“History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” Mark Twain reputedly said. Similarities can be easy to see but conclusions much harder to draw, and I was minded of that as my book on the events in Glasgow a century ago was published. Next week is the 100th anniversary of the 40-hour-week strike and the Bloody Friday Riot, which resulted in 10,000 British soldiers and tanks being deployed in the second city of the Empire.
Then as now, it was troubled times, though I have to confess to having been unaware of the extent of unrest, not just in Glasgow but around the globe. A few years back, I read Tony Judt’s great book “Post War” which was revelatory for me about the extent of the troubles after 1945 with hunger and the spectre of a return of fascism, never mind the Soviet Union threatening. It was no wonder that the Marshall Plan was speedily implemented.
The year 1919 was even worse and of that I had been even less conscious. The November 1918 armistice saw peace declared on the battlefields of Flanders but trouble break out elsewhere.
Allied armies fought in Bolshevik Russia, whilst the Red Army threatened Poland and the Baltics ostensibly in support of local revolutionaries. The Spartacus Rebellion was being crushed in Germany, as civil war broke out in Finland.
Even the British Empire wasn’t immune with Sinn Fein, victorious in Ireland in the 1918 election, establishing the Dail Eireann a century ago this week, and shots about to ring out elsewhere signalling the start of the war of independence.
The demobilisation of 2.5 million soldiers was causing fear even among those desperate to have the loved ones home again. Recollections of mass unemployment and poverty ran deep, especially on Clydeside, where poverty remained endemic and the city had infant mortality rates and housing conditions that would now be considered Third World. Compounding all that was Spanish flu, soon to take more lives than the Great War itself.
The strike in Glasgow was not for improved conditions of work, though that would have been perfectly justified. A 54-hour week was the norm in engineering and it was even longer in many other areas of work. The campaign for a 40-hour week was partly designed to create employment, with 32 hours having initially been considered but rejected as too radical.
For sure, there were differences between revolutionaries and social reformers but they were united when the strike came about. It seems that memories of some were later clouded by the animus that developed between parties, just as different positions were taken following the establishment of Bolshevik Russia. The vitriol that came about later between the Communists and Labour didn’t really exist at that time and they stood shoulder to shoulder in 1919.
As often in these situations though, events just seemed to run away with themselves and the strike happened as much by accident as design. Preparations were limited and the great revolutionary John MacLean urged delay, pending a possible miners’ strike. But come about it did and concern it most certainly caused, though to be fair it was primarily an engineers’ strike, which caused some difficulties in getting others to join them.
The Establishment’s concern should not be underestimated. The War Cabinet was meeting and troops were readied long before the riot broke out. An early precursor of the flying pickets of later decades weent from site to site, increasing the numbers of people involved. The potential effects on power stations and the tram service were the major fears for the authorities.
As it was, an incident on a tram saw police baton charge demonstrators in George Square, but officers quickly found themselves engulfed by bruised and angry strikers. It was that which saw the Riot Act read and troops speedily deployed. Armed soldiers guarded power stations and the City Chambers while much of George Square more resembled an armed camp than a civic centre. The strike itself rumbled on for another week but a return to work soon followed as a calm extended across the city and strike leaders were rounded up.
There’s been a great deal of mythology about the events. Some would-be revolutionaries have shared the lament of the former Communist MP Willie Gallacher that the strikers didn’t march on Maryhill Barracks – where Glaswegian soldiers were on lockdown – and have the troops join them. Yet, this was a time where people were tired of war, even if the British Army had already shown what it was prepared to do in Dublin only a few years before. The idea that soldiers would have or could have joined in a Soviet is fanciful even if the Scottish Secretary of State at the time did describe it as Scotland’s Bolshevik Revolution.
Some nationalists have seen it as another invasion by the auld enemy and Scotland subdued by its larger and more powerful neighbour. Yet most of the troops were Scottish with only a few English soldiers based here also being sent. West of Scotland troops had been told to stand down and were left in camp, unsure just why. Meanwhile their colleagues arrived in Glasgow and some were met by strikers seeking to dissuade them from their actions but they were given short shrift. Doubtless, young conscripts were intimidated by hardy working men and in any event their officers sought to prevent any fraternisation.
But in many ways, it was all part of a radical journey that started long before what’s viewed as Red Clydeside’s unofficial launch with the Singers Strike in 1911. The chain of events is hard to link together but it was ingrained in the collective memory. Opposition to the war greater in Glasgow than arguably anywhere else in Britain and the militancy in the community with the Rent Strike as great as that in the engineering works under the Clyde Workers Committee.
And the radical fire did not die with the strike’s defeat, for the 1922 election brought an Independent Labour Party landslide in the city. Industrially it failed, but politically it had just arrived.
Glasgow 1919: The Rise of Red Clydeside by Kenny MacAskill was published this week by Biteback