History article from Anti-Fascist Action's Fighting Talk magazine issue 10.
Most people have heard of Sir Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts getting stopped at the Bathe of Cable Street in East London, but the story of the fight against fascism in other parts of the country in the 1930s is less well known. In Excited Times is a new book that traces the rise and fall of fascism in the North East of England from the 1920s to the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Italian influenced British Fascisti were the first overtly fascist party to be launched in this country, and were established in Newcastle by 1925. Staffed by right-wing ex-army officers, they dressed in the uniform of the Black and Tans, the murdering British mercenaries who fought in Ireland in 1920. Internal divisions led to the collapse of the British Fascisti by 1926, the final order of the Newcastle Zone Commander being to join the strike-breakers in the General Strike of that year.
In 1931, the international economic crisis led to the formation of the National Government, which involved all the major parties (Tory, Liberal and Labour) uniting to save capitalism. Working class organisations became part of a "communist threat" and the conditions were there for the emergence of a fascist party to smash the Left and restore "law and order". The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was subsequently launched by Sir Oswald Mosley in 1932.
The North East has a long tradition of working class organisation and when the BUF held their first major public rally on Newcastle's Town Moor during Race Week (a major working class occasion) in 1933, only weeks after Hitler had banned trade union and progressive organisations in Germany, their lorry was overturned and they were chased off.
Being a major industrial area, the fascists realised that if they were to grow in the North East they had to break the influence of the traditional working class organisations. Tommy Moran, an ex-miner and boxer, and John Beckett, the former left-wing Independent Labour Party MP for Gateshead, were selected to front the campaign. Their credibility as ex-Labour men seemed more appropriate than the ex-army officers who generally led the movement. People like Captain Bruce-Norton (the BUF Area Political Officer) who had gone to Ireland after the First World War to fight with the Royal Irish Constabulary's Auxiliaries against Irish independence.
After Mosley visited Durham in late 1933 fascist violence increased, smashing up left-wing meetings and attacking left-wing bookshops. The BUF had some success in recruiting young unemployed youth with no class loyalty, petty criminals who wouldn't think twice about nicking from their own. The BUF was also well funded and able to provide uniforms and paid part-time work, an attractive prospect for some in an area of mass unemployment. These were their foot-soldiers, commanded by an almost endless supply of middle class ex-army officers. But fascism in the North East wasn't just about the street activities of the Blackshirts.
The 20s and 30s saw significant support in the British Establishment for fascism. Indeed, one of the initial converts in the 20s was the Duke of Northumberland, looking to protect his estates and wealth. Although most of these people didn't directly associate themselves with the BUF, they used their wealth and influence to gain support for the fascist regimes in Europe.
Two of the major industrialists in the North East fitted this category - Lord Armstrong (the armaments tycoon) and Lord Runciman (multi-millionaire shipowner). But the main spokesman for Hitler's Nazis among the English Establishment and the Tory Party was Lord Londonderry, heir to the Durham coalfields, whose family had been genuinely hated by generations of Durham miners. A man who developed his politics during the pogroms that were part of the bloody creation of the Northern Ireland statelet, where he served as Leader of the Senate from 1921-26. By the 30s, he was a personal friend of Hitler, Goering and Ribbentrop. Despite his close links with the Nazi regime in Germany, he and his wife, another rabid fascist, were given public office by Chamberlain's Tory government as late as 1937.
There were many different organisations involved in the anti-fascist movement - trade unions, Independent Labour Party, Communist Party, National Unemployed Workers Movement, local Labour Parties (the leadership, then as now, was firmly opposed to confronting the fascists). Sometimes there were local united fronts for particular activities, sometimes one organisation would take the lead, and a number of co-ordinating bodies existed at various times.
The real benefits gained by the National Unemployed Workers Movement - fighting dole cuts, providing social centres, organising "Hunger Marches", meant BUF attacks on the NUWM as "Red Subversives" fell on deaf ears, and many unemployed miners, engineering and shipyard workers became actively involved against the fascists. The lessons for today are clear.
During 1933-34 the fascists held many indoor and outdoor meetings all over the North East - and plenty were stopped. Some by physical attack, some by drowning out the speaker, and occasionally by the police who feared serious trouble. In May 1934 the physical struggle against the fascists was increased with the formation of the Anti-Fascist League (AFL) or "Greyshirts" (they also wore a uniform). Almost exclusively working class in composition, they defended left-wing meetings (but maintained their independence from any one party), "interviewed" fascist recruits, and attacked fascist meetings. Not just responding to fascist violence, but setting their own militant anti-fascist agenda.
The fascist campaign reached a watershed in the early summer of 1934. An unsuccessful Blackshirt attack on an ILP May Day rally in Gateshead effectively decided their fate. The fascists were planning a major rally with Mosley at Newcastle's Town Moor during Race Week and a series of meetings were arranged to promote the rally. In response to the May Day attack, on 13 May several thousand anti-fascists, led by the AFL in "plainclothes", stopped a fascist meeting in Newcastle, followed them back to their Headquarters and laid siege to it - with broken glass and blood everywhere.
The next night the BUF meeting was in Gateshead. Thousands turned out to oppose it and it was forced to close down early, and only a large police presence prevented the thousands who followed them back over the Tyne from getting hold of the fascists. Once again the BUF HQ was put under heavy siege. On 1st June the Gateshead BUF office was wrecked (probably by the AFL), Beckett and Moran were moved out of Newcastle in disgrace, and with fierce opposition promised, Mosley's Race Week Rally was cancelled. Not surprisingly, the effectiveness of the AFL's militant tactics led to MI5 taking a close interest (Sounds familiar!)
Attempts were made by the BUF to move their operations to North Shields, but this failed after two rallies got turned over in the summer of 1934. The fascists were in disarray, unable to do what they wanted, and Newcastle BUF duly split in August '34. They did reorganise in 1935, and Mosley spoke at Newcastle City Hall in May, but the opposition was so loud that he stormed out after only 15 minutes.
Other smaller meetings were tried but the tide had turned, in July 400 miners smashed a BUF meeting in Sunderland. In November Mosley had one more try with a rally in South Shields, next to the Arab "quarter", hoping to start a race riot. Fascist stewards were bussed in from all over the country, but the anti-fascists mobilised thousands, and with fighting inside and outside the hall, and fascist buses bricked on their way out, the meeting wasn't a success.
After 1935, BUF activity petered out in the North East, the fascists being mainly confined to London from then on. Undoubtedly, without the level of opposition they faced, the outcome would have been different. Despite considerable efforts, the BUF attempt to break into the working class in the North East failed.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War kept anti-fascists busy raising money for food and medicine to aid the fight against Franco, and over 100 anti-fascists from the North East fought in Spain with the International Brigade, 24 were killed.
The information in this article is taken from In Excited Times: The People Against the Blackshirts, by Nigel Todd. Published by Bewick Press. The book is only 120 pages long so it is an easy read, but it is full of information, well researched and well illustrated. As militant anti-fascists a bit more on the AFL would have been useful, but all the same, a recommended read.