Scotland’s Radical Tradition is richer and more diverse than ‘Red Clydeside’
Scottish Review, December 14th 2016
The 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution will be in 2017. The seizure of power by Lenin and Trotsky in October 1917 was one of the central events of the twentieth century, took Russia out of the imperial quagmire that was the First World War, and led to revolutionary uprisings across Europe – from Berlin and Bavaria to Budapest.
Scotland had its own mini-version of this in ‘Red Clydeside’ and the series of events between 1911-19 – which saw agitation, protest and revolutionary fervor in parts of industrial West Scotland and which culminated in the bitter battle of George Square in January 1919.
‘Red Clydeside’ is much cited and also much misunderstood. There have been many in-depth studies of the period by the likes of Iain McLean and others showing that this wasn’t a mass revolutionary moment, but one of radicalism in places and government and ruling class panic in light of the Bolshevik revolution.
One strand constantly downplayed subsequently is how ‘Red Clydeside’ has been used as a spectre by middle class and bourgeois opinion as a sort of mobilising myth to scare people about the power of the mob and frighten them into being part of anti-socialist opinion. Thus ‘Red Clydeside’ has down the years equally served the mythologies of parts of the left and the reactionary right.
‘Red Clydeside’ took place during an important period of upheaval and unrest in our country: one driven by huge industrial, economic and social change. But it has become part of our folklore nearly as much as those other potent powerful myths which saturate our society: kailyard Scotland and tartanry.
It plays into the workerist accounts of making universal what has always been a partial, urbanised and narrow part of the working class experience, focusing on episodic moments such as 1919, 1926 or even at a later date, Upper Clyde Shipbuilders – and citing figures such as John Mclean, Willie Gallagher and James Maxton – who were all undoubtedly exceptional figures.
While many have uncritically lauded it, some voices have raised their doubts. The cultural historian Colin McArthur called it ‘Stakhanovite political iconography’, academic Cairns Craig observed that it had become a ‘historic discourse’, while Eleanor Gordon and Esther Breitenbach noted it was ‘saturated with male bias’.
Scotland’s rich, diverse radical tradition which isn’t just about the West of Scotland industrial experience has tended to be crowded out by this, to our collective loss and a huge detriment to our politics. A whole host of radical voices and traditions thus get ignored or fail to get the place they deserve – from Robert Owen (born in Wales, but who made his reputation at New Lanark) to Patrick Geddes, Mary Brooksbank and R.D. Laing.
We could even think about reclaiming Adam Smith from his caricature and capture of the right, and celebrate some of the idiosyncratic voices of principle that sat in the old Tory Party. A good case here would be the Duchess of Atholl, Tory MP for Perth and Kinross, who was deselected by her local association for her anti-fascist views in 1938.
Our radical tradition beyond ‘Red Clydeside’ needs reclaiming. One is the example of Edwin Scrymgeour who defeated Winston Churchill for the parliamentary seat of Dundee in the 1922 election. It took Scrymgeour six attempts to defeat Churchill, including two failed by-election campaigns, beginning with a paltry 655 votes (4.1%) in 1908, rising to 32,578 in 1922: the first of four successive victories.
Often now dismissed as an eccentric, he was in fact leader of the Scottish Prohibition Party – an ILP style socialist party centred on Dundee and which won representation on the council in the first decade of the 20th century. Scrymgeour was of the Labour movement, but not of the Labour Party: supporting Labour in office in 1929, but demanding more of them, as his first election slogan made clear in 1908: ‘Vote for Scrymgeour and Death to the Drink – Have Done with Bogus Labour Representation and Go in for Socialism.’
Another part of the radical tradition is the Crofters’ Party, which was the parliamentary wing of the Highland Land League. It stood in the 1885 general election and won five parliamentary seats, contributing to the Crofters Act 1886 (which provided security of tenure for crofters) and establishment of the Crofters Commission. These were important gains after decades of depopulation and the legacy of the Highland Clearances, and paved the way for the late flowering of post-Gladstonian radical liberalism and the culture of Labour-Liberal co-operation in the early 20th century.
We cannot literally return to or re-event 19th century radicalism (and certainly there would be limited appeal for Prohibitionism today). But we can look for a wider set of radical traditions than continually citing ‘Red Clydeside’ as some kind of proof of our revolutionary vitality. This has continued to have impact to the present day, playing into a Glasgow exceptionalism and even chauvinism, one continually reinforced by lots of the media coverage of our country from the ‘Daily Record’ to how the BBC and STV portray our nation.
It was evident in some perspectives on the indyref which emphasised that the whole result would be decided by Glasgow, and even in some accounts, by Glasgow man, and his slow disillusionment with Labour. Apart from the counter-fact that due to male life expectancy Glasgow is one of the most predominantly female cities in the UK, we were back in the problem politics of the West of Scotland minority experience as writ large for Scotland as a whole.
There are numerous Scotlands out there and numerous Scottish radical and different political traditions which have tended to be marginalised, not understood, or seen as the influential forces they were.
The neglected traditions which produced the likes of Edwin Scrymgeour in Dundee and the Crofters’ Party in the Highlands were ones rooted in the local, in the articulation of community, and which drew on decentralist, ethical socialist values.
They were not drawn from the dominant West of Scotland experience or a workerist account, and critically for today, they drew on a rich mosaic of radical ideas, before the deadhand of Labour socialism and bureaucracy suffocated and silenced alternative left-wing currents.
This distinctive strand of Scotland’s radicals – which found voice in the Independent Labour Party before it was marginalised in Labour’s centralising tendencies, can also be seen in the housing association and conservation movements, in the renewal of interest in land reform, and in the emergence of the Green Party as a political and electoral force – and is one which is more than needed in the present.
One hundred years after Bolshevikism and after the death of Fidel Castro, this strand of the left doesn’t have any future, despite the odd Trotskyite causing ructions in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Scotland’s radical tradition is varied and filled with powerful voices, campaigners and thinkers, from some unique characters to people whose ideas have carried influence far and wide across the world. As we look for reference points for the challenges of the future, we would do worse than use some of our past radical forces to give us inspiration: distinctly Scottish and mixing the best of localism and globalism.
Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back just published by Freight Books, £9.99..