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From the NS: The black army

16 June 1934: Oswald Mosley’s fascists – thugs in uniform – reveal their true nature.

By New Statesman

On 7 June 1934, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists held a rally at Olympia in London. Some 10,000 people attended with 2,000 of Mosley’s Blackshirts also present. Mosley’s attempts to speak were constantly disrupted by communist protesters, within and outside the hall, and their interruptions were met with violence from Mosley’s supporters. Protesters were beaten up and physically ejected with a shocking degree of violence and the police did not intervene. In this piece for the magazine, the writer bemoans not just the thuggery on display, which was vented on innocent onlookers as well as protesters, but police inaction. Mosley’s supporters had revealed themselves for what they really were, and unless Britain was to avoid Germany’s fate and slide into fascism, private armies and political uniforms needed to be banned.

The Olympia meeting has at least done this service – it has demonstrated the nature of the Fascist movement to thousands of people who had hitherto been ignorant of its intentions and methods. In considering what action should follow, the first thing is to summarise as objectively as possible the facts which are indisputable and the conclusions which are unavoidable.

We have the testimony of people so little inclined to sympathise with Communist interrupters as Mr Gerald Barry, Mr Geoffrey Lloyd, Parliamentary Secretary to Mr Baldwin, Mr Anstruther Gray and other Conservative Members of Parliament, that the interrupters were ejected with a degree of violence that was unnecessary, that was nauseating to watch, and quite novel in the traditions of English political life. The interrupters were not merely ejected; in a number of cases witnessed by Mr Gerald Barry, the Rev Dick Sheppard, and others, they were held by the arms and legs and kicked by the Fascists, or otherwise deliberately beaten up in the corridors outside the hall. Ignorance of what occurred in the corridors helps perhaps to explain the attitude of gentlemen like Mr Beaumont, MP, who suggest that the men who were thrown out “got no more than they deserved”.

How far weapons were used is still doubtful. Sir Oswald Mosley and the Rothermere press declare that some of the interrupters were armed with knuckle-dusters and razor-blades. We have not heard of instances of Fascists in the building receiving any injuries from weapons, and we believe that most people are as sceptical of their existence in the hands of the interrupters as we are ourselves. We have, however, the evidence, given in hospital to a News-Chronicle reporter, of a student of Sheffield University who is not a member of any political party and who was thrown violently over the balcony railings into the body of the hall by Blackshirt stewards. Mr Miller reports that he was hit repeatedly on the head, at least once with a life-preserver.

After the meeting one indiscreet member of Sir Oswald Mosley’s force boasted of an ingenious device, which he asserted the stewards had been trained to use. It consists of pennies placed with their edges sticking out between the fingers of the clenched fist, with a pencil or other hard object behind the pennies within the fist. This is an effective and easily improvised weapon which disappears as soon as it has been used.

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Finally, apart from the selection of letters which we print this week, we have the testimony, published in the press, of a large number of citizens who had gone to the meeting in a spirit of inquiry, or possibly of sympathy for the Fascists. The consensus of their evidence supports Mr Geoffrey Lloyd’s outspoken remarks about Fascist “bullies and cads”. Others, vehemently anti-Communist in sympathy, have said that they were forced into reluctant respect for the interrupters, who continued to make their solitary protests even though each of them knew they would be violently assaulted by a dozen or more Blackshirts.

The British public, whatever its views about the anti-Socialism, anti-Parliamentarism and Jingo-Imperialism of Fascism, does quite sincerely and definitely dislike organised brutality. In view of the open determination of the Blackshirt movement to suppress, as other Fascist movements have done, all parties except its own and all opinions which are hostile or critical, there will be general agreement with Mr Geoffrey Lloyd that Sir Oswald Mosley’s claim to be defending free speech against a “Red Terror” is “sheer humbug”.

It is true that in some districts Communists have organised groups of interrupters who make meetings of other parties difficult or impossible. The regular interruptions from different parts of Olympia had clearly been organised, and no one will dispute that interrupters, if persistent, may be properly ejected. But an ability to deal with interrupters and to win the audience to his side has usually been considered a test of a good speaker in this country. Sir Oswald Mosley made no attempt to do this; he relied on a bodyguard of some thousand or more Blackshirts to obtain him a hearing. Further, it should be noted, that a number of people were knocked about not for interrupting – indeed they were wholly disinterested parties – but for protesting when they saw a dozen men kicking one man on the ground. There is a further and vital point. No one can understand the situation who does not realise that the methods of the Blackshirt movement are highly provocative to a large number of people who are not Communists.

