Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Statistics, Official Statistics & Reports:

Doubt & uncertainty from the BLACKLIST FILES to the SPANISH CIVIL WAR RECORDS...

LAST night, just before the meeting of Tameside Trade Union Council in Ashton-under-Lyne, I and Derek Pattison - President of Tameside TUC - were handed the recently released MI5 files on the 4,000 or so British volunteers who have been recorded as going to fight or work as medical aid in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. On top of the pile was George Orwell's file which read as follows:

Reference: PF 62,162.

Name: BLAIR, Eric. ORWELL, George.
Address: 77, Parliament Hill, N.W.
Born: 25.6.02. Motihari, Bengal.
Occupation: Journalist and author.

General History.
30.4.37. Member of the I.L.P. (Independent Labour Party) fighting with the International Brigade in Spain. (cutting from "The New Leader".) 1938. Was one fo (sic) the signatories to a Joint Peace Manifesto, issued by the P.P.U., No More War Movt., etc. Resigned from the Indeian (sic) Police, and when in Paris took an interest in the activities of the French C.P. (Communist Party)
21.1.50. Died.

This is immediately recognisable as an inaccurate record in so far as all the evidence shows that George Orwell never joined the International Brigade in Spain and that he fought with the POUM militia as a member of the I.L.P. He resigned from the Indian Imperial Police as from 1st, January 1928 and went to Paris in the spring of that year. According to Peter Davison in his book on Orwell 'Facing Unpleasant Facts: 1937-39', Orwell 'is said to have "paid a membership subscription to the Peace Pledge Union (PPU)" in December 1937.' Davidson believes that '... the evidence he (Orwell) joined the PPU is based on a misreading of a receipt in the Orwell Archive.' It seems this misreading is based on an acknowledgement of a 'receipt for 2s 6d, dated 12th, December 1937, from Mrs E. Blair - Eileen, not Eric', and Davison thinks that she was buying pamphlets for her husband. No mention in Davison's book of Orwell signing the Peace Manifesto, though he may well have done so even if he had not been a member of the PPU.

The moral of this is that we should approach all these documents with caution. Whether it be the dodgy blacklist files of the unlicensed data bank of Ian Kerr's Consulting Association, the MI5 files and official records, the contents of the Moscow Archives, the lists of volunteers in the Marx Memorial Library or the oddly assembled booklet, written by Bernard Barry, 'From Manchester to Spain', published in 2009 by the Working Class Movement Library. Ian Kerr's blacklist files on the workers and trade unionists in the British building trade were full of errors; the current MI5 records on Spanish Civil War volunteers are at times speculative and flawed; some of the material in the Moscow Archives is 'bitchy' about people from Tameside like Lillian Urmston and James Keogh; and Bernard Barry's 2009 booklet on the local volunteers from Greater Manchester has a poorly categorised and misleading 'Roll of Honour'. The ethnomethodologists urge us to study how lists, files, Rolls of Honour and official statistics are assembled by the people collecting the data. One consideration should be the motives of the data collectors in these cases, whether it be the blacklister, Ian Kerr, or Bernard Barry on behalf of the Working Class Movement Library, or the spies snooping on their comrades fighting in Spain to send stuff to Stalin and the Moscow Archives, or the agents employed by MI5 counting how many went to Spain and who was in the Communist Party: all of these parties may have an incentive to exaggerate and inflate their figures.

In the light of the recently released MI5 new data and the fact that Tameside TUC may have been misled by the 'Roll of Honour' in Bernard Barry's booklet 'From Manchester to Spain' to include people in the 3rd edition of our booklet commemorating the Spanish Civil War who did not qualify for recognition, it ought now to be revised in the production of a 4th edition later this year.

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