As I rather breathlessly was able to tell the world last week (well, the proportion of the world that uses Twitter), I have just signed a contract to publish my first book – provisionally titled ‘Scots and the Spanish Civil War’ – with Edinburgh University Press. It is due to be published in mid-2020, assuming, of course, I manage to write it all on time.
The book will explore, analyse and contextualise Scottish involvement the Spanish Civil War. As the Spanish crisis swiftly became a flashpoint for the broader struggle of ideas that characterised the late 1930s, Scots formed part of a global reaction that consumed international politics for nearly three years. Despite a considerable body of research on international responses to Spain, and British involvement in particular, Scotland has been almost entirely neglected in existing scholarly research. The book will argue not only that there was a distinctive Scottish response to the conflict in Spain, but that this distinctiveness offers new perspectives on Scottish politics during the 1930s as well as the nature of transnational mobilisations on behalf of the Spanish Republic in Britain and beyond.
The most famous such mobilisation, of course, were the hundreds of Scots who volunteered for the International Brigades, part of an unprecedentedly large global mobilisation of ideologically-motivated ‘foreign fighters’ on behalf of the Spanish Republic. An important focus of the book will be contextualising and explaining their decisions to volunteer, especially as Scots made up the single largest regional grouping among the British contingent, well out of proportion to their share of the British population. I will make the case that recruitment for Spain was particularly effective in Scotland thanks to the confluence of local factors, notably the evolution of a distinct radical Scottish political culture in the decades before. The aim is not only to understand why so many Scots volunteered, but also to contribute to much wider debates about how foreign fighters have been recruited for Spain and elsewhere. In examining the growth and uses of personal and political networks that stretched across Scotland and Spain, this also offers a new approach to the lived experiences of the volunteers and their families, as well as new insight into the so-called ‘national question’ – the ways in which national identities affected organisation and experiences – in the International Brigades.
While you may already be familiar with this aspect of my research (if not, you can read more on this very website!), this book will sit a bit oddly with what I’ve been focusing on in recent years. While my PhD looked at Scots in Spain, much of the approach was less concerned with the peculiarities of Scottish involvement, and more concerned with using the Scots as a case study for studying transnational mobilisations and the Spanish Civil War more broadly. Much of this research therefore won’t be in this book, though I hope will be published in other forms soon enough. Rather, alongside the ‘Scottish’ bits of my PhD, this project will also draw on some of my older research looking at the contrasting nature of the Aid Spain movement in Scotland and Britain. I’ve always wanted to find a way to use this research, but was never able to find a way to contextualise it adequately for standalone publication.
Including these domestic responses is important, as I believe that existing studies of the radical left in interwar Scotland have struggled to adapt to the internationalisation of politics over the course of the 1930s, often tacitly assuming that politics on the eve of war became a fundamentally national, British concern. Yet the Spanish war offered Scots a way to adapt local politics and activism to an international stage, challenging concrete distinctions between local and international politics. Many thousands of activists campaigned to support the Spanish Republicans for the duration of the conflict, representing one of the largest international solidarity movements in Scottish history. I will explore how these interrelated campaigns were built and sustained in Scotland, exploring case studies that highlight the role of electoral politics, gender, class and religion in explaining their successes and failures.
My intended approach is to provide a social and cultural history of Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War, rather than re-treading the predominantly military or political narratives that often dominate the literature on foreign involvement in the conflict. This decision is also shaped by the continued existence of a strong, vibrant commemorative community. This is not a ‘forgotten’ history, despite the neglect of academic practitioners. My goal is not to fact check these existing narratives, or provide a ‘neutral’ version of events, if that were even possible. Rather, I want to show the ways in which Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War also reflects other, wider stories about Scotland, Britain and the world.