A short history of community action in Glasgow, from the Rent Strike of 1915 to Scottish independence

City boasts proud tradition of coming together to fight injustice

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 14 May 2021 22:58
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Protesters block van removing Muslim immigrants in Glasgow
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Police in Glasgow released two Indian men detained by immigration officials on Thursday after crowds of local residents swarmed a street in Pollokshields to block a Border Agency van from leaving, a near eight-hour standoff that saw one man bravely lie underneath the vehicle in question.

The demonstration was cheered on social media and saw the Scottish city once more hailed for its proud tradition of collective action for the greater good.

It was a similar community spirit that led Glaswegians to push back against monopolist private landlords in the Rent Strike of 1915.

Like many industrial centres, Glasgow had seen an influx of labour to its shipyards since the outbreak of the First World War, the city keeping the British Navy supplied with ships, submarines and munitions.

With many of its young men away in the trenches, unscrupulous tenement landlords wasted no time in exploiting the situation to charge extortionate rents, employing bailiffs to evict those who could not afford to pay and replacing them with more affluent tenants.

When a 25 per cent rent increase was announced across the board in February 1915, discontent gradually boiled over and a rent strike was commenced that September, led by the South Govan Housewives Housing Association, also known as “Mrs Barbour’s Army” after its formidable chairwoman, Mary Barbour.

She and her compatriots, including Mary Burns Laird, Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan, fought back against the bailiffs, pelting them with flour, tearing off their trousers and tossing them out with the rest of the rubbish as more than 25,000 families refused to pay their landlords.

Local Labour MP William Reid described their tactics in an interview with The Glasgow Evening Times: “A soldier’s wife in Parkhead had an eviction notice served on her, with a warning that if she failed to vacate her house by 12 noon on a certain day the Sheriff’s Officer would call to enforce it. The strike committee got busy.

“They instructed every mother in the district with a young child to be there for 11 am on D-Day, complete with perambulator. Long before noon the close and street were packed with prams, and every pram had at least one youngster in it. No raiding party could have got near the house.”

With the movement’s fame growing and threatening to set an example to other British cities, the government in Westminster panicked and sent its secretary of state for Scotland and its Lord Advocate to meet with the chair and secretary of the city’s Labour Party Housing Committee on 15 October to see what could be done. On 27 November, the first-ever Rent Restrictions Act was passed to keep dues at pre-war levels, a triumph for both the nation’s working class and for women’s suffrage.

After the Great War’s curtailment, the trade union-led Clyde Workers’ Committee called for a “40-hour strike” to campaign for fairer working conditions for labourers expected to work 54 hours per week and for jobs for veterans returning from the fields of France and Flanders.

Union leader Davie Kirkwood and his fellow bosses arrived at Glasgow City Chambers on Wednesday 29 January 1919 to present their case to the Lord Provost.

They were supported by thousands of workers, who would return to George Square two days later to hear his verdict, only for their demonstrations to be met with an aggressive police response and erupt into a riot in which 53 people were hurt.

While the events of “Bloody Friday” were lamentable, a compromise was subsequently reached and the working week cut down to 47 hours.

A much more recent example of collective strength in Glasgow was seen on 1 April 1989 when city residents took to the streets once more to fight Margaret Thatcher’s deeply loathed poll tax.

It was introduced a year earlier in Scotland than in England and Wales, leading to resentment about the country being treated as a “guinea pig” by the prime minister and prompting more than 50,000 demonstrators to bear down on the city centre carrying hostile placards.

While the equivalent mass action in London saw 300 arrests and 113 people injured, including police officers, the Glasgow protest passed off peacefully.

A million Scots would refuse to pay the tax, however, a humiliation that is credited with bringing about the Iron Lady’s downfall and that would subsequently see it dropped under her successor, John Major, in 1993.

Conga lines were seen in George Square and champagne corks popped when the news of Mrs Thatcher’s death was announced on 8 April 2013.

Members of the public dance in George Square, Glasgow, to mark the death of Baroness Thatcher on 8 April 2013

The city has, of course, played home to some of the great maverick individualists, from Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Sir Alex Ferguson to Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane and Lorraine Kelly.

Few match that description more precisely than the passers-by who helped thwart the attempted terror attack on Glasgow Airport on 30 June 2007 when Kafeel Ahmed and Bilal Abdulla crashed a Jeep loaded with gas canisters and Molotov cocktails into the doors of the airport’s crowded departure hall.

When their vehicle was stopped by a concrete bollard, they were detained by bystanders including taxi driver Alex McIlveen, off-duty policeman Stewart Ferguson and Stephen Clarkson, who had just dropped off his brother’s family for a holiday.

“Glasgow doesn’t accept this,” baggage handler John Smeaton observed so memorably at the time. “This is Glasgow; we’ll set about ye.”

His city, it should also be said, has spawned more than its fair share of quality indie bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian, Aztec Camera, Primal Scream and Franz Ferdinand.

Many of the above have been likewise unafraid to back a political cause, notably performing at the Night For Scotland concert in 2014 in support of Scottish independence from the UK, a matter likely to come to the fore once again in our post-Brexit era.

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