OVER the past three weeks I have tried to give a potted history of Red Clydeside, about which there have been several books and documentaries. There is precious little in contemporary Scotland in the way of what you might call cultural history on the subject, which is a mystery since that era has had a huge impact on Scottish culture and politics.

In week one, about the rent strikes of 1915, I mentioned the superb Elizabeth Gordon Quinn by Chris Hannan, and it is another play that has directly inspired today’s column.

I first saw Little Red Hen by John McGrath back in 1975, and I was mesmerised by the two women, Young and Old Hen, arguing about Scotland’s political history. In later years I was lucky enough to meet McGrath and David and Elizabeth MacLennan, who co-founded the 7:84 theatre company that produced Hen and so much else besides, including the great The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

Cheviot was magnificently brought back to life last year by Dundee Rep, so why haven’t we seen multiple revivals of Little Red Hen? Is it because McGrath’s take on Scottish politics from a socialist/nationalist point of view is too challenging for the modern generation?

I don’t think so, indeed I think it would be a fascinating lesson both about Scottish political history and Scottish theatrical history – and Dave Anderson, who wrote most of the tunes, is thankfully still with us and could surely modernise them, though no-one should tamper with the play’s brilliant opening sequence featuring the cast all playing Harry Lauder.

Then Young Hen speaks directly to the audience: “Keep right on to the end of the road, eh? Aye, that’s just what we’re going to do, OK, keep right on to the end of the road until our own lovely Scotland’s a nation once again: that’s what I’m doing – and anybody who says any different should be dumped south of the border draped in a Union Jack, so they should.”

Then the activist of yesteryear, Old Hen, lets rip: ‘There’s two Scotlands, hen ... there’s the Scotland that’s you and me, that’s been robbed and cheated and worked to the bone when it suits or thrown on the queue at the burroo when it disnae suit – that’s one Scotland; and there’s a Scotland that owns factories like yours and sweat shops like I worked in, and grouse moors and mountains and islands and stocks and shares, and says what goes – and there’s only one of them can be free at a time. And it’ll no be the workers.”

She had seen it all before in the 1920s: “The industrial proletariat of Scotland was on the march – and by God they had some great men to lead them – and they had the right ideas – Jimmy Maxton, John MacLean, John Wheatley, Willie Gallacher, Davie Kirkwood, Manny Shinwell – well – could they speak? You had to hear it to believe it – and you did go to hear it – thousands went to hear it: and the word they were speakin’ was socialism. Not your wittery-wattery buggered-up capitalism with knobs on you get now – the real thing.”

See what I mean? We just don’t get political theatre of that quality in Scotland nowadays, more’s the pity.

We’ve looked at John MacLean already and Willie Gallacher is going to get a whole column to himself over the summer, but the four other men mentioned by Old Hen – Maxton, Wheatley, Kirkwood and Shinwell – are central to this final part of our series on Red Clydeside because that quartet above all led the whole upheaval when it impacted on UK politics. They did it by getting elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom in 1922.

That they did so was down to a combination of circumstances but mainly because they were all remarkable men who took on the British state which, not for the first or last time, set out to repress a people only to inspire them to greater things.

The Battle of George Square, or Black or Bloody Friday, on Friday, January 31, 1919, scared the British establishment witless, for only lack of wits can explain what happened next. Rather than negotiate with the workers’ leaders like Kirkwood, Shinwell, and Gallacher, the whole edifice of the state was thrown at them. In a clearly political move that showed the much avowed “independence” of the Crown Office to be a sham, they were charged with “instigating and inciting large crowds of persons to form part of a riotous mob.”

Gallacher and Shinwell were found guilty and imprisoned, serving five months in Edinburgh’s Calton Jail, and Kirkwood only got off because a newspaper photograph showed that he had been struck by a police baton and was in no fit state to cause a riot. All three were immediately hailed as martyrs for the working class.

Shinwell was born to a Polish Jewish family in London in 1884, but moved with his family to Glasgow as a young boy. Starting life as a clothing machinist, he eventually became a national organiser for the British Seafarers Union, the post he held at the time of his imprisonment.

Gallacher had chaired the Clyde Workers Committee but his experience in jail saw him lurch further left, and he was set to join the new Communist Party. The other Clydesiders were almost all in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which pre-dated and was affiliated to the main Labour Party.

A man who would later be chairman of the ILP, James Maxton was a teacher born in Pollokshaws, Glasgow, in 1885, who had come under the influence of fellow teacher John Maclean while studying at Glasgow University, where he became a keen student of Marxism. He was by all accounts a superb orator and cut a striking figure on many a speaking platform with his thin face and long black hair. His arrest and jailing for sedition in 1916 had already made him a major figure for the Clydeside workers and his reputation was such that in 1918 he was elected to the national council of the Labour Party. He was also president of the Scottish Home Rule Association for a time.

