantially shaped by the experience of wartime Clydeside. There is, however, no clear evidence that (apart from Maclean’s contributions) proto-nationalist concerns shaped working class activity in the events of Red Clyde. Nevertheless, the suggestion that Scotland has been and is more left-wing than England plays a prominent role today in left-nationalist politics, within the broad independence movement. At the level of popular activism there does seem to have been recent attempts to present Red Clyde as evidence of the distinctive radicalism of the Scottish working class in confrontation with a repressive English state. The broader question of whether or not Scotland was/is more left-wing than England is open to discussion. However, the citing of Red Clyde as evidence of such is only sustainable by downplaying the nature of contemporary working-class radicalism elsewhere in Britain. (The associated suggestion that the suppression of Red Clyde represents the work of an oppressive English state is to misread the nature of the early 20th century British state and political elite.)

Glasgow Rent Strikes

Within these reoccuring controversies there have been few attempts to contextualise Red Clyde and understand it in Scottish, British and international contexts.  Such comparative perspectives would be useful in helping to assess the adequacy of the overlapping positions set out above, as well as helping to identify what was truly peculiar to Glasgow and where the experience of Red Clydeside had commonalities elsewhere. The value of such approaches can be illustrated with some examples. Within Scotland, Kemp (LR, G.ii see section 6)  has suggested that socialist politics made earlier and deeper impacts in Dundee than in Glasgow, while Petrie (LR G.iii see section 6) has suggested the importance of east of Scotland rent strikes in helping to pressurise the government to action. In a British context the comparison of Glasgow and Belfast in the strikes of 1919, briefly raised by Gray (LR G.i see section 6), poses fruitful questions about the extent and nature of the strike mobilisation as well as the character of the government response. Moving beyond the confines of the British Isles, a reminder of the broader international context is salutary:

‘The upsurge in working class militancy between 1910 and 1920 was a phenomenon which swept the entire world. Rather than seeing it as a mere epiphenomenon of the socialist revolution that did not happen, it deserves to be seen as a transformative event in its own right’.

(Tooze A., 2014, The Great Deluge, London, Viking, p.246.) 

Just as in Glasgow, many cities saw major strikes in February 1919 (notably in Belfast). Strike days in Britain rocketed from six million in 1918 to 35 million in 1919.

In Seattle, USA, there was an impressive display of solidarity involving wider sections of the working class which shared with Glasgow a rank and file mistrust of official unions but which like Glasgow collapsed after a few days. On the other hand, the Barcelona general strike, which began in February, was a massively supported, officially backed and longer strike which achieved what was probably the first statutory 8-hour day in the world. Much of urban Italy was gripped by a wave of strikes throughout 1919 and into 1920, which were again marked by rank and file militancy and Soviet-style workplace councils. Ultimately these were only contained by the Fascist seizure of power led by Mussolini. At the insurrectionary end of this spectrum of working-class militancy, there were Communist led armed risings in 1919 in Berlin, Munich and Hungary, all of which ended in hundreds of deaths including the execution of the risings’ leaders. There are no easy lessons to be learned here (other than that ‘Bloody Friday’ wasn’t in fact that bloody) about what happened on Red Clyde, but such international comparisons should certainly allow a sense of perspective when it comes to assessing the nature of events in Glasgow.

Mary Barbour Political activist and leading organiser of the 1915 Rent Strike, Mary Barbour The discussion of the international context needs to extend back before 1919 and here there are two key elements. Firstly, Glasgow’s contradictory experience of the First World War. On the one hand the city was, proportionately, one of the biggest army recruiting centres in Britain, which reflected a powerful strand of patriotic commitment within the working class. That commitment was to be tested by the end of the war when Glasgow had one of the highest proportionate casualty rates of any major city. On the other hand, it was also one of the main centres of the anti-war movement. The movement covered a range of views: from religiously influenced absolute pacifism through to political objections to what was seen as an imperialist war fought in the interests of national capitalist classes. In Glasgow the movement coalesced around the ILP, which presented the full range of anti-war views. Most of the ILP’s leading figures such as Mary Barbour, Helen Crawfurd, the Dollans, James Maxton and John Wheatley took a strong anti-war stance. They were joined in this by other key working-class leaders such as Willie Gallacher and John Maclean, who more clearly represented the political argument against the war. When assessing the impact of the anti-war movement it is important not to overstate the size or influence of this group. However, a key feature which distinguished the Glasgow anti-war movement from that in other parts of Britain was that the anti-war leaders and activists were also prominent in, or had links to the leadership of housing and industrial struggles. Thus, throughout all the main events of Red Clyde, a significant section of the leadership was espousing an anti-war version of socialism, which highlighted the internationalist argument for solidarity between workers of all nations.

The second key element in the pre-1919 international context was the impact of the 1917 revolutions in Russia, especially the second, Bolshevik revolution, which created a state proclaiming the interests of the working class and urging workers everywhere to pursue class struggle and revolution. For the revolutionary wing of the Glasgow working class this provided very direct inspiration: the sense that revolution was now possible combined with the language of class war to help generate the belief that radical change might be immanent. The non-revolutionary left sections of the working class could also feel empowered and excited by the apparent spectacle of a working-class seizure of power in Russia. In the post-war upheavals which swept Europe, the 40 Hours strike certainly tapped into these feelings of a broader, international working-class challenge. However, these feelings never got to the stage of developing coherent strategies for a revolutionary seizure of power. It is possible to suggest that many workers experienced and interpreted the events of 1919 in a class conscious and internationalist framework, without arguing that this left Clydeside on the cusp of revolution.

