A brush with the fascists
Fascism was dead. Officially, it was dead. It had happened in the war, when the fascist countries had been occupied and their leaders, like Hitler and Mussolini, were killed. True, Franco was still alive and so was Stalin who was not called a fascist but was possibly worse than all the others put together. So, although there was some confusion about who was a fascist and who was not, the fact was that it was dead. Oswald Mosley and his wife had been interned in England because they were fascists and after the exposure of the barbarities of Nazi Germany no one in their right mind would ever again describe themselves as a fascist. Now we could all settle down with a Labour government in a fascist-free world.
But the brave new post-war world had hardly blinked its way into life when uneasy memories were stirred by the arrival of some new political organisations, in different parts of London and the rest of the country, with a membership drawn from Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. In the western part of London there was the Union for British Freedom, led by Victor Burgess (whose swarthy complexion had not, apparently, excluded him from a white supremacist organisation). In the East End of London there was the British League of Ex-Servicemen, led by Jeffrey Hamm (who had been interned in the Falkland Islands). In Derby there was the Sons of St. George, in Bristol the British Workers Party of National Unity, in Manchester the Imperial Defence League.
All these groups claimed they had sprung into existence in response to a spontaneous, irresistible demand by the British people but it did not take a deductive genius to work out that there was some common ground between them – and a disreputable past. They were all aggressively nationalistic, all stridently warning of the urgent need for a defence of something called British racial purity against the encroachment of lesser, polluting, devitalising breeds. If some heckler asked what the speaker had done in the war (an obsessively common question at outdoor meetings in those days) the response would be a long lament about how unnecessary the war had been and how much better off Germany and Britain would be if they had been allies against the alien hordes. This was then developed into an attack on World Jewry, who had conspired to bring the war about by setting the British people against their blood brothers and sisters in Germany. This argument (if it can be called that) was bolstered by the fascists grouped around the platform joyously chanting about “. . . Asiatic, Mongolian, atheistic, communism . . .” The air trembled with the threat of violence.
One victim of the fascist technique of emphasising their point with violence was the playwright Harold Pinter, who was an active anti-fascist. In the Observer of 6 January 2002 Pinter related his experience of being beaten up by fascists at a street corner meeting in the late 1940s. His article gave the impression that the fascists were alone in using violence as a tactic. However, he wrote that among the crowd there were “some Jews, led by ex-servicemen.” This description fits the 43 Group, whose aim in life was to disrupt, or if possible break up, fascist meetings and in the process deal out some physical punishment to the fascists. Membership of the 43 Group seemed to be reserved to those who met certain criteria. First, to be Jewish; second, to be an ex-serviceman; third, to be thickset and powerful and have a face which looked as if it had been hewed out of a rock face. In places like Ridley Road in the East End violence at fascist meetings was routine. Mosley’s son Nicholas remembered going to one in 1946 or 1947: a man on top of a van shouting like some revivalist prayer meeting; a man charging at the restraining policemen; a paper seller kicked and punched by a crowd: “It was all, once more, quite like a crowd at a present-day football match”.
Late in 1947 I had the opportunity of sampling some violence at a street corner meeting but not at the hands of the fascists. It happened one autumn evening near Trebovir Road, a side street off the Earl’s Court Road. This was a good place for an outdoor meeting as there was unfailingly a large, vibrant crowd possessed of some lurid political theories. By a kind of informal arrangement various political parties – including the Socialist Party and the UBF – held meetings on different evenings. Our meetings there on a Thursday were thrilling and scary and mostly hugely satisfying. On Wednesday evenings, if we had nothing better to do, we might go along to listen to the hysterical ramblings of the UBF’s Burgess and observe the 43 Group’s frantic efforts to bring the whole thing to a chaotic end. We made a point of silently listening to it all; we knew that the more disorder there was the better the fascists’ chance of recruiting members. (In the early 1960s the membership of the Union Movement went up to some 1,500, for some of which they credited the violence from their opponents).
One evening we left the UBF meeting early and mooched along the Earls Court Road looking for a coffee. We soon became aware that we were being followed and when we turned round we saw there a bunch of 43 Group members who were obviously not intent on wishing us a good evening. Like Pinter, we were cornered by a bunch of thugs whose pleasure it was to beat us up, except that they were not called fascists but operated on the assumption that anyone who did not heckle and scream at the fascists must be a fascist themselves and so deserved a bashing. We managed to avoid physical damage by gently informing our intending assailants that we were members of the Socialist Party, which was due to debate with the UBF at the Kensington Town Hall in a couple of weeks. Why didn’t they come along – they might learn something about effective techniques of opposing obnoxious ideas? It would have been a bit difficult, after that, for the 43 Groupers to attack us, although one or two were still clearly in favour of giving us a good hiding anyway. So we went for our coffee and spent a useful hour or so discussing the details of organising that debate.
