Socialist Worker

Tanks on the streets of Glasgow to stop revolt in 1919

Strikes and protests in Glasgow 100 years ago showed the power of workers to bring a city to its knees. It also showed the lengths the British state will go to stop them, writes Gerry Mooney

Issue No. 2639

Soldiers against strikers

Soldiers against strikers


In 1919 the class struggle in Britain rose to unprecedented heights.

It was part of a wave of revolutionary upheaval that shook Europe to its very core.

Strikes, protests and threats of mutiny by soldiers, sailors and the police alarmed the ruling class.

In January thousands of workers in Glasgow struck to demand a 40-hour working week. This was the start of a wave of militancy to engulf the city.

1919—Britain in revolt
1919—Britain in revolt
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Unofficial strikes broke out across all sections of industry on 27 January, and over 60,000 people took to the streets four days later.

The near city-wide general strike was condemned by the government, local politicians, bosses and trade union leaderships as being “political” and therefore illegitimate.

This vitriol was soon joined by sustained state violence as the police launched attacks on strikers and their supporters.

Workers had assembled in front of the City Chambers in George Square on 31 January to hear the Lord Provost—head of the council—announce the government’s response to their demands.

On Bloody Friday scores of workers were injured by a police force that was allowed to run amok.

But the workers fought back, and the enduring image is of the raising of the red flag on George Square.

The government feared Glasgow was on the brink of a “Bolshevist uprising”. Troops and tanks were mobilised to deploy to the city to stop any such threat and the paranoia and class hatred of the British ruling class was visible to all.

The strikes ultimately did win some victories—a 47-hour working week was introduced.

In the following century, many myths have developed over the events of Glasgow 1919. For instance, tanks weren’t deployed to George Square on the day of Bloody Sunday.

Ripeness

The question asked time and time again is, did the events in Glasgow comprise a revolutionary moment?

It hadn’t matured into one, but if the strike had succeeded it would have opened up the road to revolution.

As anti-war socialist John Maclean said, “the strike was beaten more by a lack of working-class ripeness than by tanks and machine guns”.

It also represented a significant challenge by rank and file workers to the politics and tactics of trade union officials.

Even by their own admission the ruling class had to rely on the union bureaucrats to get them off the hook.

As leading Tory politician Andrew Bonar Law said, “Trade union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy, without it our position was hopeless”.

Glasgow in 1919 showed that rank and file working class organisation and action can win major victories and frighten our rulers.

Working class self-organisation continues to be the key in the battle against the bosses and the ruling class.


Fight division during high points of struggle

The chair of the strike committee during the 1919 events was Manny Shinwell. He was an official of the British Seafarers' Union and a member of the Independent Labour Party. 

He later became a right-wing Labour cabinet minister and then a life peer in the House of Lords.

In 1919 he stressed the reformist aims of the officials—"This movement is not revolutionary in character. It is attributable solely to the fear of possible unemployment," he said.

On 23 Januaryeight days before the strike Shinwell addressed a meeting of sailors on the Clyde waterfront, warning of mass unemployment, if action were not taken to restrict foreign labour.

Hours later a riot ensued at the spot where Shinwell had spoken. Thirty of the city’s black, Asian and Arab sailors were chased and assaulted by an armed mob of white sailors. It was the first of a number of racist riots in British ports during 1919. 

Then as now some union leaders blamed foreign workers for cutting wages and stealing jobs. Shinwell’s speech incited race riots.

There’s an important lesson for today. Even at the high points of struggle its necessary to fight racism.

Dave Sherry

 


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