Skip to main content

The Trades Union Congress and the Spanish Civil War

Article by Dr Tom Buchanan, Reader in History, Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, and Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 posed a serious challenge for the leaders of the British trade union movement. Influential figures such as Sir Walter Citrine (General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress) and Ernest Bevin (the secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union) were by this time well aware of the danger posed by the rise of fascism in Europe. At the same time, they were concerned that the civil war might draw Britain into a new European conflict less than twenty years after the end of the Great War, and they feared that its political impact would strengthen the Communists within their own ranks. Critics on the left – both then and since – criticised them for not doing enough to assist the democratically-elected government of the Spanish Republic in its struggle against Franco’s Nationalist rebels. The release of the TUC papers on the Civil War in online digital format means that readers can now examine the unpublished records of the key debates and gain a better understanding of why Citrine, Bevin and others acted in the way that they did.

Sir Walter CitrineThe Civil War coincided with a significant juncture in the history of the British labour movement. Citrine had taken office as General Secretary in 1925 (at the age of 37) and lead the TUC through the defeat of the General Strike in May 1926. In the strike’ s aftermath he took the TUC in a new direction; under his adroit leadership it would be less of a “general staff of labour” for fighting the class war, and more akin to a trade union civil service which could negotiate with government on the basis of detailed research and argument. Citrine’s bureaucratic mark is evident throughout the archives from this period: the files are full and well-ordered, records were kept of every telephone call, and Citrine used his own mastery of shorthand to keep a verbatim record of all the top-level meetings in which he participated. The political disaster of 1931, which marginalized the Labour party as a political force for the remainder of the decade, increased the authority of the trade unions within the labour movement as a whole. The formation of a National Council of Labour (NCL) consolidated this authority by creating a forum in which Citrine, Bevin and the other trade union leaders could make policy on an equal footing with Labour party politicians. The NCL played a particularly important role in deciding how the movement should respond to the complex, sudden, and increasingly frequent international crises of the later 1930s.

Citrine has often been described as an arch-bureaucrat, and his role has tended to be overshadowed by that of the more colourful and abrasive Bevin. However, these archives demonstrate just how central Citrine was to the labour movement’s debates over Spain (apart from in the latter stages of the civil war, when he joined a Royal Commission to the West Indies). In fact, he was a passionate and highly intelligent moderate, who believed that labour would only be able to influence the government of the day if it was in charge in its own house. Accordingly he was a staunch opponent of Communist influence within the trade union movement as well as (following his visit to the Soviet Union in 1935) a leading critic of the USSR. Internationally, Citrine believed that British labour should work through the established institutions of which it was a member, such as the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and the Labour and Socialist International (LSI). Through these bodies labour was affiliated to the Spanish general workers’ union (UGT) and the Socialist party (PSOE) (which was in government within the Republic from September 1936 onwards).

The civil war presented a two-fold challenge to Citrine’s vision of a highly controlled, bureaucratic labour movement. First, the civil war inspiredArms for the Spanish People' many British workers to “do something” to help their brothers in Spain: this might range from raising funds, to offering voluntary industrial labour, and even to joining the 2500 Britons who volunteered to fight in the International Brigades. Such anti-fascist activism could not be dismissed or ignored, and was difficult to contain within existing structures. Secondly, the very nature of the civil war – which also had the characteristics of a social revolution on the Republican side – was confused and confusing. Citrine, Bevin and the Labour party’s leaders initially supported the controversial policy of Non-Intervention, whereby no arms would be sold to either side in Spain. This policy was backed by the Conservative-dominated British “National Government”, but more pertinently by the newly-elected French Popular Front government of the Socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum. The leaders used their “block votes” to secure large majorities for Non-Intervention at the TUC Congress in September 1936 and – less convincingly – at the Labour party conference in Edinburgh. By then it was obvious that Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were pouring arms into Spain in support of Franco, while Stalin would also send Soviet arms and advisers to the Republic. Between October 1936 and June 1937 Citrine and Bevin rethought their position, under considerable pressure from the LSI and IFTU, and eventually both the TUC and Labour repudiated Non-Intervention. The verbatim reports record these debates in almost excruciating detail, including the special conference of the LSI/IFTU held in London in March 1937, when the British leaders were subjected to intense criticism. However, the Labour party was too weak in parliament to secure a reversal of policy. Despite a late flurry of enthusiasm for “Arms for Spain” at the TUC Congress in the autumn of 1938 the Civil War ended in late March 1939 with the defeat of the Republic.

