Diary Day 669: what is the origin of the term “fifth column”? I thought it was the right day to find out. It comes from the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Francisco Franco had staged a failed military coup against the elected Republican Government. When the Government resisted, Franco resolved to take Madrid by force. On 2 November, the Francoist (Fascist) rebel General Mola with his four columns of Moroccan and regular Spanish troops had fought their way to a suburb of the city. Mola remarked to an English journalist that he would take Madrid with his four columns outside the city and his “fifth column” composed of right wing sympathisers inside it.
The term “fifth column” became a synonym for a subversive faction working from within a group to help its enemies.
Mola was right that there were sympathisers inside Madrid, but he did not expect the strength of the Republican resistance. Madrid did not fall to the Francoists until 1939, and it did not fall because of the fifth column.
Incidentally. Franco is in the news again because the Spanish Government is planning to remove his remains from the Valley of the Fallen, a huge basilica and burial site north of Madrid. It was built by Republican prisoner slave labour and contains the remains of about 33,000 victims of the Spanish Civil War, including the remains of many deceased removed from mass graves to the site without their families’ consent. Francoists are in the habit of holding protests at the site, illegally making Nazi salutes, and did so again at the weekend, prompting debate about what on Earth a decent democracy does with such people.
Catholic authoritarianism, practised by Franco, is not unlike what I see emerging in Britain.
An important moment happened at Westminster today. This day the self-styled European Research Group revealed itself as a fifth column within the Conservative Party’s own MPs. It is a party within a party. Almost incredibly, it has set up its own shadow whips, who have been contacting MPs to orchestrate a defeat for Theresa May. The subject of all this manoeuvring was the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill, which is about enabling the creation of an independent customs policy.
The result of the fifth column’s efforts was that Mrs May accepted four amendments the ERG had put forward. This so infuriated some of her other MPs that they voted against. Anna Soubry said that Jacob Rees-Mogg was running Britain.
There is no loyalty to one another within the Conservative Party, only a shared fierce hostility to outsiders.
This mess of a party has no majority in Parliament. That it still runs Britain is due to the venal DUP, to the empty seats of Sinn Féin who for historical reasons do not take up their Westminster seats and to the disarray Labour is in.
The amendments were, or two of them were (it’s hard to disentangle all the Byzantine details of this) passed by a majority of only three, equal to the number of Labour MPs who rebelled against their own side and voted with the Government. They were the usual suspects: Kate Hoey, Frank Field and Graham Stringer.
Specifically, an amendment that prevents the UK from collecting taxes on behalf of the EU, unless the rest of the EU does the same for the UK, was won by 305 votes to 302 with 14 Tories rebelling. An amendment to ensure the UK is out of the EU’s VAT regime was won by 303 to 300, with a Tory rebellion of 11.
MPs eventually voted 318 to 285 in favour of the Bill as a whole.
Justine Greening, a Tory MP, called for a People’s Vote in the Brexit deal, but another Tory MP, Alan Duncan, said it would be impossible to get another referendum bill through the House of Commons.
Is that right though? All turns on what Labour MPs do. Will they side with the SNP, Lib Dems and sole Green and do the right thing?
Hubris, overweening pride, is always followed in Greek tragedy by nemesis. Nemesis is the goddess of retributive justice, and her name means distribution of what is due. If life were really like that, Franco would not have ruled Spain for 39 years and died at the age of 82 still in power, in his bed in a palace.
I would mind more if Theresa May’s whole compromise package were not a non-starter anyway.
In Brussels, they are deliberating over the White Paper. An EU diplomat told the Evening Standard: “In Wonderland it was the Mad Hatter who said to Alice, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. That’s this paper.”
In Helsinki (not Moscow as I had thought) Donald Trump met Vladimir Putin and afterwards, at a press conference, defended him against accusations of having interfered in the 2016 elections, casting doubt on the conclusions of official US investigations. Americans from both Republican and Democrat camps expressed horror.
Known GOP critics of Trump were scathing. Even Ari Fleischer, a Trump defender, tweeted: “I continue to believe there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. But when Trump so easily and naively accepts Putin’s line about not being involved, I can understand why Ds think Putin must have the goods on him.”
John Brennan, who ran the CIA under President Obama, tweeted: “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
Nancy Pelosi, Democratic House Minority Leader, said: “President Trump’s weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially or politically.
“This is a sad day for America, and for all Western democracies that Putin continues to target.”