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20th Century Scotland - An Introduction
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World War IThe 20th century was a period of huge upheaval in Scotland. Two world wars, the decline of the British Empire, economic depression, the political awakening of both women and the working classes, the prolonged process of industrial decline, and struggle for urban regeneration all took their toll on both the character and appearance of Scotland. Scottish national identity was becoming ever more complex, pluralistic and dependent on differences in race, gender and class. These colossal changes are well demonstrated in the experience of Glasgow and Clydeside down through the century.

World War I

The First World War (1914-18) was a new experience for the people of Scotland, as it was for all the nations involved in the conflict. Never before had people seen mass destruction of such intensity, executed with such highly mechanised precision. The initial reaction to the outbreak of war, however, was one of enthusiasm generally. Scotland's military status in the British Empire at the time was well established as a source of hardy, front-line troops - a reputation which was cherished and nurtured by the Scots Regiments - and this was perhaps instrumental in the patriotism with which the nation met the call to arms. A glut of young Scots signed up at the recruiting agencies, with friends, families and communities being sent off to the trenches together in groups in a bid to raise morale and comradeship. This enthusiasm, however, was soon quelled when the scale of the slaughter on the Western Front became apparent, and whole streets and communities were suddenly fatherless after single battles. Scotland provided more men in proportion to population than any other part of Britain, and lost more men than any other country participating in the conflict with the exception of Turkey and Serbia, whose death-toll was exacerbated by disease.

The Great War changed the face of Scotland in a number of ways and set in motion social changes which reverberated down through the century. Warfare on this scale was only possible when bolstered by a powerful industrial sector, and in the early 20th century Clydeside was the 'workshop of the world'. The shipyards along the Clyde answered the Navy's call as submarine warfare in the Atlantic ravaged the British Fleet, whilst engineering shops and metal plants met the enormous demand for munitions. Labour shortages drew many more workers to the area and encouraged the development of machine-power over man-power in the factories. Besides this, the bulk of the population was being concentrated in the west of the central belt, around Glasgow, bringing about a huge working class populace living in inadequate and cramped accommodation, and becoming increasingly unionised and politically active. Scotland was also becoming perilously over-dependent on heavy industry as the nation's provider. It is apparent, in hindsight, how important the Great War was in influencing Scotland's path through the 20th century, and how future economic discontent was being nurtured at this time.

The Rise of Red Clydeside
Red ClydesideAlthough socialist ideas were permeating through Scotland prior to the First World War, there was scant representation in parliament and the majority of the skilled working-class voters remained loyal to the Liberal Party. Most working-class people were not entitled to vote and the political agenda was vastly different before the war. Home Rule had been a major political issue since the 1880s, with devolution motions gaining majorities in the parliaments of 1894 and 1895 before being dismissed on the grounds of a lack of parliamentary time. In the years immediately prior to the War, momentum had built on this issue until a Home Rule Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons in 1914, only to be dropped when the country entered into a state of war. It was the war which seemed to change the political direction of Scotland.

Many Scots were beginning to feel under-represented by the Liberals at the time and this was aggravated by the Liberal government's handling of the War. Prime Minister, Lloyd George, treated the Unions and Socialist organisations on Clydeside with distrust: as subversive elements which were a danger to the war effort, and this led many Scots to dissociate with the Liberals as champions of the working classes. This was demonstrated during the Glasgow Rent Strike of 1915, a popular protest against greedy landlords raising rents on often sub-standard housing whilst many breadwinners were on the Western Front dying for their country. The protest was supported whole-heartedly by the Unions, Labour Party and the left-wing suffragettes, but only grudgingly by a Liberal government who wanted to avoid civil unrest and feared for their Clydeside munitions supply. Scottish membership of the Independent Labour Party tripled during the Great War and this figure is indicative of the mobilisation in political allegiance at the time.

Several more factors contributed to the rising tide of socialism as the war drew to a close. In 1918 the size of the electorate tripled with the enfranchisement of mainly working-class men. In 1920 Ireland was split and Labour gained much of the Catholic vote from the Liberal Party. Then the major world-wide economic depression of the 1920s and 30s set in, particularly affecting the Scottish economy with its dependence on heavy industry and international markets. The rise of Red Clydeside was apparent by the 1922 election when Labour became the biggest party in Scotland, gaining 29 MPs, who left Glasgow for Westminster amidst triumphant scenes and glorious speeches.

George SquareIt was a time when Scottish politics became polarised and the middle classes swung to the right-wing Unionist Party in reaction to the 'red menace'. These fears were perhaps accentuated by the recent events of the Russian Revolution, but a demonstration of how seriously the government took the situation was evident in 1919, with their reaction to a 40-hour strike in Glasgow. The protest of 100,000 people quickly escalated to a riot, with the red flag being raised in George Square and the police responding with baton charges. The government's backlash to the riot was extreme: the protest was viewed as a Bolshevist rising, with 12,000 troops, machine guns and tanks called on the streets of Glasgow. What was seen by most workers as a protest against unfair working conditions and rents was viewed as imminent revolution by the government. The strikers' demands were dismissed and the whole debacle obviously strengthened socialist convictions in industrial Scotland. Red Clydeside, the Labour Party and Trade Unionism were to be a major force in Scotland throughout the rest of the century.


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