The papers have been full of the Suez story. Both the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph have zeroed in on Eden’s adventure of 50 years ago to try to draw parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan. But there is another anniversary that so far has gone all but unnoticed. It also has lessons for contemporary history.
Seventy years ago this month (July) a British pilot took off from Croydon airport. On his Dragon Rapide aeroplane were a Spanish newspaper man, an MI6 officer and two pretty young women for cover. They flew via France and Portugal to the Canary Islands. There they picked up a no-nonsense conservative general called Franco. The plane took him back to his soldiers at the Spanish Foreign Legion base in Morocco. From there Franco, who had won the plaudits of the Spanish and European Right by his brutal suppression of a strike by starving miners in the Asturias in 1934, launched the invasion of Spain to overthrow the centre-left government that had just been elected.
Three times in the last century, big power foreign governments connived in the transport back from exile of their enemies’ enemy. The Germans did it with Lenin to weaken the Russian army on Germany’s eastern front. The French did it with Khomeini to get rid of the Shiite preacher from Paris, to spite the Anglo-Saxons with their profitable support for the Shah, and to earn brownie points with the Muslim world. We did it with Franco because the supreme fear of the Baldwin–Chamberlain era was the arrival of a leftist European government.
Churchill, Beaverbrook, Rothermere and Baldwin formed a united front in the early 1930s in admiration of dictators like Mussolini whose bombast was pitiable but who posed no threat to Britain. Franco looked like a safe bet to keep Spain free from socialism, and if Britain offered him a lift back to his troops then surely Gibraltar and all our other Mediterranean interests would be safe.
That is why Churchill wrote vigorously in the late summer of 1936 in favour of Franco. ‘I am thankful the Spanish nationalists are making progress,’ he told London Evening Standard readers, and the Foreign Office was quick to thank Churchill for this support. Yet as with Lenin and Khomeini, the consequences of bringing Franco into play far outlasted the immediate tactical advantage as it appeared to the short-termists in London in 1936.
The civil war that began in Spain was not so much a general rehearsal for the wider European civil war that took off in 1939, as a direct advertisement to the Berlin–Moscow–Rome triangle of terror that all the democracies were good for was ‘jaw-jaw’ and when confronted with something harder would back away.
The undoubted heroism of men like Jack Jones and others in the International Brigade cannot disguise the failure of the Left to come together coherently against Franco. In this the Spanish Rightists were aided by the refusal of the British government, supported to begin with by the Labour and TUC leadership, to offer any aid to Republican Spain. Britain was gripped by the huge Peace Pledge Union movement, a forerunner of CND or the Stop the War campaign. In 1935, millions had signed a petition in favour of peace which the then Labour leader, George Lansbury, had taken to Berlin to hand to a grateful Führer.
The policy the Labour party and the government could agree on was one of non-intervention. As Franco’s troops advanced, murdering thousands in their path, including Europe’s greatest contemporary poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, Britain set up a ‘Non-Intervention Committee’ with France. Thus while the Germans tried out their latest weapons and tactics, the mightiest navy and army in the world twiddled their thumbs.
The politics of non-intervention returned to haunt Chamberlain’s successors in the 1990s when John Major and his last foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, refused to put any effective pressure on Milosevic and the Serbs to stop their butchery of European Muslims. And today, of course, Tony Blair is under a torrent of criticism because he chose to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than stay home.
If Suez in 1956 was when we should not have intervened, surely Spain 20 years previously was when Britain should have ditched foreign policy realism for some muscular idealism and a willingness to act. No one knows what happened to Lorca’s body after the gay poet was killed by Franco’s men in August 1936. A few miles north of Granada, in a pine grove high in the hills under the relentless sun of al-Andalus, is a modest block of stone marking the place where the poet was murdered. It reads ‘Lorca eran todos’— ‘We were all Lorca’. Oh no, we weren’t. Britain’s darkest hour before 1940 was when we stood by as Francoism imposed terror and tyranny on Spain. A few defied the conventional wisdom of the non-interventionist and the stop-the-war petitioners of the day. Most left their bones in Spain.
Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and former minister for Europe. His biography of Edward Heath, who supported the Spanish Republic and visited the International Brigade in Spain in 1938, will be published in September.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 29, 2006