Category Archives: Spanish Civil War

A quick fisking

Two prefatory notes:
1. Each week-day morning I get three emails:

    • The Times is usually first out of the traps with Matt Chorley’s Red Box;
    • Paul Waugh shrewdly chips in with Waugh Zone, the political lead of HuffPo UK;
    • and, trailing the rear, because he has been mulling yet another excruciatingly-brilliant punning headline, comes the New Statesman‘s Stephen Bush.

2. Back in the days of yore, when social media were in their infancy, we took umbrage at the utterances of Robert Fisk. Because we were so much more intelligent than Fisk, we would “fisk” his columns, with counter arguments.

So, this grey Yorkshire morning, I’m fisking Paul Waugh.


Way back in 2010, David Cameron made the Liberal Democrats “a big, open and comprehensive offer” to join him in Government. Tomorrow, Theresa May will make what looks to Labour like a small, closed and limited offer to prop her up in power.

Without exception — and for once even the Torygraph is on board — the commentariat do not like the idea.

May’s relaunch speech has been well trailed overnight and includes a line that she will accept “the new reality” of her loss of a Parliamentary majority. But given her lifelong instinct of trusting only a tight-knit team around her, can May reach out to her own party, let alone Labour and others? May rightly wants to build consensus on areas like social care, but just ask Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham how open to cross-party working she has been in the past. On the Today programme, even the impeccably moderate Damian Green underlined the difficulties of any cross-party working, ridiculing Angela Rayner over the cost of wiping out all student debt. No wonder Labour’s Andrew Gwynne dismissed May’s olive branch, saying “they’re having to beg for policy proposals from Labour”.

We are not — heaven forfend! — to see this as a “relaunch”. Such lèse-majesté would deny the glory of Number 10.

The rest of that paragraph amount to a recital of so many current metropolitan political memes. Memes they may be; but they seem copper-bottomed. The jibe about student debt should not be over-looked: all sides are now coming around to recognising what a total disaster, educationally and financially — as well as electorally, the ConDem government inflicted by cranking up student fees and debt to the highest in the developed world. Predictably, the Tories continue, officially, to impale themselves while, behind the arras, scratching around for a way to climb-down.

If the UK were Germany, we might have seen some sort of ‘grand coalition’ in the wake of the snap election, driven by a sense of national mission to deliver a consensual Brexit (I remember Gisela Stuart floating the Tory-Labour coalition idea if the 2015 election had seen a hung Parliament). But we are not Germany and it takes world wars, rather than impending trade wars, to make our opposing parties work together on that level.

The essential differences between English and continental political practices derive from:

  • the shape of the Commons chamber, itself a distant legacy from the choir-stalls of St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. Once there are two sides, each individual member of the Commons had to decide whether he (and it was always a “he”) was right of the Speaker (the Administration) or left (Opposition). Not for nothing are the two front benches traditionally two swords’ lengths apart.
  • over the centuries, the main supply of parliamentarians has been the Law, they are a contrarian, disputatious and forensic lot. Each argument has to be set against a counter-argument. Remember Swift’s satire of the Little-Endians versus the BigEndians.

Of course, Jeremy Corbyn’s success so far has been built on vigorously opposing the Tories, not working with them. And everyone in Parliament remembers just how badly burned the Lib Dems were by the Tories in coalition, never given credit for the good stuff, blamed for the bad stuff. May will say tomorrow that through cross-party working, “ideas can be clarified and improved and a better way forward found”. But in fact she’s admitting the reality that just 7 Tory MPs is all it takes to defeat the Government. And critics will say the only true way to get her to make concessions is to threaten rebellion after rebellion.

“Jeremy Corbyn’s success so far“: notice two presumptions there. “Success” in practice amounts to gaining 30 seats when all the indicators were for a possible loss of as many as sixty. However, in all truth, Labour opposition has been remarkably limited: in particular on the #Brexit thing. When 49 Labour MPs voted against the Government to keep the UK in the single market, they were abused and worse by Corbynite supporters.

One person who could more credibly make a genuinely big, bold offer to Labour is David Davis, precisely because he would be trusted by his own side not to sell out on the big principles, while being pragmatic enough on how to deliver them. I’ve said before that DD is the Martin McGuinness of the Brexit movement, capable of compromise without abandoning his supporters’ main strategic goal. And despite errors from key allies like Andrew Mitchell, he looks increasingly like the favourite in any Tory leadership race. Green this morning reiterated David Lidington’s line about “the warm Prosecco problem” of Tory MPs gossiping about the leadership. But Mitchell’s parties feature only the finest Champagne, and DD himself likes a pint of bitter. That’s the kind of cross-class, party consensus that May will need to worry about most.

For little obvious reason — but mainly, one has to suspect, for want of a better — David Davis has emerged as the Tory front-runner for a new leader (and, in the present dispensation, Prime Minister). I cannot help musing the Waugh over-eggs his pudding with the “trusted by his own side”. The ultras on the frothing right of the Tory Party trust no-one but themselves — which is why Theresa May keeps head-bangers and second-raters like Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom as household pets. As of now, Davis’s key strength is keeping in line. Were he to go rogue, he could easily bring down the whole shebang.

