Socialist Worker

Vibrant history of resistance to war

by Dave Sherry
Issue No. 1863

GLASGOW IS a city with a rich socialist tradition. The roots of its reputation go back to the First World War when the Red Clyde was part of a great wave of working class revolt that swept Europe. The impact of the war made munitions centres like Glasgow fertile territory for labour unrest and socialist agitation. It produced many fine working class fighters, including Britain's greatest anti-war socialist, John Maclean.

The origins of council housing can be traced back to the direct action begun by working class women in Glasgow in 1915. In January 1919, 10,000 troops armed with tanks and machine-guns occupied the city to quell what the Secretary of State for Scotland called 'a Bolshevist rising'. The local regiments were locked in their barracks for fear they would mutiny.

Glasgow was the second city of the British Empire and a key engineering and shipbuilding centre with a higher percentage of skilled workers than any other British city.

It faced an enormous influx of population making it the most overcrowded city in Britain. Conditions were made even worse when 100,000 extra workers were sucked into the Clyde Valley after 1914 to work in the munitions factories.

For the great bulk of its population Glasgow was a murky, industrial hell. But there was another Glasgow. The giant firms' wealth, power and self confidence is reflected in its commercial and municipal architecture and its wonderful city parks.

What follows is a short walking tour around central Glasgow that takes in some of the key locations from Red Clydeside. (1) Start outside the main entrance of the Mitchell Theatre in Granville Street, near Charing Cross. Part of the former St Andrew's Concert Hall, it was here on Christmas Day 1915 that the Clyde Workers' Committee commandeered munitions minister Lloyd George's propaganda rally.

Lloyd George had come to preach 'speed-up' for the war effort. But the Clyde Workers' Committee took over the 4,000-strong meeting. A humiliated Lloyd George was forced to leave the platform.

(2) Walk east along Bath Street until its junction with Renfield Street. In 1914 the main army recruitment centre stood at the north-east corner of Bath Street and Renfield Street. Here, every Sunday evening throughout the war, John Maclean held big anti-war meetings. This kind of activity helped provide a focus for working class opposition to the war.

(3) Walk south down Renfield Street, turn left along Gordon Street, go through Royal Exchange Square and walk into Ingram Street. The Templars' Hall in Ingram Street-near its junction with Montrose Street-was the venue for the meetings of the Clyde Workers' Committee. The building was demolished long ago. Throughout 1915 and into the spring of 1916, 250 to 300 shop stewards met here every Saturday morning.

The labour and trade union leaders had given the green light to the bosses' wartime offensive. The Clyde engineers resisted. The Clyde Workers' Committee was made up of elected shop floor delegates from every major factory. It was able to lead big strikes in defiance of the bosses, the state and their own union leaders.

Outside the City Halls in nearby Candleriggs is a wall plaque commemorating John Maclean's anti-war activities.

(4) Turn south into Brunswick Street, then right into Wilson Street and stop at the old Sheriff Court. By November 1915 30,000 tenants were on rent strike. The struggle ended in a tremendous victory. Outside this court building a massive demonstration of tenants and striking munitions workers heard John Maclean call for an all-out munitions strike to beat the private landlords.

By the end of the day the government had agreed to introduce the Rent Restriction Act-a rents freeze for the duration of the war.

(5) Walk east along Bell Street until it meets High Street. Turn right and walk down High Street to Glasgow Cross. Continue south along Saltmarket until Glasgow Green.

This great public park which overlooks the river saw mass demonstrations and rallies throughout the period of the Red Clyde. John Maclean's first anti-war rally was held in the green at the foot of Nelson's Column in September 1914. At first anti-war opposition was small and isolated but as war dragged on it grew. On May Day 1917, 70,000 workers marched here in support of the February Revolution in Russia. Three weeks later 90,000 marched.

(6) Go back to Glasgow Cross and continue up High Street. Turn right into Duke Street and walk east to the council tower blocks. High on the left is a stone wall-all that remains of the hated Duke Street jail. In April 1918 Maclean was arrested, charged with sedition and held prisoner here pending trial.

He'd called for workers to follow the example of the Russian Revolution and end the war. On May Day 100,000 Glaswegians stopped work for peace. He was condemned to five years hard labour. By the end of the year mass protest won his release.

(7) Walk back along Duke Street to George Square. Stop outside the main entrance of the City Chambers. The workers on the Clyde did not see themselves as separate from the English, or indeed the world, working class.

The Clyde Workers' Committee daily strike bulletin carried reports on the general strike in Seattle and on the mass strikes in Japan. It reported on the Bombay Dockworkers' strike-'A victory in Scotland will help our comrades in India who are with us heart and soul.'

On 31 January 1919 George Square was the scene of a massive street battle-known as Bloody Friday. Some 35,000 strikers and unemployed soldiers marched into George Square and raised the red flag. The police launched an unprovoked attack. The strikers fought back and routed their attackers. That night the cabinet rounded up the strike leaders and flooded Glasgow with tanks and trainloads of troops to break the strike.

But it was the trade union officials who doused the flames of revolt. In 1919 Britain came closer to workers' revolution than at any time before or since.

Dave Sherry will be doing a guided tour of Glasgow on Sunday 24 August. The tour begins at 2pm.

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Sat 9 Aug 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1863
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