Remember the Good Soldier

leo-abse.jpgLeo Abse died a couple of days ago, the former left wing MP and brother of poet Dannie Abse.

Leo Abse was a fantastic exemplar of what a determined and principled individual MP can achieve. Not only did he pilot a Private Member’s Bill through Parliament in 1967 to legalise sex between men, but he was an international campaigner for women’s abortion rights.

But the story of how Abse came to prominence was in the Cairo Forces parliament in 1944. This was originally envisaged as a “mock parliament” by the education department in the army to popularise an appreciation of the democratic values to inspire the troops in the fight against fascism. All army units had political education officers – many of whom were CP members, or supporters of the war-time Common Wealth party.

The very soul of the army was at stake. Egypt was a decisive battleground over war aims. Following the defeat of Rommel the left in the Eighth Army had a very serious fight on its hands. Greek troops had mutineed rather than participate in the invasion of Italy. They had been promised that they would be allowed to return to liberate Greece instead. The British government responded by disarming the Greeks, surrounding them by barbed wire and denying them food. The response of the left in the army was decisive, the Communist Party organised collections of food from British and Commonwealth troops, and drove convoys to the beleaguered Greeks, until a compromise agreement was reached.

But by 1944 it was clear that the war would be won, especially due to the heroic efforts and sacrifices of the USSR’s Red Army. In the army the left organised among the other ranks to discuss what sort of world they were fighting for.

The “mock parliament” in Cairo was transformed – units elected delegates who stood on party programmes, and the debate electrified the army. It was understood that for the first time since the Putney debates the Army was democratically discussing what they were fighting for. The Cairo parliament formed a joint Labour/Communist “government”, and passed a series of Acts. These were not just debating society games – the Peoples’ Army was speaking to say that these were their war aims, and they expected the Westminster parliament to follow suit.

The first bill presented was moved by Leo Abse for the nationalisation, without compensation, of the land and the banks. It was passed overwhelmingly.

The authorities panicked and dispersed the key organisers, Leo Abse was returned to London, that caused a parliamentary debate initiated by the great independent socialist MP, D N Pritt.

But the politicisation of the Army continued apace. Serving members of the Armed Forces had been elected to parliament in by-elections for the Common Wealth party, standing on a programme of full and immediate implementation of Beveridge and a second front. The 1945 khaki election saw a landslide Labour government elected, with the overwhelming majority of troops overseas voting Labour, or more to the left.

But Leo Abse’s involvement wasn’t over. Once the war finished, the saluting stopped. Mutinees rocked the RAF particularly in India and North Africa, demanding demobilisation. The Army saw the need to decapitate the People’s Army and sprung a mutiny trap on a carefully selected platoon of paratroopers in Malaysia.

Thirteen veterans who had fought the Japanese were charged with conspiracy, and mutiny. They had expected to be demobbed, but instead were kept on to fight against pro-independence guerrillas – a political cause they did not agree with. The army sent out a fresh faced 21 year old martinent of a sergeant who insisted on parade ground dress, saluting and drills – in the jungle, and in a war zone. The soldiers went on strike, and the army sprung the trap.

They were all sentenced to death, then commuted to life time imprisonment – to be served in Malaya.

The issue cut right across the major fault line in the British labour movement. The Atlanticist right backed the Army, determined to restore order in the armed forces to change them back from a peoples’ army – the days of the good soldiers – and back into a professionalised military machine for defending Empire and privilege.

The left swung behind the Malayan prisoners, and Leo Abse played a leading role in the campaign for their defence. They were returned to Britain, and later released. On the specific injustice the left won, but on the more general issue the mutiny trap had worked and the army was depoliticised.

13 comments on “Remember the Good Soldier

  1. regretably abse’s apparent radicalism did not extend to wales – the pontypool mp linking up with kinnock and the tories to help scupper welsh devolution in 1979! Abse must have become less radical with age as despite being a mp for a south wales seat he was virtually anonymous during the great miners strike of 84-85!

  2. It should be remembered that many brave people in the Forces not only campaigned for early demobilisation but also for national independence,

    especially in India, Malayia and Burma

    many faced court martial for their brave stand

    Comrades on the Kwai is an excellent book about communist Stan Henderson fighting for socialism and leadership in a death camp in Burma while many officers turned their backs on the men

    now available at George Barnsby’s web site free

  3. new boots and braces on said:

    Sexual Offences Act 1967

    Decriminalising homosexuality was probably a necessary move & someone had to do it. In the mood of those days it had to be a Private Member’s Bill & the proposer happened to be Abse. In the late sixties Abse’s name was synonymous with this legislation, although he has been somewhat forgotten about in recent years.

    Prisons are congested enough without sending unlucky & otherwise harmless citizens to gaol, as happened occasionally when selected targets were entrapped in public lavatories by ‘pretty policemen’.

    Of course, since those days policemen have grown rather less pretty & there are fewer public lavatories anyway.