And the debate was all we had promised them, on the pavement that evening. An audience of 650 crammed into the biggest meeting hall at the Kensington Town Hall, with another 200 or so turned away outside. The UBF had suggested that they supply some stewards to keep out “undesirables” but naturally we declined their offer of “help” and told them that all meetings of the Socialist Party were open to all members of the working class. Even fascists were welcome – they might learn something about socialism and about the benefits of a democratic meeting. We did not expect any trouble, although the 43 Group were there in force; they seemed to get all the excitement they wanted in the ruthless shredding of the UBF case by the socialist speaker. Raven Thompson, an ex-communist, represented the UBF (although he was not actually a member of it); he had the reputation of a fascist intellectual and in the BUF he had been one of Mosley’s right hand men. He can be seen in a photograph, taken before political uniforms were banned, strutting behind Mosley reviewing a Blackshirt parade, looking ridiculous in his black uniform with his cap at a rakish angle as if it had been knocked sideways.
We could not claim that it was as a consequence of their verbal mauling in the debate but soon afterwards there was a perceptible change in the fascists’ style of propaganda. A note of triumphant promise crept into their relentless harangues about the insidious influence of world Jewry. Have hope, they advised us: The Alternative is on the way. By that time anyone who took any interest in them knew that The Alternative was a book by Mosley, his manifesto which was supposed to carry the fascists into resplendent power. For some reason the book was greeted in some quarters as a serious contribution to political thought when it was no more than another attempt to unravel – or in this case to batter into shape – the chaos of capitalism. Mosley declared that fascism was dead – outdated, lost in the ashes of the war. The way forward now was a union in which Europe would become a nation, using (he did not say “exploiting”) Africa as if it were its estate in trusteeship “on behalf of white civilization and not on behalf of a nominal stability of Barbarism”.
Africa would provide the raw materials for a Euro-Africa closed economic system. But to operate this vast estate without the atrocities and repressions imposed in the past it would be necessary for a new type of man – a
Tony Turner, West London, 1946
Thought Deed Man – to evolve. This would happen through “breeding, selection and environment” supplemented by training. This crackpot idea was presented in impenetrably pompous verbiage about “the union of intellect and will . . . we must give robustness to the intellect and reflection to the will . . .The future is with the Thought Deed Man because, without him, the future will not be. He is the hope of the peoples of the world”. It did not take a particularly cynical mind to unravel the fact that the person Mosley had in mind as the world’s first Thought Deed Man, all intellect and will and hope, was himself.
In 1948 the various fascist movements dissolved themselves into the Union Movement and launched what they fictionalised as a spontaneous drive to persuade a modest Mosley to emerge from retirement and lead the nation to glory. After a predictable show of reluctance he began eagerly speaking at Union Movement meetings and parades and demonstrations. In the early 1950s the first immigrants arrived from the West Indies and Asia, sucked over by British industries keen to undermine working class bargaining power in the days of ‘full employment’. The immigrants, easy fodder for racist paranoia, overtook the Jews as targets for fascist mythologising and invective. Mosley’s son Nicholas remembers him speaking in the street from the top of a van, roaring about black gangs keeping teenage white English girls prisoner in attics where they were repeatedly raped. After satisfying their animalistic sexual appetites black men were supposed to prefer to dine on tinned pet food; a Mosley supporter was actually embarrassed to hear him tell another meeting that “Lassie (a popular dog food at the time) is for dogs, Kit-E-Kat is for wogs”.
Presumably convinced that this kind of mindless abuse would be popular enough to register in votes, Mosley stood for North Kensington in the 1959 general election. He claimed – another myth – that in doing this he was yielding to the irresistible demands of the people there when it was obvious that he was intent on exploiting the passions aroused in the previous year’s race riots in Notting Hill. Encouraged by his canvassers coming in night after night with stories about a massive upsurge of support for him, Mosley assumed he had victory in the bag and his supporters fantasised about the Union Movement sweeping the country. It was not quite like that when the votes were counted because Mosley, with just 2,821 out of a total of 39,912, was bottom of the poll and lost his deposit. It was, he said later, the biggest shock of his life and after the count, instead of rallying his supporters with a defiant, inspiring speech he went quickly to his car and was whisked away into the night. In 1966 he stood again, for Shoreditch, where the result was even worse for him; he polled 1,600 votes – 4.6 per cent of the total. After that he lost interest in being the Thought Deed Man, the implacable struggler against a powerful enemy. He withdrew from politics, to live in a succession of opulent houses, ending his days in a Paris mansion where he died in 1980.
Of all the words in the lexicon of politics fascism is among the most ill-defined and inappropriately used. If it has any meaning it is in the supremely escapist notion that there is a quick-fix remedy for capitalism’s shortcomings. It is also a nasty fix – the idea that political democracy is a feeble, useless way of running affairs and instead we should surrender to the dictates of strong men – the Führer, Il Duce, the Thought Deed Man. Parallel to that is the myth of national or racial supremacy, in whose baleful name so many atrocities and so much repression have been committed. If fascism is anything it is the very stuff of disillusionment, the response of workers who have tried other parties and other methods of running capitalism and have decided that, as each of them have failed, it is the democratic process which is at fault. That is what happened in post-1918 Germany and it is no coincidence that at present, with the Blair government exposed in all its helpless cynicism and the other parties promising nothing better, the BNP are winning council seats in places like Burnley and Kirklees. To complicate the lexicology further, the professed opponents of fascism are very often indistinguishable from the fascists themselves. If we hadn’t known it before then, that fact would have been brought home to us, that wintry evening on the pavement in the Earl’s Court Road.