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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

XIV. Political and social unrest

XIV. Political and social unrest

Texte intégral

1The terms ‘Red Clydeside’ refer to the years of intense labour conflict in Glasgow and the urban areas around the city on the banks of the River Clyde from 1914 to 1922. Among the leading activists were James Maxton (1885-1946), John Wheatley (1869-1930), Harry McShane (1891-1988), William Gallacher (1881-1965) and John Maclean (1879-1923). Workers protested against low wages, bad working conditions and the rising prices due to wartime inflation (which had raised the cost of living by about fifty per cent). They also opposed the system of dilution, the use of unskilled male and female workers in areas which were normally reserved for skilled workers.

  • 1 The Act was coined ‘the slavery Act’ by Clydeside workers.

2In 1915 the British government passed the Munitions of War Act in order to ensure the uninterrupted production and supply of munitions for the armed forces. It became an offence for a worker to leave his job to work for another firm without his employer’s agreement. The Act also stated that a worker could not refuse to work overtime. After the Munitions Act women were brought in the munitions works to do the work of skilled men. For the majority of skilled workers on Clydeside the Act was a legal instrument aimed at eliminating their industrial rights.1

  • 2 The rent strikes were women’s strikes: “It must constantly be remembered that it was the women who (...)

3The most famous episodes of industrial dispute were the engineers’ strike in 1915, the strike at Fairfields shipyard in August 1915, the rent strikes2 of October-November 1915, and the imposition of dilution in the engineering works during January-April 1916.

4A Clyde Workers’ Committee was formed by a group of shop stewards. The authorities accused the CWC of having a seditious influence on workers and between March and April 1916 ten of its members were arrested, convicted of sedition and deported to Edinburgh. The 40-hour strike led by the CWC in 1919 was one of the climactic points of Red Clydeside. By the end of January 1919 40,000 workers in the engineering and shipbuilding industries were on strike. Electricity supply workers in Glasgow had also gone on strike, as had 36,000 miners in the Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire coalfields. The movement culminated in the rally organized by the trade unions in Glasgow on January 31 1919, where 100,000 demonstrators gathered in George Square in support of the 40-hour strike. While the delegates of the trade unions were negotiating with the employers the police mounted an attack on the demonstrators. Further fighting continued in and around the city centre for many hours afterwards. The government felt very concerned about the ‘Battle of George Square’ and immediately decided to send 12,000 English soldiers to the town. On 10 February 1919 the 40-hour strike was called off and the 40-hour working week was not granted.

  • 3 See for example I. McLean, The Legend of Red Clydeside, Edinburgh: Donald, 1983.
  • 4 C. Harvie quoted in J. Melling, Rent Strikes: People’s Struggle for Housing in West Scotland, 1890 (...)
  • 5 See T. Brotherstone, ‘Does Red Clydeside really matter any more?’ in H. McShane, R. Duncan and A. (...)

5Historians disagree about the extent to which Clydeside was “red”. Some consider that it was a revolutionary movement aimed at bringing down capitalism whereas others argue that there was no fundamental radicalism on the part of the working-class and that Red Clydeside was a movement principally aimed at obtaining better working conditions.3 Christopher Harvie thinks we should “forget the Red Clyde; throughout World War I Scotland was overwhelmingly patriotic”4. Other historians consider that Red Clydeside has to be viewed in an international context as part of an international movement.5 What is indisputable is that the conflict strengthened working-class consciousness and demonstrated that workers could use their power to bring about social change.

Notes

1 The Act was coined ‘the slavery Act’ by Clydeside workers.

2 The rent strikes were women’s strikes: “It must constantly be remembered that it was the women who forced the issue and it was their determination to oppose rent increases and confront not only their factors and landlords but also the wider authorities that made this action possible.” (J.J. Smyth, “Rents, Peace, Votes: Working-Class Women and Political Activity in the First World War” in E. Breitenbach, E. Gordon, Out of Bounds, Women in Scottish Society, 1800-1945, Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press, 1992, p. 174.)

3 See for example I. McLean, The Legend of Red Clydeside, Edinburgh: Donald, 1983.

4 C. Harvie quoted in J. Melling, Rent Strikes: People’s Struggle for Housing in West Scotland, 1890-1916, Edinburgh: Polygon, 1983, p. v.

5 See T. Brotherstone, ‘Does Red Clydeside really matter any more?’ in H. McShane, R. Duncan and A. McIvor (eds.), Militant Workers Labour and Class Conflict on the Clyde, 1900-1950: Essays in Honour of Harry McShane, Edinburgh: John Donald, 1992.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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