Tom Wintringham was a Grimsby-born journalist, author, soldier and politician perhaps best known for the role he played in the formation of the Home Guard in the Second World War. A one-time communist, he commanded the British Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. He was also a founding member of the wartime socialist Common Wealth Party. He died of a heart attack aged 51.
When did you first hear about Wintringham?
While reading Angus Calder’s The People’s War in 1974, an account of Britain’s fight against Nazism.
What kind of man was he?
Steeped in the values of English radicalism, from the Levellers to the Chartists, Wintringham was a fine speaker and writer. A First World War veteran, he wanted a land fit for heroes. He became a member of the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain in 1923 and worked for its paper, Workers’ Weekly.
What made him a trailblazer?
He was a pioneering leftwinger who became a household name and had the knack of making revolutionary ideas popular. He also understood that for the left to win, it needed to make broad alliances.
He called for the creation of a people’s army and in Picture Post he instructed readers how to make Molotov cocktails
And his finest hour?
In 1940, when invasion threatened, he called for the creation of a people’s army and in Picture Post he instructed readers how to make Molotov cocktails. He so enthused the public that the government created what became the Home Guard, a watered-down version of his ideas, but still radical. A far cry from the blimpish depictions of Dad’s Army, it was a citizens’ army predominantly of working-class people.
Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire?
He had brazen, hurtful affairs – personal betrayals not consistent with his otherwise high ethical standards.
Can you see any parallels between his life and yours?
Tom was independent-minded and not afraid to dissent from the consensus – he was cast out by the communist movement. I suffered a similar fate when I challenged leftwing homophobia in the early 1970s and, more recently, when I fell out with sections of the left over my campaigns against Islamist extremism and in support of democracy movements in countries such as Russia, Syria and Zimbabwe.
What direction did he take after quitting the Communist Party?
He was a leading figure in the Common Wealth Party, which espoused one of the most leftwing manifestos ever: common ownership, industrial democracy, regional parliaments and proportional representation. It won three wartime byelections, and paved the way for Labour’s socialist vision and victory in 1945.
If you could meet him, what would you ask him?
You sacrificed much of your life to the communist movement: how did you cope when its leaders denounced you politically and demanded that you give up Kitty Bowler, your future wife, on the erroneous grounds that she was a ‘Trotskyite spy’?
Peter Tatchell was talking to York Membery.
Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner best known for his work with the LGBT movement.
This article was first published in the November 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine