Thursday, June 16, 2011

Spain and the World: Aspects of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (5)

British Imperialism and non-intervention

The revolt of the sections of the Spanish army led by Franco in July 1936 left the British ruling class with a series of immediate dilemmas, the most important of which was to stay out of a war that had a potential to conflagrate and not to support the Republic a state that had shown itself incapable of stable government. The British ruling class hoped that Franco’s forces would be quickly successful and stable government that represented no threat to British interests would resume.
Leon Blum : Socialist Prime Minister of France's Popular Front Government
The establishment of the Non-Intervention Committee
Since the First World War Britain and France were in alliance and tended to follow the same diplomatic path. In 1936 a Popular Front government was elected in France consisting of Socialists, Radicals and Communists. This government had strong links with the Spanish Popular Front government in Spain and indeed contracts in place were for the provision of French arms and munitions for Spain. Immediately after Franco's revolt some aeroplanes and other munitions were dispatched to Spain on the order of the French premier Leon Blum. Blum had strong sympathies for Spain but found himself constricted in his actions by the attitude of the British, the possibility of a split in the French government with the Radicals clearly indicating their aversion to any support to Spain; and lastly the possibility of igniting mass protests against the PF government by the very large French fascist
movement. Leon Blum therefore proposed to the British the setting up of a committee to ensure the neutrality of European countries in regard to the Spanish conflict. The Non-Intervention Committee first met in September 1936.

The British government and the politics of non-intervention

Among academic historians controversy surrounds the amount of overt pressure that was placed on the French to fall in line. The point is however, that in foreign affairs at this time the British were the dominant partner and it was unlikely that the French would do anything that contravened the wishes of the British.

For the British Blum's idea was a godsend on many counts. It meant that Britain could present its policy as being part of a European initiative; the French and the British were speaking with one voice. The policy had the general support of the British public. It wrong-footed the Labour Party which could only go along with a policy initiated by French socialist. Lastly, it would not entail support for a government which allowed armed workers onto the streets and ordinary sailors to take over its fleet; and it was not siding with the Soviet Union. However what was envisaged by the British as a temporary situation soon became prolonged as Franco's rebel army with German and Italian air support was stopped at the gates of Madrid in November 1936. The British continued to pursue this policy to the end of the Spanish Civil War in April 1939. For the left this was and is a sell-out, a betrayal, cowardice in the face of the obvious fascist threat to peace. To defeat the fascists in Spain may have altered the course of history - the second world war might not have happened. To pursue this line of analysis is to be blind to the role of British Imperialism and the role of Empire in decisions that were made. The speculative big 'IF' of history has no place in the concrete analysis!

Rudolf Rocker - the German anarchist - examines this line of argument in his pamphlet 'The Tragedy of Spain' first published in August 1937. Rocker opens his pamphlet with an examination of the role of foreign capital in Spain and the dominant position of British capital there. British capital had interests in iron ore, mercury, aluminium and copper mining, railroads, and docks. The infamous Rio Tinto owned the largest copper mines in Spain and when this area was over run by Franco's forces in August 1936 a contract between Rio Tinto and Franco was drawn up so that Rio Tinto could carry on business as normal. Indeed Rocker was correct in pointing out that British investments in Spain represented 40 percent of all foreign investment. Trade between the two countries was also considerable with Spain exporting £10 million worth of goods to Britain and importing over £3 million. Before Franco's uprising there were fears for British property in Spain, as left wing newspapers urged nationalisation.

Rocker continues his argument by looking at the threats to the British position that came from all sides: the potential loss of investments if Franco wins the war; the increasing influence of Italy and Germany in Spain and the whole Mediterranean; the threats to communications of the British empire. On the other hand the defeat of Franco would give more impetus to the social revolution, yet another risk to British interests. For Rocker this is the crux of the British fudge of non-intervention:
'And in this situation lies the explanation of England's [sic] whole attitude on the Spanish question. It determined the so-called 'neutrality policy' of the English and French diplomats, which seems unintelligible only to those who think that the present power struggle between different power groups in Europe is concerned only with abstract problems like democracy and fascism. To one who is naive enough to judge the thing from that point of view the seeming blindness of English and French statesmen must of course cause a severe headache; but he will not have understood the heart of the question at all.' ...
'No, the conservative potentates on the Thames are neither blind nor slow of understanding .... Those men know very well indeed what they are doing...'

