Glasgow in the Limelight
What and Who Made Glasgow Socialist?
One of the Pioneers
There was at one time a widely prevalent conception that Socialism was a creed held only by amiable idealists – ‘fools and poets,’ as it was breezily expressed. The opposite view is now epitomised in the epithet ‘Bolshevik,’ which aims at connoting an ogre thirsting for blood and loot, and ‘in need of a bath,’ as Lord Birkenhead in his more irresponsible days put it. Socialism undoubtedly has always drawn the poets, to its credit (and to theirs) be it said. But if Germany had its Freilligrath and Britain its Morris, before either of these poets were the ‘economists and calculators’ Rodbertus, the junker of Judgetnow; Lassalle, a wealthy and luxurious Jew, ‘the wundekind of philosophy’ (as Baron Hunboldt called him); Marx and Engels, the latter a prosperous and caustic cotton manufacturer and Marx certainly not a soft-hearted poet; and in England H.M.Hyndman, Oxford man, war correspondent, and latterly financier. Not much of the rapt, mooning dreamer about any of these latter, any more than there is today about ex-civil servants such as Sidney Webb and Philops Snowden, or bank inspectors like the late David Campbell, or shrewd manufacturers like Willie Leach of Bradford; France Littlewood of Huddersfield; and John Jackson, of Salford.
To have constructive imagination, foresight, ‘the presentiment of the eve,’ belongs essentially to the character of the best type of business man.
If the best type of business man in Glasgow does not turn to Socialism as a deliberate, declared movement, it is partly because churchianity is still very much of a manacle upon the mentality of the ‘respectable classes’ in Scotland as a whole. But if the very successful Glaswegian does not take up with Socialism in theory, he does so extensively in municipal practice. Glasgow has so long taken the lead in the Socialism of the Municipality that it was a standing marvel she did not until now strike out for the larger Collectivism of the State. It was because of the shrewdness of her business men that they adopted as much Socialism as suited them, while opposing the sort of Socialism that might not suit them. To municipalise gas, water, and tramways, to establish municipal lodging houses, crèches, washhouses, farms and a works department did not greatly disturb vested interests. The shareholders of the old tramways company did not depend on tramway dividends for a livelihodd and they were a specially grasping lot, and treated the public and their employees so badly that it was only human nature that there should be reprisals upon them. Then the corporation always owned the lines anyhow. So long as textiles, shipbuilding, or the metallurgical and chemical industries were not interfered with, the shrewd Glasgow business man, by reason of his very shrewdness was willing and even anxious to adopt Collectivism. Indeed if he could be sure that every other business could be socialised and his left alone, he might well be in favour of a process that would suit him so well as a consumer and a citizen. But just there comes the rub. He could not hope for anything of the sort, and his sympathy would naturally go out ot any form of threatened private enterprise from the consideration that his turn might come next. And so he has favoured the socialising of ‘monopolies,’ without stopping to define exactly what a monopoly is. Every business is a monopoly to those who are outside it.
But if this consideration operates with the employer, it need have no weight whatever with the man who is not an employer and who is not likely ever to be. The capitalist municipalisers builded better than they knew. They gave a succession of object lessons proving how immensely successful large-scale managerial direction in the market, such as a public service can always command.
They were so proud of these civic successes that they could not forbear stroking the t’s and dotting the I’s – in municipal reports and speeches, and the newspapers. Outsiders took up the cry. When in a Nineteenth Century article Mr John burns wished to state the case for London Collectivist Development as against company extortion and mismanagement, it was to the Collectivist triumphs of Glasgow that he turned for his examples of the better way. The thing, at last, was done. The wonder is that the intellectual and manual labour proletariat voted against their own obvious interests so long.
There was no escaping the moral, sooner or later, that if better and cheaper service, better treatment of employees, and impressive money surpluses for the common good could be secured from a few services, the process was capable of indefinite extension, the personnel of local government being increased to cope with the additional work, and the conduct of a business simply transferred from a board of more or less amateur directors to a not more amateur committee of the city council.
The largeness of Glasgow helped in many ways. For one thing, bigness makes for larger conceptions. Where large sums had to be spent, a certain amount of prospecting had to be done. Deputationists came back with enlarged ideas from what they saw being carried on elsewhere. Pro or con, they were obliged to think matters out, and ample revenues deprived cheeseparing of much of its motive. Local pressure and local criticism were much less felt than they would have been in a small town. A big job often had to go on, and heavy items of emergency expenditure had to be sanctioned by the convenor of a committee even if he was the only member who turned up at a meeting for the purpose. This on the administrative, public side.