One final, dislocated thought:

John Rentoul (another commentator of value) is, but of course, cocking an ironic eye there. Irony on irony: that Paul Staines (by name and by nature) felt moved to protect “the establishment”.

On Saturday I was at the Big Meeting, the Durham Miners’ Gala. The Red Banners flew free. The Red Flag was sung, and — uniquely — the singers knew more than the first verse and chorus.  Tee-shirts proclaimed ¡No pasarán! and La lutte continue! I even heard a scratch band bash out The Internationale. I could have bought books, badges and posters celebrating Lenin, Trotsky, James Connolly.

It was all festive, and slightly tongue-in-cheek. For all the revolutionary ardor, these subversives were set on little more than getting down the next pint.

And yet, according to Guido Fawkes: they had already won! These north-easterners had voted #Brexit. They were successfully challenging the Establishment.


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Filed under Beer, Britain, British Left, Conservative Party policy., democracy, Europe, Guido Fawkes, International Brigade, John Rentoul, Labour Party, leftist politics., Paul Waugh, politics, socialism., Spanish Civil War, Theresa May, Times, Tories., Vince Cable

Theocracy, anyone?

Irish Times, top left corner, head of side-bar:

Pope critical of Spain’s secularism

Pope Benedict has denounced abortion and gay marriage, recently legalised in Spain, at a Mass to consecrate Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia church, in another criticism of what he called Spain’s “aggressive securalism”

Observations thereon:

  • Mandy Rice-Davies Applies [“Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”].
  • If there are two Western countries whose history demonstrates the superiority of secularism to heavy religion, they must be Spain and Ireland.
  • What is “aggressive secularism” anyway? When was the last time anyone, anywhere, was challenged on the street or on the doorstep to surrender one’s soul to secularism? “Have you been un-saved?”
  • Pope Benedict XVI Ratzinger (let’s not get involved in whether or not Benedict X counted) has it wrong:

“In recent years we have witnessed a growing anti-clericalism and an aggressive secularisation, similar to that seen in the 1930s,” he warned.

That seems to be mistaking apathy for something active and hostile. As the Irish Times piece (by Jane Walker) notes:

Although 73 per cent of Spaniards still define themselves as Catholic, only 14.4% of them regularly attend Mass. Last year, for the first time, the number of civil weddings was greater than those celebrated in churches.

If the Church cannot “sell” itself (and its recent PR has been appalling), why complain and blame others?

  • Benedict seems uncomfortably close to advocating a return to the Franco years. Sodomy laws were removed from the Spanish Civil Code as early as 1822: they only returned and were tightened under the Caudillo de España, por la gracia de Dios.
  • Benedict is a bit behind the action: same-sex marriage was legalised in Spain five years ago. His take on the abortion issue is less surprising: abortion within the first three-months was liberalised as recently as 5th July this year. Even so, he is explicitly stepping up for the conservative Right against the Zapatero government.

White elephant time

Now, as for the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família: it’s certainly big, it’s spectacular, it’s definitely different, it has more symbols than Chinese orthography. Above all,  it brings in the tourists and their money. Some even find it “beautiful” — others see Disneyland with smells-and-bells.

For many years its principal attraction has been the building process, which over time has moved progressively away from even Antoni Gaudí‘s flexible conceits. If it is completed in any span (this consecration is essentially another fund-raiser), then what after that?

How often will Barcelona need to accommodate a congregation of going on for ten thousand? If that’s an irregular event, especially so in a “secular” world, and if the tourists tire of trekking out beyond the Diagonal Avinguda, once all those bits start dropping off, how many Papal visits will be needed for the maintenance bills?


Filed under civil rights, equality, Franco, History, Religious division, Spain, Spanish Civil War, travel

Long live the Fifteenth Brigade!

It’s a great song, a rousing song, but Malcolm has severe doubts that many in fact marched off cheerfully to the Jarama Front singing:

Viva La Quince Brigade—
Rumbala, rumbala, rumbla
Viva La Quince Brigade—
Rumbala, rumbala, rumbala
Che se a cubuerto de gloria—
Ay Manuela, ay Manuela…

The third stanza implies a vague link with the actuality:

At Jarama we’re still standing
Rumbala, rumbala, rumbala:
And we have no planes above us,
Not a tank, not any cannon
Ay Manuela! ay Manuela!

As will become clear in a moment, the XVth did not have no planes above us at this time.

The history

Antony Beever records that:

On 12 February [1937] Asensio’s troops captured the commanding feature of Pingarrón, while to the north XI International and 17 Brigade just held on at Pajares. The newly formed XV International Brigade was thrown into the breach on the San Martín-Morata road to face Sáenz de Buruaga’s troops. They consisted of a British battalion, commanded by Tom Wintringham, the Dimitrov battalion and a Franco-Belgian battalion. The American battalion was being hurried through induction at Albacete to be ready to reinforce them.

