100 Years On: The Day They Read the Riot Act as Chaos Engulfed GlasgowHistorians in the News
tags: Glasgow, Battle of George Square
One hundred years ago, on 31 January, 1919, Glasgow’s George Square witnessed one of the most astonishing outbreaks of civic violence in modern history. Tens of thousands of striking workers, many accompanied by their families, were baton-charged by police. A battle erupted, heads were broken and for one of the last times, civic officials read the Riot Act. A panic-stricken cabinet in London sent in troops and tanks, and for a moment revolution looked set to sweep western Scotland.
“The Russian revolution had been an unambiguous demonstration that the forces of reaction could be defeated and the political establishment was very afraid that could happen here,” says the Scottish historian Tom Devine. “They thought a Bolshevik uprising was about to begin in Glasgow.”
In fact, the Battle of George Square was not so much an outburst of revolutionary fervour as the outcome of hostile policing and a loss of nerve by the cabinet. It did not trigger the downfall of UK capitalism – although it did have an impact on the British political landscape. The myth of the Red Clydesider was created that day, and its impact is still felt. So how did the authorities let that happen? What went wrong in George Square a century ago?
Glasgow was at the time a centre for heavy goods manufacture, and demobbed soldiers were returning in search of work. Factory owners wanted to maintain the 47-hour working week, while workers wanted a 40-hour week so that everyone could get a job, says John Foster, an emeritus professor at the University of the West of Scotland. “The factory owners wanted them to do more work so there would be fewer jobs and they would have a permanent unemployed workforce at their beck and call.”
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