But bigness helped the mental growth of the private citizen too. In a small community , with small businesses, Jack and his master are much more closely in touch than where businesses belong to limited companies and Jack has no one master in particular. In the small community Jack may start in business more readily than in a city where the shipyards, foundries, shops, offices are on the big scale, with plant, buildings, and raw material beyond his means. His position as ‘hand’ is stereotyped. With the hands he must stand as a matter of course.
Thus the evils attending the concentration of wealth work their own cure by causes inherent in the system.
Not that the inevitable functions inevitably and without conscious direction. The movement which has given Glasgow an overwhelming Parliamentary majority for Socialism dates back to the eighties, when the Socialist movement was represented by branches of the Socialist League and the Social-Democratic Federation. The Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society were to come later in the day. These first-named branches were primarily for the workman, though even by 1887 there was a professor of Glasgow University in the attenuated ranks of the Socialist League. The petty bourgeois also had their Single Tax movement, with which a Lord Provost was connected, their bête noir being, not the capitalist but the landlord. I know no other provincial city in Britain where Georgeism had any following or influence as a movement; but Glasgow in the early nineteen-oughts had enough Single Taxers to maintain a journal and an office staff, and sent out a brilliant speaker in the person of John Paul, a small man in stature only. It is hardly likely that these Individualists have had any lot or part in the return of the Labour men.
Of the men returned, I have met only two in my lecturing days. These are Mr George Hardie, the brother of Keir; and Mr Neil Maclean, who was the little secretary of the Clarion Scouts on at least two of my visits, twenty odd years ago.
The earliest and best exponent of Socialism in Glasgow was J.Bruce Glasier, who was called away two years too soon to witness this great triumph for the principles (if not for the methods) he used to advocate with so much eloquence, at the street coerners chiefly. A native of the isle of Arran, Glasier attended school in Ayr, it seems , though somehow, amid all he told me, he never told me that. He was fairly well schooled and had good taste anyhow. He had little of the Glasgow cadence in his speech, but had a trick of leaving out oa syllable in some words, such as ‘bar’n’ or ‘baron.’ When I first met Glasier in Glasgow he had turned aside from his proper calling of architectural draughtsman, and was drawing iron grates and things of the kind for an ironfounder at Alloa. He preferred the Alloa connection because it left him with more freedom in Glasgow, to which he went home on Saturdays. In those days he needed all his freedom. His ideas were ardently revolutionary, and when in one of his frequent rhapsodies he threw back his high head with its shock of fair hair, and his blue eyes lighted up with splendid visions, you felt that this was the constructive Communist incarnate. He used to chaff me over my pedestrian sanity, and say of each succeeding pamphlet or article I published that it would be ‘appreciated by the trades unionists .’ His first connection with politics had been as secretary of a branch of the Irish National League, and he knew the Irish as few Scotsmen or Englishmen do.
He married Katherine St. John Conway, a Girton girl who came to Manchester, where I already was, in 1893. For years he and Mrs Glasier moved around lecturing, lecturing, incessantly lecturing, putting up in workmen’s houses, and often not seeing each other for weeks on end. They were an absolutely disinterested, single-minded pair, caring nothing about money, and he at any rate very little about comfort, although both of them knew what pleasant surroundings were. Having great thoughts for his companions, he was apt to have spells of silence which passed for absent mindedness, combined latterly with a certain haughtiness which got him the reputation of being somewhat of a Captain Grand. Full of genuine fun and poetic rhodomontade, he nevertheless played at being a politician and had, indeed, some very just views, which he expounded in pointed and picturesque language.
But Glasier was a dreamer, a propagandist and inspirer. Scorning propitiatory arts and the soft answer, no constituency would return him to Parliament, though he offered himself, and though smaller men were accepted. He was in turn editor of the Labour Leader and the Socialist Review and easily the best editor the Leader ever had; but, knowing his own mind, he was a fighting editor, and while his readers resented his sharpness, they did not appreciate his qualities of style and judgement. He was not a ready writer, but when the thought beat itself out it was worth while. He wrote a few pamphlets. He made a few witty songs. But in proportion to one’s feeling of his powers, his literary achievements are trifling. What was it that checked him? I have often speculated. Was it the lethargy of the dreamer? Was there a lack of physical emberance? Or is it simply that he allowed himself to be spent upon meetings? I say spent, not wasted, for it was those meetings that made the movement, in which others are reaping what he sowed.
