City of Radicals Threatens to Redraw British Political Map Again

It’s almost a century since the British government sent tanks into Glasgow to quell what it thought was a brewing revolution.

The striking workers won improved hours and their leaders gained seats in the U.K. Parliament, helping position the Labour Party as the dominant force in Scotland’s largest city and later the country. Now, the Scottish National Party is on course to win more power than ever in the U.K. election on May 7 and redraw the political map again.

“It was a fundamental shift that brought Labour into being and now it’s one that could finish it,” said Willy Maley, a Glasgow University academic and writer of a play about his father leaving Glasgow to fight for the communists in the Spanish Civil War. “Labour soaked up all that radical energy and sat on it. It’s the chickens coming home to roost.”

The city of shipbuilding and heavy industry on the River Clyde is a reminder of how Scotland has nurtured political movements and figures that have shaped Britain. If the history of Glasgow in the 20th century was about the rise of Labour, the nationalists are trying to own the 21st.

Polling published in February by Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft shows the SNP leading Labour in six of Glasgow’s seven electoral districts, all of which were categorized as safe Labour seats until this year. A Populus survey the same month put the SNP ahead of Labour in Glasgow by 17 percentage points.

‘Comeback City’

Labour is up for the fight, said Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish arm of the party and a native of the city.

“For decades people have written the story of the demise of Labour in Glasgow,” Murphy, 47, who has been a member of the U.K. Parliament since former Prime Minister Tony Blair swept to power in 1997, said in an interview. “Glasgow is a comeback city and the Labour Party needs to do the same. It’s a city of so many Labour giants through history.”

The picture has been replicated across Scotland since the Sept. 18 referendum on independence, which was driven by the semi-autonomous Scottish government run by the SNP. The Labour Party opposed independence and promised new financial powers to Scotland, helping secure a 55 percent to 45 percent victory in a vote that had unnerved financial markets.

Glasgow rebelled. It voted in favor of breaking from the U.K., though not by enough to carry the whole country. Within a week, the SNP had more than doubled its membership, adding independence supporters such as Maley.

Labour Space

“My feeling is that the nationalists have occupied the space that the Labour movement has always occupied and Labour are struggling like mad to regain that territory,” Geoff Fagan, 67, the chief executive of a charity and a Labour voter, said in Glasgow Central Station. “Even though they lost the referendum, there’s a wave of ‘well, we nearly got there lads.’”

The SNP, now with 100,000 members compared with 26,000 on the day of the independence vote, convened in Glasgow last weekend with leader Nicola Sturgeon saying her party can win all of Scotland’s 59 districts in the election.

Such a strong showing likely would make the SNP the third-largest party in the U.K. Parliament after an election that looks all but guaranteed to result in a hung parliament and complicate the political landscape.

Radical Spirit

Fiona Hayes, social history curator for Glasgow’s museums, said the “Yes” campaign in Glasgow and the SNP’s rising influence is a reflection of a city with a history of “radicalism and spirit of free thinking” such as the Labour movement a century ago known as Red Clydeside.

“There feels like there’s a renewed interest in the political process, in people having a voice,” Hayes said. “What we are seeing is very strongly that sort of sea change, which in a way is another manifestation of this idea of shaping your own destiny.”

Across Glasgow, whose 600,000 population makes it Britain’s fourth-largest city, there’s a sense of past prosperity, industrial decline and the politics that defined it.

At 73, life expectancy for a man in the city is more than seven years lower than in neighboring Dunbartonshire. People classified as economically inactive make up as much as 37 percent of the population in areas of the city’s east end.

On the Clyde down from the bustling central shopping area, there’s a statue of communist Spanish Civil War leader Dolores Ibarruri, “La Pasionaria.” In the People’s Palace museum there are exhibits dedicated to demonstrations against nuclear weapons and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “poll tax,” along with the Red Clydeside movement.

Those protests on George Square eventually led to Independent Labour Party politicians gaining seats in the U.K. Parliament at the election in 1922. They took the night train on Nov. 22 that year from St. Enoch Station to take up their positions as lawmakers, according to Hayes, the historian.

“Huge crowds came to see them off in a scene of celebration and hope for the future,” she said.

On May 8, polls suggest the SNP will send its new lawmakers for a similarly victorious journey south.

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