Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

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Not Just Orwell

In A.Graham, Reviews on February 18, 2010 at 9:01 am

REVIEW: “A Quiet Sector of a Quiet Front”

The Independent Labour Party Volunteers and the Spanish Civil War.
by Christopher Hall

The Spanish Civil War, which raged between 1936 and 1939, was a bloody, bitter conflict that divided not only the country but also those who rallied to defend the Republic.

It all began with an attempted military coup against the elected left-wing republican government in July 1936. The rising by the insurgent generals met fierce resistance in many centres where support for the government was strong – particularly in Madrid and Barcelona – and the ensuing struggle was to drag on until March 1939.

General Franco, who emerged as leader of the Nationalist insurgents, gained support from both Germany and Italy. Hitler, indeed, was to practise his military strategies in Spain – particularly with the bombing of Guernica. As for the beleaguered Republic, it received little support from governments that adopted a policy of strict “neutrality”. Only the USSR gave active backing.

But hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women did flock to Spain to give their support to the Republic. Most of them joined the International Brigade; but there was a significant minority who instead joined the militia forces – those from POUM or the Anarchist battalions (mainly based in Barcelona).

This book by Christopher Hall looks at the part played by volunteers from the Independent Labour Party (the ILP) in the fight against Fascism in Spain. Most joined the POUM (“Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista”) militia. POUM was a left-Socialist party based largely in Catalonia, with whom the ILP had links.


Christopher Hall includes an outline of the history of the ILP, which by the time the Spanish conflict broke out had disaffiliated from the Labour Party and was reduced to a mere four MPs in Parliament and a membership of a few thousand. But it was still capable of punching above its weight. It gave full support to its fellow Socialist party in Spain and was able to muster a hundred volunteers to fight for the cause (including, of course, George Orwell). Its first direct involvement was to equip and send an ambulance to Spain. It attempted to organise a food ship to the beleagured population of Bilbao, and also housed some forty Basque refugee children in a home in Street, Somerset, provided by the Clark family, who owned the nearby shoe factory.

But the bulk of the book is concerned with those who fought alongside their POUM comrades in what became the 29th Division on the Aragon front – until the early summer in 1937 when POUM was suppressed.

The Aragon front was described by poet John Cornford as “a quiet sector of a quiet front”. The number of international volunteers who served there could be counted in hundreds, as compared to the tens of thousands who served in the International Brigade in the defence of Madrid – but their contribution should not be underestimated. They held the line, and even made some small gains in inhospitable terrain.

Some commentators saw Spain as a “rehearsal” for the Second World War – and indeed it was international politics that sealed the fate of Spain. And for decades afterwards the ILP was condemned and belittled by many (not least by those in the Communist party) for its role in Spain. Now, thankfully the part that it played (along with POUM) has been recognised – and Christopher Hall’s book is a welcome part of its rehabilitation. It is painstakingly researched, despite the difficulty he had in tracing what happened to many of the volunteers.


Incidentally, Ken Loach’s graphic film, “Land and Freedom”, tells the story of a British volunteer who joins the POUM militia on the Aragaon front. Loach had become friendly with Staff Cottman who, at the age of 18, became part of the ILP contingent. It’s been suggested that the film was, at least in part, inspired by conversations between the two.

I was privileged to get to know Staff and his wife Stella. Both of them read the Clarion and when Staff died ten years ago we were able to include an obituary.

For me, this book is not just an important addition to the many works produced on the Spanish conflict, but also recognition of the part played by those like Staff Cottman who fought against fascism and for a social revolution in war-torn Spain.


Back to “old” Labour??

In Dinosaur on February 18, 2010 at 8:52 am

Like many disillusioned old fogeys, I had become hardened to the slick, superficial messages broadcast to us in those TV party political broadcasts. More often than not when they came on, I switched off.

But the other week my trembling finger paused before it could press the “off” button. The broadcast in question was for Labour – but instead of the glib inanities that we’ve come to expect from “New” Labour’s spin merchants, we were treated to a brief resume of Labour’s past campaigns and achievements. There were snatches of old films of trade union demonstrations, of suffragettes on the march, of Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan, for goodness sake. True, the broadcast did have some difficulty in marrying these images to present day policies – but the main point was that Labour’s past was no longer being air-brushed out of the party’s history.

In 1997, the decision was made quite deliberately to turn the party’s back on its past. New Labour was to have new slogans, for new times. To refer to the good old days was considered tantamount to heresy. “Middle England” (whatever that may be) was the party’s target. But now, it seems, the party’s past, and its record, has been resurrected.

It might have been for one night only. It might have been a desperate attempt to bring traditional Labour voters back to the fold. But I found it quite significant – and, hopefully, just a wee bit encouraging.

… and back to council housing?

Another straw in the wind – it seems that suddenly local authorities are clamouring to build council houses again. After some twenty years, during which the supply of council homes just about dried up, they’re now back on the agenda.

