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Friday, 28 April 2017

Evil Portents for Europe and Windsor Family Harmony

The bombing of the Basque market town Guernica by the German Condor Legion operating in support of General Franco’s Nationalist forces is arguably the best known event in the Spanish Civil War. It held far wider significance and has deservedly gone down in history. There was no military justification for the murderous attack on a defenceless town on market, which killed a large proportion of the inhabitants. It displayed Franco’s ruthless methods and gave the world a foretaste of the horrors of aerial warfare. Despite feeble denials, Guernica proved the extent of German involvement in the war. It was commemorated in a surge of artistic work, most famously Picasso’s huge painting.

The meeting between Mussolini and the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg at Venice produced an unpleasant surprise for the Austrians. The reception was superficially amicable with the Duce accompanying Schuschnigg personally on a motor launch trip to the Lido where the Austrian leader was able to indulge his passion for sea bathing. The sting in the tail came in the Italian communiqué afterwards. It conspicuously failed to mention Italian commitment to the independence of Austrian as it had been customary to do. The status of Austria was the one material potential bone of contention between Germany and Italy; much idle diplomatic strategy in Britain had been posited on exploiting this rivalry to neutralize the two Fascist dictatorships. The evidence that Italy was starting to disinterest herself in the question was bad omen for independent Austria as well as a portent of what now seems as the inevitable alliance of the Führer and the Duce.

Sir Edwin Lutyens’s memorial to George V was inaugurated in Windsor. It was dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and unveiled by George VI in the presence of the late King’s widow and his other children, with the inevitable exception of his eldest son, now the Duke of Windsor. It was the occasion for another noticeable step in the worsening of relations between the Duke and his family. He had contributed to the cost of the memorial and was decidedly put out when this was not mentioned publicly. Intentional or otherwise, this served to reinforce the process of expunging him from consciousness and history.

Friday, 21 April 2017

British Empire Proves Easier to Celebrate and Fight for than to Finance

Neville Chamberlain presented his sixth (and last) consecutive Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Whilst he still fell well short of Lloyd George’s record of eight Budgets, he had superintended Britain’s slow and painful recovery from the worst of the world slump. His task had not, though, got any easier. Above all the cost of rearming Britain had pushed government spending up to the unheard of level of £855m, £57m more than in the previous year. Military spending accounted for almost one quarter of the total. Chamberlain made an uncharacteristic error in determining how to finance this. Assuming that financial and business circles would share his loathing of deficit finance, he proposed the introduction of an extra level of corporate taxation under the name “National Defence Contribution”. It was modelled on the old Excess Profits Duty, designed to capture business profiteering during the First World War. The details had been poorly thought out: taxing increases in profits would fall heavily on Britain’s classic staple industries, whose profits were only just recovering from the ravages of the Great Slump. The more modern industries such as car making would also suffer to some degree. The Stock Market fell heavily amidst a widespread outcry.

The inhabitants of London showed greater public spirit by turning out in their tens of thousands to witness the dress rehearsal for the Coronation procession even though it began at 6.30am on the first day of summer time. The spectacle fell well short of the real thing. No member of the Royal family was there although copious salutes were delivered to their imaginary presence. The troops wore normal khaki dress and not their grand ceremonial uniforms. Civilian officials were even detected wearing bowler hats. The state coaches were real enough.

His Majesty’s subjects (reluctant, or possibly just unwitting) on the North-West Frontier of India were giving his armed forces rather more serious occupation in their time-honoured fashion. That old favourite, the Faqir of Ipi, was providing his usual encouragement to the attackers in Waziristan, echoed by the new kid on the block of radical Islam in the region, Mullah Sher Ali, who had concluded that the local elder had become a sight too placid. Groups of a few dozen attacked isolated British posts in brisk if inconclusive actions, which justified the award of a good number of minor gallantry decorations to troops involved.