Glasier was an idealist; but his Idealism had suffered in Glasgow too. When I firest know him he was a ‘barricades man’ ; but on going to England he became very much of a politician in outlook, though never in personal diplomacy. His Idealism suffered in Glasgow by the depressing influence of his surroundings and the helplessness of his position as an employee in the iron-gate business. I who had always been on friendly and equalitarian terms with my bosses could not but be impressed by Glasier’s fear of ‘the governor.’ He once wrote in The Commonweal of a very bad half-hour he had when travelling one day with his Alloa employer. A soldier in the railway carriage (it must have been a third class one, and so the boss would have been no great nabob) hailed Glasier. ‘Aren’t you the block that spouts Socialism at Paisley Road Toll?’ Glasier confessed then in print and afterwards in private that he was greatly relieved when the journey came to an end.
He once remarked to me that an employer ‘always has the advantage of you in an argument, even if you are relatively right. He can put you down by virtue of his position.’ This he said without any bitterness, as if recognising a certain propriety in such domination.
This feeling of helplessness in the tremendous spider’s web of Glasgow’s commercial life showed itself in other ways. He would not spend money upon books, and used to refer to one who did so as ‘a collector.’ A delightfully kind and cultured journeyman trunkmaker, Dan MacCulloch, who liked to gather around him volumes of Carlyle, and to read you favourite passages from Rabelais, was the subject of a good deal of mild scoffing by Glasier, though Dan read the passages very well and had a pleasant voice, and sang very nicely. Glasier was nevertheless very ready to turn to one for a quotation or a verification. His last letter to me contained a request for the best version of a northern ballad which the wife of a Socialist doctor used to sing to us. He was then collecting an anthology of ‘Songs of Peace and War’ (some such title – I have not seen the book.)
It is but natural that a man who loves books, and uses books, and is himself something of an author, should want to be surrounded by books. There are plenty of bookmen in Glasgow; but that the influence of the city is not friendly to study is surely reflected in Glasier’s conception, that a man was ‘a collector’ because he like to gather books about him and was not happy without them. It was not as if Dan MacCulloch and I did not read our books.
It is possible to have lofty ideals as to mankind in the abstract and yet to be suspicious and chilly as regards individuals. It was some abatement of Glasier’s idealism – due, one feels sure, to his experience of Scotland’s largest city – that he was not trustful of the human unit.
In this connection a disagreeable incident occurred in my own house. He had come north on a holiday to the Highlands, and took in Aberdeen on the way that he might see and have a long talk with me. We sat till the summer dawn was well in, and then slipped quietly to bed, feeling a little dissipated and guilty. I had decided to take the morning off from office work that I might see him embarked on the railway journey to Buckie, from which he proposed to take the boat to Inverness, or something of the kind. He emerged from his room looking a little anxious, and explained that he feared he had lost his purse. He had, he said, provided himself with sovereigns and thought he had put the net purse in which they were contained under his pillow on going to bed. He turned over the pillows but could see no trace of it. I mildly wondering that he could not have left his purse, if he needs must carry a purse, in his pocket. He then said that he must have left it behind at home, and that he would telegraph to his people in Glasgow. I lent him a few pounds in notes, without any clear recollection now of whether he was to go on or to stay on till he had a replyl to his telegram.
We left the house, I feeling uncomfortable, and he doubtless a little dashed also, when my wife came running after us. He had pushed the purse so far under the pillow that it had fallen out at the end of the iron bed, and it was lying on the floor under the bed. He looked, naturally, greatly relieved and I shared his feeling so much that I forbore comment upon the incident. I am minded of it by the fact that the other day a directory tout from Glasgow came to the little town where I write, and hustled, apparently, a good deal of money out of women and shopgirls by calling in the absence of the menfolk and pretending that two years subscriptions were due. He got it from my assistant; and a letter to his employers has elicited an apology, but no return of the money.
Glasgow figures largely in the newspapers in the annals of crime, and it is impossible to live in such surroundings without suffering by it. One of his majesty’s judges commented the other day on the alliance between crime and civic neglect; this a propos a heavy calendar for the assizes at Leeds, one of the most sordid towns in Britain.
