“Starting the IBMT is the best thing we’ve ever done.” Checking in with ALBA’s Younger Sister Across the Pond

August 18, 2022
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IBMT Founding Meeting. Marlene Sidaway in the front, third from the right. Paul Preston all the way in the back.

Around the turn of the millennium, the association of British veterans of the Spanish Civil War merged with the Friends of the International Brigades to form the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT), ALBA’s sister organization in the UK. Like ALBA, the IBMT is dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the antifascist volunteers who fought alongside the Spanish Republic. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland—each of which has their own activist traditions—as it does in the United States.

This past June, I spoke with Marlene Sidaway, IBMT President, and Jim Jump, who currently serves as Chair. Sidaway is a well-known stage and television actress whose late partner, the poet David Marshall (1916-2005), served in the International Brigades. Jump is the son of James “Jimmy” Jump (1916-1990), a newspaper reporter who joined the IB in 1937.

The IBMT is about 22 years old, correct?

Marlene Sidaway (MS): Well, that depends how you look at it. Jim and I don’t agree on the exact year of our foundation. (Laughs.) To be sure, our founding meeting was in 2000. But the legal process to turn the IBMT into a charity—making it easier for us to receive donations—took a very long time. When we were finally approved, in October 2002, it was thanks to the support we received from many different people and organizations, including Paul Preston, the trade unions, the Imperial War Museum, and the Marx Memorial Library, which houses the IBA archive.

Marlene Sidaway

What happened in 2000?

MS: Bill Alexander, the former British Battalion commander at Teruel, who had been the head of the International Brigade Association (IBA) for many years, died rather suddenly. He had really held the organization together. My partner, David Marshall, was the treasurer and Jim’s dad was very involved as well. The bigger question we faced at that time was whether the IBA should cease to exist as the last living brigaders passed on, or rather continue in some form to keep alive their memory. Almost all the vets agreed the work should continue after them. So that’s when we decided to merge the IBA with the Friends’ group and form the IBMT. We had a big meeting to discuss the merger at the Marx Memorial Library. In a sense, it was a good time to do it. In the wake of the sixtieth anniversary events in 1996 there was a lot of interest from the public, with a big spread on the vets in The Guardian and an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in the fall of 2001, in the planning of which we were involved from the start. It also helped that the IBMT’s founding chair was Jack Jones, a very well-known and respected trade union leader. It was Jack who wrote to the unions to announce the birth of the IBMT and request initial donations. That helped us a lot in the beginning.

Jim Jump (JJ): It was actually through Jack that I got involved. I worked in the union movement at the time. When Jack volunteered you, that was it! (Laughs.) I wasn’t at that inaugural meeting, but there is a lovely photo of the veterans and family members that was taken at that time. Paul Preston was there, too, and that’s not coincidental, because historians like Preston, Helen Graham, Angela Jackson, and Richard Baxell have played a notable role in the organization from the beginning, along with family members like Marlene and me. In 2006, Sam Lesser, a vet and former foreign editor of the Daily Worker, became chair, Jack became President, and I took over the magazine. I replaced Marlene as secretary around 2010, when she became president.

MS: It was good you did. For one, I didn’t speak Spanish. And it was a lot of work. My partner David was getting on and I felt as though I neglected him quite a bit.

Did you found the IBMT as a charity primarily to be able to receive donations?

MS: There is another reason as well. As a charity, you cannot be used politically. That was important to us, because politics have long been a divisive factor, in the IBA as well. Some of the veterans had become disillusioned with politics after their return from Spain. Others were just pacificist. Being a charity helped shield us from those political conflicts.

Jim Jump. Photo Andrew Wiard.

JJ: Of course, all of us are quite political in a different way. But as an organization we don’t comment on anything other than the Spanish Civil War and the legacy of fascism in Spain. Part of the secret of our success, I’m convinced, is that we’ve been able to avoid political minefields and focus on the goals we share. By the way, Bill Alexander was a stickler for that, too, in the IBA. And he ran a tight, top-down ship.

How many dues-paying members do you have?

JJ: Our basic annual fee is 25 pounds [around $30, ed.] and we have more than 1,000 members. They receive our magazine, ¡No Pasarán!, which comes out three times a year, and our regular e-newsletter.  We also have 114 groups who are what we call affiliated members.

Do those include political parties? In the US, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade had close ties with the Communist Party. Have there been similar links between the IBA and IBMT and CP of Great Britain or perhaps the Labour Party?

JJ: Not quite. Naturally, most of our membership are people of the left. On the other hand, that term is quite difficult to define these days, isn’t it? In the past and today our institutional ties are less with political parties—not even Labour—and much more with the trade union movement. Most the major trade unions, as well as a number of local union branches, are among those 114 affiliated members of the IBMT I just mentioned.

