Radical socialist views grew amongst Scotland’s working class and found public expression during the human carnage that was the ‘Great War’, the First World War of 1914-1918.
Trade unions and individual socialists across Britain had hoped to avoid war by uniting with their German counterparts in a show of international solidarity. As the likelihood of war grew stronger, the call was for workers to refuse to kill other workers in an imperialist war fought in the interests of capitalism. However, once the conflict began, most of the leaders of labour in each country quickly dropped their opposition and backed the war effort. In September 1914, the Labour Party assured the Liberal Government that “the head office of the party [and] its entire machinery, are to be placed at the disposal of the Government in their recruiting campaign.”
Whipped-up into a jingoistic fervour by capitalist-owned newspapers, the working class of Britain were told they had to ‘do their duty’ by fighting for King and country when, in fact, the war was all about the imperial aspirations of the ruling class and the wealth they could accumulate through colonial expansion and exploitation. In a situation unchanged since medieval times, ordinary men were to fight and kill each other at the behest of their lords and masters. One unattributed comment perfectly summed-up the reality of the First World War when it described the close-quarter use of the bayonet fixed to a rifle in the following terms: “A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end.”
In Scotland, the period leading up to the outbreak of the First World War had seen the birth of the movement that was to become known as Red Clydeside. From around 1910 the social and political conditions affecting the working class in Glasgow and surrounding industrialised areas produced a popular consciousness and militancy that demanded change. Labour unrest, involving both men and women, increased dramatically leading to strike action and a surge in membership of organised trade unions.
What made the activism on Clydeside different to anything seen before was the leadership and determination of shop-stewards, like Willie Gallagher and Davie Kirkwood. Alongside activists in the broader political movement, such as John Maclean, members of what became known as the Clyde Workers Committee were seen to be ‘of and for the working class’, as opposed to many trade union leaders whom it was believed were remote from the people and ‘in the pockets of the bosses’.
In the first ten-years of the 20th Century more than half of all the world’s ships were built on the Clyde. Glasgow was the ‘engine room’ of the British Empire, creating vast wealth for shipyard owners and employers while those who created the wealth - the workers - were paid poverty wages and lived in damp, overcrowded and unsanitary housing.
In 1915, while many men were fighting amongst the carnage of the Western Front in Flanders, Glasgow’s capitalist landlords sensed the vulnerability of the women and children left at home. Despite the appalling condition of much of the housing, a massive hike in rents was announced. Tenants who could not afford the increased rent were thrown onto the street.
With the men away, it was women who were most affected by the landlords’ action, and it was women who led the fight-back. Prominent amongst those who took direct action and led a rent strike in 1915 was Mary Barbour, a member of the Kinning Park Co-operative Guild: sections of the press referred to the female protestors as “Mrs Barbour’s Army”. Supported by male activists, such as the socialist John Wheatley, the women physically blocked close mouths to prevent Sheriff Officers from gaining entry to carry out evictions (a tactic repeated almost 80 years later in the fight against the Poll Tax). Contemporary reports also suggest the women frequently humiliated Sheriff Officers by a process of engaging them in dialogue while others approached from behind and pulled down their trousers.
On November 17th 1915 Glasgow saw one of its largest demonstrations when women protesting against the rent hikes were joined by thousands of shipyard and engineering workers in a parade that marched through the city’s streets to the Sheriff Court. Newspaper reports at the time described the demonstration as being of ‘near riot proportions’.
Twelve-days later, as the rent strike spread to other cities across Britain, the Liberal Government in London hurriedly introduced legislation, the Rent Restriction Act, which pegged rents to pre-war levels.
In June 1916, Mary Barbour together with Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan, two other activists from the successful Glasgow rent strike, founded the Women’s Peace Crusade, which worked to bring an end to the horrors taking place on the battlefields of Flanders.
Four years later, in 1920, following the widening of suffrage contained in the 1918 Representation of the People Act – all men over 21 and women over 30 were given the vote - Mary Barbour became the first female councillor elected to Glasgow Town Council where she represented the Fairfield Ward, a shipbuilding area of Govan.