By Jeremy Dewar
One hundred years ago, tanks rumbled on the streets of Glasgow, howitzers were positioned at strategic points of the city, army snipers aimed fire from the rooftop of the Post Office.
To anyone harbouring illusions that a purely peaceful road to socialism exists, this is a reminder of the ruthless power of British imperialism is prepared to use in defence of its property and power.
A strike among 20,000 engineering workers for a 40-hour week – they worked 47 – was feared in Downing Street and beyond. Not simply because of its economic implications – other sectors were settling for 44 or even 42 hours – but because it could light a touch paper in an already smouldering Britain.
A major cause of our rulers’ alarm was that the strike had a rank and file leadership, made up of shop stewards, steeled in tactics like flying pickets, and many of them were revolutionaries influenced by John Maclean, who had heroically opposed the war, condemned the repression in Ireland and hailed the October Revolution in Russia.
But the strike was battered into submission effectively within a week or so. The Clyde Workers’ Committee leaders were jailed, driven into internal exile and bloodied by a rampant police force. But the heroism of the strikers lived on and informed struggles well into the 1920s including the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in July 1920.
Our biggest tribute to the centenary of their struggle is to study their movement, its strengths and weaknesses, so we can learn lessons for today.
Glasgow was an industrial city of immense proportions, part of the famous triangle with Belfast and Liverpool, the beating heart of the British Empire. Over 70 per cent of its workforce was classified as skilled. In 1913 it contributed:
“one fifth of the steel, one-third of the shipping tonnage, one half of marine-engine horsepower, one-third of the railway locomotives and rolling stock and most of the sewing machines in the United Kingdom” (Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Nation by David McCrone, p.70).
But alongside this stood abject poverty, high unemployment, overcrowded and high-rent housing.
Red Clydeside began to earn its reputation as a hotspot of militancy during the great wave of strikes between 1910 and 1914 – the period that became known as the Great Unrest. The outbreak of war in 1914 interrupted the rhythm of struggle on Clydeside, as a rush of young men from the factories and mines signed up for the army. But many trade union, political and community activists in Glasgow did come out against the war.
A number of ILP members, though by no means all, held the pacifist objections of Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, who quit as leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons over the issue. Likewise the British Socialist Party (BSP), successor to the Social Democratic Federation, objected to the war in Glasgow and London, though not in some other regions until 1916.
Tom Johnston, founder and editor of the FORWARD, which became the unofficial paper of the ILP, councillors John Wheatley and Patrick Dolan, housing activist Agnes Dollan, engineer Willie Gallacher, and teachers Jimmy Maxton and John Maclean all opposed the war. Maclean was in the Marxist BSP, while the others were from the reformist ILP.
However, the main trade unions supported the war and Glasgow’s only Labour MP, George Barnes, entered Lloyd George’s coalition government in 1916 and indeed refused to leave it in 1918 when the other Labour ministers resigned. Even some of the militant rank and file leaders, like David Kirkwood, also supported the war effort.
Clyde Workers Committee.
Glasgow’s skilled engineers were a protected workforce because of the need to step up munitions production and shipbuilding capacity. Thus many of the same workers who had led strikes before the war were still at their lathes.
So it wasn’t long before the class struggle resumed. In February 1915, shop stewards at Weirs, Albion and Cathcart factories and yards led a strike for a tuppence, 2d, rise in the hourly rate. Despite public hostility and trade union leaders disowning the strike, the employers offered 3/4d and the workers eventually settled for a penny. The Government especially Lloyd George, the Munitions Minister, was furious.
The government could not blame the trade union leaders because they were running neither the strike nor the negotiations. Mass meetings were held at each workplace on strike and delegates elected to a central strike committee, initially called the Labour Withholding Committee, but in the summer changing its name to Clyde Workers’ Committee.
The government’s response was to pass the draconian Munitions Act in July 1915, which withdrew collective bargaining rights over wages, terms and conditions and made it a criminal offence for a worker in the arms industry to down tools. The dilution of labour (deskilling and downgrading) and the entry of women into the workforce (at lower wages) would be enforced by the state. A munitions court, effectively a court martial, would preside over cases.
This would be tested early on, with three shipyard strikers being imprisoned after refusing to pay fines imposed by the munitions court – though the unions, at the behest of the government, hurried to pay their fines and get them released before solidarity action could spread.