How does that work?

JJ: Affiliated members pay significantly more than the individual member fee. The unions, in particular, provide us with important financial and organizational support. Our annual general meeting, for example, will be held this year in Manchester. Our hosts there, providing facilities and support, are the North-West region of Unison, one of Britain’s biggest unions.

Are the British trade unions closely connected to political parties?

JJ: The vast majority belong to the Trades Union Congress, which is nonpolitical. To be sure, some unions choose to affiliate with the Labour Party. In the past, some unions kept their distance from Labour because it was too political and left-wing. Today, unions are rather moving away from Labour because they don’t like its right-wing drift.

In addition to its annual commemoration in London, the IBMT organizes lectures and exhibits every year. What new developments are being planned?

JJ: We are very excited about the IBMT Schools Project, for which we’ve received some external funding. Right now, the Spanish Civil War is often ignored in the national curriculum. That’s something we hope this project will help redress. Peter Anderson, an historian at Leeds University, is working with his second-year students to develop teaching aids to use in secondary schools for what here in England and Wales is called Key Stage 3, which includes students between 11 and 14 years old. The plan is to turn those teaching aides into attractive, well-designed packages and make them available online, while also working with education journals and teachers’ unions. (Interview continues below.)


The annual commemoration at the IB monument in London.

The International Brigade Memorial Trust (www.international-brigades.org.uk) keeps alive the memory and spirit of the 2,500 men and women from Britain and Ireland who volunteered to defend democracy and fight fascism in Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. The organization also remembers those who supported the volunteers and the cause of the Spanish Republic at home. 

The IBMT organizes and supports educational, cultural and commemorative events around the country, including three annual events: the Len Crome memorial lecture / conference in March, the London commemoration in July and the Trust’s Annual General Meeting in October. It assists students, academics and others researching the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War and promotes the preservation of archives about the volunteers. Through the IBMT Magazine, its website, and new media platforms the IBMT keeps members and the wider public informed about developments concerning the memory and legacy of the International Brigades. The organization also ensures that the more than 100 memorials in the British Isles to the volunteers—526 of whom were killed in Spain—are maintained in good order and, where appropriate, new ones are erected. For more information, write to admin@international-brigades.org.uk.


I’ve always been impressed with the number of Spanish Civil War plaques, monuments, and memorials in the UK. The list on your website includes more than 180 of them!

JJ: Actually, in recent years we’ve seen an impressive growth of local groups, which is not something that we planned on intentionally. But obviously, we’re very supportive. Although the IBMT constitution does not allow for a regional structure, we encourage them to affiliate with us, so that we can provide them with advice and information. There’s about half a dozen local groups affiliated with us now, and more in the pipeline.

MS: From the start, we sort of bent over backwards to make sure that the IBMT wasn’t viewed as a London-centric organization. The July commemoration has got to be here in London because that’s where the national Memorial is. But we have the Len Crome lecture, early in the spring, in a different city every year. And the same goes for our annual general meeting in October. As Jim said, this year we’ll be in Manchester.

JJ: Some of the local groups now actually organize their own annual commemorations at their own memorials, for example in Cardiff, in Manchester, in Glasgow.

What’s your biggest challenge?

JJ: Many of us are older, and our challenge is to attract more young people, who belong to generations that are not likely to fill out a paper membership form, write a check, and put it in the post—which is the model we were founded on. To reach them, in other words, we have to change the way we go about things.

MS: We do have strong connections with Spanish youngsters who live and work in the UK—the so-called Marea Granate, who were connected to the indignados movement.

How has the organization changed since it was founded?

JJ: Well, for one we have further professionalized. We’ve gone from being a purely voluntary organization run literally in people’s kitchen to hiring a professional executive officer. Since 2015 we’ve rented an office in the Marx Memorial Library, and since 2019 we’ve had an Executive Director, Ajmal Waqif, who works three days a week. Another key member of the team is Megan Dobney, who is the IBMT secretary. She worked as a regional secretary at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and is now retired.

It’s impressive how much you have been able to do in the past twenty years.

JJ: In addition to all our activities, I feel it’s also been important to accompany the last surviving veterans in the final part of their lives—including receiving honorary Spanish citizenship after Spain’s memory law was passed in 2007, which was a very emotional moment. The last British volunteer, Geoffrey Servante, died in 2019. In that way, the transition from the time when many vets were still alive to this next phase happened quite seamlessly. That’s not to say things aren’t different. When the vets were around, our public events were more highly charged.

MS: I’ve been an actress for 60 years now, but I still feel that starting the IBMT is the best thing I’ve ever done. At that very first meeting, a lot of the veterans stood up to say what we should do: have a badge, organize exhibits, work on education, and so forth. Looking back, nearly all those things came to pass eventually.

 

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