The task of rescuing the ilp in the inter-war years from the obscurity which shrouds unsuccessful political movements is already well under wayfootnote1; but it is in several ways unfortunate that The Clydesiders should be the first book to be published on the subject. Mr Middlemasfootnote2 has focussed his attention on the group of mps—John Wheatley, James Maxton, George Buchanan, Emmanuel Shinwell, etc—who were triumphantly returned to Parliament when the ilp captured Glasgow in 1922. A third of the book consists of a history of labour politics on the Clyde from the late 19th century until 1922. The rest traces the Clydesiders in Parliament through the next decade, the major theme being their take over of the ilp, and the events which led to the disaffiliation of that party from the Labour Party in 1932. But the ilp was more than the Clydesiders, even when they got control of it, and consequently the last two thirds of the book rambles uncomfortably between being a political biography of the Clydesiders, and a history of the wider movement, the ilp.
The most positive thing the Clydesiders inherited from their pre-1922 experiences was their concern with the housing problem; they brought the slums into Parliament. Middlemas devotes an interesting chapter, partly based on new documentary material, to Wheatley’s Housing Act, the most successful measure of the first Labour Government. But his analysis of the Clydeside experience before 1922, and especially during the crucial years of the First War, entirely overlooks the great negative heritage of the Clydesiders—their disassociation from the industrial side of the movement: specifically, the struggle of the engineering workers through their unofficial organization, the Clyde Workers’ Committee, against the ill-effects of the rationalization of workshop practice brought about by the need to increase the output of
It would be pedantic to list his factual mistakes: one example should suffice. The small strike of shipwrights in October 1915 was not crushed, as we are told, by the Union Officials, without Government intervention. The strike in question was in August-September, and it was crushed by the direct intervention of the Ministry of Munitions. The mistake is of importance, for it was the prosecution of the shipwrights by the Government—the first sizeable prosecution of strikers under the Munitions Act of July 1915—that caused the great movement of protest out of which the Clyde Workers’ Committee was born.
The errors of judgment are more alarming. Shinwell’s considerable achievements for the waterfront workers during the war are contrasted with ‘the agitation of a small number of extremists bent on anarchism or revolution’ (the Clyde Workers’ Committee’s leadership of the engineers) which, we are told, was largely responsible for the failure of the engineers to get as much out of their strong wartime bargaining position as did the dock workers. Middlemas shows not a glimmer of understanding that the problems facing the engineers as craft workers, above all the problem of ‘dilution’, were qualitatively different from anything that Shinwell had to cope with, or that the Clydeside engineers were largely responsible for inventing a quite new form of trade unionism—workshop organization.
Middlemas admits that Wheatley’s dubious intervention in the affairs of the Clyde Workers’ Committee was intended to further the Government’s aim of smashing the Committee; but justifies this on the grounds that Wheatley himself did more for the engineering workers than all the leaders of the Committee put together. The agreement on ‘dilution’ drafted by Wheatley for the factory at which Kirkwood was Convenor, is claimed, as ‘a masterly scheme which became the basis for all dilution agreements on the Clyde’. But Wheatley’s amateurish clauses were so inadequate to protect the engineering workers that the leading one was rejected even by the heavily compromised executive of the ase, and was never put into practice, being rapidly replaced by a far more subtle and relevant arrangement negotiated by leading members of the Clyde Workers’ Committee.
Middlemas’ ignorance of the industrial struggle on the Clyde would be excusable if his references to it were incidental to his theme. But it is not excusable for him to attempt to justify the actions of the ilp by selecting from the autobiographies those assertions that fit his (and their) case, and omitting either to mention the contradictory assertions of equally good (or bad) authorities or to check these ‘facts’ against the more objective evidence available.
With the exception of Shinwell and John Muir, who were to drift away from the Clyde Group during the 20’s, and Kirkwood, who was garrulous but ineffective, the ilpers were not directly involved in the industrial struggle, and Wheatley their leader was actively opposed to