Home Political science Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong: A Conflict of Empires
The Proscription Debate and Labour
Despite the Colonial Office’s support for his assessment of AKEL, Turnbull reversed his position less than two months later and called for the proscription of the party. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it does demonstrate the fractured nature of British colonial rule and Cold War policy, particularly between the immediate goals of the metropole and the ‘man on the spot’. Turnbull wrote that he was ‘anxious indeed not to lose the present opportunity to redirect the trades union movement upon a road which will be of advantage to the whole community’. First, he claimed that some trade union leaders (themselves Akelists) had approached the Registrar of Trade Unions for help in forming a new committee outside AKEL’s control. Although suspicious, Turnbull wanted to act as soon as possible on the issue. Second, Turnbull conveyed the attorney general’s recommendation that PSE and its branches should be proscribed, with which he agreed. However, Turnbull argued that any action taken against PSE ‘immediately raises the question of taking similar action against its alter ego, A.K.E.L.’46
According to Turnbull, AKEL was ‘dangerously subversive’, demonstrated by a record ‘too long and too well-known to leave any doubt’. Turnbull claimed that the proscription of AKEL would not only prohibit overt activity and enable the closure of AKEL premises, it would also ‘force a breakdown into the component “cells”’. While these cells would eventually ‘re-combine into a forthright communist party’ and while certain moderate members of AKEL would be required to lead the labour movement, Turnbull argued that the influence and fear the communists had wielded over workers would dissipate, allowing for a responsible labour movement to develop.47
Woolley disagreed. While he acknowledged that AKEL’s ‘pernicious and seditious doctrines’ which hindered healthy trade unionism were justification for proscription, he informed the Colonial Office that he could not recommend proscription and instead found legal action via the courts far more preferable. This pleased many in the Colonial Office; Sir John Martin, the traditionally conservative assistant under-secretary of state responsible for the Mediterranean and Middle East Departments, minuted, ‘The recommendation of Mr. Turnbull’s despatch [...] came as a considerable surprise and I share Mr. Luke’s relief that the Governor [...] should have come down so decisively on the other side’. George Hall, the secretary of state for the colonies, likewise agreed with Woolley, adding that
‘[consideration should also be given to the possibility of arranging visits of Cypriot trade unionists to England under the auspices of the T.U.C.[.] I attach great importance to such positive measures.’48
London was keen to defeat the Cypriot communists but with an approach that upheld its attempt to rebrand its imperialism as progressive. In fact, the imprisonment of PSE members was causing trouble for the Labour government in the House of Commons.49 On 30 January 1946, Leslie Solley, a Labour MP who had previously questioned Britain’s support of what he considered to be a semi-fascist monarchical party over a largely non-communist social democratic one in the Greek Civil War, called the verdict in Cyprus ‘Fascist and anti-working class in its character’. He demanded the immediate release of the trade unionists as well as the dismissal of those responsible for initiating the trial of the PSE. Hall responded by simply rejecting Solley’s premise.50
On 5 March, Solley took the question again to the Commons: ‘It is a fantastic state of affairs when Labour rules at Westminster, and Socialism is a crime according to the law of Cyprus.’ Solley then read from the court transcript of an exchange between the president of the court and the solicitor-general of Cyprus, in which the latter claimed that Marxist theory and the possession of Marxist literature was a crime under Cypriot law. Solley continued:
When I read that[,] I had in mind the Nazi bonfires of books which they did not like. But British Imperialism—and the Labour Party are not responsible; this is the baby we have taken over—moves in a more subtle, and more hypocritical, way. It merely creates the laws which make bonfires legal.51
Solley’s damning criticism of the hypocrisies and repression of British colonialism echoed that of Britain’s communist enemies. Such publicity, especially in the area of labour affairs, was disastrous in the Cold War against rival imperialisms competing for the image of most progressive and inclusive. Creech Jones, as the parliamentary under-secretary of state for the colonies, dismissed Solley’s accusations as ‘grossly untrue and unfair’. He reiterated that the Colonial Office and the Cyprus government were steadfast in their ‘every encouragement [...] to the building-up of sound trade union organisation’.52
