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Reference group
Red Clydesiders (act. 1915–1924) were identified with the political, industrial, and social unrest during the First World War and its aftermath that earned for Glasgow a reputation as a city distinctly on the left. With a reasonable claim to being the ‘second city’ of the empire, and a major concentration of shipbuilding, heavy engineering, and other manufacturing sectors, Glasgow contained a significant proportion of the nation's industrial workers. As the label ‘red Clydeside’ itself suggests, the core of the social and political movements of this period were along the banks of the River Clyde, in the shipyards and their immediately adjacent component suppliers. Discontent revolved around the central demand for an equal sacrifice in the war effort from all sections of society: those building ships being keenly aware of the profits being made in the food-distribution business, to which was soon added an acute sense of injustice over soaring house rents as additional war workers flooded into the already densely packed central districts. On top of this was the resentment caused by the attempts of a minority of exceptionally hard-nosed company managers to take advantage of special emergency legislation to push back the gains the skilled craft unions had been making in the years immediately before the outbreak of hostilities.

The central flashpoint was in the inner city district of Govan, where distinctive protests over rents were organized by local housewives, among whom the most prominent was Mary Barbour, and co-ordinated on a city-wide level by the Glasgow Women's Housing Association, led by Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan. This campaign escalated in the autumn of 1915 and coincided with parallel protests over local shipbuilding employers' abuses of the Munitions of War Act (1915), involving strike action by many of the men from the same households. They were supported by Harry Hopkins of the Govan trades council, by their own union district officials, and by their national leaders, especially John Hill of the boilermakers who, although his hands were tied by his prominent public position during a major war, felt a deep sympathy with the people from his own original home district. Perhaps Hill's main role was to provide a bridge to some of Labour's rising parliamentarians, especially William Anderson, with whom he seems to have worked particularly closely throughout the war years and who was widely regarded as a likely future leader of the party until his untimely death in 1919. With additional support from other Labour and radical Liberal MPs it proved possible to extract a number of major concessions from the government, especially the Rent Restriction Act of November 1915 and the Munitions of War Amendment Act of January 1916. From then on Glasgow had an unshakeable reputation, both among its own citizens and throughout the country, as a centre of social protest which was not only unusually widely supported but also unusually successful.

As a result, any fresh sign of local unrest on Clydeside tended to produce distinct nervousness and over-reaction on the part of the government and the press. Thus in early 1916 a state initiative to introduce female substitutes for skilled men (‘dilutees’) into engineering in the Glasgow area was accompanied by closures of local socialist newspapers and the deportation of a handful of shop stewards, including David Kirkwood, convener at the Parkhead Forge and a notable figure in the east end of the city. Similarly in 1919 an admittedly more threatening attempt at a local general strike for a forty-hour week led to a ‘police riot’ in George Square, the arrest of such prominent figures as Hopkins, Kirkwood, and Emanuel Shinwell of the seamen, and even the dispatch of tanks by rail to head off a wholly imaginary ‘Bolshevist uprising’.

Admittedly there were a number of small groups of genuine revolutionaries in the area, buoyed up by the wider industrial and social movements and receiving attention out of all proportion to their real influence, both from government officials at the time and historians in due course. Perhaps the best-known was John Maclean, a charismatic and tireless Marxist agitator whose repeated imprisonment turned him into an unforgettable local martyr. But there were also some more influenced by industrial syndicalism, including William Gallacher and John Ross Campbell, who went on to become the core of the early Communist Party of Great Britain. And there were even anarchist propagandists of national significance like Guy Aldred, who moved to the area because of its militant reputation.

