Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

July 23, 2014

The Home Guard, or Local Defence Volunteers, given official status on 17 May 1940 and stood down on 31 December 1945, had a remarkable birth. As fears of a German invasion grew in 1940, the force’s architect had to fight his own campaign against the scorn and suspicion of military top brass and cautious politicians. But his idea for decentralised self-defence militias caught on fast. By July 1940, it had attracted 1.5 million volunteers. Not only did the Home Guard stiffen morale at a time when Britain had no European allies against Hitler; its members took an active part in conflict by manning anti-aircraft batteries and downing many Luftwaffe planes.

Tom Wintringham, the strategist who had agitated for a Home Guard since 1938, outraged the Colonel Blimps with his polemic How to Reform the Army. He kick-started support for “people’s militias” when he opened a training school in guerrilla warfare at Osterley. The authorities tried (and failed) to shut down this nest of “Marxist hooligans”, but its principles had already taken root. Wintringham never secured a regular army commission. In 1942, he founded the left-of-Labour Common Wealth Party. But what would have happened today to this oddball soldier who inspired our beloved home-front warriors? As a former “foreign fighter” in an overseas conflict, he could have been subject to a sentence of imprisonment for life.

Then a member of the Communist Party, Wintringham had commanded the British Battalion of the International Brigades at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. At “Suicide Hill”, through an extraordinary combination of pluck and luck, the British volunteers played a bloodily decisive role in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War. They were instrumental in holding back Franco’s rebel forces in their advance on Madrid and so helped to safeguard the capital for the Republican government. Although Madrid would fall in 1939, Jarama arguably counts as the most significant armed rebuff for international Fascism until the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942. The human cost proved enormous. In Unlikely Warriors, his definitive account of British and Irish fighters in the Spanish Civil War, Richard Baxell calculates that “of the 630 men who had gone into action on 12 February, only 80 were left unscathed when the battle ended”.

Heroes? Not, since 2006, according to British law. Some 2,300 British volunteers fought against Franco in Spain; more than 500 were killed. Although history tends to remember the writers and intellectuals – George Orwell and John Cornford; Ralph Fox and Laurie Lee – most were working-class trade unionists in their late twenties, with 200 Welsh miners among them. In 1996, the government of Spain paid the ultimate tribute to their contribution by proposing an offer of citizenship to every surviving member of the International Brigades. George Orwell wrote a personal account of his experiences and observations during the Spanish Civil War.

A decade after that, and just before the grant of citizenship to every veteran entered Spanish law, Tony Blair’s third administration passed the Terrorism Act 2006. Section Five, as presently interpreted by the Crown Prosecution Service, makes it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a “political, ideological, religious or racial motive”. The legislation appears to forbid all training or action in a foreign combat. If so, its provisions would have criminalised every Briton who fought in Spain. It would have turned Lord Byron, whose commitment to Greek independence led him to arm and lead a raggle-taggle regiment prior to his death at Missolonghi in 1824, into an outlaw. As for the 6,500 veterans of Wellington’s armies who went off after Waterloo to fight against Spanish colonial rule in the battles that led to freedom for Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, how could the courts have processed such a lawless throng?

The 2006 legislation currently targets UK citizens deemed to have fought with Syrian rebel groups. Estimates of their number vary wildly but a figure of around 400-500 has gained currency. At least eight have died. The fear of radicalisation, with any link to al-Qaida-allied units and above all to Isis treated as a communicable virus, has propelled the hard legal line. In January, 16 Britons were arrested after returning from Syria. Further arrests have followed since.

“Potentially it’s an offence to go out and get involved in a conflict, however loathsome you think the people on the other side are,” affirms Sue Hemming, the head of counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service (London Evening Standard, 3 February 2014). “Our Government chooses to have legislation which prevents people from joining in whichever conflicts they have views about. We will apply the law robustly.” No sane observer will whitewash the motives and methods of the al-Nusra front or the newly rebranded “Islamic State”. If, until mid-2014, some foreign recruits could dupe themselves into thinking that Isis stood for a dogmatic but authentic war for faith against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, then the surge into northern Iraq which began on 5 June has blown that façade clean away. Everywhere from Mosul to Tikrit and the gates of Baghdad, the forces of the “Islamic State” have massacred Muslims, prisoners and civilians alike. Now they threaten genocide to Christians. Yet this sectarian mass slaughter may make it more vital than ever to clear a path back to normality for the drifters, dreamers, malcontents and bedroom zealots once attracted by the Isis cult. The risk of an indiscriminate criminal stigma might give the doubters and waverers a reason to stick with the fanatics.

Young people volunteer for foreign combat for a variety of reasons. Heartfelt belief in the justice of a cause fires many, as does solidarity with those of a similar background or outlook. For others, a simple itch for adventure or boredom with life at home will supply the push. From Wellington’s grizzled veterans in the Andes through to the last-ditch defenders at Jarama, British history gives us ample opportunities to understand the urge to go abroad to fight. The long-term significance of an overseas adventure for anyone may not be apparent to them, or to others, at the time. But every present or past volunteer in Syria now knows they bear an invisible brand marked “potential murderer”, stamped by the agencies of surveillance. In a BBC radio analysis, one British fighter thought it a “slightly surreal” notion to “go back to the UK and start a jihad there”. For him, at least: “As to the global jihad, I couldn’t tell you if I’m going to be alive tomorrow, let alone future plans.” Over the past six weeks, Isis has shown to the world its bloody stunts. They will have deterred many secret faint-hearts, already in too deep. However, if the near-certainty of UK criminal sanctions closes down your road to reintegration, why not rise to the fanatics’ bait? What have you then got to lose?

In both Spain and Syria, idealism, escapism and sheer youthful bravado will have been pretty evenly mixed. After such an episode, you would expect young men to develop in many ways. The Spanish volunteers did. One veteran of the International Brigades became a champion of neo-liberal economics and a mentor to Margaret Thatcher: Sir Alfred Sherman. Another would become Britain’s most prominent mainstream trade-union leader: Jack Jones. A third quit all politics to flourish as a character actor: James Robertson Justice. It is hard to imagine a better way to kill off such varied careers than by marking every foolhardy youth, whatever their motives, with a lifelong criminal brand.