by Neil Davidson

Patriot Games: 1914-2014

November 11, 2014 | by Neil Davidson

August 1914, Vienna: Leon Trotsky watches the patriotic crowd fill the square in front of the War Ministry, the men clamouring to enlist. He wonders what motivates them. Surely not nationalism, since Austria-Hungary was ‘the very negation of a national idea’. The answer must lie in the type of existence from which even war makes a welcome interruption: ‘The alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise; the familiar and long-hated is overthrown, and the new and unusual reigns in its place. Changes still more incredible are in store for them in the future. For better or worse? For the better, of course – what can seem worse… than “normal” conditions?’

August 1914, Glasgow: William Gallagher observes similar scenes, in another great proletarian city, but on the other side in the conflict. Nevertheless, he comes to remarkably similar conclusions to those of Trotsky about ‘the terrible attraction a war can have’: ‘The wild excitement, the illusion of wonderful adventure and the actual break in the deadly monotony of working-class life! Thousands went flocking to the colours in the first days, not because of any “love of country”, not because of any high feelings of “patriotism”, but because of the new, strange and thrilling life that lay before them.’

The autobiographies from which these quotes are taken – My Life and Revolt on the Clyde – were both published in the 1930s. By that time it is unlikely that these two revolutionary opponents of the war would have found much else on which to agree. Trotsky, former Chair of the Petrograd Soviet and founder of the Red Army, had been expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and forced into his third exile from Russia by the Stalinist regime. Gallagher, former Chair of the Clyde Worker’s Committee and founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, was a leading figure in that loyally Stalinist organisation and for fifteen years the party’s only MP, representing the West Fife constituency. Yet, whatever their later divergences, both men wrote of the weeks immediately following the declaration of war with the same sense of bewilderment, the same reluctance to accept that nationalism was a factor behind mass enlistment.

It is certainly the case that other factors were involved. The desire to escape from the alienation and drudgery of everyday life highlighted by Trotsky and Gallagher was accompanied by more material factors. If you were unemployed, the armed forces provided a job and a wage; if you were unskilled, and consequently low-paid, they offered a higher wage. And, alongside these positive inducements, were the pressures of a propaganda campaign which insinuated, none too subtly, that any able-bodied man refusing to enlist – in Scotland invariably addressed as ‘laddie’ – was effeminate, cowardly, traitorous, or possibly all three.

Yet the influence of nationalism cannot be dismissed quite so easily. Trotsky was right to describe Austria-Hungary as the very negation of a national idea. Within the Hapsburg Empire the national idea was upheld, not by core states of the absolutist monarchy, but by the small nationalities like the Serbs and the Czechs who wished to break free from it. The same could not be said of Britain. William Murray, a Scottish volunteer and professional footballer later recalled, in testimony which directly contradicts Gallagher: ‘The night the war was declared… we played the final o’ a football tournament in Denbeath and we won the tournament. And the whole team joined the army the next day, the whole team. “Your King and Country Need You” and all this sort of stuff – patriotism, patriotism, it wisn’t the sense o’ excitement, it wis patriotism.’

* * *

Patriotism then, but for which country? Gallagher’s erstwhile comrade in the engineering union, David Kirkwood, suggests an answer in one of the many unintentionally revealing episodes which fill his memoir, My Life of Revolt. Although Kirkwood confesses to knowing little about the country outside of Glasgow, he nevertheless emotes at length on his love for Old Scotia, a love in terrible conflict with his opposition to the war. So he wrestles with his conscience – and wins: ‘I resolved that my skill as an engineer must be devoted to my country. I was too proud of the battles of the past to stand aside and see Scotland conquered. Only those who remember 1914 can understand the struggle of mind and the conflict of loyalties which so many of us experienced.’ The defence of the Scottish nation had become a justification for supporting the war in which the British imperial state was engaged. This was by no means an exceptional position among industrial militants. Another important figure in the Independent Labour Party, Emmanuel Shinwell, was horrified when it was later suggested that he might have been a conscientious objector, writing with typical pomposity in his misleadingly-titled book, Lead with the Left: ‘Nothing could be further from the truth. I was engaged on work of national importance on behalf of shipping’.  

