Red Clydeside

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Red Clydeside is the era of political radicalism that characterised the city of Glasgow in Scotland, and urban areas around the city on the banks of the River Clyde such as Clydebank, Greenock and Paisley. The history of Red Clydeside is a significant part of the history of the labour movement in Britain as a whole, and in Scotland in particular.

This period in Clydeside's history lasted from the 1910s until roughly the early 1930s, although its legacy is still visible today. Popular newspapers of the time used the term "Red Clydeside" to refer to the political militancy of the time. An amalgamation of charismatic individuals, organized movements and socio-political forces led to the enduring notion of Red Clydeside. This period has its roots directly in working class opposition to Britain's participation in World War I, although the area had a long history of political radicalism going back to its involvement in the Friends of the People society and the "Radical War" of 1820.

1911 strike at Singer[edit]

The 11,000 workers at the largest Singer sewing machines factory, in Clydebank, went on strike in March–April 1911, ceasing to work in solidarity with 12 female colleagues protesting against work process reorganisation. This reorganisation involved an increase in workload and a decrease in wages.[1] Following the end of the strike, Singer fired 400 workers, including all strike leaders and purported members of the IWGB, among them Arthur McManus, who later went on to become the first chairman of the CPGB between 1920 and 1922.[2]

Labour unrest, in particular by women and unskilled labour, greatly increased between 1910-1914 in Clydeside, with four times more days on strike than between 1900 and 1910. During these four years preceding World War I, membership of those affiliated to the Scottish Trades Union Congress rose from 129,000 in 1909 to 230,000 in 1914.[2]

Anti-war activism[edit]

To mobilise the workers of Clydeside against World War I, the Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC) was formed, with Willie Gallacher as its head and David Kirkwood its treasurer. The CWC led the campaign against the Liberal government of David Lloyd George and their Munitions Act, which forbade engineers from leaving the company they were employed in. The CWC met with government leaders, but no agreement could be reached and consequently both Gallacher and Kirkwood were arrested under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act and jailed for their activities.

Anti-war activity also took place outside the workplace and on the streets in general. The Marxist John Maclean and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) member James Maxton were both jailed for their anti-war propagandizing.

Rent Strikes[edit]

At the turn of the 20th Century the Clydeside region in Glasgow experienced rapid industrial and population growth. 11 percent of Glasgow's housing stock was vacant due to speculation and few new houses were built as landlords benefited from renting out overcrowded and increasingly dilapidated flats. As Highlanders and Irish migrants came to Glasgow the city's population increased by 65,000 people between 1912 and 1915 while only 1,500 new housing units were built. Glasgow activists had demanded legislation and the building of municipal housing as early as 1885, when the Royal Commission on Housing and the Working Class noted the housing crisis. The Scottish Housing Council organised in 1900 and under pressure from trade unions the Housing Letting and Rating Act 1911 was passed. The act introduced letting by month, previously workers with unstable jobs had been forced to put up a year's rent payment. But as landlord increased rents protests by tenants became more frequent.[3]

John Maclean of the British Socialist Party organised the Scottish Federation of Tenants' Associations in 1913 to fight against rent increased and ask the state to provide housing. In 1914 the Independent Labour Party Housing Committee and the Women's Labour League formed the Glasgow Women's Housing Association. Under the leadership of Mary Barbour, Mary Laird and Helen Crawfurd the Glasgow Women's Housing Association became the driving force behind the rent strike that started in May 1915 in the industrial area of Govan. Tenants refused to pay the latest increase in rents and staged mass demonstrations against evictions, resulting in violent confrontations. With the start of the first world war young local men left Glasgow to serve in the army and the first violent protest in the Govan district took place in April to resists the eviction of a soldier's family. As evictions were repeatedly attempted with support from the police women attacked the factors and sheriffs' men.[4]

In early summer 1915 the rent strikers were supported by mass demonstrations and by August the rent strikers had found widespread support in Glasgow. Rent strikes spread from heavily industrial areas of the city to artisanal areas and slum areas. Strikes ignited in Patrick, Parkhead, Pollokshaws, Pollok, Cowcaddens, Kelvingrove, Ibrox, Govanhill, St Rollox, Townhead, Springburn, Maryhill, Fairfield, Blackfriars, and Woodside. In October 1915 15,000 tenants were on rent strike and a demonstration led by women converged on St Enoch’s Square. By November 20,000 tenants were on rent strike as violent resistance against evictions continued. Trade unions threatened factory strikes if evictions supported by the police continued and following demonstrations on 17 November legal action against rent strikers were halted. State Secretary of Scotland McKinnon Wood asked cabinet to freeze all rents at pre-war levels and in December the Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act 1915 received royal assent.[4]

The 40 Hour Strike[edit]

The activities of the left continued after the end of the war. The campaign for a 40-hour week, with improved conditions for the workers, took hold of organised labour. On 31 January 1919, a massive rally, organised by the trade unions, took place on George Square in the centre of Glasgow. It has been estimated that as many as 90,000 were present, and the Red Flag was raised in the centre of the crowd. The gathering descended into what is generally considered to have been a police riot, with the Riot Act being read, and attacks made on the strike leaders as they exited the City Chambers.

