Friday, 5 July 2013

Protest and democracy

Rebels in Syria have taken up arms against an unelected head-of-state. The UK Government supports the rebels.

In Egypt, the military stepped-in and removed the democratically-elected President because much of the public felt he had not addressed the needs of the people. The UK Government says it acknowledges what has happened and indicates we should “move on”.

Imagine the reaction of the UK Government if people here rose up against our unelected head-of-state, the Queen, a woman who lives an opulent lifestyle while an increasing number her ‘subjects’ are plunged into poverty and deprivation. If that were to happen, it is safe to say the UK Government would not support the rebels.

Now, no-one in their right mind would attempt to equate the Queen and the House of Windsor with the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but, in reality, both enjoy positions of power and wealth with no democratic mandate. Apparently, though, in the eyes of the UK Government, people only have the right to rise-up against foreign unelected heads-of-state.

Imagine how the UK Government would react if the public here took over areas of our cities to protest that the democratically-elected government had not addressed the needs of the people. Of course, there is a distinctly Scottish element to such a proposition in a British context, given that in Scotland the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government is not democratically elected: the two parties finished third and fourth in terms of votes cast by Scots at the last Westminster Election. However, we’ll come to that Scottish element in a moment.

The UK Government has already shown it would use the police, in full riot gear if necessary, to remove protestors: and you can bet there would be no ministerial statement acknowledging the legitimate grievances of the people. Apparently, only those in foreign countries have legitimate rights to demand the removal of governments that have failed to address the public’s needs.

But what if protestors on British streets would not be beaten into submission? What if the people stood firm in their protest? What if the police could not contain the public demonstrations?

History has shown that UK Governments have not been slow to put military boots onto public streets if the ruling elite felt their vested power was threatened. Across the former Empire, British soldiers have been used to put-down uprisings by people who objected to being ruled by unelected and undemocratic governments imposed by the UK. But would a UK Government put British soldiers on the streets of UK towns and cities? And if they did, would the soldiers side with the people or the politicians?

There is a historical event that records just such an action and which raises the Scottish element mentioned before.

On January 29th 1919 a march through Glasgow by strikers culminated in a rally in George Square, from which a deputation of trade union leaders from the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) secured a meeting with the city’s Lord Provost. The shop-stewards sought the Provost’s support for the workers and asked that the Council instruct Glasgow’s employers to introduce a 40-hour working week. Apparently, the Lord Provost asked for time to consult with councillors and a further meeting on January 31st was agreed, at which the workers would be given the Council’s response.

January 31st, a Friday, saw around 60,000 demonstrators gather in George Square in support of the 40-hour strikers and to hear the Lord Provost’s response. However, while the CWC deputation was inside the City Chambers, ranks of police waded into the crowd in an unprovoked attack. Men, women and children were struck by batons, resulting in a violent response from the crowd, which included many ex-servicemen recently returned from fighting in the First World War. Contemporary newspaper reports recorded the crowd retaliated with fists, iron railings and broken bottles.

The CWC deputation heard the commotion and left the City Chambers, only for two of the leaders, Willie Gallacher and Davie Kirkwood, to be struck by the police and arrested. Others from the CWC leadership were also taken into custody, including Emanuel Shinwell, Harry Hopkins and George Ebury.

As pitched battles took place in and around George Square, the Chief Constable stood on the steps of the municipal building and attempted to read the Riot Act. However, workers continued to drive back police assaults. Eventually, peace was restored as protestors re-grouped and marched-off towards Glasgow Green where they planned to hold a rally.

Police later stated they had intervened at George Square because demonstrators had been stopping trams in adjacent streets, but workers believed the violent baton charges had been planned to disrupt the legitimate protest and undermine the strike action.

By the time the workers’ march reached Glasgow Green on January 31st ranks of police officers were already waiting and further fights broke out, which spread to other parts of the city and continued into the night.

Alarmed by events in Glasgow, and concerned they faced a ‘Red uprising’ similar to the revolution that had happened in Russia just two years before, the British Government ordered troops and tanks onto the streets of Scotland’s largest city. The troops, believed to be 10,000 in number, were drawn from English regiments, while Scottish soldiers stationed at Maryhill were locked in their barracks: the Government feared they would side with the Scottish workers.

Some years later, the leaders of the Clyde Workers Committee acknowledged that they had not fully understood the magnitude of what happened, and what potentially could have happened in Glasgow on January 31st 1919. One said, “In our heads we were leading a strike, but we should have been leading a revolution.” Willie Gallacher added, “The soldiers at Maryhill were confined to barracks and the barrack gates were kept tightly closed. If we had gone there, we could easily have persuaded the soldiers to come out and Glasgow would have been in our hands.”

The actual outcome was to be very different. By Monday, February 10, the Joint Strike Committee of the CWC called-off the strike. They had failed to achieve a 40-hour working week, but employers had agreed a reduction to 47-hours, ten less than was the case before the strike.

The events in Glasgow on January 31st became known as ‘Black Friday’ and forever established the name of the Red Clydesiders in the history of socialist struggle in Britain. However, for many, the day will be remembered for what could have been had the strike’s leaders taken a different course of action and sought support from the Scottish soldiers stationed at Maryhill barracks.

Thankfully, 94-years from ‘Black Friday’, Scots do not need to embark on violent struggle to end the undemocratic rule of our country by Tory-led Governments in London. We don’t need to rise-up like the Clydeside workers in 1919 or today’s Syrian rebels or the people of Egypt. We have no need to fear soldiers and tanks on the streets.

To take control of our own country and build a society that meets the needs of the people, our first step is to simply turn-up at the local Polling Station on September 18 2014 and vote ‘Yes’ to restore to Scotland the status of a normal, independent nation.

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