The TUC archives attest to the many debates over Non-Intervention during this period, not only within the TUC’s General Council and the NCL, but also at specially-summoned “labour movement conferences” of the Labour Party, trade unions and the co-operative movement. However, during the Civil War the TUC was also closely involved in raising money from affiliated unions for its “Spanish Workers Fund”. This fund was channelled through the International Federation of Trade Unions and used to send medical aid and food to Spain. Citrine and his very able deputy Vincent Tewson shone in this kind of detailed, practical work. The TUC files show that the shipping of aid was handled with extreme professionalism, and that the disagreements tended to centre on how the aid should be disbursed once it had arrived in Spain. The archives also give an excellent account of the TUC’s prominent role in the Basque Children’s Committee, the humanitarian committee set up to care for the 4000 Basque refugee children who arrived in Britain in May 1937, soon after the bombing of Guernica.

While the TUC participated fully in raising money for its own funds or those deemed to be purely humanitarian, the files also demonstrate the 'Saved from War's Terror'TUC’s fraught relations with other “unofficial” initiatives, within which Communists often played a prominent role. For instance, the TUC initially supported the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, and its Medical Officer Dr Hyacinth Morgan served as Chairman. However, formal relations were later broken due to political differences, and the files show that similar problems bedevilled the TUC’s relations with the International Brigade Dependent and Wounded Aid Committee and the Voluntary Aid for Spain Committee. However, although the TUC did not always support these other initiatives, its files still contain some of the fullest surviving documentation of these often ephemeral organisations. (The archives also contain a fascinating collection of the pamphlets, posters and journals associated with the Civil War). The TUC was not only criticised from the left: one of the most interesting files records the efforts by some Catholics within the labour movement to change the TUC’s policy towards Spain. (Many Catholic workers were deeply distressed by the violence directed against the clergy and church buildings in the Republican zone at the start of the Civil War). Indeed, a group of Catholics, lead by Dr Morgan, met Archbishop Hinsley in November 1936 to seek to reconcile the areas of dispute.

The TUC archives are a tremendous resource for studying the Spanish Civil War. The various documents allow insight into how the conflict affected British politics, and show how the TUC sought to work with its international affiliates and its allies inside Spain to provide much-needed food and medical supplies. Understandably, there were many who thought that the TUC had not done enough: some argued that it should call for industrial action to force the government to abandon Non-Intervention. However, Citrine was no revolutionary, and he was determined to ensure that the limited gains won by British workers since the General Strike should not be threatened by injudicious, even illegal, action that was unlikely to achieve its desired result. His role during the civil war was unglamorous and unheroic, very much at odds with so much of the rhetoric and imagery associated with the “Red Decade”. It was, however, highly effective. Citrine’s crucial role in supporting Non-Intervention means that his response to the Spanish Civil War will always be seen as controversial. However, we should also note that he kept a tight rein on the trade union movement throughout the turbulence caused by the Civil War, quietly retained the ear of government during many of the crises that occurred during the conflict, and worked with the IFTU to make sure that practical aid was delivered – and put to good use – in Republican Spain.

* * *

I was fortunate, when working on my doctorate in the mid-1980s, to be the first historian to have access to the TUC papers on the Civil War. These papers formed a valuable source in my subsequent book The Spanish Civil War and the British Labour Movement (Cambridge University Press, 1991) and my article "The role of the British Labour movement in the origins and work of the Basque Children’s Committee, 1937-1939", European History Quarterly, April 1988. I only saw the files on Spanish Medical Aid at a later date, and I drew on them in one of the essays in my book The impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain: War, Loss and Memory, (Sussex Academic Press, 2007).

Books on the Spanish Civil War by Dr Buchanan are held at the University of Warwick Library - further information is included in the library catalogue.