Submitted by Fozzie on March 21, 2020

The local history industry

In recent years local history publishing in Kent (as in many other areas) has undergone something of a boom. There is now more being published in the field of local history than ever before. On the face of it this ought to be a very welcome development for those of us who stand on the left of politics. For us history is not about the deeds of "the great and the good", a tedious litany of monarchs and statesmen; we see history as essentially the story of the lives and struggles of the "common people". Local history for us is, therefore, an important opportunity to write "history from below". Local history (much more than many other kinds of history writing) can enable us to see how working-class people have made history for themselves. Crucially, it can also allow us to learn lessons from both the victories and the defeats of working-class history, so that they can be applied in the battles of today and tomorrow.

However, such a view of local history is not shared by the "local history industry". In general local history publications focus overwhelmingly on the twee, the banal, and the stupefyingly irrelevant. Studiously refusing to admit that the past was (just like the present) crammed full of the most bitter social and political struggles, they treat us to yawn-inducing tales of church architecture or deservedly forgotten local eccentrics. If working-class people feature at all it is as cap-doffing and forlock-tugging employees of (allegedly) benevolent and paternalistic local employers.

This type of writing finds its counterpart in the now fashionable "Heritage" industry, with its ludicrous attempts to turn the past into a kind of theme park by sanitising and fictionalising it. In the Medway Towns, for instance, we have seen the works of Charles Dickens (one of the area's most famous sons) used as the basis for an annual tourist "festival". Instead of the bleak picture of Victorian Britain presented in Dickens' writings (the appalling housing, grinding poverty, dirt, disease, and child-exploitation which were the grim reality of working-class life) we are treated to a fancy dress fairytale straight out of Walt Disney.

This book contains history of an altogether different kind. It is history which is, according to the editor of the main Kent local history journal, "too controversial" and "too political" for publication (and, moreover, "not really local history" at all!).

Such a response from the local history industry comes as no surprise to me: there is much in these pages to upset and embarrass the worthy burgesses of Kent. My description of the connections in the 1920s between the Conservative Party and the British Fascists is an obvious example; so is my exposure of the support given by Gillingham's Conservative MP in the 1930s for Franco's Fascists in the Spanish Civil War; and so too is my quoting of the favourable references to Hitler made by the man who became the Tory MP for Canterbury.

The revelation that the Admiralty was apparently prepared to turn a blind eye to the distribution of Fascist propaganda in Chatham Dockyard will also doubtless cause consternation in some quarters.

Likewise, I am sure that there are those who would prefer some of the facts I have uncovered about the local press to go unpublicised: for instance, the assistance given by the Chatham Observer to a recruitment drive by the British Fascists; and the same newspaper's criticism of anti-Fascists for their "blackguardism" in confronting the Mosleyites, coupled with praise for the Blackshirts' "non-violence'. (In those days the Observer was owned by a local family firm; a descendant of the family is, I believe, still involved in the local publishing industry in a modest way.)

What will be particularly distasteful to some is my description of the fact that, while local publishers and Conservative politicians were expressing their sympathy for the Fascists, mass mobilisations of working-class people were beating the Fascists off of the streets. Furthermore, this book makes it clear that those who led the local anti-Fascist movement were Communists, people who regarded themselves as revolutionary socialists and Marxists (however dubious the Communist Party's claim to those tides may have been).

The lessons of the past

The lessons of the contents of this book for the present day are obvious. Today, just as in the 1930s, we face a deep economic crisis produced by the failure of the capitalist system, with some three million people thrown onto the dole. The 1930s showed that racism and attempts to make scapegoats of ethnic minorities come to the fore at such times. Then racial hatred was directed at the Jewish community, today it is also directed at the black and asian communities (as shown by the recent horrific racial attack on Avtar Singh Gill in Gravesend).

Against this backdrop the alarming rise of Fascist organisations on the continent has given new heart to the latter day Blackshirts of the British National Party (BNP), "Blood and Honour", and other neo-Nazi groups. The BNP have their headquarters at Welling in Kent and there is evidence that they and other neo-Fascists are increasingly active across the county. Just as Socialists, Communists, the Jewish community, and the Labour movement fought on the streets to stop Mosley's Blackshirts in the 1930s, so today the working class, the Left, and ethnic minorities locally must fight the same battle.

I make no apology for appealing to all those who are inspired by the story of the struggle against Fascism told in this book to join the Kent Anti-Fascist Action Committee and the anti-Fascist movement in waging that battle.

David Turner May 1993.