75 years on from VE Day, we should remember that fascism was once common in Britain, and even made its mark upon Bloomsbury before it was banned at the outbreak of war.
One aspect of the common perception of the Second World War is that Nazism and Fascism in general was something confined to the European mainland, rather than an ideology that ever infected British politics. It seems that over time it has been conveniently forgotten that Britain once had its own fascist political party, whose leader was once considered a potential future Prime Minister.
Known as the ‘British Union of Fascists’, or more commonly known as the ‘Blackshirts’ or ‘Mosleyites’ after their leader Sir Oswald Mosley, this group found notoriety as a vicious group of criminal demonstrators, the Extinction Rebellion of their day. With a stronghold in the East End, they made forays into all parts of London attacking Jews and destroying Jewish property. Despite or perhaps because of these actions, they found sympathies among the Metropolitan Police and were even supported by major papers such as the Daily Mail.
At one point a group of Mosleyites made an excursion into Bloomsbury to destroy a local Jewish butchers, but upon their return were vanquished by an allegiance of local youths in the Battle of Sidmouth Street.
Sir Oswald Mosley, and the BUF
Sir Oswald Mosley rose to fame during the interwar period as a Member of Parliament, first for the Conservatives, then becoming an Independent, and finally joining the Labour party. As a Labour MP he served in the Cabinet as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and was even considered a possible future Prime Minister before he resigned in 1930.
He went on to found the British Union of Fascists just two years later in 1932.
The party initially found popular public support and were even backed by the Daily Mail who ran a headline ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’. During elections the party did not succeed in having any MPs elected but did succeed in having some councillors elected throughout the country.
The Blackshirts however had a greater impact upon the life of the nation than their political representation (or lack thereof) suggests. With a stronghold in the East End, they found increasing notoriety during the interwar period as a vicious paramilitary group, launching attacks upon Jewish communities and property. While the press and police force conveniently overlooked these actions and even went so far as to protect their members, the Blackshirts posed an ever increasing menace to the working classes in London and Bloomsbury.
The Blackshirts in London
The Blackshirts are mentioned in a first-hand account of working-class life in the Judd Street area of Bloomsbury during the interwar period, King’s Cross Kid. Recalling events in about 1935:
‘Mosley’s fascist party were making big trouble. In the poorer areas of London, the East End and south of the river, ordinary people were divided into those who had work and those who hadn’t. Those with work were, on the whole, anti-fascist; men on the dole, on the other hand, followed the Mosley line that it was all the fault of the Jews and immigrants. The fighting in the streets changed; it was no longer gangs bashing each other up for the fun of it. Mosley was stirring things up and the result was racial hatred.’
The way in which ordinary people are seemingly divided into fascists and anti-fascists is telling of the political atmosphere of the time, and something that history seems to have either forgotten or overlooked. Far from fascism being a fringe political movement, it seems to be firmly lodged in the minds of the working classes and crucially, Mosley is shown as stirring these dissensions up. At the time and even today, Mosley himself is rarely implicated in ‘stirring up racial hatred’.
The Battle of Sidmouth Street
The writer one day is called into a local café run by a German emigrant.
‘”A gang of kids threw a brick through Solly’s window yesterday… we’re waiting to see what happens next. We reckon that as there’s two Jewboy shops next to each other a repeat performance is on the cards, in which case we’re going to do the Blackshirts over good and proper”.’
It is interesting how the writer and his friends refer to the Jews using a term which we would now brand ‘racist’ or ‘antisemitic’ yet are willing to put themselves on the line to protect these ‘Jewboys’, a far cry from the sort of behaviour we experience today from social justice warriors.
One day the Blackshirts come back for more.
‘… in dashed one of the small kids. “There’s a gang of ’em coming down from Swinton Street”. “‘Ow many?’ “About a ‘undred”. “Ow many did you say?” “Well, a lot of ’em.” By this time we could hear the racket they were making. I worked out that we had about twenty, top whack, nevertheless we kept to the plan: half down to the other end of the street, the other half to let the enemy pass and then close up the street and get them in the net.
As it turned out, and luckily for us, there weren’t a hundred of them or anything like. The actual force was about ten of the hard nuts with the usual complement of onlookers and do-nothing supporters. In no time the Blackshirts (they were actually wearing their uniform) were herded together and pushed and shoved into the alleyway at the bottom of Prospect Terrace where they were brutally beaten up; arms and legs were broken, faces slashed, blood everywhere and when it was thought that they had been taught a lesson the defenders of Sidmouth Street disappeared from the scene.’Victor Gregg, retelling the Battle of Sidmouth Street
What happens next is perhaps even more telling of the support for the Mosleyites among the political elite, something which history claims to have all but evaporated by 1934 when the Daily Mail withdrew its ‘official’ support. Mosley was well-connected, especially with some prominent newspaper magnates. The following Monday the writer tells that all the national newspapers told of the battle on their front pages, but all paint the Blackshirts as innocents and the ‘Defenders of Sidmouth Street’ as vicious gangsters.
‘This little fracas took place on Saturday afternoon and on Monday it was front-page news in all the national dailies, blazed in big, forbidding block capitals: ‘KING’S CROSS GANG’S RIOUTOUS BEHAVIOUR’, ‘INNOCENT CITIZENS ATTACKED’, ‘LONDON GANGS MARAUD THE STREETS’, ‘INNOCENT PEDESTRIANS ASSAULTED IN SIDMOUTH STREET’. They were full of it, and there was nothing about poor old Solly’s window being smashed. Police from another area came banging on doors in an attempt to identify the culprits but it was futile.’