Friday, 14 April 2017

British Policy In Spain Rings Hollow, Front Populaire's Hollower Yet

The Labour Party at last found a convenient tool to belabour the government's policy on the Spanish Civil War without adopting the potentially embarrassing position of actually coming out in outright support of the Spanish Republic and incurring the dread risk of seeming to endorse anything like military action. The flashpoint was the Nationalist blockade of the port of Bilbao in the Basque region, aimed at throttling Republican resistance there. Despite the government having made a great show of dispatching a whole battle-cruiser - H.M.S. Hood, pride of the Royal Navy, sunk by Bismark four years later - to the station, the Labour Party felt it could safely introduce a motion of censure saying that insufficient steps were being taken to protect British merchant shipping. the motion was, inevitably, defeated heavily.

The Blum Front Populaire government in France was also being castigated for its Spanish policy, with its numerous right-wing opponents happily taking up breathtakingly hypocritical Italian accusations that France was being dilatory in enforcing the policy of non-intervention by allowing arms supplies and the transit of volunteers to the battlefront.On a more farcical level Blum faced the controversy over "political" flags - Tricolores bearing the emblems of the Front's constituent parties - being raised over the the Paris Exhibitions. These had been removed and then replaced. Tellingly, it was the Communist Party that called loudest for their removal. This offered an undemanding diversion from its usual habit of excoriating Blum's failure to support the Spanish Republic. With the Front looking ever more short-dated in the face of such opposition, gold reached a new high on the Paris Bourse.

On happier monetary note, the new designs for coinage for George VI's reign were presented. The most charming feature was a naturalistic image of the wren, Britain's smallest bird on the smallest coin, the farthing, worth little more than one thousandth of a pound (0.1p). Never likely to survive more than modest inflation, it was to have a life of less than twenty years. The twelve-side sided threepenny piece also made its formal entry into British coinage, although sample models had been minted bearing the image of Edward VIII for the experimental use of vending machine manufacturers. These unique numismatic relics of Britain's shortest reign of modern times are now exceedingly rare.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Competitive Modernity

The latest announcements of plans for the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and related festivities displayed a blend of the ancient and modern. The old custom of progressing down the Thames by a Royal Barge was to be revived. The Royal couple would travel from Westminster to Greenwich on the Thames accompanied by the professional and political heads of the Royal Navy to open the National Maritime Museum. The boat itself was a newly built, entirely modern craft on the pattern of admirals' barges in the Royal Navy. As a complete innovation, the BBC said it would broadcast the coronation on television. Less radically, but still significantly the King would also make a radio broadcast to the Empire on the day of the ceremony. He had not resumed his father's practice of Christmas Day broadcasts, partly because of his stammer. As his elder brother had broadcast early in his brief reign, it might have been seen as telling if he had completely abstained from broadcasting. A Royal Visit to Wales in the summer was also announced. It was not expected that he would repeat Edward VIII's call of "something must be done" and the programme featured none of the distressed areas.

India's Congress Party renewed its attacks on the regional governments formed under the very limited measures for Indian autonomy introduced after years of political infighting in Britain. They focused on the veto powers held by the State Governors appointed by the British authorities over legislation passed by the assemblies. These had been a concession to the Tory right in the prolonged and tortuous battle to get the India Act through Parliament in the teeth of opposition that included Winston Churchill. The whole scheme was certainly too little and, probably, too late to keep the the British Empire in India alive, but just as with Home Rule in Ireland, a world war intervened before the new arrangements had a chance to prove themselves, making a more radical solution practically inevitable once peace came.

After their failure to capture Madrid, General Franco's forces turned their attention to a major offensive under General Mola, their leading battlefield commander, against the Basque country, still a Republican stronghold in Spain. To relieve pressure in the north, the Republicans launched a futile and costly attack near Brunete. In an unreported foretaste of horrors to come, Mola ordered the bombing of Durango, an undefended town, by the German Condor Legion.