Lloyd George decided to go over the heads of the shop stewards and meet the munitions workers himself, taking the new Labour Party leader Arthur Henderson along with him as support and mediator if the CWC cooked up trouble.
Lloyd George was booed and heckled, periodically drowned out by choruses of The Red Flag. Afterwards, John Muir from the CWC rose to speak, denouncing the Munitions Act to rapturous applause. The minister, who in the coming days would succeed Lord Asquith into Number 10, returned to London, his tail between his legs.
At the same time a huge rent strike was breaking out across the city, following a proposed 25% rent rise. Women’s Housing Associations sprung up, first in Govan then across the city. The housing shortage was a longstanding sore, but had been exacerbated by the arrival of workers to supply the munitions factories and shipyards. Mary Barbour, Agnes Dollan, Helen Crawfurd and Mary Laird were among its leaders.
A massive demonstration of up to 20,000 workers accompanied a test case before the courts. The case, on Lloyd George’s instructions, was dropped “on patriotic grounds” and emergency legislation in the form of the Rent Restrictions Act, was rushed through Parliament to defuse the issue. A victory had been won.
Needless to say, the government was not slow in counter-attacking. The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) already gave powers to ban newspapers and public rallies, etc. Then the Munitions Act severely restricted the rights of shop stewards in these industries and confine their activities to the immediate workshop they occupied.
One by one FORWARD, the BSP’s paper VANGUARD and the CWC’s organ WORKER were proscribed. Arrests were soon to follow, with Maclean picked up on 6 February and others on the following day. Despite this, a strike was organised in Parkhead munitions factory.
The state moved in to decapitate the movement, arresting strike leaders, including the reformist Kirkwood and the revolutionary MacManus, in late March. All were charged with sedition and deported from Glasgow, mostly to Edinburgh, to face their incarceration and trials. Internal exile was clearly imposed to try and avoid public support being demonstrated.
Virtually the whole CWC leadership was convicted, with John Maclean handed the most severe sentence: three years hard labour. The sentences were not lenient, with Maclean, Maxton and others suffering real physical and mental hardships. Mclean famously refused food in Peterhead jail, where he was literally breaking rocks, fearing that the authorities were trying to poison him.
… and revival
Although the CWC continued to exist under a newly elected replacement leadership, it focused on bread and butter issues, eschewing broader political aims. But this all changed when news of the February Russian Revolution reached the city.
Fortunately it coincided with the release of the first batch of CWC leaders. May Day celebrations in 1917 were the biggest and most revolutionary ever. According to Willie Gallacher, “between 70,000 and 80,000 people marched in the procession itself, while about a quarter of a million lined the streets”. For him the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ soviets was the order of the day, so that “Glasgow [could] follow the lead of Red Petrograd”.
After the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in November, the CWC, now recomposed with many of its revolutionary leaders back in charge, came out even more decidedly against the war and in favour of peace without annexations. Thousands, many women from the 100 Glaswegian branches of the Women’s Peace Crusade, joined them. Their target was another piece of legislation, extending conscription to all men between 17 and 50 years of age.
The government responded by sending another minister, this time Sir Auckland Geddes, to quell the discontent. Again the CWC ambushed the minister and took over the meeting, where they proposed a motion demanding the new Bill be quashed and an end to the war. It was passed with 3,000 in support and only six abstentions.
The Glasgow Herald reported the meeting under the headline, “A British Soviet” saying what “the public had thought was an industrial process [was] now revealed [to be] a political movement directed against the government, the country and the Empire” (Glasgow 1919: the Rise of Red Clydeside by Kenny MacAskill, p154).
The government now had John Maclean firmly in their sights. They arrested him on 15 April 1918 and charged him again with sedition. Although Glasgow demonstrated with another monster May Day demonstration (this time held on a work day) even bigger than the previous year’s, Maclean’s trial went ahead with predictable results. But he did not go back to jail without unleashing a courageous appeal to his class:
“I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot… my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they and only they can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation.”
This came at the end of Glasgow’s anti-war struggles, not least because over the summer of 1918 it became clear that the end of the war was in sight
Britain’s warlords – egged on by Churchill – now clearly saw defeating revolution at home and abroad as their number one task. Churchill, back in the cabinet, urged the use of the huge number of troops, freed up by the armistice, against Bolshevik Russia.
