'There were no infant Lenins or Trotskys': Interview with Owen Dudley Edwards on Red Clydeside and its legacy

CommonSpace speaks to the noted historian about a pivotal moment in Scotland’s history

100 YEARS ago today, some 20,000 striking workers, tenants and sympathisers rallied in Glasgow’s George Square.

It was the culmination of the Scotland’s most widespread industrial action since 1820; engineers, shipbuilders, miners and power station workers had downed tools in the preceding days and engaged in strikes of almost unprecedented coordination. 82 days after the end of the First World War, the government’s War Cabinet was still in session, readying military deployment in fear of potential revolution, the template of which had exploded in Russia less than two years before.

Of course, this was not the ultimate outcome. Yet the legacy of Red Clydeside would produce a reinvented and formalised left wing throughout Scotland and beyond that would last throughout the 20th century. Less than a decade after the events of January 1919, Labour was a party of government, the Communist Party went from an inchoate force to a dedicated and organised movement, and the Scottish Left had greatly expanded both its history and its mythology.

In an effort to separate the two, CommonSpace spoke to Owen Dudley Edwards, Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh and noted for his work on Scotland, Ireland and the United States, about the legacy of Red Clydeside.

Firstly, were these events merely the product of an era of unusual political radicalism, or did they constitute – as some hoped and others feared - a genuine moment of potential revolution?

“Well, it certainly constituted a genuine moment of political revolution in the minds of the Lloyd George cabinet,” Edwards says. “In other words, the fact that you’ve got tanks, cavalry and the army waiting at the side while the police charged in – that reaction was an indication. The cabinet were really terrified that a Bolshevik revolution or something like that would break out. Lloyd George was at the Versailles peace conference at the time, but Churchill was very jumpy about it – almost as if they were waiting for a moment of confrontation in order to show they could batten down the revolution which the Russians couldn’t. So that element is there – a revolution expected or feared by the government.

“Churchill was very jumpy about it – almost as if they were waiting for a moment of confrontation in order to show they could batten down the revolution which the Russians couldn’t.” Historian Owen Dudley Edwards

“As far as the disparate elements in Glasgow are concerned, it’s a lot of very different things. One of the most important things, of course, is that the war is over and everything has been promised by the government. A lot of people actually involved in the Battle of George Square had been opponents of the war and had been very brave in doing so. Several had been in jail; John Maclean was still in jail. The anger after two years of conscription was very great indeed. So, you have potential for revolutionary anger; you even have people remembering what James Connolly had done leading the Easter Rising in 1916 in Dublin. They felt this could be the moment. On the other hand, there was a counter-feeing: ‘Yes, but Connolly and company were killed. It didn’t work there – is it likely that it could work here?’

“In one way, there could had been a revolution if the government really had pushed everything at it. It was instead a battening down by the police, with very considerable brutality. It was the same sort of thing that had happened in Dublin in the lock-out of 1913 – the same sort of confrontation is happening, but it is still local in a sense. Looking back from now, it’s all very well for us to be clever, but I don’t think that there was that much likelihood of it being pushed much further. Apart from anything else, a lot of the people involved in it had been in various labour movements and had been working against the war, and were rather hostile to the idea of violence.

“The other side you must remember is that the British government had plenty of opportunities to observe what had been happening in various places in Europe and particularly in Russia, and they really did not want to take chances, despite people like Churchill really itching for a fight.”

1919’s ‘Battle of George Square’ did not emerge unbidden or without context – it followed both the enormous impact of the Glasgow Rent Strikes, and the radicalising experience of the First World War.

Edwards explains: “We must remember there had been very considerable strikes happening right through the war – for the people involved, by 1919, this is just the latest stage. It looks like a continuum from here far more than it looks like a rush into Russian-style revolution.

“I think you have two obvious phases: the first is the volunteer years of 1914 to 1915. That in a sense was a time of personal decisions, possibly driven very hard economics. Then, from the beginning of 1916 onwards, as far as Britain is concerned, it’s conscription – people are being torn out of their own homes and thrown into the First World War. But again, if we remember the Easter Rising, the fact that the government bombarded Dublin, and turned it into something like the cities which everyone had been pointing to as proof of the brutality of the Germans, as well as the subsequent executions, this led to a growing militancy on the part of the Irish in Britain. From that point of view, any general sympathy they might have had with the war effort had been dissipated.

“In terms of the Rent Strikes in Glasgow, we must remember that when we’re talking about cities in this period, we’re talking about places that are full of country people. The Glasgow Rent Strikes were quite successful in forcing legislation from the government, and were the children of the land league movements, the protests against evictions and so forth, and that had spread from Ireland to the Scottish Highlands in the 1880s. A lot of that had quietened down, but a lot of the people involved had come into the cities.”

During the Battle of George Square itself, perhaps the most historically prominent Scottish socialist organiser of the period, John Maclean, was in jail. However, his influence on events and those who participated in them was considerable, Edwards argues.

“John Maclean, who is the most remarkable revolutionary of the whole lot of them, was someone who had been a teacher for much of his life, and whose teaching affected all sorts of people, such as Jimmy Maxton, who had been at his classes. His teaching was a taught revolution, and through that, there was a greater awareness of economics, immediate history and what had taken place in Ireland.”

“You don’t see infant Lenins or Trotskys emerging from this situation.” Historian Owen Dudley Edwards

Yet the most prominent figures to emerge from Red Clydeside were by no means united in their views, tactics or later lives: “As regards revolutionary intention, the three main martyrs of the Battle of George Square were Emanuel Shinwell, who become minister for defence, David Kirkwood, who ended up as a lord, and Willie Gallacher, who ended up as a Communist. As the historian AJP Taylor suggested, that almost ironic conclusion tells you a lot about their limitations. These were brave people, even if they ended up in some pretty peculiar places. Were they the basis of a revolution? No, I don’t think so. You don’t see infant Lenins or Trotskys emerging from this situation.”

Ultimately, the experience of 1919 served as a grim lesson for the Scottish working class and those who sought to organise it – one that would focus many minds towards the necessity of radicalism and militancy in the years and decades ahead.

“Afterwards, those involved in Red Clydeside knew that there had been a possibility of a far more severe army crackdown,” says Edwards. “It hadn’t happened, but the fact it had been likely to happen meant that those involved, and ordinary people, were much more suspicious and divided from the ruling class.”

Picture: CommonSpace

CS Forum 31 January: 100 years on - Will the Clyde run Red again?