Thus, a key factor in interpreting Red Clydeside, and especially the events of 1919, is the suggestion that workers in Glasgow were, to a greater or lesser extent, aware of being part of bigger international struggles. For the working-class leadership and many of the rank and file this involved a sense of international solidarity. However, this picture has been rendered more complex by further work on the 40 Hours strike (e.g. Griffin LR I.i, Jenkinson LR, Harrison LR I.iii see section 6) which has focused on the January 1919 Glasgow port riot. (There were similar riots in many major British ports.) This involved white seamen targeting black African and Caribbean sailors, who were seen as competing for increasingly scarce jobs, and reflects broader efforts by seamen’s unions to impose a ‘colour bar’ on ethnic minority sailors. The riot highlights the contrast between the progressive internationalism, which was undoubtedly part of Red Clyde, and the racialised hostility towards non-white minorities which was also clearly present in the city. It is a reminder that interpreting the events of 1919 and the preceding years requires a willingness to critically examine received wisdoms.

Jacqueline Jenkinson, 2019, Black 1919: Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain, Liverpool University Press. 

Jody Harrison (2019) ‘Dark history of the Red Clydeside race riot’, The Herald, January 23.

This final point may, perhaps and finally, be illustrated by reference to a recent and very specific argument about…. tanks (that is British military tanks)! After the George Square riot troops were deployed into Glasgow by a panicked and overreacting government. As part of that deployment six tanks were rolled into the city. The military deployment and the tanks have become the focus over the years for some sloppy history writing, careless repetition of unchecked ‘facts’ and, recently, social media/online comments about English oppressors crushing leftie Scots. These ‘myths’ (or untruths) have been tackled recently in a series of articles (links below).     

Gordon Barclay, Military Historian

Barclay’s arguments are outlined more fully in:

Gordon Barclay, ‘”Churchill rolled the tanks into the crowd": mythology and reality in the military deployment to Glasgow 1919‘, Scottish Affairs, 28, 1: 32-62

Gordon Barclay, ‘Debunking more myths around the battle of George Square’, The Herald, April 20, 2018

Gordon Barclay, ‘Duties in aid of the civil power’: The development of the army to Glasgow, 31 January to 17 February 1919’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 38, 2: 2018: 261–29

Barclay's general thesis and approach is critiqued by Sean Damer in his review of Kenny MacAskill’s 2019 book, Glasgow 1919.

Sean Damer, 2019, ‘In the Rapids of Revolution: Review of MacAskill, Glasgow 1919’, Scottish Affairs, 28, 3, pp. 339-348.

For more on the Glasgow 1919 ‘tanks controversy’ see:

A Thousand Flowers, ‘The Trongate Tank That Never Was: The Truth Behind the Viral Photo’, A Thousand Flowers, February 10, 2016

We have tried to suggest above that the Red Clyde and the events of 1919 represented an important juncture in the development of working-class politics in Glasgow, in terms of tactics and activism, ideology and organisation. To disagree with Iain McLean: something significant happened in this city in these years. However, we have also stressed that Glasgow in 1919 was not ‘the Petrograd of the west’. Working out the significance of Red Clyde for our understanding of the past and its relevance to an understanding of the present is an ongoing challenge and one which will continue to provide a range of contested interpretations.

The Reading of the Riot Act: George Square Glasgow, January 31, 1919

While estimates vary considerably, tens of thousands of striking workers had gathered in George Square to hear the Lord Provost of Glasgow read-out the response of the British Government to their demands for a 40 hour working week. Many of the strikers had support from their families on the day itself with many women and children joining the masses on George Square. A violent struggle developed in the south-east corner of George Square, where some of the demonstrators may have been trying to stop tramcars. The police tried to force a way through the melee and drew their batons, leading to an escalation in the violence. The authorities made the decision to read the Riot Act. As this was being read out by a Glasgow sheriff, it was torn from his hands.

As full-scale disorder developed the riot spilled-over into other areas of the city centre and there was violence on the streets into the late evening. By that stage the government in London had been warned by the Scottish Secretary of State, Robert Munro, that a Bolshevik Revolution had started on Clydeside. This added further fuel to the government’s fears that a revolution would develop along the lines of those experienced in Germany and Russia. 

The Riot Act, 1714

The reading of the Riot Act on George Square was one of the occassions it has been used in the UK. The Act permitted local authorities to declare any group of twelve persons or more to be unlawfully gathered, and thus have to disperse or face punitive action. The Act’s primary purpose was:

“An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing of the rioters.”

David Rolland: ‘The Riot Act, 1714’, Old Police Cells Museum 2014:

Robin McKie, 2019: ‘100 years on: The day they read the Riot Act as chaos engulfed Glasgow’, The Observer, January 6:

BBC News Online: ‘The last reading of the Riot Act’, January 30, 2009

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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