Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Britain in 2010 and the unlearned lesson of the Spanish Civil War

It’s early yet to start to pass a judgement on the present century. The last, on the other hand, deserves to be classified as the ‘Dark Century’, even among the many other ghastly ones before it. Never have so many suffered and died in that century, and never for so little. I’ve written before about a footbridge across the Rhine in Kehl, opposite Strasbourg, where people stroll across a Franco-German border which cost millions of lives in three wars. Standing among the families enjoying the afternoon sun, you have to wonder what the point was.

‘Nations trek from progress’ wrote Wilfred Owen in his extraordinary poem, Strange meeting.

The main purpose to which progress was put in the Twentieth Century was to find new and far more devastating ways for humanity to be inhumane to itself. The Holocaust, the nuclear bombs on Japan, the killing fields of Cambodia: great power to benefit mankind put to use to destroy it.

In amongst all the ghastliness, one episode that deserves more attention is the Spanish Civil War. An autocratic leader, Francisco Franco, led a brutal, colonial army – one of his problems at the beginning of the fighting was to get the army from the Moroccan colonies to Spain proper – supported by a class coalition of small and large landowners, leading industrialists and inevitably the Roman Catholic clergy, to bring down a democratically elected government that was trying to reform a hopelessly backward system. The Government did many things wrong and carried out some shameful atrocities, but on the other side the scale of brutality was hard to believe. Whole villages would be put to rape and murder, leftists were tortured and killed, even being thrown down wells which were then stopped up with boulders.

The sheer extent of the violence has yet to be determined. Archaeological work now underway on Civil War mass graves may give an indication, though we already know that at least 50,000 were murdered and more likely 200,000. Several million were forced into exile. What’s more, the regime that eventually won the war in 1939, imposed 36 years of stultifying and often cruel oppression on its people before Franco finally died in 1975.

At the time, one of my colleagues was an engineer who wore corduroy trousers, thin-rimmed glasses and a jacket with patched elbows. I never saw it, but I bet he smoked a pipe at home. He was too young for the part, but he looked like the perfect representative of the old left of the 1930s, reading Orwell and supporting the international brigades in Spain. When we told him that Franco had died, he looked at us grimly and replied:

‘I blame his doctors. If they’d been worth their salt they’d have kept him alive for at least another six months of growing agony.’

A while later we told him that Franco had been buried.

‘I hope they stuck a stake through his heart,’ he said.

The second most shameful aspect of the War was that Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany came in gaily on the Fascist side. In fact, it was German planes that got Franco’s troops back to Spain. Later, other German planes bombed the Basque town of Guernica, in the raid made famous by Picasso’s monumental painting.

The Germans and the Italians had fun in Spain, trying out the new toys with which they’d equipped their armies, and helping to put into power a regime sympathetic to their aims and thereby weakening France, with Fascist regimes on three of its borders, and indirectly Britain too.

That British interests were at stake was clear to Germany. Goering met Mussolini early in 1937 and said they needed to win the war in the next three weeks because Britain could not possibly stay out of it any longer than that.

Which brings us to the most shameful aspect of all of the War. Britain didn’t get involved. It stood on the sidelines and watched while the Spanish Republic was strangled, its people suffered and bled, and those powers against which Britain was soon to be fighting for its life were immeasurably strengthened. In sheer stupidity and moral turpitude it’s hard to imagine anything that Britain could have done that was much bleaker.

Strangely enough, as well as many on the left, at least one leading figure of the right, excluded at that time from government, stood out against this bankruptcy of principle. Though I don’t share the general adulation for Winston Churchill, there are aspects of his political career that impress me as much as they impress anyone. On the Spanish Civil War, he saw that British strategic interests were at stake and a Fascist victory would damage them.

Many on the left understood that, and Churchill at least in the Conservative Party. Most in his Party had nothing like his vision, and they preferred to put their class interests – in the victory of a rabidly anti-Communist movement – above their strategic interest in halting the growth of Fascism. In doing so they made the Second World War virtually inevitable. The European War, indeed, broke out within six months of Franco’s conclusive victory.

Why is this relevant now?

Because on Friday of this week, 7 May 2010, it looks increasingly likely that the Conservative Party will once again take office in this country. They are promising a reduction in inheritance tax which will benefit a tiny percentage of the very wealthiest. They are promising to repeal an increase in National Insurance, in effect another form of income tax, brought in by the present government; its repeal will disproportionately benefit the highest salary earners.

They are promising to do this at the same time as they are declaring that their top priority will be to reduce the government deficit. With those tax reductions, the cuts they will have to make in public services will be steeper still.

And who suffers the most from cuts in public services? The poorest. What’s more, reduced public spending is likely to jeopardise the economic recovery which is just under way and far from secure.

Great to see that the traditions are still alive. We still have a Conservative Party wedded to class interests rather than strategic interests.

And we’re still stupid enough to vote for it.

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