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BOOKS Labouring to overcome imperialism

JOHN FOSTER recommends an essay collection on how the global workers’ movement has challenged the might of empire

Workers of the Empire Unite: Radical and Popular Challenges to Imperialism
by Yann Beliard and Neville Kirk
(Liverpool University Press, £95)

IN OCTOBER 1948, Gibraltar’s colonial governor ordered the deportation of Albert Fava, the general secretary of the Gibraltar Congress of Labour (GCL), the colony’s biggest trade union federation.

Along with his wife and four children he was transported to Britain, never to return. He had committed no crime. No legal case had been taken against him.

Willie Gallacher, the communist MP for West Fife, raised his case with the minister of state for colonial affairs. In face of Gallacher’s objection that Fava had simply been engaged in trade union duties, the Colonial Office replied that “no-one has ever suggested that Mr Fava should refrain from lawful political activities. Communists must, however, be expected to be treated in this way.”

Tom Sibley’s fascinating essay in this book, itself an important research collection, uses Fava’s deportation to probe the ambiguous character of Britain’s post-war Labour government and its relations with trade unions, both in Britain’s colonies and internationally.

It was in fact two former Transport and General Workers’ Union leaders, the colonial secretary Arthur Creech-Jones and the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who were ultimately responsible for Fava’s deportation.

Fava was a Gibraltarian.  After Franco’s fascist rising in Spain he had crossed the border to act as a political officer in the Spanish republican forces. Evacuated to Britain in 1939, he was employed during the 1939-1945 war in engineering factories in Wales and Scotland and became an active member of the engineering union, AEU.

Immediately after the war, as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he briefly worked as an organiser in Stirlingshire. On his return to Gibraltar he transformed the size and effectiveness of the Gibraltar Congress of Labour (GCL).

This was his crime. When he took over as its general secretary, one of the GLC’s first decisions was to apply for membership of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) which had been established as a united world federation in 1945.

At that point it included the British TUC, Soviet trade unions and the Congress of Industrial Unions in the US. By 1947-1948, however, the Truman administration in the US and the allied Labour government in Britain were determined to break it.

The WFTU was seen as supporting trade unionists who opposed colonialism and, worse still, in the militarily critical lands of Western Europe, were resisting rearmament and US preparations to use its nuclear monopoly against the socialist countries.

It was Britain’s TUC, then the non-communist world’s biggest trade union centre, that used its international influence to lay the basis for a new federation, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

The prospect of a WFTU-affiliate organising the workforce in Britain’s prime Mediterranean naval base was bad enough.  Worse still, the week before Fava’s expulsion, the GLC had passed a resolution calling for solidarity with the anti-fascist opposition in Spain, at a time when US military planners saw Franco as a key ally in the politically hostile Mediterranean region.

Beliard and Kirk’s collection of essays on radical challenges to British imperialism provides a valuable series of case studies. They cover Annie Besant’s support for Indian independence in the 1900s, the subsequent struggles against British rule in the 1920s and 1930s, the role of Fenner Brockway and the Movement for Colonial Freedom in the 1940s and 1950s, Sudan in the 1950s and Kenya in the early 1960s.

Its cost makes it a book for libraries but it should not be neglected. Some will not agree with all its judgements but its case studies, like Tom Sibley’s on Fava, throw light on how far the influence of Britain’s imperialist state penetrated all aspects of our society including the labour movement.

 

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