How close did WW1 bring Glasgow to revolution?

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1. Imperial stronghold to revolutionary hotbed

At the outbreak of World War One, Glasgow was the second city of the British Empire, with its people famed for their loyalty to king and country. Yet shortly after the end of the war, the city effectively found itself under martial law as a preventative measure.

Glasgow and the surrounding area was home to a significant amount of heavy industry, but many workers lived in conditions of extreme poverty. The trade unions representing these workers often clashed with management in the early part of the 20th Century.

The British government had seen the imperial Russian government unable to prevent the Bolsheviks (who would become the Russian Communist Party) seizing control in 1917. They came to fear that unrest on Clydeside could also grow into a similar political revolution. This period in history has become known as ‘Red Clydeside’.

2. Changing politics

While the war had an impact on the politics of Clydeside, the political landscape was already beginning to change significantly before 1914.

Industrial unrest

Between 1910 and 1914 there was a sharp rise in labour and industrial unrest across Scotland.

In 1911 alone, there were 64 strikes. One of the most notable was at the Singer sewing machine factory in Clydebank. The following year, the number of strikes across Scotland more than doubled.

Between 1910 and 1914, there were over 412 strikes in Scotland. The majority of these, nearly 60%, took place in the west of Scotland and Clydeside. 

The same period saw an increase in trade union membership.  Membership of those affiliated to the Scottish Trades Union Congress rose from 129,000 in 1909 to 230,000 in 1914, a significant increase in the unionisation of Scottish labour over a period of five years.

Growth of the Independent Labour Party

The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in 1893 under the leadership of Keir Hardy to offer direct representation for the working classes. Although a separate organisation, it was affiliated to the Labour Party until 1932.

The ILP were a relatively small political force at the outbreak of WW1, with only 3000 members. But they had been making advances between 1911 and 1914 in council elections, as well as school boards and parish councils. By the end of the war the ILP could boast 10,000 members.

Glasgow was the centre of ILP operations in Scotland. From here, its activists co-ordinated support for workers on strike, organising trade union and political conferences, producing socialist literature and newspapers and running education classes.

3. Clydeside goes to war

The Clydeside shipyards were the largest provider of vessels to the Royal Navy, contributing 481 ships between 1914 and 1918.

Clydeside was also a major provider of other armaments, for example providing 90% of the armour plating for army tanks and vehicles.

Enlistment on Clydeside

As elsewhere in Scotland, the workforce of Clydeside joined the armed forces in high numbers. In the first week of the war alone, the city of Glasgow recruited 22,000 men for the army, with ultimately 200,000 men enlisting.

With the loss of so many men to the Armed Forces, many women joined the workforce. By the end of the war, over 30,000 women were part of Clydeside industries.

Peace movement

While the region made a huge contribution to the war effort, there were voices of opposition led by the ILP, as well as other left-wing parties such as the British Socialist Party (BSP).  

On August 9th, 1914 within five days of the war being declared, the ILP organised a massive ‘Peace Demonstration’ of 5,000 people on Glasgow Green. Such meetings were held regularly throughout the duration of the war.

There was little coverage of the peace movement in the press, which generally took a patriotic pro-war position, although there would have been some reporting in the left-wing and radical press.

4. Wartime tensions

During the war, the government introduced a number of laws that were met with hostility by the trade unions. At the same time, living and working conditions became worse. This combination led to civil and industrial unrest.

Image: SCRAN / © Gallacher Memorial Library - Glasgow Caledonian University Library

5. Fighting on Glasgow’s streets

Forty hour week

Wartime laws helped the government to control union activities, but a call for shorter hours – from 54 to 40 – once the war ended proved to be a catalyst for a major riot known as Bloody Friday.

As well as improving the conditions of the workers by shortening their hours, it would help provide jobs for the thousands of soldiers who were being demobilised and returning home, looking for work.

Protest in George Square

The Clyde Workers Committee – an informal body made up of shop stewards from different trade unions - went to the Glasgow City Chambers to make their case to the Lord Provost on January 29th.

Thousands of their supporters, workers on strike, waited outside in George Square.

Outbreak of violence

The sheriff was dispatched to read the Riot Act to the assembled crowd, although this was reportedly ripped from his hand.

Police and strikers clashed and fighting was reported to stretch through the heart of the city, as far east as Glasgow Green, nearly a mile away.

