The battle of George Square

Published

On the 90th anniversary of Bloody Friday, Julie Sherry & Gareth Beynon analyse the significance of Red Clydeside

Walking through George Square today, with its Christmas decorations, fairground rides and ice rink, it is hard to believe that this festival of consumerism was the site of a bloody confrontation between radical workers and the state. On 31st of January 1919, Bloody Friday, the red flag was raised above 35000 striking workers. Shipbuilding and engineering workers were demanding a forty hour week to improve conditions and absorb some of the rising number of  the unemployed. Miners were also launching a campaign for a 30% pay increase. Under secret government orders, mounted police launched a baton charge on the crowd. The strikers fought back but after the Riot Act was read, the leading strikers were arrested and the crowd was dispersed.

The next day it became clear just how dangerous the government considered the workers movement in Glasgow to be. Soldiers were shipped in from England to keep the peace and tanks were deployed on the streets. As one eyewitness put it ‘the whole city bristled with tanks and machine guns’. The government locked Glaswegian soldiers in their Maryhill barracks as they feared the soldiers would follow the example of their Russian counterparts and side with the workers, turning their guns on the officers. How did this situation come about?

Prior to the Red Clyde movement, Glasgow was quite solidly Liberal at elections and did not have a significant history of workers’ militancy. The city was by no means free from the jingoistic wave which swept Britain at the outbreak of the First World War. Thousands signed up for the armed forces of their own volition in Glasgow alone. The Trade Unions, supported by the overwhelming support of their members, agreed not to call any strikes and didn’t bat an eyelid at repressive pieces of legislation such as the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). However, it was significant that in Glasgow anti-war activists, overwhelmingly socialists, were able to organise while in other cities they were attacked by angry patriotic crowds.

However, this situation changed swiftly, and radically. As the war dragged on, a disenchantment with politicians, who had claimed the war would be over by Christmas, grew as those in power were exposed as liars. Glasgow was a huge industrial city at this time with a population several times larger than today, spread over a far smaller area, making overcrowding a major issue. With the city becoming a major centre of arms manuafacture during the war, it was necessary to bring in workers from outside the city, which only added to the overcrowding problem and pushed up rent.

Many working class women were outraged; while their husbands were off fighting and dying for King and country they and their children lived in worse conditions and with less money. Was the war really worth it? Was it really being fought in the interests of all sections of British society? News from the front of the horrific conditions faced by the soldiers also led the public to question their support for the war, meaning anti-war activists could get a fair hearing. With a sharp anti-imperialist and pro-working class analysis, they were particularly influential amongst engineers in Glasgow.

As rent rose it was becoming impossible for workers to live reasonably on their wages, meaning the trade unions found it impossible to constrain the workers — as a result, the first unofficial strike occurred in February 1915 over pay. That year also saw the founding of the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC), a body used to coordinate workers struggle, based on workplace democracy; in many ways it resembled the Russian Workers’ Councils or Soviets. There were a series of strikes over pay and conditions at engineering plants and shipyards. Another cause of anger was the employers strategy of dilution. This meant introducing unskilled, and therefore lower paid, workers to do the work of skilled engineers.

This strike was not just about pay. Dilution was a calculated move by the state and employers to free up engineers, to fight and die for imperialism in the fields of France and Belgium, while simultaneously liquidating the most radical group of anti-imperialist workers in the country. The engineers were also key in supporting the 1915 rent strike, which was coordinated primarily by women.

By October of that year, some 30,000 tenants were withholding rent and huge demonstrations were called whenever bailiffs dared to attempt an eviction. When three engineers were arrested for non-payment of rent, some 10,000 workers in Govan downed tools and marched to the court to demonstrate.  Many in the anti-war movement were keen to make links between workers struggle and the war. If the state had money for war why was there none for decent pay?

Their arguments were so successful, that on 1st May 1918, International Workers’ day, 100,000 went on strike against the war.

Looking at George square today, it’s a scene that initially seems worlds apart from what happened in that exact space ninety years ago. Some would have you believe that the days of mass strikes and militant trade unionism are features of a bygone period of history.

Some would argue that the story of Bloody Friday is no longer relevant to our experiences in 21st century British society. Yet there are significant parallels to be drawn.
Many of the circumstances that led to the situation in Glasgow in 1919 still exist in society today.

Our government, much like that of 1919, prioritises spending on wars while imposing cuts in education and the NHS. While £500 billion of taxpayers’ money was taken to bailout the banks, the number of repossessions and redundancies rocketed, hitting ordinary people hard.

The Rent Strike of 1915 came as a response to landlords raising rents, exploiting the fact that there was an influx of people looking for work in the industrial areas of Glasgow. This became untenable for tenants who were already struggling with their partners away fighting for their country, and the initial failure of the government to restrict the raising of rents revealed that the interests of working people in Glasgow were not the real priority of the government.

Throughout the city today, brand new cheaply built but expensively priced ‘luxury’ flats sit empty because people can’t afford to live in them, while at the same time thousands of people live on the streets. Like the soldiers who came back from fighting in the trenches after being sent off with the promise of glory, many soldiers 90 years later return from current wars in the Middle East, equally traumatised.

The battle of George Square 1919 is an important part of Scottish history to be aware of. The events of Bloody Friday, and the period preceding it, can offer some valuable lessons for those who are starting to feel the effects of today’s economic crisis. For many students it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain in full-time education. With rising prices of necessities and huge debts, more and more find it impossible not to work long hours in low paid insecure employment, while also trying to balance studies. The result of this is that 10,000 students drop out of full-time education every year because they cannot afford it.

In 1919, Lloyd George argued in a memorandum “there is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen… existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned… by the population from one end of Europe to another”. This statement is as poignant today as ever.

The most famous and arguably the most influential activist of the Red Clydeside movement, Govan schoolteacher and one time Glasgow University student, John Maclean remains one of Glasgow’s best loved sons. In May 1918 he was imprisoned for five years for his anti-war and revolutionary activity. In the docks he articulated his most famous speech. It resonates today as much as ever: ‘No government is going to take from me my right to protest against wrong… I am not here as the accused, I am here as the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot’.