If George Orwell and Laurie Lee were to return from the Spanish civil war today, they would be arrested under section five of the Terrorism Act 2006. If convicted of fighting abroad with a “political, ideological, religious or racial motive” – a charge they would find hard to contest – they would face a maximum sentence of life in prison. That they were fighting to defend an elected government against a fascist rebellion would have no bearing on the case. They would go down as terrorists.
As it happens, the British government did threaten people leaving the country to join the International Brigades, by reviving the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870. In 1937 it warned that anyone volunteering to fight in Spain would be “liable on conviction to imprisonment up to two years”. This was consistent with its policy of non-intervention, which even Winston Churchill, initially a supporter, came to see as “an elaborate system of official humbug”. Britain, whose diplomatic service and military command were riddled with fascist sympathisers, helped to block munitions and support for the Republican government, while ignoring Italian and German deployments on Franco’s side.
But the act was unworkable, and never used – unlike the Crown Prosecution Service’s far graver threat to British citizens fighting in Syria. In January 16 people were arrested on terror charges after returning from Syria. Seven others are already awaiting trial. Sue Hemming, the CPS head of counter-terrorism, explained last week that “potentially it’s an offence to go out and get involved in a conflict, however loathsome you think the people on the other side are … We will apply the law robustly”.
People fighting against forces that run a system of industrialised torture and murder and are systematically destroying entire communities could be banged up for life for their pains. Is this any fairer than imprisoning Orwell would have been?
Orwell was hailed a hero for fighting in Spain. Today he’d be guilty of terrorism | George Monbiot | Comment is free | The Guardian