A correspondent of the Manchester Guardian on June 12th gave an example of a Blackshirt meeting at which he had been present in which entirely good-humoured hecklers were abused by a Fascist speaker as “lousy swine”, “blowflies round a dunghill”, and “scum of civilisation”. The writer was driven to the conclusion that a deliberate effort was being made to incite the audience to violent retaliation. Most important of all, the wearing of a uniform, the existence of a private army which threatens to destroy the whole working-class movement in England, as the Fascists have done in Italy and Germany, is in itself an incitement to violent resistance. This private army, which contains not only young converts to Fascism, but also “toughs” who appear to have been chosen for their physical strength and lack of scruples in using it, is directed not only against Communists, of whom there are only a few thousand all told in this country. It menaces, to judge by Fascist speeches, all pacifists, Socialists, Jews and internationalists, as well as all Labour organisations and all free institutions.

Now in these circumstances it is a mistake to imagine that the anti-Fascist demonstrations which occurred outside Olympia and in numerous other places in the country were wholly or even mainly Communist. To a very large extent they were spontaneous exhibitions by a large body of English working-class men and women (with an undesired hooligan element thrown in) who hold, rightly or wrongly, that they cannot passively watch the growth of Fascism and who, whether organised by Communists or not, will certainly demonstrate against it as long as it is permitted to be organised on its present lines.

What follows? It does not need great perspicacity, nor even the example of Germany, to realise that to allow this Blackshirt army to grow and to hold larger and larger meetings, which will necessarily be more and more vigorously opposed and provoke increasingly vehement counter demonstrations, means civil war in England and the end of free institutions and of the rational conduct of politics. Both Sir John Gilmour’s careful statement in the House of Commons and the joint memorial of the TUC and the Labour Party show an appreciation of this unpleasing prospect. But a policy of action is not so easy to formulate.

One of the most disturbing features of the Olympia demonstration, as our correspondence columns show, was the attitude of the police towards the Fascists. The police explanation covers some but not all of the ground. Debarred from entering a meeting on private premises unless called upon by the chairman of the meeting to do so, they did not apparently consider that injuries inflicted upon interrupters within their sight on the steps of the hall amounted to “grievous bodily harm”, which it is their duty to prevent at any time and in any place. One possible result is that the Public Meetings Act of 1908 will be amended to put the responsibility for keeping order at political meetings upon the police authorities.

This is very far from a solution of the problem and by no means certainly a desirable step. The demands on the police would be excessive and they would be more likely, particularly under the new “gentlemanly “organisation at Scotland Yard, to devote their attention to safeguarding meetings attended by well-dressed people with limousines – Fascist rallies always are so attended – than at more humbly attended gatherings. Neither Sir Oswald Mosley nor the Communists would in the least object to this arrangement.

The Communists would be in the happy position of underlining their argument that the police are necessarily on the side of Fascism and that both the Government and the Fascists must be equally opposed. As it is, they can point to instances such as that reported from Plymouth on Wednesday, when, after a Fascist meeting, a Communist speaker was arrested for attempting to speak. We do not want a situation in which Fascist meetings are made sacrosanct by police protection while other parties have to manage as best they can. Though the Government may be forced, and may be right, to attempt to keep order by enlarging police powers in regard to public meetings, we believe that this course offers no solution.

What is clear is that if it were not for Fascist violence and Fascist provocation the police could easily cope with any Communist excesses and that, as long as a private army is permitted in our midst, thousands of young men and women, by no means Communists at all, will be moved to oppose this show of violence by an equal show of violence. The only solution is to prohibit by law all private armies and political uniforms. There are difficulties of definition and difficulties of interpretation, but these have been surmounted with considerable success in Scandinavia and can be surmounted here, if the Government, the magistrates and the public have the will. Let us make no mistake. No increase in police powers will save England from the violence and disaster of Germany if private armies are once allowed to grow up in our midst.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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