ONE hundred years ago today, Glasgow’s George Square was the scene of one of the most serious civil disturbances ever witnessed in Britain.

A crowd of between 20,000 and 40,000, but possibly more, gathered on Friday, January 31, 1919, during a strike called in pursuit of a 40-hour week. The strikers - mostly engineering workers, called out by the Clyde Workers’ Committee – and their families wanted to hear from the Lord Provost if the government would respond to the strike leaders’ request and intervene in the dispute.

Dozens of police officers were on duty outside the City Chambers. The government, greatly worried by the Russian Revolution of 1917, feared that a Bolshevik uprising was about to happen in Scotland’s largest city.

At some point that Friday, a fight broke out between a striker and an off-duty soldier on a tram that was making its way along on a street bordering the square. The fight quickly spilled over into the street and others became involved, and this in turn sparked what became known as the Bloody Friday riot.

“What had begun as a fight between a striker and an off-duty soldier quickly became a full-blown battle between protestors and police, and soon spread to other parts of the city,” writes author and former SNP Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in his new book, Glasgow 1919: The Rise of Red Clydeside.

“Baton-wielding officers and strikers charged and counter-charged. Heads were broken and officers were chased by angry demonstrators. Lorries were commandeered and used as barricades. Bottles and paving stones were flung.”

No-one was killed but many people were injured. The government swiftly reacted by ordering fully-armed soldiers to be brought to Glasgow and billeted in the City Chambers. Other buildings around the square were used for military purposes. Soldiers were also posted at power stations, factories and other key locations.

A dozen strike leaders later stood trial at the High Court in Edinburgh on charges stemming from the riot. Among them were Manny Shinwell, David Kirkwood and Willie Gallacher. Shinwell and Gallacher were found guilty of incitement and two others were convicted of mobbing and rioting. The sentences, of three months and five months, were, writes Mr MacAskill, “remarkably light” in view of the violence and disorder that had taken place in George Square.

“It certainly wasn’t the City of Glasgow Police’s finest moment”, he said this week of Bloody Friday. “They did over-react but to be fair they did so under instruction. It was brutal. People with their backs to the police were bludgeoned.

“But it’s also fair to say that the police got the worst of it, in the running fights that took place up North Frederick Street and along Cathedral Street. The police were overwhelmed, which is why the Chief Constable and the Sheriff immediately read the Riot Act and requisitioned the troops that were on standby.”

Like other cities and towns across the UK, Glasgow had been struggling to find work for the huge numbers of demobbed soldiers who had returned home. Workers wanted a 40.-hour week, which would enable everyone to find a job.

But though the Red Flag was flown at George Square at one rally during the strike, there never was any intention in Glasgow to press for a revolution in this country.

“The Scottish Secretary of State’s suggestion of a Bolshevik Revolution was inaccurate,” says Mr MacAskill. “The strike was a reformist one, not a revolutionary one.

“It had come about to some extent by design but also by accident. Those who sought it were as surprised at its success as those who opposed it were astonished that it had happened. There was no strike fund, there were no preparations.

“Whether the strike would ever have been successful is hard to say. The damper was put on the city by the riot. Whether the municipal workers would have come out as well is unknown.

“The big worry for the authorities was Pinkston power station. Had that gone, the trams would not have run and people would have found it hard to get to work.

“That’s one of the what-ifs. Would the authorities have clamped down before the strike leaders could have widened the strike?”

Asked about the legacy of Red Clydeside, which began unofficially with a strike at the Singer’s plant in 1911, Mr MacAskill spoke of Glasgow’s long record of radicalism and dissent, which goes back to the time of the French Revolution in the 1780s.

“The city was deeply opposed to the Great War and the militancy shown during the Rent Strikes matched that of the 40-hour strike.

“The legacy was a landslide for the Independent Labour Party in Glasgow seats at in the 1922 general election, and the political arrival of Red Clydeside.”

Several ILP MPs went on to make a genuine impact on Parliament and on Scotland.

l Glasgow 1919: The Rise of Red Clydeside, Biteback Publishing, £20.