The final official casualty list was 19 policemen and 34 strikers injured.

An anxious British government, fearing a full socialist revolution, reacted by sending in tanks and placing machine guns on top of high buildings in the city centre.

6. The radical threat

Red Clydeside’s leaders were committed to advancing socialism, which was seen as the ‘enemy within’ by the government.

Red Dawn masthead

Clydeside was host to radical socialist organisations and individuals who threatened not just the war effort, but the established order.

SCRAN / GCU Library

© Gallacher Memorial Library

newspaper article about John Maclean's fine

The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) in 1914 gave the government powers to silence opponents. Under DORA, leading members of Clydeside’s socialist organisations were arrested and punished for their vocal opposition to the war.


© Gallacher Memorial Library

The Munitions of War Act 1915 allowed for dilution. Lower skilled workers, often women, could perform tasks previously done by the highly-skilled. Some feared these measures would become permanent, jeopardising their employment and wages.


© Glasgow City Council

David Lloyd George giving speech

In December 1915, Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George came to Glasgow to appeal for calm over the dilution issue. The large crowd was so hostile that he had to be escorted away by police.

Getty Images

John Maclean still

Revolutionary socialist John MacLean was a popular speaker and vocal objector to the war. He was arrested several times for sedition. During a hunger strike at Peterhead Prison he was violently force-fed and his health suffered greatly.


© Glasgow Museums.

Still of Helen Crawfurd

Glaswegian suffragette Helen Crawfurd became a convert to radical socialism at the outbreak of war. She was instrumental in organising mass peace protests against the war and was active in the campaign against profiteering landlords.

SCRAN / GCU Library

© Gallacher Memorial Library

The peril of conscription pamplet

The socialist view was that the working classes carried a disproportionate share of the war burden and this would be made worse by conscription. Despite the objections of the trade unions, conscription was introduced in 1916.

SCRAN / GCU Library

© Gallacher Memorial Library

Willie Gallacher

A committed communist, trade union leader Willie Gallacher was instrumental in the 40 Hours Strike that prompted the government to send in troops and tanks to Glasgow’s George Square in 1919.

SCRAN / GCU Library

© Gallacher Memorial Library

James Maxton

Formerly a schoolteacher like John MacLean, James Maxton became a leading member of Glasgow’s Independent Labour Party. In common with MacLean and Gallacher, Maxton was jailed for sedition for his opposition to the war.


© Glasgow City Archives

Jimmy Reid speaking at shipyard

While many, though not all, the radicals of Red Clydeside became part of mainstream politics in the 1920s, the radical spirit remained on Clydeside. In 1971, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders staged a famous ‘work in’ protest.


© The Scotsman Publications

7. What was the legacy of Red Clydeside?

Historian Dr Billy Kenefick of the University of Dundee reflects on the success of the political movement known as Red Clydeside:

The ILP in Glasgow were committed and radical anti-war socialists who exploited war-time discontent and war weariness to their political advantage. This is best seen at the time of the Rent Strikes in Glasgow where they rallied the support of 22,000 women. Their actions had an impact. For instance, the Rent Restriction Act 1915 froze rents at pre-war levels.

In 1922, many of these radicals entered parliamentary politics, winning seats at Westminster. Their legacy was that, while revolution was averted, Clydeside stayed ‘red’ for at least another generation.

But it was arguably the anti-war position of the ILP that paved the way for success by 1922. They did not jettison their internationalist and anti-war perspective on the outbreak of war. On the contrary, the war years saw the consolidation of an ethical and political outlook on which future generations could draw.

While the ILP followed a radical socialist agenda it was distinctly reformist and not anti-parliament. To many voters the ILP was the Labour Party in Scotland and most Labour candidates in Scotland were ILP members. 40 out of 43 labour candidates in the 1922 election were ILP members - the ILP coordinated and financially supported their campaigns. The ILP won the great majority of the 29 seats won by Labour in Scotland in 1922 including 10 of 15 seats at Glasgow. It was Labour’s breakthrough into mainstream British parliamentary politics and the ILP were at the heart of it.

According to Iain McLean, a leading Red Clydeside debunker, the main legacy of the Red Clydesiders in Parliament was the passing of radical ILP member John Wheatley‘s Housing Act in 1924. The Wheatley Housing Act paved the way for building public social housing throughout the interwar years.