05 February, 2009
William Gallacher was a Scottish trade unionist, activist and communist. He was one of the leading figures of the Shop Stewards' Movement in wartime Glasgow (the 'Red Clydeside' period) and a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He served two terms as a Communist Member of Parliament.
Gallacher was born in Paisley, on 25 December 1881, the son of an Irish father and a Highland mother. His father died when he was seven, and one of his earliest ambitions was to earn enough that his mother would no longer have to work as a washerwoman. With his sisters, he finally achieved this aim at the age of 19, but his mother died a short time afterwards at the age of 54.
He began work at ten years old, and left school for good at twelve. After a spell as a delivery boy for a grocer — where he had his first dispute with an employer — he found work in a sanitary engineering workshop. He later had a spell as a steward on some transatlantic crossings, before beginning work at Albion Motor Works, Glasgow, in 1912. After spending 1913 on a visit to his sisters in Chicago he erected scaffolding in Belfast. Returning to Glasgow, he again found work at Albion Motor Works in 1914, just before war broke out.
The "weakness for alcohol" shown by his father and elder brother, and the suffering this caused his mother, led him to become involved with the Temperance movement in his mid-teens. However, on discovering that colleagues had canvassed support for a director of a Public House Trust in the 1906 General Election, Gallacher ended his association with the organised Temperance movement. He remained a lifelong teetotaller.
A subsequent period as a member of the Independent Labour Party ended quickly and he joined the Social Democratic Federation, which brought him into contact with John MacLean. In common with many socialists in west-central Scotland, Gallacher was greatly influenced by MacLean, though they were later to have an acrimonious falling out. The Paisley branch of the SDF introduced him to John Ross Campbell, who would also become a prominent British Communist and the editor of the Daily Worker from 1949 until 1959.
Gallacher was opposed to Britain becoming involved in World War I. He was president of the Clyde Workers' Committee, an organisation that had been formed to organise Clydeside workers and, in particular, to campaign against the Munitions Act, which forbade engineers from leaving the works where they were employed. David Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson met Gallacher and the Clyde Workers' Committee in Glasgow but they were unwilling to back down on the issue. In 1916 the Clyde Workers' Committee journal, The Worker, was prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act for an article criticising the war. Gallacher and John Muir, the editor were both found guilty and sent to prison. Gallacher for six months and Muir for a year.
After the war Gallacher was involved in the struggle for improving workers conditions. It was widely expected that the end of the war would be followed by widespread unemployment due to the re-entry of large numbers of demobilised soldiers and sailors into the labour force. Glasgow was expected to be particularly badly affected because a large proportion of its workforce was employed in war-related areas such as munitions and shipbuilding, which would suddenly contract with the end of the war. Gallacher and the Clyde Workers' Committee proposed a campaign to limit working-hours to 30 per week, which was altered to 40 per week after the Glasgow Trades Council became involved. In January 1919 the CWC and Trades Council launched a mass strike in support of the demand for a 40 hour week demand. During the course of the agitation, the police broke up mass rally of striking workers at George Square, Glasgow on 31 January 1919. The Coalition government greatly over-reacted to the strike, thinking that a Bolshevik insurrection was about to begin on Clydeside, and sent British Army troops and tanks onto the streets of Glasgow to control the situation. Whilst revolution was the furthest thing from the minds of the trade union leaders of the day, Gallacher later claimed that they should have marched to the barracks in the Maryhill district of the city and encouraged the Scottish troops there to leave them and join the workers against the government. The union leaders of the strike were arrested and charged with "instigating and inciting large crowds of persons to form part of a riotous mob". Gallacher was returned to jail, being sentenced to five months.
In 1920, Gallacher became a leading figure of the Communist Labour Party. He led the grouping into the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and attempted to be elected to the House of Commons at Dundee (1922 and 1923), West Fife (1929 and 1931) and Shipley (1930). He was eventually elected to represent West Fife in 1935.
In 1925 he was one of 12 members of the Communist Party convicted at the Old Bailey under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797, and one of the five defendants sentenced to 12 months imprisonment.
In 1936 Gallacher joined members of the Labour Party such as Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan in arguing for giving military help to the Spanish Popular Front government fighting against Franco's Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War.
Gallacher lost his West Fife seat to Labour at the 1950 General Election coming third behind the National Liberal candidate, but remained in politics and served as President of the CPGB from 1956 to 1963.
William Gallacher died on 12 August 1965. He remains to this day one of only three Communist Members of Parliament elected in the UK without the endorsement of the Labour Party. The author of several books, The Case for Communism, published 1949, his autobiography, The Chosen Few, published 1940, and The Tyrant's Might is Passing, published 1954. He also wrote a book about his experiences during the first world war, Revolt on the Clyde.