When the Clyde Ran Red - Interview with Maggie Craig
Aside from your fiction, you will be best known to our readers for your books on the men and women of the Jacobite rebellions. Why did you turn your attention to the socialist movement in the early 20th century?
It really did come in a flash of inspiration. I woke up early one day last summer and thought, 'I should write another non-fiction book. Jacobites apart, what else do I feel really passionate about?' The answer was immediate: Red Clydeside. I grew up in Clydebank and Glasgow and my father was very politically active. He was in turn a Labour Party councillor in Inverness and subsequently an election agent and Labour Party organizer in Carlisle and then Clydebank. He was passionate about politics and how it should be used to get rid of poverty and injustice and make life fairer for everyone. He told me all sorts of stories about the Red Clydesiders, James Maxton, Willie Gallacher, Davie Kirkwood and so on. I used a lot of my Dad's stories, for example about the General Strike of 1926, in my novels set in Glasgow in the first half of the 20th century. So it seemed logical to write the history that goes with them. These were stirring and passionate times.
The phrase "Red Clydeside" immediately brings up images of ship-building and heavy industry - but in the book, you start with industrial strife in Glasgow's genteel tea-rooms. When researching and writing When the Clyde Ran Red, were you surprised by some of the things you learned?
Yes. The biggest surprise for me was finding out how many of Glasgow's suffragettes were also committed socialists. Yet I shouldn't have been so surprised. Women like Helen Crawfurd, (sic) who went on to become one of several Scottish founders of the Communist Party of Great Britain were first politicised by seeing in what dire poverty so many of their fellow Glaswegians lived, and they wanted above all to make life better and improve the health of the women and children who so often bore the brunt of this.
I was also interested to discover how many middle-class Glaswegians of both sexes, who could have enjoyed a comfortable life, had social consciences which would not let them be. Someone said to me recently of James Maxton that 'he went to Hutchie, you know', as though this was a criticism. I think the opposite. He was a man of many talents, and he chose to put them all at the disposal of his fellow man and woman.
The book shows that the roots of the socialist movement go much further back than the industrial revolution - such as the work of the early reformer Thomas Muir. You even suggest that he influenced the writing of Robert Burns - can you tell us more about that?
This was another research discovery for me. Robert Burns wrote Scots Wha' Hae in the early 1790s, a time of revolutionary fervour throughout Europe. Thomas Muir of Huntershill in Bishopbriggs was a young advocate who acted on his Radical political views by helping found branches of the Friends of the People, a group which demanded reform of the corrupt political system of the time. Muir was arrested for his political activities and sentenced by the notorious Lord Braxfield to be transported to Botany Bay.
While Robert Burns really was passionate about Bruce and Wallace, he too was a Radical, although he had to be careful about what he said when he was working as an exciseman. It's believed that he started writing Scots Wha' Hae on the first day of Muir of Huntershill's trial, so the impassioned rejection of 'chains and slaverie' is a coded reference to his own times as well as those of the Middle Ages.
I found the stories of the Suffragette movement in Scotland in the 1910s very interesting - particularly the deliberate breaking of windows as crimes against property were treated more harshly than crimes against the person. Were the socialist men universal in their support of the Suffragettes?
No, they weren't. This might be something modern women might find a little hard to forgive until you remember that when the Suffragettes were campaigning for votes for women, by no means did all men have the vote, only about 75% of adult males, essentially only those who were householders and ratepayers. Many socialists, some female as well as male, felt that extending the suffrage to working-class men should come first. Other socialists feared that women would be inclined to vote more cautiously, conservative with a small c. It wasn't until the end of the First World War in 1918 that the vote was given to all men over 21 and all women over 30.
One of the key moments was the death of Keir Hardie in 1915, when crowds of thousands came to mourn and hear speeches from the likes of early Labour activist Bob Smillie. Can you imagine a similar scene today, for Tony Blair perhaps?
The only politician of the current crop - although he's a class and vintage act - for whom I can imagine any real grief being expressed is Tony Benn. Hopefully that won't be for a long time yet.
There's a wonderful quote towards the end of the book, when talking about the building of the Queen Mary in the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression:
"...so that those who are rich are curtailing expenditure. It has become fashionable to be economical? It used to be fashionable to be lavish. Every one is afraid to spend, rich and poor. Those who have wages are afraid to spend them. They are banking their money instead of spending it." (Davie Kirkwood MP).
Plus ça change?
I know! I couldn't believe when I found that quote. It resonates so strongly with what's going on at the moment, when people whose living standards don't seem to have been affected at all are going in for austerity chic. The Sunday Times currently is hilarious, advocating the knitting of your own goats and the baking of your own cupcakes (what a sacrifice) on one page and then recommending a t-shirt that costs £800 on the next. Plus ça change, indeed. Personally I think the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. We're all in this together? Aye, right.
Throughout the book there is a real sense of purpose and belief in the socialist movement of the early 20th century. Nowadays, it’s hard to find a left-wing politician even using the word “socialist”. What do you think the 21st century left learn from reading When the Clyde Ran Red?
A lot. I think they need to give themselves a good shake, show some leadership and contribute to the honest debate so many of us so clearly want to have as to where we go from here. I find the current round of anti-capitalist protests interesting. So many of these people seem to me to know what they're against but not what they're in favour of. Old-fashioned socialism may not be the answer - although I'm still proud to call myself an old socialist - but its basic principles remain as sound and as fair as ever they were.
If I may quote from my own book, the Red Clydesiders wanted 'to create a fair and just society, one in which the children of the poor had as much right as the children of the rich to good health, happiness, education, creative expression and opportunity.' As Davie Kirkwood said in 1924: 'When we seek bread and shelter for our people, we also demand roses.' I'm with him: fairness, truth and beauty, that's what I think we need to address the problems and injustices we face today. And I think the Labour Party, especially in Scotland, needs to rediscover its roots and rediscover its soul.
Maggie Craig, thank you.