Post-war radicalism

After the war, industrial workers across Britain began to fear for their jobs. They realised that the war had given a temporary boost to industries that had been facing problems before the war. As munitions factories were closed, industrial workers also faced competition for jobs from thousands of returning soldiers.

The second phase of Red Clydeside took place just after the war ended. There were more strikes and conflict occurred between workers and police. The government worried that the strike leaders were preparing to start a revolution in Britain.

Employment and race issues

On January 23rd violence broke out between groups of black and white sailors on Glasgow’s waterfront. With more men looking for work than there were jobs, the local white sailors saw the black sailors, many of whom had served in the British Merchant Navy and were citizens of the British Empire, as unwanted competition.

Around 30 black sailors were chased back to their lodgings on the Broomielaw by a much larger crowd of white sailors and other locals. Police broke up the fight, taking the black sailors into custody. Two white and one black man were injured. 27 black sailors had all charges against them dropped. Three were fined for breach of the peace.

Other race riots, mostly directed at black sailors, took place in 1919 around the UK, including in South Shields, Salford, Hull, London, Liverpool and Cardiff. In all five people were killed, dozens seriously injured and over 250 people arrested.

Battle of George Square

Tanks were sent into  George Square
The Battle of George Square

On Clydeside, the CWC was leading a campaign to reduce the working week from 54 hours to 40 hours, partly to help create jobs for soldiers returning from the war:

  • In January 1919, at a meeting of shop stewards in the shipbuilding and engineering industries, the CWC established the 'Forty Hours Movement'.
  • They then called a strike and held a large demonstration in George Square in Glasgow on Friday, 31 January 1919.
  • According to contemporary reports, the crowds grew to almost 25,000.
  • The police launched a baton charge into the crowd, injuring 34 people afterwhich running battles spread across the city centre.

The government were advised that the demonstrators could easily become a revolutionary mob. Concern increased when reports said a red flag had been seen in the midst of the protestors. The Russian Revolution had taken place only 14 months before, and just that month the German Revolution had occurred, so the British government strongly felt it had to take action. Upon the request of the Sheriff of Lanarkshire:

  • An estimated 10,000 troops, mostly from Scottish regiments, were deployed to restore order
  • Six tanks were transported to Glasgow and made available for use
  • Machine gun posts were set up in the city
  • This military occupation lasted for two weeks

Within a week of the Battle of George Square, the strike was over and a settlement was reached on the basis of a 47 hour working week. This was a victory for the workers in the short term but it did not seriously challenge the role of the bosses.

There is little evidence that the leaders of the strikes and demonstrations ever considered challenging the authority of the British government. For most of the strikers and demonstrators, the protests on Clydeside were about wages, working conditions and unfair rents. Most of the protesters were not considering revolution.

Membership of the ILP increased after the events in George Square. The war, rent strikes and the image of Red Clydeside seemed to have radicalised the voters in and around Glasgow.