'The tactics of English diplomacy has [sic] always been to play one power against the others in order to maintain England's hegemony on the Continent. These tactics were determined by the position of world power of the British Empire. England could keep her hold on her colonies, scattered over every continent, only so long as she was able to guarantee them protection against foreign attack.' (Rocker, pp.11 and 12)
Rocker's perspicacious analysis, a piece of brilliant political economy, is borne out by history.

The British Empire consisted of over 500 million people stretched across the globe from the Caribbean through the middle east, containing large chunks of the African continent, to south Asia and the Far east, and on to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Ocean. It was dependent on trade routes and communications that passed Spain, and the Mediterranean was of paramount importance. Italian pronouncements in the 30s that the Mediterranean should be an Italian lake were not well received in London. However Italy was not a world power as Britain was. Britain had the largest merchant fleet in the world and one of the largest navies, and was the world centre for financial capital. The British army was just over 200,000 men of whom half were based overseas across the Empire. But Britain could not fight a European war and could only do so in future by drawing on the Empire's resources. As Rocker says the British ruling class were not interested in democracy but in securing a balance of power that assured the continuation of the status quo and alliances would be made that met these interests.

The Pursuit of Non-Intervention
The Non-intervention policy must in some ways be seen as the real beginning of the British policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, a policy that became more pronounced and entrenched with Neville Chamberlain's premiership from 1937.

The British refused to allow the Republic's fleet to refuel, it was not impressed by sailors so-called 'mutiny'
The British pursued non-intervention with a zeal not even followed by the French or Americans. In July 1936 the fleet of the Spanish Republic could not refuel in Gibraltar after private companies were dissuaded from entering into contracts by the British government. Sales of armaments were immediately stopped. Both of these events happened before non-intervention was proposed by the French government. Later the British government exchanged agents with the insurgents thereby giving legitimacy to Franco's cause. Franco's representative in London, the Duke of Alba, having links to the right wing of the Tory party, was able to propagandise for the rebels. Speakers from Republican Spain were often banned from speaking in the UK and immediately returned to Spain. In one such instance Julian Gorkin, a leading member of POUM, arrived in the UK to speak to a meeting of the Independent Labour Party and was sent back from Croydon Airport. Police began to monitor all pro-republican activity. Journalists undertaking assignments in Spain had to sign a declaration of neutrality before setting off. The government brought into operation the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870 making it illegal for UK nationals to join militias in Spain. A Merchant Shipping Act was passed making it illegal for ships of the British merchant fleet to carry arms to Spain.

Splits in the British Ruling Class

There can be little doubt that the policy pursued by the British did seriously undermine the military capabilities of the Spanish Republic. And even though there were splits in the ruling class they did not stem from an attitude towards the rights or wrongs of supporting a democratically elected government in Spain but rather from policies that should be pursued towards Italy and Germany. Anthony Eden the Foreign Secretary was concerned about the Spanish conflict for two main reasons: one, that Italy not use the civil war as an opportunity to extend its power in the Mediterranean, in particular by having permanent bases on the Spanish Balearic Islands. He also wanted to offer Italy plenty of carrots to draw Mussolini away from German influence. He therefore proposed a British-Italian treaty to settle differences. Eden's failure in both of these aims led to his resignation from Chamberlain's government in February 1938. In fact Eden found himself isolated in government as his softer approach to the Spanish republic found few friends in the British cabinet and he also lost prestige as the Primer Minister took control of foreign policy and pursued appeasement with even greater vigour.


Brendon, Piers. The Dark Valley : a panorama of the 1930s, Pimlico, London, 2001
Buchanan, Tom. Britain and the Spanish Civil War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997
Gallagher, M. D. 'Leon Blum and the Spanish Civil War' Journal of Contemporary History 6(3) p56-64, 1971
Little, Douglas. 'Red Scare, 1936: Anti-Bolshevism and the origins of British Non-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War' Journal of Contemporay History 23(2), p291-311, 1988
Moradiellos, Enrique. 'British Political Strategy in the face of the military uprising of 1936 in Spain'. Comtemporary European History 1(2) p123-137, 1992
Rocker, Rodolf. The Tragedy of Spain [1937], ASP, London 1986
Watkins, K.W. Britain Divided: The effect of the Spanish Civil War on British political opinion. Thomas Nelson, London, 1963

Dale Evans
June 2011

Click on links to other chapters of the pamphlet

1 comment:

  1. An interesting sidelight on the international response can be found in an article (posted August 13, 2013) at