Glasgow remembers Battle of George Square

by Graham Fraser

A red flag is raised in a city square. Police clash with thousands of striking workers. Tanks roll down the street in an effort to restore order.

It could be the scene of political turmoil anywhere. But this was Glasgow, 90 years ago.

On January 31, 1919, Scotland's largest city flirted with Bolshevism. The Battle of George Square saw up to 60,000 protesters - many of them from the working-class Red Clydeside movement - clash with police over working conditions.

While modern day historians have played down the link of a communist uprising in Scotland, Westminster was concerned about a revolution igniting in Glasgow. The government sent in 10,000 troops, tanks and machine guns to deal with the riot and to bring stability back to the city.

Robert Munro, the Secretary of State for Scotland at the time, went on to describe the event as a 'Bolshevik uprising'. So how did Glasgow end up on the brink of a red revolution?

40-Hours Strike

Following the end of the First World War, the economy in the city was tumultuous.

Glasgow, which was infused with the war industries of shipbuilding and engineering, suffered greatly from the ending of war time employment. At the same time, thousands of troops returned home and flooded the labour market.

Glasgow's working class was angry. The Clyde Workers Committee called for the "40-hours strike", a move aimed to reduce the average working week and help create thousands of jobs for the soldiers coming home. By January 31, approximately 60,000 protesters swelled into George Square to hear speeches from their leaders. The Red Flag of Bolshevism was raised by the workers.

The protest turned into a riot. Some historians argue an unprovoked police charge was the cause, while others blame a tram forcing its way through the square to the fury of the crowd. While chaos ruled outside the City Chambers, the strike's leaders - including David Kirkwood - were inside the building to hear the government's response to their demands. When Mr Kirkwood heard the commotion in the square, he ran outside. He was then beaten to the ground by police.

A Glasgow lawman attempted to read the Riot Act – a traditional means of dispersing crowds with threats of arrest – but it was torn from his hands. Clashes between the police and the workers continued through the streets. Strikers, many of whom were fresh from the trenches, pulled iron palings from the ground. They continued to press police lines and fighting took place throughout the night. According to official records, 53 people were injured by the end of hostilities.

English Troops?

The government sent in the army to quell the violence. Conflicting sources claim English troops were deployed despite soldiers being based in the Maryhill area of Glasgow. The government, it was claimed, was worried experienced Scottish soldiers would join the ranks of the strikers. Other accounts suggest Scottish battalions were sent, but without their Glasgow men.

Following the violence, strikers sent a leaflet to the wider British labour movement calling them to "rally to the support of your comrades on the Clyde". Within a week of the strike, a 47-hour working week was agreed.

In April 1919, Emanuel Shinwell and William Gallacher - two of the strike's leaders -  were found guilty of incitement to riot and were jailed. Three years later, Mr Shinwell won a parliamentary seat and later became the Chairman of the Labour Party. Mr Kirkwood, once beaten by police, would serve as a Labour MP from 1922 to 1951 while Mr Gallagher became a Communist MP between 1935 and 1950.

A Communist Glasgow never came to be. But, in the spirit of ninety years ago, a red flag still makes an occasional appearance in the shadow of the City Chambers.