Glasgow history: red or wretched?

Submitted by Matthew on 2 November, 2011 - 9:20

When the Clyde Ran Red singularly fails to live up to its title (and dustcover — a picture of the crowds in Glasgow’s George Square on “Bloody Friday”, 1919).

The expression “Red Clydeside” refers to a period of industrial and political unrest on the Clyde, from around the start of the First World War until the 40 Hours Strike of 1919 and the subsequent capture of 10 of Glasgow’s 15 constituencies by the Independent Labour Party in 1922.

Such events are covered in Craig’s book. But not very well. There is no mention, for example, of the strikes which swept through about 25 engineering factories in February of 1915. And one would look in vain for any serious analysis of the different socialist currents that found expression in the upheavals of “Red Clydeside”.

Nor does the book engage with the ongoing arguments about the significance (or otherwise) of “Red Clydeside”, epitomised by Iain McLean’s dated but still controversial The Legend of Red Clydeside.

Almost half the book’s contents deal with events which fall well outside the years of “Red Clydeside”.

Craig goes as far back as Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite uprising of 1745: “(He) was never a noted fan of democracy. Many of those who rallied to his standard were, seeing in him the only focus for their discontent over Scotland’s loss of independence. ...It can be argued the Jacobites of 1745 forged a political movement ahead of its time.”

And as far forward as the SNP’s victory in the Holyrood elections of 2011: “In May 2011 the SNP under Alex Salmond swept to a stunning victory... routing their political opponents.... Leading as it does to the likelihood of a referendum on Scottish independence, the sheer scale of the SNP landslide took many commentators by surprise.”

Craig also devotes chapters to the “Zinoviev Letter”, which brought down the first Labour government, the 1926 General Strike, the origins of the SNP, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the launch of the Queen Mary, the Empire Exhibition of 1938, and the Clydebank Blitz of 1941.

At the hands of Craig, “Red Clydeside” is transformed from a specific period in the history of the Clydeside working class into a metaphysical state of mind:

“Whatever our political views, many of us still hold the ideals of the Red Clydesiders close to our hearts. It’s what makes us who we are.”

Craig concludes by criticising other historians for “rendering a thrilling and passionate period of history boring” and for “missing the point”.

According to Craig, the “Red Clydesiders” manifested “the democratic spirit of the Scottish people” and “the unshakeable conviction that this is a country more than able to run its own affairs.” They gave expression to “the determination, achievements and sheer lust for life of the people of Glasgow, Clydebank and Clydeside.”

But Craig is missing the point. “Red Clydeside”, warts and all, is part of the history of the workers’ movement. It was not a staging post between the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and the SNP referendum of 2014.

Maggie Craig’s optimistic portrayal of Glaswegian workers is not one which finds any corroboration in Carol Craig’s The Tears That Made the Clyde.

Carol Craig reels off statistics about contemporary Glasgow. It is the most violent city in Western Europe. In some areas of the city male life expectancy (55) is lower than many Third World countries. More than 20% of the population die before they reach 65. In the poorest areas of the city male life expectancy has declined over the past two decades.

Obesity rates are among the highest in the world. More people are affected by long-term illnesses and at a younger age than in the rest of Scotland. 24% of the working-age population are unemployed. The number of Incapacity Benefit claimants is the highest in Britain.

Thirty-six per cent of children live in a household where no-one is employed, and 42% of them are eligible for free school meals — double the national figure. Liver cirrhosis mortality rates for men are the highest in Western Europe. The city has the highest rate of drug abuse in Scotland.

Deprivation and de-industrialisation, writes Craig, explain only partly the poor health of much of Glasgow’s population. Other cities have suffered from deprivation and de-industrialisation but without the same impact on health. Nor does inequality explain the rampant poor health. Inequality (as distinct from just poverty) is a major factor in triggering social and health problems. Glasgow is less unequal than many other cities. Yet Glasgow lags behind those more unequal cities on health standards.

Craig argues Glasgow’s problems are rooted in the city’s history. They are, so to speak, a legacy of that historical past, albeit one that contemporary government policies do nothing to eradicate. As the historian Tom Devine writes in the foreword to Craig’s book: “The social problems under consideration have a long lineage and so historical analysis of the Glaswegian past, Carol Craig suggests, is an essential approach to them.”

Thus, although Craig’s primary concern is what strategies should be adopted to overcome contemporary patterns of deprivation, the bulk of her book is given over to an analysis of the distinctive features of Glasgow history.

Craig deals with the absence of a middle class in Glasgow (i.e. there were just the very rich, and the very poor), the East-West social apartheid, a local ruling class more autocratic than its counterpart elsewhere, and the Glaswegian middle class ideology which blamed the poor for poverty.

Craig also presents a bleak overview of the history of the working-class population and the historical factors which encouraged widespread alcoholism, a strongly macho male culture, high levels of gender hostility, and the emergence of a “pecking order” within the working class itself.

Whereas When the Clyde Ran Red portrays plucky proles struggling on manfully with a smile on their faces (“running through all these stories, even in the darkest of times, this quicksilver vein of wit is the birthright of the people of Red Clydeside”), Carol Craig strikes a more pessimistic but arguably more realistic note:

“The victims and perpetrators of violent crime are not flourishing, neither are the young people committing suicide, the drug addicts, the neglected and abused children, the alcoholics, the men in their fifties too incapacitated to work, the battered women, the drunks.”

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