Passages in the same book also tell of surprising levels of corruption and antisemitism within the Metropolitan Police of the day, so it is no surprise that they were moved to protect the Mosleyites.
‘The press kept the pressure up for the rest of the week. I think another part of Mosley’s mobs took a similar beating elsewhere. Roscoe and his little army maintained their vigilance, expecting a revenge attack at any minute, but the Blackshirts kept away from our part of the Gray’s Inn Road and never bothered the area again. They tried to get a meeting going in Chapel Street in Somers Town but yet again they received a hiding.
Elsewhere: The Battle of Cable Street
In fact it seems that there were a number of similar confrontations between locals and the Blackshirts. Although the Battle of Sidmouth Street is not commemorated anywhere on the street (although it should be), a much more serious confrontation in the East End which was known as the Battle of Cable Street even has its own plaque and Wikipedia page.
This battle took place in 1936 around the same time as the Battle of Sidmouth Street, where not a hundred but thousands of Blackshirts were sent to march through a predominantly Jewish area in Whitechapel. Protests to the Secretary of State to prevent the march due to fears of antisemitic violence were refused and instead the Government sent an escort of some thousands from the Metropolitan Police to protect the Blackshirts and prevent anti-fascist demonstrators from disrupting the march.
In an attempt to protect their neighbourhoods, around 20,000 anti-fascist demonstrators congregated in the area and built roadblocks to disrupt the march. 6,000 – 7,000 police officers attempted to break the barricades and clear the anti-fascists to permit the march of the Blackshirts, but were pelted with objects from windows on the street including chamber pots and their contents. Eventually the Blackshirts decided to march elsewhere, perhaps due to being outnumbered even with the police on their side, while the police and anti-fascists continued their riotous confrontation throughout the day.
It seems surprising that the Government and Metropolitan Police were moved to protect fascists who were known to stir up racial hatred and violence so soon to the outbreak of war in 1939. When complaints are made about the current government responding sluggishly to the threat of coronavirus, the inter-war government seems hopelessly naive in comparison to the much more serious rising threat of fascism.
Why did the Blackshirts fail to make a Political Impact?
One contradiction that is apparent is the fact that so many were moved in such an immobile age to both advocate and attack fascism and the Blackshirts, and yet the Blackshirts as a political entity failed to gain any political representation or influence the political agenda, and have consequently been ‘condemned to obscurity’.
Yet on the continent groups of the exact same constitution had a much greater political impact, particularly in Germany and Italy. It is often forgotten that fascists in these countries who eventually became dictators in fact gained their political power through democratic means. So how did they entirely succeed there, yet entirely fail here?
The consensus among politcal theorists is that the use of the FPP (First-past-the-post) voting system in Britain as opposed to the PR (proportional representation) system used on the continent is what protected Britain to a large extent from succumbing to the rise of fascism, and in particular what protected Britain from the Blackshirts ever gaining seats in the House of Commons despite their widespread support and charismatic leader.
FPP is often criticised for under-representing those parties whose support is widespread but not particularly concentrated in any area, a common example being the Green Party. But what those who criticise the system fail to realise is that this under-representation helps to protect the political system from being inundated with extremist parties such as Mosley’s Blackshirts – parties which may have widespread support (through appealing to an extremist minority) but which fail to gain substantial support in any one area. So while the system works to underrepresent those parties such as the Green Party who some might argue ‘should’ have representation, the tit-for-tat is that it works to underrepresent extremist parties which ‘shouldn’t’ have political representation, like the Blackshirts.
While Britain always has used the FPP system, the continental democracies of the time (and of today) used the proportional representation system. This meant that fringe parties such as the Nazis could fairly easily get a foothold in the politcal system and influence the political agenda, thereby reaching what some might call a ‘critical mass’ and promoting their growth, while in Britain the Mosleyites were unable to gain even a single seat.
To a large extent we still reap the rewards of this legacy, while those on the continent still suffer the woes of PR. As the referendum result showed, there is substantial support across the country to leave the EU, and yet those fairly extreme parties advocating ‘Hard Brexit’ such as UKIP and the Brexit Party fail to gain any political representation. The most that leaders like Nigel Farage can do is wave threats at Boris Johnson and organise demonstrations to drag him further to the right – but they cannot actually gain any representation in parliament to influence decisions with their votes.
Yet on the continent the story is much different, where worrying groups like the far-right AfD in Germany can successfully gain seats and influence the political agenda.
Remembering VE Day
75 years on, we need look not look so far to not only remember but even understand the events and ideals which led Europe and the world to war. We like to think of our society as far advanced and the events of the Second World War as somewhat alien and caricatured, with black-and-white men in suits and top-hats strolling the streets at double speed. But reading accounts of the Blackshirts and divisions of ‘ordinary people’ into fascists and anti-fascists bears more than a passing resemblance to the current age of ‘Remainers’ and ‘Brexiteers’. After all this time, have things very much changed?
Perhaps all that has really changed is that rather than settling our differences on the streets in violent confrontations, we prefer to launch written attacks on our adversaries in the realms of Twitter, Facebook, and comments on BBC articles and Youtube videos. Or perhaps the ‘hard nuts’ among us choose to glue ourselves to lorries. Rather than attending battles as ‘onlookers’ and ‘do-nothing’ supporters, we watch celebrities have it out on Twitter and offer up our likes and retweets in support.
Yet if that is all that the technological revolution has achieved, it is progress indeed. We need not worry about bricks being thrown through our windows for being a ‘Jewboy’, but only need worry about whether we will be called a ‘Jewboy’ at all.