“This is our 1937 moment,” said General Sir Patrick Sanders, the new head of the British army, yesterday. “We are not at war, but we must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion.”
Citing Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who in 1937 called for the army to break from its peacetime routine and prepare to confront Hitler, Sanders urged the British army to “mobilise to meet today’s threat and thereby prevent war in Europe”.
In case it’s not obvious, that is a dramatic change of stance for the British military and has to be matched by higher spending (as Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, has demanded) and a more active engagement with defence from politicians on all sides. Sanders was stunningly frank about the current state of the UK armed forces. If they were forced to confront Russia now, given their depleted stockpiles, reduced numbers and procurement failures, they would be “outnumbered at the point of attack and fighting like hell” – which is a euphemism for losing.
So the urgency is welcome, as would be any extra spending that the Ministry of Defence manages to extract from Rishi Sunak. There’s a lot more to deterring Vladimir Putin, however, and the 1937 analogy shows why the left must play a vital part in it.
In that year, nine months into the Spanish Civil War, the first full-scale battle between British soldiers and the Nazi Wehrmacht took place. The British army had nothing to do with it. It was the communist-led XVI Battalion of the International Brigades who, on 12 February 1937, were thrown into the Battle of Jarama, to counterattack Franco’s advancing forces, who were supported by artillery, machine guns and bombers from Hitler’s Condor Legion.
The result was slaughter. Of the 400 British and Irish volunteers who went forward on the first day, only 125 came back. The hill they fought for is today marked on Spanish maps as “la colina del suicidio” – Suicide Hill.
Two months later came the bombing of Guernica. These two events – the exemplary self-sacrifice of British volunteers on the battlefield, and the mass slaughter of civilians – forced Labour’s leader, Clement Attlee, to rapidly abandon the pacifist position the party had held since its foundation.
[See also: The Labour left needs to get serious on defence]
Attlee was an internationalist and an idealist. Like the vast majority of the 11 million people who voted in an unofficial “Peace Ballot” in 1935, he believed that only the League of Nations could maintain the international rule of law, and that rearmament by the old, imperialist countries would only exacerbate global tensions. Consequently, as they had done every year while in opposition, Labour MPs routinely voted against the Tory government’s defence budget. Attlee also initially supported the “non-intervention agreement” under which Britain would stay out of the Spanish Civil War and prevent the supply of arms to either side.
As word spread about Jarama, and as local Spanish solidarity committees were formed in working class communities, the mass pacifist sentiment that had dominated the left began to evaporate. Attlee had already abandoned Labour’s formal support for non-intervention by October 1936 but he still had trouble getting that position through the party’s conference.
The changed popular mood was expressed through a mixture of left-wing pressure from MPs such as Nye Bevan, and a rapidly growing Communisty Party; and pressure from the trade unions and Labour right around Hugh Dalton and Ernest Bevin. Though Labour MPs yet again voted against the defence budget in June 1937, in July the National Executive Committee overturned the policy. By October that year Attlee was able to turn the party conference into a rally for the Spanish Republican cause. And by December he was on the front lines in Spain, meeting Labour and Communist volunteers and famously delivering the clenched fist salute alongside Republican leaders.
There was, of course, resistance. George Lansbury, Attlee’s religious pacifist predecessor, actually travelled to Berlin to plead for peace with Hitler, assuring Labour supporters that the Führer was “bringing up the German youth in the spirit of peace”. He was given short shrift in the labour movement.
Today, Labour has no need to undergo such a transformation. Whatever his supporters now imagine, under Jeremy Corbyn the party remained committed to Nato membership, nuclear deterrence and spending at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence. John Healey, the shadow defence secretary (who I have advised), has been rock solid in support of Britain’s arms programme for Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion on 24 February not a single Labour MP, nor any major trade union, has supported calls by Jeremy Corbyn and Stop the War to stop sending arms to Ukraine.
[See also: Russia must lose this war]
But there’s more to do. Britain prepared itself for war in 1939 because the Labour tradition developed a distinct, progressive agenda on defence. Attlee channelled all the idealism that had been focused on pacifism into a new ideology of anti-fascist resistance. Faced with a totalitarian, ethno-nationalist Russia, we need the same kind of zeal.
The most immediate contribution Labour could make is to convince the Treasury that higher defence spending need not be a straight deduction from other vital projects such as decarbonisation, social care and energy security. There is a clear multiplier effect from defence: a report by the GMB union in Scotland showed that for every job created in naval shipyards, at least one other job is created in the wider economy.
Second, the opposition needs to have its say on the army restructuring debate opened up by Sanders’ speech. The army is too small, too reliant on reserves and – according to many professional critics – stuck in the mentality of the failed Iraq and Afghanistan interventions. Given the scale of the threat, it’s not acceptable that we will only be able to field a modernised war-fighting division by 2030. Labour should propose concrete remedies: faster investment, higher troop numbers, more cash and tough decisions about failing equipment programmes.
Most importantly, Labour can play its part in addressing Britain’s biggest weakness when it comes to deterring Putin: a lack of social resilience and failing trust in democracy. The Tory culture war plays straight into the Russian president’s hands. Only a society that delivers – on jobs, wages, services and democratic control – will be able to mobilise people to deter the kind of aggression Putin has demonstrated in Ukraine.
1937 was the year Attlee understood he could seize the political future by abandoning pacifism and harnessing British workers to resist fascism. The “sheep in sheep’s clothing” came back from Spain lionised by a working population that was fearful of war but determined to hold the line against Nazi aggression.
For Labour and the trade union movement, the war in Ukraine means this is our 1937 moment too.