Scotland contributed 320,589 recruits to the army during the fifteen-month period of voluntary enlistment – 27 per cent of the total and proportionally more than from any other part of the UK. Thirty thousand volunteers came from Glasgow alone in the first ten weeks. Not even the most fervent opponent of the war attempted to deny the genuine enthusiasm of the volunteers. One of them, Harry McShane, enlisted briefly in a failed attempt to foment dissension in the ranks before deserting. He later recalled in his autobiography, No Mean Fighter: ‘It might have been possible to get further with socialist propaganda in the conscripted army of 1916; but among the volunteers of 1914 it was impossible to persuade any of them that it was wrong.’ But even beyond the ranks of the enlisted, relatively few people were initially prepared to publicly oppose the war. The first peace demonstration to be held in Scotland, one week after hostilities began, only attracted 5,000 people to Glasgow Green.

One reason for this was that the socialist and trade union organisations which were nominally committed to opposing a war between the great powers had failed to do so. On a personal level, Kirkwood and Shinwell were simply enacting a peculiarly Scottish version of the process of capitulation by the left underway across Europe. During the first week of August, the vast majority of socialist parties in the combatant nations voted with little or no dissent for war credits, the British Labour Party doing so on 5 August. This was of course contrary to the various resolutions which the Socialist International had passed at Stuttgart (1907), Copenhagen (1910) and Basle (1912), which committed them not only to opposing any war, but also ‘to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule’. Nor was this all: on 24 August the TUC agreed to an industrial truce with the employers, and on 29 August the Labour Party agreed to a political truce with the Liberals and the Tories, both for ‘the duration of the war’. 

With the exception of a handful of revolutionaries, most of them members of the British Socialist Party like Gallagher and McShane, such opposition as there was tended to be pacifist in nature and obsessed with secondary issues such as the iniquity of secret treaties, rather than with the fundamental problem of a world divided into competing imperialisms in which territory could only be acquired by one empire at another’s expense. 

Resistance to the war began to grow as the sheer scale of the carnage became apparent and losses began to impact on the lives of the relatives and friends of those dying at the front. Some of the struggles which began to emerge in 1915 were inevitably anti-war, above all against conscription, but others were more responses to its effects at home, notably the strikes by workers against dilution in the engineering plants and by tenants against increased rents. Many of the people involved in the latter two campaigns did oppose the war, but not all. The famous slogan of the rent strikes, ‘my father is fighting the Hun in France, we are fighting the Hun at home’, is certainly against the unfairness of unscrupulous landlords exploiting wartime conditions; it is not necessarily against the war itself–indeed, many of the tenants asserted their own patriotism against the landlords’ supposed lack of it. It is possible that the different struggles might have merged with the explicitly anti-war movement, but the rent strikers scored a historic victory and the others went down to defeat before this could take place. Fortunately for the British government it had defeated the campaigns against dilution and conscription by spring 1916, before the Battle of the Somme began in July and casualties began to exceed even those of the first months of the war.

By the end of the war, after nearly three years of conscription, Scotland had lost 148,000 men – 26.4 percent of those mobilised, 10.9 per cent of males of fighting age and 3.1 per cent of the population as a whole. The comparable figures for Britain and Ireland were 11.8 per cent, 6.3 per cent and 1.6 per cent. In his book, The Flowers of the Forest, Trevor Royle describes these losses as ‘modest’ compared with the millions lost by Germany and Russia. This is true in absolute terms; but relative to the size of its population, Scottish losses were greater than those of every other combatant nation except Serbia and Turkey. The effects, however, were not comparable. By the Armistice, Serbia had finally escaped from the disintegrating prison-house of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to join the new state of Yugoslavia, while Turkey was similarly emerging from an Ottoman Empire in the process of dismemberment at the hands of the victorious allies; in both cases nationalist revolutions hastened the outcome. 

* * *

Scotland was not, of course, untouched by the prospect of revolution. Indeed, 1919 has some claim, along with 1972, to be the year of the highest levels of industrial conflict in twentieth-century British history. Glasgow was in the vanguard of British cities, exceeded in the numbers involved and the level of their militancy only by Belfast. But even at the height of the post-war revolutionary wave in Scotland, these struggles were never influenced by Scottish nationalism. Nor was there even serious support for a strategy of independence based on socialist rather than nationalist grounds, as the negative response to John Maclean’s arguments illustrates.

Maclean remained much admired among the Scottish working class until his death in 1923, as shown by the thousands who lined the streets for his funeral procession; but they did so in recognition of his achievement as an educator and his heroism as a war-resister, not in support of his position on Scottish independence. The Scottish Worker’s Republican Party (SWRP), which he formed in the last year of his life, numbered its membership in dozens and its electoral support in hundreds. Shortly before Maclean’s death in November 1923 the SWRP stood for 12 seats in the local council elections on a platform that included proclaiming a Scottish worker’s republic in the event of a new war. It polled 2.5 percent of the vote. Yet a ‘Hands up for Home Rule’ march and rally in Glasgow during August the same year involved an estimated 30,000 people. If Scottish national consciousness took political form at all it was in support of what we now call devolution, not the establishment of a Scottish nation tate. What this suggests is the strength of Britishness at this point in Scottish history, both in the imperialist delirium of August 1914 and the revolutionary fervour of January 1919.

