Action and Inaction

MT 60 Years Ago – 3rd Year – No 93 – Friday 18th May 1956

On March 12, 1933, six British engineers were arrested in Moscow on charges of espionage but these charges were not made public at once. But as soon as they were arrested, the British Ambassador in Moscow prejudged the issue by declaring that the charges were trumped-up, frivolous and fantastic; and he said it was inconceivable that credible evidence could be produced of any malpractice by the company employing the engineers.

Three days later the soon-to-be Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin (who at the time had yet to confess that he put party advantage before the national interest at a general election) added to the prejudgement. In the House of Commons he said that the Government didn’t know exactly what charges were being brought against the six engineers, but that it was nonetheless “convinced that there can be no justification” for that! Other right-wing politicians added their comments to the statements of Baldwin and the Ambassador. Eventually the engineers were brought to trial and sentence was pronounced. One was acquitted; three were to be deported from the USSR, and two received terms of imprisonment — two and three years respectively. Immediately after these sentences were known, the Conservative Government — without waiting for the sentenced men to appeal against their sentences – put an immediate embargo on 80 per cent of all Soviet goods that Britain had been importing.

This action was political retaliation against the legal condemnation of British subjects in a foreign court of law. It was retaliation against a country with which relations were unfriendly; for at the time Britain had a thoroughly reactionary government containing pro-Franco and pro-Hitler elements, as the war time books and bestsellers Tory MP, Guilty Men and Your MP were to show.

Contrast the action of the Foreign Office and Government then with their supine inaction last year when MM Jalabhay and Loljeeh were expelled from Reunion in circumstances which savoured of Nazism. “We cannot do anything, the case is still sub-judice at Court” was the Foreign Office plea for months. Yet the fact of a case being sub-judice didn’t stop them protesting to the Soviet Union about the six engineers. Now, however, the Foreign Office has told Mr Brockway that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has decided that the Anglo-French Convention of 1882 does not apply to Reunion. Therefore the local courts were right to expel MM. Jalabhay and Loljeeh; and, says the Foreign Office: “It is clear that it would not be in the wider interest of Her Majesty’s Government to suggest an extension of the Convention to the island of Reunion. The Foreign Office doesn’t think that if the Convention were extended to Reunion, it would help the two expellees,” so they say, “There is no way we can intervene to help Mr Jalabhay and Mr Loljeeh.”

This contrasts with over-readiness to protest to the Kremlin over the six engineers. The Foreign Office could protest to the French authorities if it wished; could seek to have the two men allowed to return to Reunion. But of course the old mentality rules at the Foreign Office as at so many other Government Departments. Naturally the top civil servant won’t do anything to impair relations between Britain and another capitalist imperialist colonial power — France. Colonial powers support one another: as the proverb has it, “Birds of a feather flock together”. France expelled two British subjects from Reunion; that is bad luck on them, but colonialism must be upheld. That is the argument; it’s the same attitude of mind as in Kenya led to the Mau Mau uprising. Colonialism rears its head and individuals suffer.

At the Foreign Office, complacency. Not a thought of the personal sufferings of Mrs and Mr Loljeeh, separated by the Indian Ocean and the decision of the Court upholding the decree and deeds of the Prefect Philip. (One bright spot for the Reunionnais — Philip was in Tunisia before Reunion, and almost as soon as he left Tunisia, that country was granted its independence — just as Algeria will have to be granted independence).

The bald statement by the Foreign Office that there is no way to help MM. Jalabhay and Loljeeh comes as a great disappointment to Mr Brockway and myself. It is even more disappointing when we consider the past record of the Foreign Office in intervening with foreign governments on behalf of British subjects who have transgressed the law. But it seems that if the protest would have to go to another colonial power, the Foreign Office won’t act; only if the protest would be going to an Iron Curtain country. Thus do we see discrimination; and a lack of equality of treatment.

 

* Published in print edition on 12 January 2018

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