Book Review

William Gallagher, Revolt on the Clyde, Lawrence & Wishart, 2017, £9781912064694, £13

The first edition of Willie Gallagher’s classic autobiography was published in 1936, two years before my own birth. However, at an early age I was made familiar with its history and contents, mainly because I was brought up in Townhead, only a few hundred yards from George Square, the setting for one of the book’s chapters – ‘The Battle of George Square’, an event often spoken about by my father, a postman, active in the postal union (the UPW as it then was) and like Gallagher, a communist. It was not until the fourth edition was published in 1978 that I read Gallagher’s own account for myself and the full breadth of his life and achievements became clear.

He states at the outset: ‘I do not intend to go into intimate details about my family and childhood’ but he gives us enough to appreciate the struggles of working class families of the age. Born in Paisley on Christmas Day 1881, one of seven children, life was made even harder by the death of his father when Willie was only seven years old, leaving his mother to bring up the family. His father, who was Irish, had an alcohol problem which probably explains Willie’s early connection with the temperance movement. A more startling fact is that his father was one of the last soldiers to be branded on his back with a ‘D’ since he had been a deserter (with good cause), but when he was quizzed by others as to what the ‘D’ stood for he would reply, in his Irish accent, ‘It’s for dacency’. It is a detail like this which makes this book both human and historic.

Gallagher covers a range of events few of us could ever experience: a shipwreck, a massive rent strike, the ‘Great’ War, imprisonment, blacklisting and meetings with, among others, John McLean, Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald. But it was perhaps his meeting with Lenin – he travelled to Moscow in July, 1920 as a stowaway and without a passport – which had the greatest impact on his political thinking. As he himself states, ‘… it completely altered my view on revolutionary politics’. It was following this meeting that he began to contest parliamentary elections, eventually winning in the mining constituency of West Fife. In this connection, I would make one small criticism of this latest edition, in that it does not, as the previous edition did, include Gallagher’s maiden speech delivered in the House of Commons in December 1935.

The account of his struggles should alert us to the fact that progress is not always made in a neat upward projection. Early in his account, he tells us of being part of a May Day march which numbered 100,000 while only four or five years later barely 100 could be mustered. Mick McGahey once told of a conversation he had in which Willie told him that ‘In socialism you’ve backed the right horse, we just don’t know how lang the race is’. My last memory of seeing Willie Gallagher is of him in his 80s, head bent forward, making his way across George Square, where more than 40 years earlier he had been batoned by the police, to join his comrades for a May Day march to Queen’s Park. He never gave up, nor should we in our attempt to build a better society. It is to be hoped that this fine new edition which has been enhanced by archive photographs and a scholarly introduction, will assist this cause.

Andrew Sanders a retired teacher and a lifelong socialist.