Speeches and skirmishes: a night’s work for an average British Blackshirt, as recounted by BUF journalist William ‘Lucifer’ Allen
To be a fascist in interwar Britain could be hazardous. Unity Mitford was once assaulted by a crowd of communists in Hyde Park after she stopped to listen to a public speech; incensed over the swastika badge affixed to her lapel, they attempted to beat her and throw her into the Serpentine. Jeffrey Hamm (who became Mosley’s personal secretary and a Union Movement leader after WWII) was likewise once almost killed by a mob when he came across a communist demonstration and, perhaps rather unwisely, began asking pointed public questions of the speaker. Fascists courageous enough to speak or march in public would frequently find themselves the target of bricks, bottles, paving stones, and knives, and more than a few ended up in hospital or worse. The contention from fascists themselves, as well as from some historians, is that the majority of ‘fascist violence’ was actually instigated by anti-fascist activists, rather than directly perpetrated by groups like the British Union of Fascists (BUF) against others unprovoked. Violence was not an unknown feature of left-wing politics in the UK at the time, with the BUF’s uniformed military culture arguably arising (at least in part) in response to it; Mosely’s pre-fascist movement, the New Party (an offshoot of Independent Labour), had from its very first meeting been subjected to violent disruptions by socialist demonstrators incensed over Mosley’s alleged betrayal of the Labour Party, inspiring the perception among Nupa leaders (many of whom later ended up in the BUF) that “the good old English fist” was an essential element for political survival. Regardless of who was or was not most at fault for skirmishes between fascists and their opponents, there is evidence enough that fascists could also give as good as they got at times. BUF divisions like the infamous ‘I’ Squad are alleged to have deliberately instigated punch-ups at fascist rallies on several occasions, and there are even stories of BUF members smashing up meetings of rival organizations like Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League. The sense of camaraderie and mission inherent in being part of a uniformed organization beset by enemies on all sides certainly seems to have attracted many adventurous young men to the fascist ranks, perhaps almost as much as the BUF creed of patriotism and a future Corporate State. All of these elements can be seen bound up in the article below, originally published in an August 1933 edition of BUF newspaper The Blackshirt. Written by BUF writer William Allen under the pen-name ‘Lucifer’, the article provides an account of a BUF meeting and street-fight from a pro-fascist perspective, demonstrating to its readers quite how dangerous an average night’s ‘work’ could be for a Blackshirt activist and how much risk there was inherent in proselytizing for the cause of a corporatist British Empire. Despite the author’s stated intentions otherwise, that sense of risk and adventure does also come across as being somewhat part of the appeal, a source of excitement and pride for those looking to save Britain and to box the nose of the “Communist menace” in the process.
When Day is Done:
Fascists Start Work
William ‘Lucifer’ Allen
From ‘The Blackshirt’, 5 August, 1933
Business is over for the day and the office has begun the usual animated discussion of the best way of spending the evening. The cashier is hurrying off for a game of golf, the book-keeper is going to play tennis, the shipping clerk is taking his girl to the cinema, and the office boy is licking stamps at record speed to be in time for “the dogs.” Only young Brown, with the Fascist badge pinned to the lapel of his jacket, does not seem interested in the great problem of how best to amuse oneself. He is methodically packing up his things and getting ready to report for duty.
In a few minutes he is saluting the sentry at H.Q.; changes quickly into his black shirt and is snatching a meal down in the canteen before the evening’s duties begin. Before long an officer comes clattering down the stairs calling for volunteers to steward a meeting, and Brown, bolting down the rest of his sandwiches, hurries upstairs to join the others in one of the vans. To-night it is the old open Morris van, which has been through more trouble and has seen more fighting than any one member in the movement.
Nobody knows how often the driver’s windows have been broken, dents of stones and gashes of sticks and other weapons scar her sides, there is not much paint left on her; but we all love the old Morris, and some day there will be an honoured place for her in the permanent Fascist Exhibition.
A Mixed Reception
To-night she is pushing her ugly nose through the West End, and the Blackshirts aboard are getting rather a mixed reception from the crowded pavements. Here and there are dark glowering faces, hostile eyes, muttering voices. Here it is that our paper sellers have been brutally attacked and injured.
But to-night we are not interested in the West End; the Morris keeps pushing on North and East. Soon we pass the ‘Angel’ and approach our destination. The spacious, brightly lighted streets of the West End are far behind us. We are in the midst of the squalid, dingy, but teeming East End of London.
As we pass, catcalls go up from groups gathered outside the public houses, small boys blow rude ‘raspberries’; but we are so used to all this that we laugh tolerantly.
At last we have arrived and draw up in a side street off the main thoroughfare, where some local Fascists are waiting for us. Brown jumps off the van with the other Blackshirts from H.Q. and is soon chatting with some of his old friends from the local branch. He learns that last week’s meeting was rowdy and that there is a rumour abroad that the Communists are going to turn up in force this evening. But that’s all in the day’s work. Let ’em all come!
Attention! The speaker for the evening is climbing on to the van, already people are collecting at the junction of the side street and the main road, the meeting is ready to begin. The Blackshirts are posted in a semi-circle round the rear of the van, which acts as a platform for the speaker. They have orders to face the speaker with their backs to the crowd. We must take the risk of being hit at from behind. The speaker has begun to outline our policy..