Less than three weeks later, on 22 March, the Manchester Guardian translated and published an article from Pravda (the daily newspaper and mouthpiece of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), which accused the British of making Marxism illegal in Cyprus.53 This was exactly the sort of story that the British government was keen to keep out of the international press and especially out of the hands of Soviet propagandists. This was made worse still by the barrage of protests Hall received from a number of concerned British organizations. For example, the president of the British National Union of Mineworkers called the convictions ‘wicked’, while many others, such as the general secretary of the Tobacco Workers’ Union, cited the hypocrisy of fighting a war against fascism only then to repress liberalism in the colony.54
Woolley wrote to Hall to clear up the misunderstanding. He stressed that the solicitor-general’s statements regarding the illegality of the promotion of Marxism and the ownership of Marxist literature were indeed erroneous when taken out of context. Woolley explained that the solicitor- general’s use of ‘Marxism’ was an abbreviation for the PSE’s explicitly seditious interpretation of that ideology. Creech Jones minuted that Woolley’s
explanations seem to make the matter worse [and] to substantiate much of what Mr Solley alleged. [...] [I]t is equally unfortunate [and] stupid.
It has done much harm, for these quotations have been used not only to damage the present administration in Cyprus [and] the British Government here but also in the eyes of the world to reflect on the character of British colonial policy.55
This episode was a perfect example of the imperial Cold War in action. Creech Jones recognized the connection between colonial policies in Cyprus, international perceptions of British colonialism, and Britain’s great power status in the Cold War. A failure in one area, in this case repressive action in a colony, negatively impacted the others.
Meanwhile in Cyprus, the fourth Pancyprian Trade Unions Conference in March formed a new committee, the Pancyprian Federation of Labour (PEO), to replace the PSE. This caused ‘some satisfaction’ for the government, as the conference dissociated itself from the more extreme policies of the PSE and expressed a desire to avoid manipulation by AKEL. Martin informed Woolley that the Colonial Office felt that the PEO constituted ‘some grounds for optimism about the future of the trade union movement in Cyprus’. He added that ‘every assistance and encouragement should be given to the movement in its chastened mood’. The Cyprus government agreed, having already assisted two delegations of Cypriot trade unionists, including Michael Montanios, now the general secretary of the PEO, to attend the 1945 World Trade Union Conference in London (which, as it turned out, laid the groundwork for the creation of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), an enormously successful Soviet front organization in the Cold War). Nevertheless, Woolley, similar to colonial officials in Hong Kong and London, was convinced that contact with English trade unions ‘greatly benefited’ the Cypriots, by exposing them in this one-way cultural exchange to the supposedly inherent supremacy of the ‘British way of life’.56
On 18 October, partly in order to encourage this moderate trade union movement in Cyprus and partly to counter anti-colonial propaganda more broadly, the Cyprus government released the PSE leaders from prison early as an act of clemency. Creech Jones quickly informed certain British labour organizations of this decision and attempted to clear up any remaining misunderstanding. R. Coppock, the general secretary of the National Federation of Building Trades Operatives, for example, expressed his thanks upon receiving the news. He explained that the imprisonment of the PSE leaders was bound to be raised at an upcoming international building trades conference and that Creech Jones’s letter ‘will help to dispel the suspicion that is usual in the minds of representatives of other countries regarding British Colonial policy’.57 This was exactly the sort of benevolent imperial image and indirect propaganda Whitehall hoped to encourage, especially in the crucial labour front of the cultural Cold War.
British optimism, however, did not last long in Cyprus. In November, the general council of the PEO appointed two former general secretaries of the PSE, Andreas Ziartides and Andreas Fantis, as general secretary and assistant secretary, respectively.58 Thus the PSE, it seemed, had reinvented itself under a new name.
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