This is part of the Socialist case against Commercialism. How could Glasgow escape these consequences?
The life of a large city makes men play for safety, and idealism and playing for safety are sworn foes. Country caution is founded, not on suspicion but on mere slowness.
Still, there Glasier was, for years the greatest, most charismatic pioneer of Socialism in Glasgow – all the more admired because he was not in the least concerned about becoming an elected person or in any way getting kudos out of what was his religion and his heart’s desire. The title of his most typical lecture was ‘The Promise and Prophecy of Socialism.’
Not anything to do with wages or machinery of politics but a picture of a grand and gracious social system of beautiful buildings, beautiful streets and gardens, beauty in all the features and appurtences of life, and not least so in the men and women who were to enjoy and profit by the redemption of life from the multifarious blights of commercialism, moral and mental as well as physical.
The Glasgow with which Glasier was familiar was essentially a Tory Glasgow. Picking up a reference book of those days I find that of the nine seats which the political city then consisted, three only were held by the Liberals and six by Tories, mostly of a peculiarly arid type. The one exception was Sir J.Stirling Maxwell, who sat for the College division and who had some of the characteristics that make the man of learning, leisure and culture very attractive to those who have none of these advantages. In the electoral statistics of these days Labour is represented by Mr Robert Smillie, with 696 votes against Mr Alex Cross’s poll of 3108 in CAmlachie. Shaw Maxwell with 443 in Blackfriars and Frank Smith with 368 in the Tradeston Division, as against Cameron Corbett’s 3373 votes. In spite of the Irish, Glasgow was a tory Town.
I do not suppose the political revolution coincides with a mental revolution. Wullie Paterson and his wife have not become ‘intellectuals’ all at once. Mrs Burnett Smith (‘Annie Swan’) testified after her defeat that the Labour women who questioned her before voting against her were better informed than the women still attached to the old-fashioned parties. It was very pleasant to read that, especially as coming from one who had suffered by this spread of intelligence.
Doubtless some part of the changeover is due to the specially large number of unemployed in the Clyde valley. This would not be a satisfactory foundation for steadiness in the future. The unfortunate feature of the shipbuilding industry is that it has depended largely upon the creation of battleships. The good of the world requires that there should be less and less of this production of illth as Ruskin called it to distinguish it from wealth. It was satisfactory to see that Mr Hardie declared for houses rather than battleships. It will be magnificent if the Clyde men can stick to that and still find a living, even if there should be some privation before the transfer to peace production is effected. With so little demand for freights, and much shipping laid up, there is no very cheering prospect ahead.
Will the Clyde Valley men not only stick to their new politics but make sacrifices for the sake of their opinions? Lord Macleay alleges that shipbuilding costs on the Clye are too high, and although Glasgow ILP has taken up the challenge, one has seen no throroughly convincing reply to his statements. The disconcerting fact is that contracts have gone to the east-coast yards.
One has had, from Socialist sources, disquieting accounts of the extent to which the policy of ‘Ca’ canny’ prevails, and wages are of course high as compared with those of some other shipbuilding districts. Glasgow cannot carry the Social Revolution itself, and till the world is changed, the Clyde men must reckon with outside competition.
I do not labour the point, as I wish well to the lively men of the district, and hope for the best. But under capitalism, prevailing conditions must more or less be accepted. It may very well be that, with the building of battleships considerably reduced and orders going elsewhere, even house-building may not be needed in the Glasgow area. In all conscience, Glasgow is big enough already. We may have come to the turning point when the large centres must cease to grow, and the population fall back gradually upon the land, to find a living in new ways. The probability and desirability of this has long been foreseen.
Anyhow, some amendment may be necessary in the spirit shown in the following incident witnessed by a devoted Social-Democrat. In a suburban train one day he found himself in the same compartment with two shipyard hands, once evidently something of an oracle to the other. The oracle decleard: ‘Things’ll never be richt till we have an aicht oors day an’ a poun’ a day for it.’ The other one queried doubtfully, ‘Div ye think it would staun’ it, Jeck?’ Jeck stoutly assured the doubting Thomas that it would, and Thomas seemed to be satisfied that a condition so satisfactory was also possible.
The incident transpired some little time ago, when conditions were better. It is to be hoped that, pending other changes, the ideal will not be fixed so rigidly. In any case, the instransigent spirit over details under capitalism is no necessary part of the Labour ideal.
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