I first met Jack Jones in 1973 when I was an area officer of the National Union of Public Employees in Yorkshire. He’d travelled up from London to Sheffield to knock a few union heads together over a dispute involving hospital workers, including members of his own union, the mighty Transport & General Workers’ Union.
Like everyone else I was in complete awe of the man. What made him a giant was not just what he said and the way even governments listened.
His deeds and achievements spoke much louder than any such words and gave him a special authority and integrity in the labour movement.
Not least among these deeds was the fact that he had fought in Spain, had seen his comrades die on the battlefields of the Ebro and had himself been injured in that momentous fight against fascism that was the Spanish Civil War.
Perhaps more than many at the time, I was only too aware of the significance of the war in Spain and the important chapter in radical history written by Jack and the other volunteers of the International Brigades.
This was thanks to my mother. The scrapbook she kept during the Spanish Civil War was one of her treasured possessions. I thumbed through its stark pictures as a small boy and as I grew older tried to make sense of the tragic defeat of democracy in Spain. I asked her questions about the war. Why did we lose? Why didn’t Britain help the Spanish Republic? Why is Franco still the dictator of Spain?
Her answers taught me many things and helped shape the beliefs and values I still hold today. For example, there is a time to fight in a foreign war, just as there is a time not to. And it’s better to trust the decent values of working people than it is to be swayed by the spin and self-interested arguments of the powerful.
Jack and I remained the best of friends until his death in 2009. I was proud to accompany him and youngest son Mick on his final trip to the Ebro four years earlier. He knew my admiration for the International Brigades and would tell me how fervently he hoped that their story would not be forgotten once he and the other surviving veterans had gone.
I was especially proud therefore to be invited by him to be a trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust when it was founded in 2001 with that very aim of keeping alive the memory and spirit of the men and women who went to Spain.
In its own way I hope the publication of this scrapbook will help keep the flame alight. Jack and my mother were right. It’s vital that future generations learn the lessons of what happened in Spain and know about the sacrifice of so many decent people in the cause of freedom, social justice and democracy – a struggle that continues to this day.
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