But within a month the government was faced with “revolution” in the ranks of its own army, demanding demobilization and opposing being sent to Russia. On 3 January mutinies broke out among troops being sent to France in the great transit camps at Folkestone and Dover.
The rebellion crossed the Channel to Calais and other camps in France. Officers were ejected, “ringleaders” de-arrested and soldiers’ councils elected. A Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Union was formed. At Milford Haven sailors on a naval patrol vessel hauled down the white ensign and ran up the red flag. The government desperately speeded up demobilisation.
Police too were striking over pay, while the miners and railway workers threatened action over wages, hours and conditions. And in Ireland too a full-scale national uprising against British imperialism had begun. On 28 December 1918 a British general election saw the republican party, Sinn Féin, win 73 of the 105 Irish seats. These MPs refused to take their Westminster seats and met in Dublin to form the First Dáil of an independent state. Mass discontent was also rising in India.
40 hour week strike
Maclean was released from Peterhead jail just in time to stand against George Barnes, who had been expelled from Labour for refusing to resign from the Coalition.
Maclean, though visibly frail and suffering from his repeated incarcerations, ran on an openly revolutionary ticket. Nationally Labour would not endorse his candidacy, although the BSP was at the time an affiliate of the party. Nevertheless Maclean won a third of the votes, an achievement rarely matched by a revolutionary in Britain.
Attention soon turned to the CWC and the demand for a 40-hour week. The obstacles in the way of the strikers were many. Other sectors, considered vital for success, like the dockers and the coalminers, were not ready to come out – Maclean urged caution and to wait for the miners in particular. The union leaders were also opposed to a strike and signed a deal with the employers for 47 hours, a cut of just one hour.
But the strike went ahead on Monday 27 January and by the following day 70,000 were on strike. For the first time the flying picket was used on a mass scale. “Groups sometimes in their hundreds went from yard to yard calling on the workforce to down tools and join them or not to enter the workplace.” (MacAskill, p194)
However, the strike was unofficial and living costs remained high while savings were non-existent for most. It was vital to try and win a speedy victory. The workers’ negotiators even asked the Lord Provost to intervene on their behalf. A mass rally in St George’s Square was arranged for Friday 31 January to hear his report.
The War Cabinet, still in existence, met the day before to assess what forces should be deployed against the strikers’ demonstration. They noted, according to the cabinet minutes, that there were 19 Scottish battalions north of the border and despite “the potential for mutiny and refusal to follow orders if conflict arose” the use of these troops was considered “safer than importing English Battalions”.
This led to the famous Battle of George Square, also known as Bloody Friday. Some 25,000 strikers and their supporters had gathered in the square, awaiting an answer from the Lord Provost of the City to a petition on that had been submitted to him earlier.
The strikers’ leaders were in fact inside the City Chambers building, which fronted the square, engaged in negotiating, when the police launched a sudden and unprovoked attack on the crowds trying to break the rally up with truncheon charges. Both Gallacher and Kirkwood, who attempted to restore order, were savagely beaten and bundled into police wagons. But the strikers eventually gained the upper hand and drove the police from the square.
That evening the troops arrived, with tanks, howitzers and snipers stationed at key points. The CWC tried to rally their forces and the strike limped on for a week or two, but effectively the police and army combined to break the strike. Clearly, this time, Glasgow needed the solidarity of workers across the British Isles – but who was to make it happen?
Glasgow, during the war and immediately after it, was undoubtedly a magnificent epicentre of Britain’s class struggle, with enormous revolutionary potential. Other cities – Liverpool, Sheffield, not to mention Manchester and London – were too. The ebbs and flows of each of their struggles interacted with one another.
The task facing revolutionary socialists was how to link up the main centres so that they were not isolated and picked off one by one. Such an organisation is called a revolutionary party, one capable of uniting the finest fighters and best brains of the movement, in order to collectively thrash out a strategy.
These lessons were finally learned in July 1920 when members of the BSP, the left wing of the ILP and other groupings came together to form the Communist Party of Great Britain, as a section of the Communist International.
While there can be little doubt that in early 1919 right across Britain, capitalism did face a mortal danger from below, perhaps even greater than during the general strike of 1926. Such opportunities would come again – in the 1970s and 1980s. They will come again in the new millennium. That is why it is so important for young people and workers to study history and learn the importance of strategy, internationalism and the kind of party needed to defeat the world’s oldest imperialism in its heartland.