It would be wrong, however, to imagine that the ideological effects of imperial Britishness were simply swept aside in the radicalisation which accompanied the end of the war. As Satnam Virdee has demonstrated in his book, Class, Nation and the Racialized Outsider, by the second half of the nineteenth century Britishness and Scottishness were being systematically defined for the first time in ways which excluded not only non-whites, but also people of Jewish and–numerically of far greater importance – Catholic Irish origin. The racism of Empire and the early intimations of the racism associated with immigration were always contested, of course, but their influence should not be underestimated, even in moments of immense left-wing upheaval.

The immediate post-war strike wave is a case in point. The events in George Square on 31 January 1919, ‘Bloody Friday’, saw the climax of the struggle for the 40-hour week. A demonstration of 60,000 strikers and their supporters was attacked by mounted police, with Gallagher, Kirkwood and Shinwell among those arrested. This is well known. What is perhaps less well known is that a week earlier in Glasgow, white sailors initiated a racist riot against thirty black sailors in the merchant marine hiring yard after which – and how contemporary this sounds! – the victims of the assault were then arrested. Why, the argument went, should blacks and Chinese have jobs when white Britons, white Scots, were unemployed? What is startling is that, in the week after the Glasgow race riot, several meetings of sailors were addressed by Shinwell and – on the day before Bloody Friday – by Gallagher, who supported their attempt to exclude black and Chinese sailors and encouraged them to do so as part of the 40-hours strike. No doubt both men later regretted the episode, which may explain its absence from the many volumes of autobiography they later produced; but that they could leave this kind of racism unchallenged, that they could actually endorse it, shows the extent to which its poison had infected labour activists who – in Gallagher’s case at least – were among the leading socialist revolutionaries of their generation. Similar racist riots also occurred in Barry, Cardiff, Hull, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Newport: Glasgow was therefore at one with the rest of Britain in both the best and the worst aspects of working-class aspiration.

Britishness in Scotland originally emerged from the field of tension between two opposing sets of values, both embedded in their own institutional structures: the imperialist racism of the British state and the social solidarity of the British labour movement. The conflict between these world views was expressed, not only in the programmes of rival political parties, but in contradictions within the consciousness of the working-class majority of the population. The ascendancy of one set of values enabled the mass enlistment of August 1914, the other, the mass strikes of January 1919; but neither could ever be permanently dominant while British capitalism survived. In the absence of the socialist revolution, which activists like Gallagher, Maclean and McShane hoped would ultimately render all national identities irrelevant, it appeared that the tension could never be resolved and British identity would subsist along with the British state itself. What the opponents of the Great War could not have foreseen would be that capitalism itself would eventually undermine Britishness.

* * *

The end of Empire, post-1945, saw the removal of one of the two main pillars of British identity in Scotland. Nevertheless, the identity survived and became, if anything, even more entrenched during the same period, largely because of the two great achievements of British imperialism’s main internal opponent, the British labour movement. One was the institutional embodiment, however imperfectly and inadequately, of labour movement values in the Welfare State, above all in the NHS. The other was through the ability of the trade unions, organised at a UK level, to defend working class living standards and workplace conditions. Trade union membership reached over eight million in 1919 at the height of the radicalism which followed the First World War, and over thirteen million in 1979 following the insurgencies of that decade. This peak was followed by the neoliberal onslaught which has succeeded in reducing it to around 6.5 million – by no means a negligible figure, but one which is, in terms of density, heavily concentrated in the public sector and among older workers. The implications for the continued existence of British identity in Scotland are significant. Younger workers are the least likely to be unionised, which does not mean that they would not join if given the opportunity, or that they are not engaged in other campaigns for social justice, simply that ‘the British labour movement’ means little or nothing to them as a reality. But equally, those areas which are most likely to be unionised, in the public sector, have also seen a diminution of UK-wide connections, as the trade unions concerned – PCS in the Scottish Government, Unison in the NHS – already have devolved structures and Scottish-level bargaining units. These are tendencies within the trade union movement, but the direction of travel is unmistakeable, and it is away from a sense of Britishness.

