All is not well in Scotland but there is no call for violence – writes Duncan Harley
Tonight’s post referendum demonstrations in Glasgow’s George Square are so far peaceful and although noisy, seem well intentioned. However when the people are not happy with the governing classes, there may be trouble ahead.
Who remembers the Battle of George Square which took place on the 31st January 1919?
Picture the scene if you will.
The “War to end all wars” has recently ended and the troops have returned home to discover that all is not well in Scotland. There are few jobs for the returning heroes and working conditions are poor with low wages and a long working week.
Those of the workforce who had been in reserved occupations manufacturing the arms and tools for war are unhappy with the cuts in the standard working week due to the fact that there is no longer much demand for barbed wire, bullets and explosives. They view the returning heroes as job stealers and accuse them of depressing already low post war wages.
The Westminster government for its part looks to the Russian experience where of course the Bolshevist revolution has taken place leading to the early demise of the Russian Royal family, including Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, all put to death by firing squad.
On Friday 31st January 1919, after a general strike by 40,000 workers in the industrial heartland of Scotland, there was a mass rally in Glasgow’s George Square. Now, the aim of the rally was to hear the response of the UK government to the workers demands so the Lord Provost, Sir James Watson Stewart and the Trades Council President, Mannie Shinwell, duly entered the City Chambers to have a wee natter.
Sadly things got out of control. As they talked, the Glasgow police baton charged the assembled crowd. A magistrate tried to read the Riot Act but had the document taken from his hands and ripped up and things just got from bad to worse.
The failure of the police to control the riot prompted the Coalition Government under David Lloyd George of Turra Coo’ fame to react. After Scottish Secretary Robert Munro described the riot as a “Bolshevist uprising” troops armed with machine guns, tanks and a howitzer arrived to occupy Glasgow’s streets.
The howitzer was positioned on the City Chambers steps facing the crowd, the local cattle market was transformed into a tank depot, machine guns were posted on the top of the North British Hotel, the Glasgow Stock Exchange and the General Post Office Buildings.
As is usual in such situations no local troops were used. The Scot’s battalions who had recently returned from France were confined in Maryhill Barracks while seasoned troops from south of the border were instructed to open fire on the assembled crowd if required to do so.
Amazingly, there was no major bloodshed. The troops did not open fire although the tanks were deployed in nearby streets just in case things got out of hand. The government of the day had however decided that it would be a bad idea to provoke social change via bloodshed.
Mannie Shinwell and some other trade union activists were jailed for a bit and a 47 hour working week was agreed. Until the 1922 General Strike, things smouldered on of course, but that’s another story.