“If I don’t go out and fight fascism, I’ll just have to wait and fight it here.” That was how John Patsy McEwan explained his decision to leave Dundee to go and fight in the Spanish Civil War – alongside hundreds of others.
Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia tells the story of those who went from Scotland to Spain to fight fascism, and of those who stayed at home to build solidarity with the Spanish Republicans.
Those who fought in Spain left a Scotland blighted by poverty, slum housing and mass unemployment. But resistance was growing.
In August 1936 people demonstrated against the means test for unemployment benefit in cities across Scotland. Some 30,000 protested in Lanarkshire alone.
Meanwhile 54 miners at a pit near Blantyre sat in down the mine in a dispute over pay and conditions.
When management blocked supplies of food and water, tens of thousands of Lanarkshire miners walked out in solidarity.
That autumn 700 hunger marchers set off from Scotland to London, in two columns down each coast. Others joined them en route and up to a quarter of a million people rallied in London’s Hyde Park.
One of the marchers was Bob Cooney, a young Communist Party (CP) member from Aberdeen who had led stormy protests of unemployed workers. On his return from the march he found a new danger waiting in Scotland.
A minor laird (landowner) William Chambers Hunter became leader of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) in north east Scotland. He targeted Aberdeen as a potential power base.
Talking about the fight against the fascists, Cooney recalled, “I felt we had to smash them off the street. When the BUF arrived we’d shout, ‘These are the blackshirted bastards who are murdering kiddies in Spain – spit on them, kids!’ Sometimes we’d be too late because the women had already dealt with them!”
The first fascist rally was to be addressed by Raven Thomson, Mosley’s deputy. But it had to be cancelled half an hour before it was due to start because of opposition. In response the BUF decided to hold an outdoor rally on a Sunday evening in July 1937, hoping the annual holidays would weaken opposition.
Some 2,000 protesters gathered at the beach and were addressed by Bob Cooney. They agreed to return that evening to stop the fascist rally.
The fascists arrived with an armour-plated van, their thugs and a strong police escort. As Chambers Hunter clambered onto the roof of the van, the anti-fascists surged forward. The fascists ran for their lives. The area was cleared by 8pm.
Bob Cooney was arrested and spent four days in jail. He was carried shoulder high from prison when he was released. He went almost immediately to fight in Spain, where he became commissar of the British Battalion of the International Brigades of Spain.
Homage to Caledonia largely centres on the CP members that made up the bulk of those fighting in the International Brigades, which were run by the Communist International. But the author also pays tribute to those from the Independent Labour Party and the libertarian movement who also answered the call.
No one can deny the centrality of the CP in the resistance to unemployment and fascism. They were key to some impressive protests. Some 400 joined a protest in Ayr, where a local businessman was attempting to sell planes to General Franco, the leader of fascist forces in Spain who wanted to crush the republic.
When Scotland played Nazi Germany at a football match at Ibrox Park there were protests both outside and inside the ground.
August 1936 saw the opening days of the Spanish Civil War. On a Saturday evening some 2,000 copies of the CP’s newspaper the Daily Worker were sold in just two hours in Glasgow’s Argyle Street. People bought the paper because it lambasted fascist leaders such as Franco, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
But there were problems with the CP. The same Daily Worker was utterly uncritical of Joseph Stalin and praised the Russian dictator’s show trials and purges of left wing opponents to his regime. Daniel Gray discusses the negative side of the role the CP played in Spain – destroying workers’ control in Catalonia and murdering dissidents.
Yet what comes through in the book is how a generation of fighters emerged in the 1930s to resist the slump and fascism. In working class communities across the world, people rebelled and became popular leaders.
Many eventually made that journey to Spain. Few, if any, regretted it. “It was the most important thing of my life,” said Annie Murray on her return from Spain serving as a nurse. “It was a terrific experience I would never like to have missed.”
Tommy Bloomfield from Kirkcaldy in Fife led a life blighted by unemployment and war, like so many others at the time. He had worked from the age of 11 but was made unemployed at 16 and recalled how “an empty stomach made an empty head think”. He volunteered to fight in Spain.
Looking back on his experiences towards the end of his life, Tommy said, “Today as a pensioner I live on social security. But I’m the richest man in the world having known my comrades of the International Brigades, and the leaders of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, along with the outstanding men and women of my own era. If I had my life to live over again I would do the same, as there is no other way.”
Homage to Caledonia by David Gray (introduced by Tony Benn) is published by Luath Press and available from Bookmarks priced £16.99 » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk