Four-and-Twenty Nations? Writing about British participation in the Spanish Civil War

Four-and-Twenty Nations? Writing about British participation in the Spanish Civil War

Fraser Raeburn (University of Edinburgh) asks whether a four nations approach can enhance our understanding of ‘British’ participation in a conflict as transnational as the Spanish Civil War.

Unlike the vast majority of contributors to this blog, before writing this piece I needed to surreptitiously check what the working definition of ‘Four Nations History’ actually was. By training and inclination my roots lie in European history, and I have been inflicted upon the British history establishment thanks to happy accident as much as anything else. My topic, Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9, in many ways bridges (or tunnels) the divide between Britain and the continent. My intended approach to history can probably be best characterised as 20-something nations history rather than Four Nations history.

On reflection, however, the relatively broad historiographical space I work in is shaped considerably by the Four Nations approach, or rather the lack thereof. For one thing, no scholarly account of the Scottish members of the International Brigades has yet been attempted, despite multiple books and articles written on the Irish and Welsh contingents respectively.[1] This is despite Scots outnumbering the Irish and Welsh volunteers by a large margin – Scots were by far the most numerous regional grouping amongst the British volunteers, rivaled only by those from London. They made up approximately a quarter of the 2,300 Britons in the International Brigades, despite making up less then 10% of the British population.

The lack of a particularly Scottish account would matter less if it were counterbalanced by nuanced approaches in the general literature. However, when looking at accounts dealing with Britons in the International Brigades, one is struck by the limitations imposed by their failure to work within the Four Nations framework. The standard account, Richard Baxell’s imaginatively titled British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, often reads like a history written decades previously, in which ‘British’ can generally be assumed to mean ‘English’.[2] While the preponderance of Scottish volunteers mentioned above is quantified and noted by the author, no explanation for the phenomenon is provided, nor are Scots offered as a separate or comparative category of analysis. Despite considerable grounds for comparisons with Scotland, work on the Irish and Welsh contingents also feels self-contained, with single-nation histories awkwardly existing independently of the others.

 The work of Lewis Mates partly subverts the trend but ultimately succumbs to similar problems. Taking a regional approach, Mates is able to provide an exceptionally detailed analysis of North East England’s response to the Spanish Civil War, and introduces some interesting comparisons with Wales.[3] Yet he concludes that the patterns noted in the North East were reflective of Britain as a whole. Even where his comparisons highlight significant differences between his case study and Wales, these differences are treated as exceptional, rather than as an indication that perhaps there might be similar differences in other areas of Britain such as Scotland, or indeed North West England or London. The assumption that Britain-wide synthesis is the ideal outcome of a regional case study is a problem that paying closer attention to Four Nations methods might alleviate.

My own work tries to highlight the regional and local factors that are key to understanding the shape of British involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Looking at the disproportional number of Scottish volunteers, which itself varied widely by region and locality, it is clear that there were complex structural and cultural roots.[4] The oft-repeated cliché that Scotland was simply more left wing and radical than elsewhere in Britain has some truth to it, but what mattered more was the way in which radical politics operated in Scotland. The distinct way in which the Scottish labour movement had evolved from the late nineteenth century, notably due to the early dominance of the Independent Labour Party, shaped the ways in which newer groups such as the Communist Party operated in the mid-1930s.[5]

It was an approach based on local communities and local leadership, with emphasis on the social sphere alongside the political. The Glasgow Communists in particular were able to sustain social and cultural institutions on a scale that was impossible outside of London.[6] Other parts of Scotland such as Fife and the Vale of Leven were home to many of the ‘Little Moscows’ made famous in the work of Stuart McIntyre, where the Communist Party was also able to dominate the political and community life of rural industrial villages.[7] This socialisation of radicalism that had become so widespread in Scotland had the inevitable effect of cultivating communities and friendships; it was these tight-knit groups that provided the multitude of recruits for Spain, a process bolstered by the sort of social expectation and peer pressure more readily associated with the opening months of the First World War. Indeed, the scale of mobilisation is readily comparable: approximately one fifth of Scottish Communist Party members enlisted to fight in Spain.

While I hope my work on Scotland will help show the relevance of a Four Nations approach to the study of Britain and the Spanish Civil War, there are historiographical issues which may highlight some of the limitations of this methodology. The Spanish Civil War was an inherently transnational conflict, with diplomatic and military (non-)intervention from the world’s leading powers, unprecedented solidarity efforts across the world, not to mention 35,000 individuals from sixty nations who defied national borders by volunteering to fight.

Yet it is rare to see international sources or perspectives, in British accounts, whether governmental, from their comrades in the International Brigades or, most egregiously, from the Spaniards they fought for and alongside. British participation cannot be narrated by British voices alone, even if we do better at including Scottish, Welsh and Irish perspectives. For me, this is also the big question mark over Four Nations History – is it a methodology equipped to allow historians of Britain to appreciate sources and perspectives that fall outwith these islands?

[1] For books alone, see H. Francis, Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War (London, 1984); R. Stradling, Wales and the Spanish Civil War: The Dragon’s Dearest Cause? (Cardiff, 2004); R. Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, 1936–39: Crusades in Conflict (Manchester, 1999); F. McGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War, (Cork, 1999).

[2] R. Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: The British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936–1939 (London, 2004).

[3] L. Mates, The Spanish Civil War and The British Left (London, 2007). See also L. Mates, ‘Durham and South Wales Miners in the Spanish Civil War’, Twentieth Century British History, 17, No. 3 (2006), pp. 373-395.

[4] For this discussion in full, see F. Raeburn, ‘Fae nae hair te grey hair they answered the call’: International Brigade Volunteers from the West Central Belt of Scotland in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–9’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 35, No.1 (2015), pp. 92-114.

[5] A. McKinlay and R. Morris, The ILP on the Clydeside, 1893–1932 (Manchester, 1991).

[6] K. Morgan, G. Cohen and A. Flinn, Communists and British Society, 1920–1991, (London, 2007), pp. 7–8.

[7] S. Macintyre, Little Moscows: Communism and Working-class Militancy in Inter-war Britain, (London, 1980), pp. 14-17.

Fraser Raeburn is a second year History PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh funded by the Wolfson Foundation. His research deals with the mobilisation of international volunteers during the Spanish Civil War, using Scottish volunteers as the main case study. He also works on comparative approaches to foreign fighters in modern conflicts, including in the current civil war in Syria. He is a Contributions Editor at the Pubs and Publications blogging project and you can learn more about his research on his profile and follow him on Twitter @FraserRaeburn.

One thought on “Four-and-Twenty Nations? Writing about British participation in the Spanish Civil War

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s