Skip to Content

The Myth of Red Clydeside pt.1

The "Red Clydeside" first put itself on the map in the agitated years of the First World War. Since then, it has received plenty of examination. It has been portrayed as a possible revolution in the making; one that could have formed a link with the Bolsheviks and the Spartacists. The Clyde Workers' Committee was the main body in the agitation of the period. It was an unofficial industrial organization of the type that is today favoured by various claimants to the Bolshevik title.

When Britain entered the war in August 1914, the Clyde area joined in the nationwide enthusiasm. Yet soon after, it proved to be an area that would tolerate opponents of the war who were elsewhere reviled. John MacLean, in particular, soon became noted for his pugnacious attitude. A member of the British Socialist Party,[1] the local members shared his stand along with Independent Labour Party and Socialist Labour Party members. All three groups were relatively strong in the area although only the ILP had any significant strength.

At first the recalcitrance of part of the population was not strong enough to warrant any special attention. More important was the production of munitions from the local engineering works. The government had soon realized that success in the war depended as much on the armaments as the bodies that could thrown into the fray. Clydeside as an engineering centre was thus under heavy scrutiny on the home front.

Trouble first arose over the negotiation of a wage agreement by the local engineers. The skilled craftsmen who had lost out on the last deal, put in a pace-setting claim for 2d an hour which the employers rejected. Early in 1915, an overtime ban and then a strike in support of the claim brought patriotic wrath down on them. The executive of the men's union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, had already pledged its support for the war effort and condemned the strike. With no official support, the strike was organized by the shop stewards — a growing influence in the Union. A ballot conducted by the ASE showed a 10-1 majority against the acceptance of an offer by the employers. However, with no strike money and in an atmosphere of slander and government threats, the strike folded after two weeks. In the end they half of their original claim.

The gulf between the Clyde militants and their union widened during the year. The ASE executive signed the Treasury Agreement and a referendum endorsed this.[2] Then the passing of the Munitions Act in July established the ground on which the CWC was to form. The Act, to be applied to munitions work, outlawed strikes, abolished restrictive practices and limited the right to leave a job. Prosecutions and convictions followed and the weak response of union officials to this prompted the establishment of the Clyde Workers' Committee in November.

The CWC was based on the organization that had developed during the second strike. Their manifesto proclaimed the Committee's aim as the defence of the trade union rights summarily abolished by the Munitions Act. It claimed to be " . . . composed of Delegates from every shop . . . untrammelled by obsolete rule or law . . . We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file." This was a challenge to the government and was soon recognised as such. Government officials began discussing the best way to dispose of this obstacle to their plans.

Unrelated to the activities of the CWC, the 1915 rent strike was coming to a conclusion at about the same time. The war had brought an influx of workers into an area already infamous for its housing and the landlords had been raising rents to an extent that earned them the title — "the Huns at home". A rent strike had been in progress and in November some men were taken to court to get unpaid rent stopped from their wages. On the day of the case a number of sporadic strikes took place and a demonstration outside the courtroom threatened a wider strike unless the rises were stopped. The cases were dismissed and soon after rents were frozen. This was done seemingly on demand in order to avoid what would have been, in the government's eyes, unnecessary trouble (and, even more important, more wage disputes).

Meanwhile the CWC was more concerned with the looming threat of dilution. In recent years, the development of new techniques had been making the skills of the engineering craftsman increasingly redundant. The ASE, in which most of them were organized, had resisted this threat to their livelihoods by a closed-shop policy designed to keep semi-skilled workers and their lower wages out of the craftsman's traditional preserves. In this they had a measure of success with the results that their skills were often under-used and the employers reluctant to introduce new methods. This was an obvious obstacle to the government's demand for the maximum output of armaments and they were determined that it should go. A greater division of labour was to be brought in and dilutees, mainly women, were to be put on much of the work. In the short term this would have no effect on the engineers as there was an overwhelming demand for them. However, when the war was over it was likely that ASE members would find a restricted market for their abilities in a modernized industry.

The CWC was now operating regularly with 250-300 delegates attending their weekly meetings. The most representative delegations came from the heavy engineering works and this was reflected in the composition of the small working committee. This included men from the ILP, BSP and SLP with the latter having the most coherent influence.

The CWC was not an anti-war organization and this was shown by the policy adopted to meet dilution. This, in contradiction to the ASE, accepted the inevitability of dilution but wanted nationalization and workers' participation in management in return. This led to the expulsion from the CWC of two of MacLean's associates who wanted opposition to the war effort, not workers' participation in the management of it.

It was wishful thinking to believe that any great opportunity was missed by the consequent split between the CWC and MacLean. Quite simply, when it came to the crunch they were concerned with industrial matters where he was concerned to oppose the war. After this, he and a small band of supporters, interrupted by jail sentences, continued with tenacious opposition gaining much sympathy but no real support. Despite his principled stand, MacLean's optimistic illusions about the development of the Irish nationalist and Bolshevik movements show that he did not understand Socialism and what was required to achieve it.

The CWC ignored political reality in pursuing their dilution policy. Regardless of the implications of their demands, they made no provision to back them up. On a visit to Glasgow in December, Lloyd George, the Minister of Munitions, contemptuously dismissed the proposals. Later, after the Minister's stormy meeting with 3,000 workers, and ILP and a BSP paper were suppressed for printing truthful accounts of the proceedings.

Con Friel

(To be continued)

[1] The BSP was basically the Social Democratic Federation under a new name. Statements in some publications that the BSP was a breakaway from SDF are wrong.

[2] Of 190,000 eligible to vote, 18,000 were for and 4,000 against. (Quoted in "The First Shop Stewards Movement" by James Hinton)