May Ignores the Folly of Heath to Call Snap General Election: can Labour respond?

So, Theresa May has called for a snap general election for the UK to be held on the 8th June 2017. The short-notice announcement this morning came somewhat as a surprise given that May has consistently claimed that she would not call an early election and thereby add further chaos to the Brexit process.

May during her announcement outside 10 Downing Street

Logically, however, this particular political u-turn makes sense. Not only is a handsome Conservative Party victory likely given the disarray of the Labour Party but a resounding majority would give May the mandate she needs to continue to push towards a hard Brexit. Additionally, as BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg notes:

Dealing day-to-day with a small majority has given Conservative backbenchers significant power to force the government to back down on a variety of issues.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Opposition leader, has welcomed the announcement and therefore it is likely that Parliament will approve the decision to take the British electorate to the polls once more.

Whilst current projections suggest a Tory landslide, May should be wary of recent history. The last snap election called by a Conservative Prime Minister was in February 1974 when Edward Heath sought a new majority as an affirmation of his policy towards the Miners’ Strike.

Heath, confident of victory, did not bargain on other factors coming into play during the election campaign. A stagnating economy and continuing inflation led to a loss of government credibility, whilst the decision to join the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the European Union, alienated people both within and outside the Conservative Party. Tory stalwart Enoch Powell – he of the ‘rivers of blood’ speech – went as far as to campaign against Heath.

Heath believed that a majority of voters shared his view on the Miners’ Strike

Compounding matters, the Ulster Unionists, traditional Tory supporters, abandoned the party after the Sunningdale Agreement established a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive.

Revelations during the election campaign that the striking mineworkers were receiving far less money than the government and its National Coal Board allies made out condemned Heath to failure. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won by a margin of 4 seats (despite losing the popular vote), forcing the first hung parliament post-WWII.

Harold Wilson returned as PM after a surprise victory

An inability to form a coalition with the Liberals, or to regain the trust of the Ulster Unionists, led to Heath’s resignation and a minority Labour government.

In October 1974 a second snap election of the year was held at the behest of Wilson who managed to secure the majority (albeit narrow) that he needed to govern effectively. From a position of relative strength at the beginning of the year, Heath and the Tories had fallen flat on their face in a self-imposed disintegration. It would take the arrival of the indomitable Margaret Thatcher to reinvigorate the party.

May should take heed, therefore, that victory is far from certain. All sorts of shenanigans take place during election season and with 24-hour media scrutiny, the next scandal is only just around the corner. With an electorate tiring of the political elite and their partisan and selfish ways, the Prime Minister may yet be punished for what could be interpreted as an arrogant and unnecessary move.

Whilst Brexit will dominate the debates and newsfeeds over the coming months, the state of economic recovery, the education system, immigration and the NHS will all be an important part of the maelstrom of discussion. The Tories have weaknesses on all of these issues which even a factionalised Labour Party may be able to exploit.

Certainly do not expect the next two months to be quiet. Heath and Wilson will no doubt be enjoying a wry smile as their successors join battle once again.

ETA Disarms to Return Basque Nationalism to Civil War Resilience

The militant Basque separatists ETA have finally called time on their four-decade campaign of violence to secure an independent homeland in the north of Spain. At least 829 people have lost their lives since the bloodshed began in 1961, ranging from innocent children to the Spanish Prime Minister.

Police seize a declared ETA weapons cache in southern France

This violent strain of Basque nationalism emerged from the ashes of the brutal Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), with the victorious Franco regime denying the Basque people the little autonomy they previously possessed.

Nationalism and dreams of independence were not a new idea for the northerners inhabiting the French-Spanish border and the Basque Army fought ferociously to deny the advance of Franco’s Nationalists in 1937.

19th Battalion of the Basque Army, 1937

Particularly intriguing is the notable effort made by the Basque people during the Civil War to prevent the indiscriminate acts of violent retribution that plagued both sides and came to characterise the conflict.

‘The moderate Socialists and the Basque nationalists were in the forefront of efforts to put a stop to rearguard outrages…strenuous efforts to put a stop to arbitrary arrests and executions were made by Jesus Galindez of the Basque delegation in Madrid and by Manuel Irujo Olla, the piously Catholic Basque’. (Preston, pp. 291-292)

Additionally, the Basque country was the only region within the Republican sphere that did not see widespread looting and destruction of Church property, the clerical establishment having become inextricably linked with Franco’s forces.