However, the main political catalyst and then beneficiary of these agitations was the generally more moderate and constitutionalist Independent Labour Party (ILP). Barbour, Crawfurd, Dollan, Hopkins, Hill, Anderson, Kirkwood, and Shinwell were all prominent at the relevant levels of the party's organization, and their activities were linked through the local ILP newspaper The Forward, under the guidance of its outstanding editor–proprietor Thomas Johnston. This remarkable campaigning organ managed to bridge the divide of religious sectarianism by drawing in such important contributors from the Irish Catholic east end as John Wheatley and Agnes's husband Patrick Dollan. Moreover, while observing the limits of wartime censorship in order to remain in business, The Forward kept its columns open to a wide range of views with which its editor did not necessarily agree, and it had in any case always attracted financial support from such traditional radicals as the home ruler Roland Muirhead and the land reformer Gavin Clark. This was indeed a marked characteristic of the local ILP itself as an organization: initially at least, capable of containing both essentially cautious municipal socialists such as Wheatley and Dollan alongside more controversial anti-war orators such as James Maxton.

Despite its broad appeal and its impressive array of journalists and speakers, the ILP on Clydeside had until the First World War been an organization for a committed minority. Though large in comparison with the tiny revolutionary sects, in 1914 it still had only about 3000 members and twelve seats on the Glasgow city council. The wartime social movements transformed this position: by 1918 the ILP had 10,000 members on Clydeside (a third of the party's national membership) and in the succession of elections after the end of hostilities it made remarkable gains. Its first major breakthrough was in 1920 when it won forty-four seats on the city council, took over some convenorships, including Patrick Dollan on the tramways committee, and began to lay the basis for Labour's eventual long period of overall control of the local authority after 1933. Its second major breakthrough brought it even more national attention when in 1922 it managed to return ten out of fifteen of the MPs for Glasgow. Alongside the by-now famous personalities of Wheatley and Maxton were George Buchanan, George Downie Blyth Crookston Hardie (1873–1937), John Primrose Hay (1878–1949), Thomas Henderson (1867–1960), Neil Malcolm Maclean (1873–1953), John Muir, Campbell Stephen (1884–1947), and James Stewart (1863–1931); and the sense of a large group of Clydesiders in parliament was enhanced by the election of such familiar figures as Johnston, Kirkwood, and Shinwell for other Scottish constituencies.

As the inclusive nature of the ILP and the number of unfamiliar names among the Clydesiders might suggest, the parliamentary group was quite diverse in its political views. It did act in a relatively united way in championing Ramsay MacDonald as the ILP candidate for the overall Labour leadership, but once that had been achieved, and especially once Labour was in government in its own right, the Clydesiders tended to divide into a quiet majority of party loyalists and a noisier but smaller group of well-known rebels made up of Buchanan, Kirkwood, Stephen, Wheatley, and above all Maxton. Johnston and Shinwell went on to have distinguished ministerial careers, and even Wheatley from among the more rebellious made a distinctive contribution to reform on the key Clydeside issue of housing when in 1924 he served as minister of health in the first Labour government. Maxton, on the other hand, focused his energies on pulling the ILP increasingly towards the left and eventually into the political wilderness: formally splitting the parliamentary group in 1932 and deeply frustrating such regional party organizers as Dollan.

Perhaps one of the longest legacies of red Clydeside was the way in which John Maclean and Jimmy Maxton were more widely and fondly remembered than their more moderate and representative colleagues: as part of a long tradition of romanticizing Scottish history, the rebels and the martyrs were generally preferred to the practical politicians.

Alastair J. Reid


I. McLean, The legend of red Clydeside (1983) · A. J. Reid, ‘Dilution, trade unionism and the state in Britain during the First World War’, Shop floor bargaining and the state, ed. S. Tolliday and J. Zeitlin (1985), 46–74 · A. J. Reid, ‘Glasgow socialism’, Social History, 11 (1986), 89–97 · A. McKinlay and R. J. Morris, eds., The ILP on Clydeside, 1893–1932: from foundation to disintegration (1991) · J. Melling, Rent strikes: people's struggle for housing in west Scotland, 1890–1916 (1983) · G. R. Rubin, War, law and labour: the Munitions Acts, state regulation and the unions, 1915–1921 (1987)