95 years on: Red Clydeside and The Battle of George Square

An extract from the pamphlet Red Flag Over the Clyde written by Jim Cameron and produced by Scottish Militant Labour (forerunner of Socialist Party Scotland) in 1994.

Tanks in George Square in 1919″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 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”. 

The first two decades of this Century [20th Centuary] saw the development of worker movements throughout Europe and beyond. Working class people began to organise themselves to fight for a share of the vast profits they were making for their employers and nowhere was this movement stronger than in Scotland, on Clydeside. Between 1904-11 half of the worlds ships were built on the Clyde.
Nevertheless, the shipbuilders, along with the miners and factory workers, were paid poverty wages and were forced to live in overcrowded squalor. The military conquests of the British Empire had made Britain the “Workshop of the World” and Clydeside was the “Engine room of Britain”.Profits in all areas of industry were huge but, as always, those who produced the wealth and profits saw little of the fruit’s of their labour.

Against this background there emerged on Clydeside a new form of workers organisation – the Shop Stewards movement, formalised by the establishment of the Clyde Workers Committee. Trade Union power began to be removed from the bureaucrats who were in the pocket of the employers and taken on by the workers themselves and their elected shop stewards.

Alongside the developing militancy in the workplace there also began to emerge a new form of political activist and organisation, based on working class communities themselves.

Trade union leaders such as Willie Gallagher and Davie Kirkwood came to the fore to lead the industrial struggles while, in the broader political front, John MacLean, the greatest of all the “Red Clydesiders” was able to draw crowds of hundreds and thousands to his political rallies.This was especially true during the period of the 1914-18 war, when MacLean, more than anyone, was responsible for leading, the anti-war movement.

Shorter working week

By the end of the war working class confidence was high. Not all the struggles had been successful but there were enough victories – such as the rent strike of 1915, which forced Lloyd George to introduce the Rent Restriction Act, and the two successful campaigns to have John MacLean released early from lengthy prison sentences.There had also of course, come from Russia the news of the overthrow of the Tsarist Dictatorship and the establishment of a workers democracy led by Lenin and Trotsky. All in all there was a mood for change and willingness among workers to make it happen. This was a backdrop to the campaign at the end of the war for a shorter working week.

There had been for some time a growing view that the working week of 54 hours was far too long. This view was strengthened by the return home of soldiers at the end of the war, all looking for jobs. The fight for a shorter working week was geared, therefore, not only for workers to have more time for leisure and to be with their families, but also to create jobs for those returning from the trenches.

The Clyde Workers Committee initially came out, along with the miners, for a 30 hour week based upon a six hour working day, a five-day week and a wage of one pound per day. The leadership of the Associated Society of Engineers (ASE) opened negotiations with the employers for a 47-hour week for workers in the engineering and shipbuilding industries.

On 18th January 1918, the Clyde Worker Committee organised a shop stewards conference in Glasgow with 500 in attendance. To this conference came representatives of the official leadership of the trade union movement: a compromise was decided upon in the form of the demand for a 40-hour working week. The conference also decided that a General Strike would be called for 24th January in support of this demand.

Even though this compromise diluted the original program of the Clyde Workers Committee it was clear in the report coming out of that conference that if a 40-week did not absorb the unemployed “a more drastic reduction of hours will be demanded”

 By Monday 27th January the response to the call for strike action was tremendous. All of the big factories and works came out en-masse and St. Andrews Hall was filled by three thousand strikers, with thousands more outside. Pickets were widely used to encourage any doubter to join the strike.

Following the St. Andrews Hall meeting there was a march to George Square and an open-air rally. The mood was electric.

The leaders of the ASE opposed the strike and worked to undermine it. They were completely unsuccessful in Glasgow. Not that the strike was confined to Glasgow. Belfast for example was brought to a standstill. For a period, sectarianism was set aside as workers united in struggle. Gas, electricity and transport workers came out en-masse in what amounted to a general strike. In Lanarkshire, 1,500 miners took strike action, occupied the headquarters of the miners’ union and demanded that the leadership back an all-out strike.

Bloody Friday

31st January 1919

Over Monday 27th and Tuesday 28th January, mass picketing was successful in shutting down those smaller workplaces who had initially stayed at work. It was not a matter of intimidation but rather that less well-organized groups of workers drew strength from the overall scale of the strike. A daily strike bulletin was produced and it became increasingly clear to the bosses and to the government that matters on Clydeside were coming to a head.

On the Wednesday there was another rally in George Square and a deputation of the strikers met with the Lord Provost. He promised to make representations to the government on their behalf and asked them to return on the Friday to reply. The strikers’ leaders went along with this – a major tactical error.

While the strikers were waiting in good faith, the ruling class were busy laying plans to smash the strike.

On the Friday, workers began to assemble in George Square from early on. As the crowd grew speeches were made and eventually a workers deputation went to hear the result of the Provost’s negotiations with the government. Thousands of Police were lined up in streets around the square; ready to attack the strikers when ordered to do so.

