The Union survives the war and evolves: 1918-1939

The Union survives the war and evolves: 1918-1939

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 5, October, 2020

IF SCOTLAND’S MILITARY contribution to victory in the First World War had been outstanding, so too had been her industrial one. The heavy industries of the West of Scotland played a primary role in sustaining the war machine and shipbuilding and engineering were expanded, streamlined and perhaps even over-extended.  

The Clyde played a leading role in Britain’s war effort. It provided a safe harbour and handled a vastly increased volume of shipping, turning out all sorts of vessels from battle-cruisers to minesweepers. Later it would replace merchant ships sunk by German U-boats and repair many damaged ships.  

Scotland also had two out of twelve of Britain’s munition producing centres so that by January 1916 there were almost 250,000 munition workers in the Clyde area. In Professor William Ferguson’s words, ‘Clydeside was actually the single most important munitions centre in Britain.’ And it was supported by the coal and steel industry.  

Despite – or maybe because of – the war, labour relations in most industries remained good. Both Labour Party MPs and official trades unions, for example, were happy to approve wartime industrial innovations. This was true even of the use of semi-skilled labour in the shipyards, a practice known as ‘dilution’. This practice was, however, seized on by a number of extremist socialist shop stewards from 1915 to call strikes. They by-passed the official union leadership and formed a Clyde Workers’ Committee which went on to oppose first the Munitions Act and then conscription. The leaders of this movement – soon known as Red Clydeside – included William Gallagher, David Kirkwood, John McLean, James Maxwell, Emanuel Shinwell, John Wheatley and others. Gallagher, who became chairman of the Committee, was a Marxist member of the British Socialist Party who kept seeing ‘revolutionary’ potential in every strike and riot. (After a riot in Glasgow’s George Square in January 1919 he wrote that if only the rioters had marched on the Maryhill Barracks, the army would have joined them in a repetition of Petrograd 1917!) McLean, who became a legend among romantic Glasgow Lefties, attempted in December 1918 to turn the Trades Council of Glasgow into a working soviet. He was then briefly imprisoned. Meanwhile Lenin himself had called him a true socialist who had ‘put revolutionary struggle against imperial war into life’ and he had been made the Soviet consul for Great Britain. In December 1918 he stood for Gorbals in the general election but like all extreme left-wingers was heavily defeated. Thereafter he became a nationalist of sorts and attempted to establish a Scottish Workers’ Republican Party combining the ideas of Marx and Sinn Fein.  

In 1922 a handful of these people got elected to Parliament. Much was expected of Maxton who had acquired a reputation as a pugnacious platform speaker, but he failed to master parliamentary debate. John Wheatley became a minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s first government and is sometimes remembered for a Scottish Housing Act. Yet it was curtailed in 1926 and had practically no effect. In the whole interwar years only 4,000 new homes were built in the entire Highland region. And there was no real building programme in the cities either. Red Clydeside therefore had no positive legacy. 

The real judgement on these people should be that their attempts to give practical effect to their Bolshevik daydreams risked undermining the national war effort at a time when victory was far from assured. If they had been successful the Germans could have been handed victory on the Western front just as the Bolsheviks had handed them victory on the Eastern Front. After all, their influence spread to left-wing trade unionists in North East England and elsewhere, while opposition to conscription was a very serious matter as the chaos created by such opposition in Ireland proved. The Government was clearly right to imprison them at key moments. It could take no chances. It is not as if they didn’t know there was a war on. They did but didn’t care if Britain lost it. Their so-called ‘grievances’ in the shipyards, likewise, were as nothing compared to those of Scottish and other troops serving in the trenches of the Western Front. Professor Ferguson in his history of Scotland dismisses as ‘pathetic’ the ditty entitled ‘Tommy Atkins at the Front’, presumably since he didn’t take the threat of Red Clydeside seriously. But he did acknowledge the lampoon and so should we. Tommy… 

“picked up me ole gun; me bit of iron too;
I’m just a common soldier, so I’ve got to see it through. 
An’ if they let’s us down at ‘ome, and if ‘e reads I died,
Will ‘e know ‘e ‘elped to kill me – my brother on the Clyde.”

One important thing to note about the Red Clydesiders was that, apart perhaps from McLean, they had little interest in nationalism. Maxton occasionally supported it in bursts of platform rhetoric to play to audiences but John Paton – an ILP organiser – loved London as a deliverance from the ‘kailyard’ of his native Aberdeen and the crude realities of Glasgow. The Glaswegian Tom Bell, after a visit to Moscow in 1921, felt delighted that he, ‘a worker from insular little England’, should have lived to witness the glory of communism. Gallacher, according to Professor Ferguson, felt little or nothing for Scotland apart from the Glaswegian proletariat and the miners of West Fife. 
In any case nationalism was still part of the political lunatic fringe.  

Home rule on the other hand seemed more likely to have a future. In 1916 the STUC passed a resolution supporting it which won Lloyd George’s approval. It even wanted separate Scottish representation at the Paris Peace Conference. Then a Speaker’s Conference in 1919 produced two reports; one recommending more committees, the other a federal Britain. In 1924 a socialist MP, George Buchanan, who represented Gorbals, introduced a federal Home Rule Bill in the Commons with Labour support. However, MacDonald as prime minister, could only offer personal sympathy. Home rule suffered from events in Ireland as well as the feeling that after 1918 nationalism of any kind had become anachronistic. Indeed by 1930 the STUC was seriously considering amalgamating with its English counterpart. And at the end of that year, the Glasgow Herald commenting on the manifesto of the nationalist candidate in the East Renfrewshire by-election wrote:  

“Its contents cannot be taken seriously... convenient blindness to inconvenient facts; and the haziest ideas as to what Scottish self-government would consist in... a crank’s hobby horse.” 

Improvement to government came instead once again from constitutional adjustments within the framework of Union. The Conservatives in 1926 upgraded the office of Scottish Secretary to a full Secretary of State and in 1928 this was followed by a reorganisation of the three offices (health, agriculture and prisons) for which he was responsible to Parliament. Then in 1939 all Scottish departments were moved from Whitehall to St. Andrew’s House in Edinburgh, which opened that year, giving Scotland a separate administration. Scottish local government meanwhile was reformed by the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1929. 

Hence by the outbreak of the Second World War Scotland had received a new structure of government within the Union. Home Rule or Independence were not seen as practical or desirable alternatives save by a small minority of Scots.  Great Britain, for whom so many Scots had willingly laid down their lives was accepted and revered by (almost) all. 

This is the fifth part of a series, here are the others:

Part one – Mythology in the history of Anglo-Scots relations;   

Part two – From Auld Alliance to creating the Union;  

Part three – Scotland 1707-1914: The Union adjusts and consolidates; 

Part four – A loyal Scotland fights for Britain: 1707-1918

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. 

Photo: A 4 Kopek Soviet stamp commemorating John MacLean in 1979. 

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