That leaves the Welfare State. And it is in this context that Britishness is being most actively, if unintentionally, undermined. Ironically, the people most responsible are not Scottish Nationalists; quite the contrary, they are the people most committed to maintaining the British state: the adherents of that peculiarly Anglo axon mix of neoconservatism and neoliberalism – wars abroad, privatisation at home – which has characterised, in different ways, all British governments, including Labour governments, since 1979. There is a sense therefore in which the independence referendum was about the outcome most likely to retain in Scotland those institutions which have protected working-class people from capitalism’s otherwise unconstrained destructiveness. Nearly half of Scottish voters evidently believe this was best achieved leaving the British state. And here lies another irony, for what they were asserting was a belief that, under current conditions, the only way these remaining positive aspects of Britishness could be preserved was in an independent Scotland. The paradox is nicely expressed by A. R. Firth in his poem, ‘I Shall Vote Yes’:

I shall vote yes because, despite what

some people say,

I am, and always will be British, thank

God,

And so it is my duty.

* * *

August eptember 2014, Glasgow: In the final weeks of the referendum campaign crowds of Yes supporters began to occupy George Square, in increasing numbers and with increasing regularity as 18 September drew nigh. In recent years the Square has simply become another space of consumption, a money-making opportunity for Glasgow Council. But by early September the gatherings in George Square had acquired a carnivalesque atmosphere, quite different in tone and atmosphere from the consumerist hysteria of the pre-Christmas period, but different also from the organised formality of post-march or demonstration rallies which they otherwise resembled. In these weeks George Square was temporarily restored to what it had been one hundred years ago: a space in which popular enthusiasm for imperialist war or socialist revolution could be publicly enacted. But which of these enthusiasms did the contemporary gatherings most resemble: 1914 or 1919? Nationalism or internationalism? 

Both attitudes were certainly on display in George Square in the closing weeks of the independence referendum campaign, but by no means associated with the sides one might have expected. When No campaigners invoked ‘internationalism’ against the supposed ‘narrow nationalism’ or ‘separatism’ of the Yes campaign, they generally meant that the issues facing ‘hard working families’ (but never, God forbid, working class families) in Aberdeen or Glasgow were the same as the issues facing them in Manchester or Cardiff. Indeed they are – and I for one certainly agree that joint action between trade unionists in Glasgow and Manchester is to be encouraged; but that is not what was usually meant by ‘solidarity’ when used by supporters of the No campaign. In the mouths of Brown and Darling it meant the continuation of a British state in which the Labour Party could once again form a majority government. But the desire to defend the British state can be just as much – or as little – a nationalist demand as the desire to establish a Scottish one: in both cases it depends on the arguments being deployed to defend the one or establish the other. Motivations are always mixed, of course, and there is no way of measuring degrees of national consciousness; all one can do is assess the reasons people give for their actions.

In that respect the Yes campaign was inspired, at least in part, by a desire to express solidarity, not only with Manchester or Cardiff, but also with Baghdad and Basra and with all those other places which have suffered at the hands of the state the Unionists are so anxious to maintain. And this brings us back again to the First World War. For one of the last territories to be added to the British Empire, at the very end of the conflict, was Iraq. A hundred years on and the Iraqis are still dying as a result of the criminal folly of our political class. The Empire which the volunteers of August rushed to defend may now be over, but the imperial delusions of our ruling class live on, artificially sustained by a succession of White House incumbents, who find the pathetic desire of Westminster politicians for Britain to ‘punch above its weight’ in international affairs to be useful in supporting US Grand Strategy in the Middle East. And, as if to confirm what the real concerns of the No campaign were, within days of the referendum result being declared, a relieved British Parliament was able to decide, by an overwhelmingly majority, to renew bombing operations in Iraq, in solidarity with the US and the Wahhabist rulers of Saudi Arabia.

Douglas Dunn once wrote, in his poem ‘Dressed to Kill’:

All those wars, before and since…

Rinse hands, and rinse, re-rinse, re-rinse,

But still the blood just won’t wash off

As if the world can’t get enough. No, by

Jingo, no, I’m not

A patriotic British Scot…

Given the disproportionate, not to say pre-eminent role which the Scots played in the British Empire, seeking to wash the blood off our hands, to refuse the role of ‘patriotic British Scot’, is not to display a narrow separatism, but a genuine internationalism. At the very least, a Yes vote would have made the rest of the UK’s ability to pursue its murderous activities more difficult. In that sense, the Yes supporters who filled George Square embodied the spirit of 1919, not 1914. They gathered too early for the centenary of Bloody Friday, but who knows what may have happened by January 2019 comes around? Perhaps we shall have had to return to George Square before then.

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