Medium Mark C tanks and soldiers deployed to the city (31 January 1919)

The Coalition government panicked, fearing a possible threat to order or even a Bolshevik-style insurrection. It was only 14 months since the Russian Revolution, and the German Revolution was in progress in January 1919. Troops based in the city's Maryhill barracks were locked inside their post, with troops and tanks from elsewhere in the country being sent into the city to control unrest and extinguish any revolution that should break out. No Glaswegian troops were deployed, and few veterans, with the government fearing that fellow Glaswegians might sympathise with the strikers if a revolutionary situation developed in Glasgow. Young, mostly untried, troops were transported from camps and barracks around the country and stationed on the streets of Glasgow, specifically to combat this possible scenario.

A commonly-maintained claim that the troops were English is not backed up by press reports or first-hand accounts of the period, which stressed the youth and inexperience of the soldiers, rather than any geographical origins. The vast majority were, in fact, from Scottish regiments.

A revolutionary moment?[edit]

There remains a lively debate on the left, over whether the Red Clydeside movement constituted a revolutionary opportunity for the working class, though on the face of it, it would appear that the revolutionary potential of the Clydeside working class has been exaggerated. Firstly, excepting Maclean, none of the labour leaders developed a class analysis of the war, nor did they seriously consider threatening the power and authority of the state. Furthermore, it was the behaviour of those conducting the war, not the war itself that provoked opposition within the labour movement. The Independent Labour Party's May Day Manifesto of 1918 makes this very clear in calling for A Living Wage for all and Justice for our Soldiers and their Dependants. Moreover, the massive demand for fighting men meant that few Glaswegian families escaped personal loss of some kind. To undermine the war effort was to risk alienating the working class, which many labour leaders were unwilling to do-–apart from Maxton, Gallacher and Maclean.

William Gallacher, who would later become a Communist MP claimed that, whilst the leaders of the rally were not seeking revolution, in hindsight they should have been. He claimed that they should have marched to the Maryhill Barracks and tried to persuade the troops stationed there to come out on the protesters' side.

The trade-union leaders, who had organized the meeting, were arrested. Most were acquitted, although both Gallacher and Manny Shinwell were put in jail for their activities that day, Shinwell also being charged with an inflammatory speech the week before in James Watt Street in the city's docks, in an episode that later erupted into a race riot.

"Reds" in Parliament[edit]

The aura of Red Clydeside grew as the organized left replaced the Liberal Party as the party of the working class. This manifested itself at the 1922 General Election, when several of the Red Clydesiders were elected to serve in the House of Commons (most of them Independent Labour Party members). They included Maxton, Wheatley, Shinwell, Kirkwood, Neil Maclean and George Buchanan.

According to the Labour Party, the Red Clydesiders were viewed as being left-wing. Many of them, most notably Maxton and Wheatley, were great critics of the first and second British Labour governments, elected in 1924 and 1929 respectively.

The Red Clydeside era still impacts upon the politics of the area today. Even since then, Glasgow has been known for political and industrial militancy. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work In of 1971, led by the then communist Jimmy Reid is an example. Until 2015, the Labour Party held the most influence in the area and has long been the dominant political force in the area.

This period in Glasgow’s colourful past remains a significant landmark for those on the left in Scotland. The legend of the Red Clydesiders can still be politically motivating. At the 1989 Glasgow Central by-election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) candidate Alex Neil called himself and the then SNP MP for Govan, Jim Sillars, the "new Clydesiders".

Popular culture[edit]

The album Red Clydeside by Alistair Hulett contains nine songs about the movement, particularly the anti-war protests and the rent strike. The Red Clydeside movement was also featured in John McGrath's play "Little Red Hen", performed by 7:84 Scotland.


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b The Singer strike 1911, Glasgow Digital Library
  3. ^ Castells, Manuel (1983). The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. University of California Press. pp. 28–29. ISBN 9780520056176. 
  4. ^ a b Castells, Manuel (1983). The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. University of California Press. p. 29. ISBN 9780520056176. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Duncan, Robert and McIvor, Arthur, eds. Militant Workers: Labour and class conflict on the Clyde 1900-1950 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1992), essays by experts
  • Jenkinson, Jacqueline. "Black Sailors on Red Clydeside: rioting, reactionary trade unionism and conflicting notions of ‘Britishness’ following the First World War," Twentieth Century British History (2008) 19#1 pp 29-60.
  • MacLean, Ian. The legend of Red Clydeside (Edinburgh: J.Donald, 1983)
  • Melling, Joseph. "Whatever Happened to Red Clydeside?'" International Review of Social History (1990) 35#1 pp 3–32.

External links[edit]