It was Thatcher, in her relentless drive towards “home ownership”, who attempted to kill off council housing in Britain. First, she introduced her “right to buy” (at knockdown prices) for council tenants. And then she made it virtually impossible for local authorities to build new homes to replace dwindling stocks. The Tories also encouraged tenants to vote, to opt out of local authority control in favour of housing associations – some of them distinctly dubious.

All this, of course, led to a sharp rise in homelessness, and the deterioration of remaining council-owned stock into “sink estates”. Not that Thatcher was too bothered – she believed that those who couldn’t afford to buy at least one house were “losers” anyway – just like those who travelled by bus.

But the present Government has belatedly recognised that we need more social housing – affordable rented accommodation for those families in desperate need of somewhere to live. The Treasury was authorised to release extra cash to build 1,200 new council homes.

But local authorities have put in bids to build nearly three times that number. Interestingly, a number of those wanting to build new council houses are Tory controlled. Whatever next, I hear you ask?!

Ofsted gets a pasting

Anyone who is, or has been, a teacher will know all about Ofsted. For many of them, the very mention of the word sends a chill down the spine.

Ofsted was introduced by the Tories, to send in teams of inspectors to schools in order to see how they were maintaining standards and meeting “targets”. On the basis of an Ofsted report, a school could be condemned as “failing”. No help was given in trying to sort out problems or give friendly advice. Reports were largely based on exam results, and an Ofsted team would descend rather like a hostile army. Later their clutch was extended to include social workers.

Now Ofsted has been condemned for being too bureaucratic, of simply being concerned in ticking the right boxes – and of attempting to catch school staff and social workers out.

Many of those who are really concerned about the education of our childrenĀ  must wish we could return to the days of Her Majesty’s School Inspectors. HMIs were there to assess – and to advise schools and teachers. It had a supportive role. Now, we have Ofsted, which it seems is merely there to condemn.



In Editorial on February 18, 2010 at 8:45 am

For many of us, 2009 was dominated by the continuing recession. Unemployment rose relentlessly, whilst who still had work to go to found that their jobs were becoming more precarious. The housing market almost dried up, and companies that had seemed a familiar part of the landscape either went out of business or struggled to survive.

Meanwhile, those banks whose actions had been a major cause of the economic crisis were bailed out to the tune of billions of pounds – whilst those who were largely responsible for the collapse of market capitalism continued to draw fat salaries and even fatter bonuses.

The past year also revealed the way in which many MPs had manipulated their expenses to line their own pockets. Of course, the worst offenders were only a minority of our elected representatives, but they were a symptom of what happens when “success” in society is measured in terms of money and greed. And their actions helped to drag the reputation of Parliament further into the mire.


As a backdrop to it all, the Afghanistan conflict intensified and the number of casualties amongst those serving over there began to escalate. Now more and more people are beginning to ask the questions, what are our troops doing out there? Isn’t it time we brought them home?

Unlike Iraq, our intervention in Afghanistan was authorised by NATO, and was thus more broadly based than Bush’s pathetically named “coalition of the willing” that followed America’s coat tails into Iraq. Those countries that have sent troops into Afghanistan include many who wouldn’t have touched the Iraq invasion with a bargepole – like Canada, Germany, and other European countries.

But, like in the UK, many of them are now questioning their role. Indeed, Canada (whose troops have suffered proportionately greater losses than those from Britain) now plans to pull out in 2011.

So why did we invade Afghanistan? Did we go in to “restore democracy” to the Afghan people? Or was it an exercise to get rid of the Taliban? Or (as Gordon Brown claims) to prevent terrorism spreading like a plague to the UK?

Any claim that we were there to plant democracy in the arid Afghan soil was surely shattered by this year’s elections there. To call it a farce is an understatement. Abuses were so blatant that it could only be seen as a distorted caricature. Votes just vanished by the million, whilst others found themselves transferred to the winning candidate like a rabbit in a conjuror’s hat. And through it all, NATO soldiers were killed and maimed to ensure that it could take place. There is no way that this could be seen as building democracy in Afghanistan.

As for “getting rid of the Taliban”, there are few if any signs that their hold has been weakened by the current offensive. And in what way can anyone claim that our presence in this unhappy country prevents the spread of terrorism? History surely suggests otherwise. Events in Afghanistan merely become a focal point – a rallying cry for those who commit their acts of terrorism elsewhere.


The coming year may well be a crucial one in Afghanistan. Here in Britain it could also usher in a new government. And this could well effect us all.

It is difficult how people will vote in the coming General Election. The betting is on a Tory victory – which would leave us all facing a very uncertain future under David Cameron. Of course nothing should be taken for granted until the votes have been counted. There is a sense of disillusion with politics and politicians as a whole. Certainly, if the Conservatives do win, it won’t arouse much enthusiasm amongst the electorate as a whole. But the very possibility of a Cameron government should be enough to concentrate our minds!

Indeed, for many, the phrase “out of the frying pan into the fire” may well spring to mind.