Davie Kirkwood, from Glasgow’s east end, went from an apprentice engineer to convener of the shop stewards at the giant Beardmore company’s Parkhead Forge. He joined the ILP in 1914 and as we saw last week, he was deported for his activities in organising a strike in 1916 and had to live in Edinburgh for a year.

John Wheatley was an Irish-born ex-miner who became the publisher of many of the leftist pamphlets, leaflets and books which educated the working class in west central Scotland. A devout Roman Catholic, he was a largely self-taught intellectual and was recognised as the “brains” of the ILP. He also kept the ILP shop running while his colleagues went to jail and became a respected Glasgow city councillor.

The 1918 General Election came too soon for the ILP, but four years later Maxton, Shinwell, Kirkwood and Wheatley enjoyed great personal standing on Clydeside, and other events had helped their cause considerably. The return of soldiers from the slaughterhouse trenches brought vast dislike for the ruling class into Glasgow and most of Scotland. The Education Act of 1918 meant Catholics now had access to state-paid schooling as of right, and Wheatley and others began the process of converting the Catholic community’s traditional adherence to the Liberal Party into a long-running association with Labour.

Most important of all, the Representation of the People Act of 1918 meant that all men over 21 and all women over 30 now had the vote.

It was still a huge task for the ILP – not helped by a break with the main Labour Party over such items as organisation and membership – to win any seats in 1922, but the British state’s crackdown on its leadership backfired.

With the four main leaders producing oratory of the finest, the ILP with trade union help campaigned hard in Glasgow in particular. Lesser speakers such as George Buchanan were very effective constituency organisers, while Tom Johnston was showing the political acumen that would one day make him Secretary of State for Scotland – he, too, will be given his own column in this series. They all fought on the socialist issues of the day – poverty, unemployment, equality and peace – while the ILP was committed to home rule.

The rent strike of 1915, the Battle of George Square in 1919 and the fact that ILP leaders had gone to jail as martyrs were all factors in a great upheaval of working-class activity, and though it came as a shock to many down south, no-one in Scotland was greatly surprised when the ILP steamrollered many of its opponents.

In Glasgow alone, from nil the ILP won ten of the city’s 15 parliamentary constituencies. Wheatley took Glasgow Shettleston and Maxton won Bridgeton; John Smith Clarke, the former lion tamer turned arts expert, won Glasgow Maryhill; and Campbell Stephen, a former United Free Church minister, won Glasgow Camlachie. Keir Hardie’s brother George won Glasgow Springburn, while Tom Henderson became the first-ever Labour Cooperative member in Scotland in Glasgow Tradeston.

It wasn’t just Glasgow: over in Linlithgow Manny Shinwell was elected, while Kirkwood won Dumbarton Burghs, Tom Johnston won Stirlingshire West and James Welsh won Coatbridge.

It was simply a fabulous victory, the only subsequent equivalent being the SNP taking 56 out of 59 seats in 2015. With Maxton, Shinwell, Kirkwood, Wheatley and Buchanan forming a formidable leadership team, the ILP decided to go en masse from Glasgow Central station to London. They were given an almighty send-off, with some people putting the crowds in Glasgow at upwards of 200,000 – and yes, they did sing The Red Flag.

Their impact on Westminster was immediate. The Red Clydesiders were the Mhairi Blacks of their day – unafraid of tradition and determined to make their points in their own language, so much so that the Labour Party was rather embarrassed by its affiliate members at times.

When Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour government, John Wheatley was made minister for health and he brought in the Housing Act that saw more than 500,000 “Wheatley houses” built by local authorities to alleviate the housing shortage. It was probably the greatest single achievement by a Red Clydesider, and in truth the various machinations within Labour over the next decade left the ILP a spent force before it disaffiliated in 1932.

When did Red Clydeside end? When Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party ignored the ILP and its Red Clydesiders? When Weatley lost his influence and died in 1930 at the age of 61? When Kirkwood became Baron Kirkwood of Bearsden and joined the ruling elite?

Jimmy Maxton stayed a radical and orator to the end and Winston Churchill, no less, hailed him as a great parliamentarian. But that also showed that the ILP was no longer a threat to the establishment, as it most certainly had been in the years after the First World War.

I would contend, however, that the historical legacy of the quartet and Gallacher and MacLean and the other Red Clydesiders is still with us to this day, in that many people in many parts of Scotland retain the impetus to be political and question the status quo, as was shown so spectacularly in the 2014 referendum. And I have absolutely no doubt which way the Red Clydesiders would have voted – Yes, to a man and woman.