    Two more changes for the worse.

  4. Dr Paul on said:

    Andy N: ‘… the great independent socialist MP DN Pritt…’

    DN Pritt was a budding British Vyshinsky. Had Britain become a People’s Democracy after 1945, I could imagine Pritt happily presiding over a show trial in which Harry Pollitt was up before the beak for his disobeying Comintern instructions in October 1939 and for enquiring after Rose Cohen. And he would have sentenced Trotskyists and other ‘counter-revolutionaries’ to long terms in labour camps without a qualm; indeed, he would have enjoyed every moment of it. EH Carr exposed this man as an apologist for Stalinist frame-ups whilst the Moscow Trials were still in progress (see International Affairs , March 1937).

  5. Andrew Coates on said:

    Also the brother of poet Leo Abse and the father of respected left activist, Toby Abse – who writes some of the best stuff on Italian left politics around.

  6. Leo Abse did a lot of good but he was not with out fault including some rhetoric I believe on homosexuality being an illness in need of cure, so lets not attack Peter, it is polite to remember those who have died as saints but not always accurate.

  7. Dr Paul on said:

    Further to my earlier posting about DN Pritt, I think that he brought out in a chemically pure form the contradictory nature of Western Stalinism.

    Pritt did do some useful legal work in respect of civil liberties cases, not least with opponents of imperialism in the colonies who fell foul of the colonial authorities, with striking workers, and with other left-wing individuals, such as Leo Abse and the forces parliament.

    However, this work was conditional upon his Stalinist politics and the particular line that the Communist Party — of which he was never a member, but whose line he invariably followed — was promoting at the time.

    Hence, he did not support workers who were taking strike action during the time of the Big Three coalition in the Second World War. He acted as an apologist for the Moscow Trials, backing up Moscow’s slandering of Old Bolsheviks. As I write in my new book, Soviet troops attacked Finland in December 1939, and ‘as if implicitly acknowledging that the justification of Soviet foreign policy now required the employment of a legal mind skilled in arguing in favour of dubious defendants, DN Pritt came to the fore to explain Moscow’s actions’.

    Pritt backed Leo Abse in 1944, but had Abse found himself in trouble simultaneously with the British legal system and the Stalinists (a not impossible situation, as the Trotskyists were during the Second World War), Pritt would have left him to his fate. I was talking to Leo Abse’s son Toby yesterday evening about this, and he agreed with me.

    Pritt’s double standards, so typical of the Stalinists, did much to discredit the left. We cannot permit the socialist movement to compromise its principles on behalf of some anti-working-class social force even if it calls itself socialist.

  8. iolo morgannwg junior on said:

    Whoops, Andy, you almost got away with saying something positive about wicked Stalinists there! Good job sharp-eyed Dr Paul jumped in to chastise you, defend the principles of the socialist movement and promote his new book at the same time. Perhaps he can tell us which section of the socialist movement has upheld them more than Pritt.
    Read any of Pritt’s volumes of autobiography for mounds of evidence of him taking on British, US and other imperialisms, fascism etc etc. He was a bit of an egotist, but his record speaks for itself. Read his record in Palriament on the online Hansard – courageous defences of socialist and internationalist principles against the baying Commons mob, the right-wing press, the whole political establishment in fact. Except that he was a ‘Stalinist’, and therefore far well short of the purity achieved, for example, by a handful of British Trotkyists who went on strike during the war. Except that in south Wales and other coalfields, too, Stalinists did the same. But I’m sure we can dismiss them with a sneer or two about hypocrisy, double standards and the other good old standbyes.
    Abse was a strange old bird. As well as his contribution to the struggle for gay rights – which should be seen in its historical context rather than rubbished from today’s more advanced positions – he had a good record on peace and key international issues. He opposed German re-armament in the 1950s and early 1960s (collaborating closely with the Stalinist hypocrites/betrayers etc.), went to Israel to challenge Zionism, and made some of his finest speeches towards the end of his Parlianentary life against Britain’s nuclear weapons and the Western Cold War mindset.
    But he was very hostile to the Welsh language and devolution, even joining in Kinnock’s attack on the Wales TUC for supporting a Welsh Assembly, on the grounds that the WTUC was full of Communists.
    Overall, though, one of the better MPs of the second half of the 20th century, although local dealings in his Pontypool constituency led to accusations of financial and property skulduggery.

  9. Dr Paul on said:

    Re Iolo Morgannwg Junior #11. This is exactly the problem: here we have Pritt doing some useful work for the British working class and for anti-imperialists in Britain’s colonies, yet he not only ignores the atrocities committed in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but actually praises them. Check out his writings on the Moscow Trials. And, what’s more, he still defended Stalin when the Communist Party here started to realise the awful reality of the tyrant.

    No wonder our ruling class can brand socialists as hypocrites when we have the likes of Pritt & Co in the movement, and when he still gets defended today.

    You can’t effectively fight tyranny in one place if you defend it elsewhere.

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