1919 saw the world in turmoil. Emerging exhausted from the slaughter of the First World War, ordinary people across the globe were questioning how society was organised and working class people, inspired by the flaming light of the Russian Revolution of 1917, were not just demanding fundamental change; they were determined to fight for it.
From Italy to Egypt and from Berlin to Limerick working people were willing to topple regimes and rulers who would not deliver change. Britain was no exception.
Two thousand soldiers ordered to embark for France, mutinied, formed a “Soldiers Union” and went on strike. The London Metropolitan Police went on strike, with flying pickets hundreds-strong, going from police station to station. Sailors on board the patrol vessel HMS Kilbride, demanding better pay, refused to go to sea, hauled down the naval ensign, and hoisted the red flag.
The prime minister Lloyd George when faced with threatened joint action by the Triple Alliance (made up of the Miners Federation of Great Britain, National Union of Railwaymen and the National Transport Workers’ Federation) told the trade union leaders: “…in our opinion we are at your mercy”. As Chanie Rosenberg has argued “Britain was on the brink of revolution”.
Glasgow, with its huge engineering and shipbuilding industries, was at the centre of this maelstrom demanding radical change.
MacAskill’s book sets out to both describe tumultuous events in the city that year and to place them in historical context of a wider Scottish radicalism.
The book is well written and clearly done with an admiration for the people and events he writes about. MacAskill, whose style draws the reader into a fast-flowing narrative, details the dramatic events of 1919 as they unfold across the city. These events culminated in Black Friday and the ending of the 40 hour week strike with armed troops and tanks patrolling the city streets and gun boats positioned on the river Clyde.
Central to his narrative is the development of the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC), possibly the most important rank and file trade union organisation that Britain has seen, and the rent strikers’ organisation that involved thousands, especially women, during the war. He details how both organisations came about and evolved, their relationship with the Glasgow Trades Council and other radical socialist and revolutionary groups.
He details in-depth the persecution and suppression CWC members faced from the government during the First World War. MacAskill, who is a former SNP politician, clearly sympathises with the CWC’s members, and in particular the revolutionary Marxist John Maclean whose speech from the dock, while on trial for sedition in 1919, is one of the clearest argued indictments of capitalism and the need to establish a society based on a socialist reorganisation of the economy ever written.
He leaves you in no doubt that the brutal suppression of the 40 hour week strike, on what has become known as “Bloody Friday” on 31 January was a pre-planned attack by the police and an excuse to call in the army.
While I can agree with him that Glasgow, if seen in isolation, was not about to witness a revolution in 1919, when the city is placed in the context of what was happening around the country his assertion is misplaced.
Maybe Harry McShane, when looking back on the strike some 70 years later, best sums it up “We regarded the forty hour strike not as a revolution but as a beginning. Other things would follow: it was but the first rank and file agitation to be led by the socialists after the war”.