He speaks quietly at first, but as the crowd gathers his enthusiasm rises, and his clear young voice is soon echoing down the street, driving home the salient points of our policy.
“Britain first… reorganise industry… the corporate state… raising the consuming power of the people… state control of finance.”
But very soon hecklers begin to interrupt from the rapidly growing crowd. Shouts of “What about the Trade Unions?” “What about the Jews?” are raised.
Patiently the speaker explains that time for questions will be given later, but they must be quiet now to give him a chance to put over our policy. For a few minutes there is relative quiet, then the noise begins all over again. Brown, as an experienced steward, soon realises that the organised opposition has arrived. The noise is coming from one section of the crowd, and glancing over his shoulder he recognises several local Communists gathered well in the background and out of harm’s way. It is from this direction that the bulk of the heckling is coming, and efforts are made to start singing the “Red Flag.”
Our speaker, however, has had plenty of this sort of thing before. He cleverly plays off the better part of the crowd against the Communists and appeals for fair play. Angry shouts of “Shut up” arise, the “Red Flag” dies away, and the speaker is able to complete his address. Then comes question time, and things get much more lively. Now the Communists can put their tricky Marxian questions on economics; and when they don’t like the answers, can descend to abuse. The crowd has now increased to at least three to four hundred people, and there are less than twenty Blackshirts all told.
Suddenly one of the Communist leaders has turned from asking questions, and is deliberately inciting the crowd to attack us.
“If you unemployed men had any guts, you would sweep these ——– Fascists off the streets.”
A quiet order and the Blackshirt Stewards have turned to face the crowd. The Communist leader is away on the outskirts beyond our reach; in front of us are mostly inoffensive youths and women, but the men at the back start pushing and we are gradually forced back upon the van.
Suddenly an empty milk bottle comes sailing over the heads of the crowd from the Communist ranks and crashes on the side of the van. Several stones follow. With a rush a group of our men, headed by Brown, breaks through the pressing crowd, and dashes at the Communists. Several of them see us coming and run for it, but a few are too busy seeking for more missiles and these we are able to reach.
The Communists Run
Brown singles out one hefty fellow he remembers having seen attempting to break up a meeting far in the West of London. There is a sharp fight, but, now that it is a question of a man-to-man fight instead of throwing things from a distance, the Communists are not so keen, and are soon following their comrades down the street.
Meanwhile the speaker has been calming the rest of the crowd, and the disturbing element removed, we go on with the meeting, dealing with several intelligent questions, which show that there is a great deal of sympathetic feeling towards us among the more patriotic section. At last it is getting dark, and the speaker closes the meeting. As we drive off giving the Fascist salute and singing “Up Fascists,” there is cheering from the crowd. Another meeting has been successfully concluded; and we have shown the Communists that we are not to be attacked with impunity.
We have dropped the local Fascists, and the old Morris is puffing her way home again. Young Brown will have a brand new black eye to explain at the office to-morrow. Another man has got a nasty cut on his cheek, and there are several other minor injuries; but we have to expect little things like that in fighting for Fascism.
Fighting the Menace
So, when you see Blackshirts passing on one of our vans, don’t think they are just “showing off their uniforms,” “playing at soldiers”; they have got much more serious business to do than that. They are giving up their pleasures, giving up their evenings, to protect our speakers, to fight the Communist menace in those very districts where the average Londoner never shows his nose if he can help it. All honour, therefore, to the Blackshirt Stewards!
Some interesting tidbits of information can be gleaned from these writings about the BUF’s early years. It seems like whenever the Fascists showed up anywhere in London, somebody was not going to appreciate their sudden appearance. William Allen’s brief descriptions of the West End and East End during the 1930s set the scene for helping the reader understand the distinct reactions to the BUF’s political activities. The “mixed receptions” at the West End, given its well-to-do and posh denizens in those days, must have evoked the idea of the BUF as a spectacle, the idea of building a British Corporatist State a farcical dream than something realizable. A stark contrast emerges among the some of the working class Londoners in East End, who seemed to be more receptive to the gamut of groups like the CPGB, the original Labour Party, and so forth.
The responses from the Communists among those East Enders could have been addressed differently. Even today, there are plenty of questions to be raised regarding the establishment of a British Corporatist State, like how it would govern the means of production, the role of the Monarch, its stances toward the Empire’s colonial holdings, or diplomatic relations with other nations. A public debate would have been far more suitable if they wanted to present a convenient case against building a Corporatist State. But because the Communists chose to intimidate them, they inadvertently made the BUF come across as being more reasonable within their own writings. Not that the BUF fared any better, since they ended up being banned altogether during the war.
Seriously, the displays of “militarism” by the BUF was their attempt at self-defense, a decision that was forced upon them by necessity. It was not foisted upon them by their government (which did not come until later) but was instead perpetrated by those Communists who will never find themselves introducing any of their best policies inside Parliament. As Allen noted early on, the BUF’s people also had to live out their own lives under the same Liberal Capitalist regime which they and the Communists both despised.
And yet, I cannot tell which of the two is more likely to help the real Liberal Capitalists get on with their priorities, priorities which the Fascists and Communists should have been opposing. One of them did go on to help the Liberal Capitalists, only to be backstabbed by them in the late 20th century. I think we can both assume that it was the Communists, who did manage to infiltrate the Labour Party around this same timeframe when the CPGB was still at its height.