When Beevor’s verson is set alongside Hugh Thomas’s earlier history (and Malcolm’s more favoured reading), it seems little more than a terse summary:

Asensio… the next day, the 12th, stormed and captured the heights of Pingarrón, on the other side of the river [Jarama]. Sáenz de Buruaga’s brigade crossed also at San Martín and joined Asensio in a new offensive at the south of the front towards Morata de Tajuña.

The ensuing battle was marked by Republican control of the air for the first time. Nationalist Junkers were driven out of the sky by Russian fighters. It also marked the first fight of the XVth International Brigade, commanded by Colonel ‘Gal’, a naturalized Russian, of Hungarian birth like Kléber and Lukacz. Gal was incompetent, bad-tempered and hated. The central figure in the formation of the brigade was the Chief of Staff, the gallant English Captain Nathan—shortly promoted to the rank of Major. The Political Commissar was a French Communist, Jean Chaintron, who passed under the name of ‘Bethel’. The brigade comprised volunteers from twenty-six nations. The first battalion of the brigade consisted of 600, chiefly Englishmen of the Saklatvala Battalion—so called after the Indian Communist of that name who had been briefly a Member of Parliament in the twenties, but was usually known as the British Battalion. In command was the ‘English Captain’, Tom Wintringham, once of Balliol College, Oxford, more recently editor of Left Review, a communist and military correspondent of the Daily Worker. The Political Commissar was a rugged Scottish communist, George Aitken.

The British Battalion included a large number of Scots and some Welshmen. There were also some Americans in the battalion at this stage, sixty Cypriots (from London), an Abyssinian, an Australian, a Jamaican, a South African and a Cuban. The other three battalions of the XVth Brigade were 800 mixed Balkans of the Dimitrov Battalion; 800 French and Belgians of the 6th of February (or Franc0-Belgian) Battalion; and 500 Americans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion including many Negroes. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion was still training at the village of Villa nueva de la Jara, near Albacete. The Irish were divided between the Abraham Lincoln and the British Battalions. Those who joined the former did so because they had objected to the British Daily Worker’s omission to mention that many of the fallen on the Córdoba front at Christmas had been Irish. They had then been serving with the British No. 1 Company, and had rioted when their first request for a transfer had been refused. Frank Ryan, their leader, also had a public quarrel with Marty…

Malcolm quotes this at length not just because it is more detailed, but because it is delightfully cadenced. For example, the detail of Tom Wintringham, once of Balliol College, Oxford brings the man to life, as does the concealed-meaning in a rugged Scottish communist, George Aitken; while the recital of the national origins leads the reader to wonder Why? How?

Back to Viva la Quince Brigada

As far as Malcolm can determine, the song was wished on the folk-music scene by one Bart Van Der Schelling, a musician, activist and member of the Dutch segment of the International Brigade.

Time Magazine has this from 4th August 1941:

World War II has yet to produce a great song, but last week some of its saddest were heard in the U.S. The League of American Writers produced an album of records ($2.75) called Behind the Barbed Wire—six songs of the French, Spanish, Italian and German anti-Fascists who now rot in the French concentration camps of Gurs, Vernet d’Ariège, Argelès-sur-Mer.

The six songs were recorded in Manhattan by a Netherlands-born fighter in the Spanish Civil War, Bart van der Schelling. He wears his chin in a brace, is called “official singer” for the U.S. survivors of the International Brigades of the Loyalists. Singer van der Schelling is backed by an “Exiles Chorus” directed by Earl Robinson (Ballad for Americans). Some of the songs—the Spanish Joven Guardia, the Italian Guardia Rossa, the German Thaelmann-Bataillon, the French Au Devant de la Vie (music by Soviet Composer Dmitri Shostakovich)—were composed during the Spanish War. Most of them are in rough, plodding march time. The one which gives the album its name was composed by a German, Eberhard Schmitt, in the camp at Gurs. Its chorus, translated (not quite so lame in the original):
Behind the wire, our courage is unbroken;
We yield to no one! We’re not broken reeds!
Jail or internment, we’re masters of our lives,
Nothing counts with us but deeds!
For where Germany’s and Austria’s sons may be,
One goal they cling to: Liberty! . . .

Malcolm has never come across hair nor hide nor shellac of that 1941 recording, but we find Quinte Brigada [sic] is track 14 on “Fighting the Fascists, 1942-44”, which is Disc 4 of Bear Family Records 10-CD compendium of Songs for Political Action. The credited musicians and singers are Pete Seeger, Tom Glazer, Baldwin Hawes and Bess Lomax.

It next turns up in The People’s Songbook, originally published by Boni and Gaer in New York in 1948. And from there it became a:

Traditional Spanish Folksong from ‘The People’s Songbook’, also known as ‘Ah, Manuela!’ it is possibly the war’s signature song.

Thereafter, it turns up repeatedly in Pete Seeger’s repertoire, notably in the Carnegie Hall Concert of June 8, 1963.

Though fond of the song, Malcolm has some doubts about the honesty of its parentage. It sure ain’t “traditional”, but van der Schelling or Seeger: does it really matter?


Filed under International Brigade, Pete Seeger, Spanish Civil War