The order eventually came and the police launched a ferocious baton charge on the crowd, which included women and children there to support their striking fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Some accounts say the police attack was completely unprovoked while other indicate it resulted from strikers forcibly stopping trams which were running along beside the Square. Whatever the truth, it is clear that the police were going to intervene at some stage in order to disperse the crowd and defeat the strike.

The demonstrators stood up to the police. The Chief Constable attempted to read the Riot Act and had it torn out of his hands. Willie Gallacher and David Kirkwood were arrested. Pitched battles took place between police and strikers in the streets around the square. Iron palings were pulled up and used as a defence against the police truncheons, while bottles were mobilised from a passing lorry to serve as missiles.

The Police had anticipated that their baton charge would drive the crowd out of the square – not so. Not only did the strikers and their supporters stand their ground but drove the police back.

Eventually there was a re-grouping and the workers began to move off from George Square to march towards Glasgow Green. At the front of this march were ex-servicemen who had returned from the war to “a home fit for heroes” and who were completely in support of the strike. When they reached the Green the police were waiting, ready to charge again. Undaunted the strikers, led by the ex-servicemen, pulled up the park railings and chased off their attackers.

For the rest of the day and into the night, further fighting took place throughout the city.

Troops were brought in by the government to restore order, though Scottish soldiers billeted at Maryhill barracks were not used. They were all veterans of the front and could not be trusted to obey orders to turn their guns on the strikers. Instead, the government used young and inexperienced English troops, who were ignorant of the situation.

Willie Gallacher acknowledged later that there should have been a march to Maryhill barracks to enlist the support of the troops stationed there.”The soldiers of Maryhill were confined to barracks and the barrack gates were kept tightly closed. If we had gone there we could easily have persuaded the soldiers to come out and Glasgow would have been in our hands”.

And that is the nub of the outcome of the Battle of George Square and the Red Clydeside movement as a whole. The workers, men and women, were prepared to fight to the end. They proved time and time again their courage and determination. What was missing was an organized leadership, which could understand the nature of the struggle taking place and lead the workers to victory.

John MacLean was a giant among men. However, in its final stages, the revolutionary struggle on Red Clydeside was led by Willie Gallacher, David Kirkwood, Emanuel Shinwell and their like. These men were brilliant industrial organisers but incapable of understanding the nature of the struggle in which they were engaged. Because of that, they were incapable of taking the decisive steps necessary to bring about a final victory for the working class.

Within a week of the battle of George Square, the strike was over and a settlement was reached on the basis of a 47-hour working week. This was, of course, a victory for the workers in the short term but did not seriously challenge the role of the bosses.

The ruling class had understood for some time the potential of events on Clydeside. They played a shrewd game of repression on the one hand, as with the jailing of John MacLean, and occasional concessions on the other, as with the Rent Restriction Act.

we ought to have made a revolution

John McLeanIn general, the workers’ leaders had a more limited view of what was happening and failed to capitalize on the strength and successes of the workers.

In writing about the forty-hour week strike and the battle of George Square Willie Gallacher sums it all up – “We had forgotten we were revolutionary leaders of the working class. Revolt was seething everywhere, especially in the army. We had within our hands the possibility of giving actual expression and leadership to it, but it never entered our heads to do so. We were carrying on a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution.”

Perhaps the most telling example of the attitude and perspective of the Clyde Workers Committee leadership is that during the strike, they banned outside speaker from addressing the mass meetings- in order to keep the meetings “non-political”. Perhaps if John MacLean (pictured) and others had been allowed to participate in these meetings, the revolutionary nature of the struggle would have been brought out much more clearly at the time.

John MacLean had hoped and anticipated that 1919 would be the year of revolution on Clydeside. It was not to be so. Glasgow was not to become the second St. Petersburg.

The Russian Revolution was successful because of the existence of a revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks, which offered workers the leadership they needed to change society – not a leadership imposed from on high but coming from the ranks of the workers themselves.

John MacLean represented the embryo of such leadership but was never able to gather round him a party, which could have given the workers of Clydeside and Britain what the Bolsheviks had given the workers in Russia. A combination of his frequent and lengthy stays in jail, and the influence of syndicalist and reformist ideas among even the best leaders of the organized working class, had prevented the Clydeside workers realising their potential.

With organisation and leadership there is no limit to what workers can achieve.

In recent times the defeat of Thatcher and the Poll Tax are living testimony to this. What we need, therefore is to build a new political organisation, based upon the best traditions of John MacLean and the Red Clydeside. The inherent compassion, courage commitment of workers could then be mobilised to create the kind of society to which John MacLean and his comrades aspired, and of which they would be proud.

The story of Red Clydeside is to some degree one of disappointment in that the revolutionary movement was ultimately unsuccessful. However, it does offer us a message of hope and a glimpse of what we can achieve. Red Clydeside does not belong to some dead past but to the living present. It is our responsibility to pick up the mantle left by the heroes and heroines of that time and to honour their memory by ensuring that their vision becomes a reality.

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