Does this failed attempt at an honourable, bloodless resistance during the Spanish Civil War partly explain ETA’s violent course after its foundation in 1959? Undoubtedly many Basque people never associated themselves with what became a terrorist organisation, regardless of whether they shared some of the group’s ambitions.

The bombing of Guernica – a Basque town of no strategic importance – by Nazi & Italian aircraft in league with Franco, stunned the world

Perhaps it is telling that ETA evolved out of a student movement unhappy at the moderate stance of the Basque Nationalist Party. Young men who had not witnessed the ravages of war first hand were maybe unappreciative of what taking up arms really meant.

For millions of others in Spain, the legacy of civil war and the Franco dictatorship has ingrained pacifism. This has denied ETA the widespread support of the people it claims to represent and ultimately meant its bloody struggle – like that of the IRA – would end in defeat at the hands of a militarily strong and resilient democratic government.

Support for Basque nationalism remains strong but it will continue without the backdrop of ETA violence

Source

Preston, P. The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (2012)

War Over Gibraltar? Spanish Threats and Britain’s Post-Brexit Weakness

Between June 1779 and February 1783 British forces in Gibraltar survived an almost unrelenting Franco-Spanish siege, fighting one of the most remarkable defensive actions in early modern history. Given this heroic feat it is perhaps unsurprising that, more than 200 years later, the British government is not willing to give up its Iberian exclave without a fight.

The Great Siege of Gibraltar

Whether it is wise to threaten the claimant Spaniards with war should they attempt to use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip in negotiations over a post-Brexit EU trade deal is somewhat debatable. What is certain, though, is that London is acutely aware of the symbolic importance of their Mediterranean outpost, even if its strategic significance at the gateway to Europe is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Captured from the Kingdom of Castile during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was formerly ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Attempts by the Spaniards to recapture the territory in 1727 and then during the siege of 1779-1783 failed, leaving Gibraltar as an important base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

Spain has never relinquished its claim to Gibraltar, a somewhat hypocritical stance mindful to overlook Madrid’s remaining colonial possessions on the North African coastline at Ceuta and Melilla. Periodic diplomatic spats have led to border closures and delays, often carefully orchestrated by Spanish crossing guards.

Border delays following a diplomatic row in 2013

Just as Ceuta and Melilla have a centuries-long affinity with their Spanish motherland, Gibraltar remains unapologetically British. Despite their overwhelming preference to remain within the EU, Gibraltarians have no desire to become part of Spain.

There are of course parallels here with the Falkand Islands, over which Britain went to war against Argentina in 1982. That Spain would attempt a brazen assault on Gibraltar comparable to that launched by the Argentinians against the Falklands is unthinkable, their democratic rulers far more encumbered in their actions than the brutal junta in Buenos Aires ever was.

A classic British telephone box at the Gibraltar walls

What George Augustus Eliott, commander of the Gibraltar garrison during the siege of 1779-1783, would think of the petty squabbles of today one can only guess at. Probably he would be gratified by continuing British sovereignty over the outpost his men fought so hard to maintain, no doubt more than eager to throw himself back into the fiery cauldron of battle.

Fortunately, despite the crass comments of some naive politicians, such a scenario is more than unlikely. However, the Spanish decision to publicise this potential stumbling block for Britain’s future economic relations with Europe points to the dissatisfaction on the continent surrounding the Brexit verdict.

Britain has often been seen as an outsider in Europe, an aloof power whose imperialistic history has not endeared it to many of the nations that remain tightly ensconced in the grip of Brussels.

Undoubtedly further tribulations await Theresa May and her Conservative government. Britain’s European neighbours are likely to resurrect these historical enmities in a vindictive attempt to punish one whose dismantling of the long fought for European federalist project is most unwelcome.

Elliot and his officers in discussion during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1782

As the British and the Spanish have long recognised, the power of a rock cannot be measured by conventional indicators. History, nationalism and symbolism combine to make the most toxic of concoctions.