When the fascists went to university (and the campaigns to keep them out)

Recently there have been several mentions of Oswald Mosley being invited to speak at universities in the early 1960s. One from a piece in The Times opining for the ‘lost days of campus free speech’ and then related to Max Mosley’s recent passing, who invited his father to speak in 1961 when Secretary of the Oxford Union. As these episodes are covered in my book, I thought I’d post this based on a chapter in said book. 

After the Second World War, Oswald Mosley sought to reinvigorate his political career via the Union Movement. Although Mosley attempted to distance the UM from the BUF, much of its programme was similar, with an increased focus on Western Europe as a bloc against Soviet communism and for the maintenance of empire in Africa and Asia. Campaigning against Zionism in British Palestine and the creation of Israel, the Union Movement, alongside other fascist groups and activists, revived a campaign of violence and intimidation.

This also led to a resurgence of anti-fascism in the post-war era. The Communist Party of Great Britain, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the National Council for Civil Liberties, as well as other more militant groups, such as the 43 Group and the Revolutionary Communist Party, built upon tactics developed in the inter-war period to fight the revived fascist movement. This included heckling fascist speakers, breaking up and disrupting fascist meetings and physically occupying spaces to deny the fascists a platform. These tactics helped diminish the presence of the Union Movement and other fascist groups  and led to Mosley fleeing temporarily to Ireland in 1951.

While Mosley’s influence diminished considerably in the 1950s and other fascist groups contested the UM for the spotlight, Mosley was still sought after by various student groups to speak or debate. This included several invitations throughout the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s to speak at the Oxford and Cambridge Unions that encouraged debates on controversial topics. Some student groups, seeking to be controversial, often invited Mosley to speak or debate, which sparked significant anti-fascist opposition. This has caused some invitations to be withdrawn and other times for protestors to seek to disrupt events.

From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, Mosley made regular appearances at British universities, often accompanied by student protests. In April 1954, Mosley was invited by Nicholas Tomalin, President of the Cambridge Union, to debate the programme of the Union Movement’s attempt ‘to advocate by legal means a complete change in the system of Government’.[1] Following a debate in the pages of Varsity, the student newspaper at Cambridge, a motion to censure Tomalin for inviting Mosley was debated by the Cambridge Union in the week before his visit, which had led to scuffles between Labour and Conservative students at the special meeting.[2] Although the student paper gave significant airing to both sides of the debate over whether to invite the Union Movement leader, Mosley claimed that the paper had ‘incited to violence quite deliberately’ and that if it ‘had not been a privileged undergraduate newspaper, [the editors] would have been run in under the Public Order Act’.[3]

On the day of Mosley’s visit, the Daily Mail reported that ‘special wooden barriers had been nailed up in the corridors… to restrain gatecrashers’ and that extra police (including a plain clothes detective) had been drafted in.[4] But claimed that these precautions were, in the end, ‘hardly necessary’ and that Mosley was a ‘damp squib’.[5] The paper described (almost disappointingly) the reaction of students that opposed Mosley, but who were unable to disrupt the event:

Undergraduates who failed to get in punctuated the opening speeches with loud assaults on the locked doors and the half-hearted explosion of one firework outside aroused expectations of excitement.[6]

The Daily Express gave a slightly differing view to the level of disruption brought by the protesting students, reporting:

UNDERGRADUATES hung on high window frames outside the crowded Cambridge Union last night or sneaked in by the fire escape… Some of the 750 students inside the chamber hissed when a party of Sir Oswald’s friends and supports took their places in the gallery.

And throughout the main speeches there were loud “noises off” caused by students battering at the locked doors.[7]

An editorial for the Daily Mirror called the students that had invited Mosley as ‘incredibly stupid’ and asked, ‘Why dig up this old dummy?’[8] The newspaper noted that the Cambridge Union regarded itself as ‘a forcing house for the Front-Bench of the Commons’ that schooled students in ‘bright talk’, but quipped ‘their hospitality to Mosley was NOT a bright idea’.[9] The Cambridge Union replied to this editorial, retorting that they had ‘accorded to Sir Oswald the right of free speech, and accorded it at the same time to one of Fascism’s strongest enemies, the Rev. Dr. Donald Soper’.[10] The Union pointed to the fact that the vote went against Mosley and ‘[b]y an overwhelming majority of 650 we have shown our lack of confidence in the Mosleyites’.[11]

In October 1957, Mosley was invited by the Oxford Union to debate the possibility of a Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe, which attracted protests in the days leading up to the debate, but according to The Times, the debate ‘although crowded, passed off quietly’.[12] The newspaper quoted the President of the Oxford Union when defending the decision to invite Mosley after an undergraduate student questioned this:

This society was founded many years ago to enshrine a very great principle, that of free speech. The society has had to fight against many authorities to ensure that minority points of view shall be put.[13]

This statement is similar to other statements by the Oxford Union and other groups since the 1950s that have invited fascists, racists and other far right figures to speak or debate at British universities.

In April 1960, Mosley was speaking about South Africa to the Cambridge University Conservative Association. A protesting student, Philip Gratier, ‘slapped a jelly into the face’ of Mosley as he addressed the Conservative student group, with The Times reporting that chants of ‘Sharpeville, Notting Hill’ being heard throughout the speech.[14] The student paper at Cambridge, Varsity, described the scene:

Sir Oswald had been speaking for about five minutes when Gratier – himself one of the twenty-strong bodyguard the Conservative committee had placed at strategic points near the speaker’s chair – made his gesture.

He walked up to Sir Oswald and said: ‘Have a jelly my friend.’ Then he thrust the green jelly into his face.[15]

The Mosleyites tried to diminish the impact of the incident in their account on the front page of the UM newspaper, Action:

A few beardie weirdies from the Lab-Comm ranks were present, and one of them expressed himself by the only method of which he was capable. He threw a small jelly at Mosley, who subsequently enjoyed more substantial fare during the agreeable eventing with his hosts.[16]

Peter Temple Morris wrote to Mosley on behalf of the Conservative Association and apologised for the ‘jelly incident’, saying that it ‘really was the most stupid thing and… none of the audience liked it’.[17] He praised Mosley for his speech and said amongst people he had spoken to, there was ‘an overall admiration for the quite outstanding way in which you handled your audience’.[18] He also lamented that it was ‘a pity that small concentrated heckling groups gave you so much trouble’, but reassured Mosley that ‘now that the meeting is over we have no doubt at all of your ability in dealing with them’.[19]

The following month, Mosley was invited again by the Oxford Union to debate whether apartheid South Africa’s racialized policies were incompatible with membership in the British Commonwealth, with future Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe being one of his opponents.[20] Hugo Young reported in the student paper Cherwell that ‘no jellies and apparently no blousons noirs’ were present at the debate and described Mosley’s speech in quite favourable terms:

A far cry from the jack-booted demagogue of the yellow Press [sic], he impressed the House with his sober debating skill (especially in a brilliant, and ultimately victorious, exchange with Mr. Thorpe), if not the solidity of his arguments.[21]

This debate was repeated the following year, with both Mosley and Thorpe returning. Like Young’s write up of the debate the previous year, there were some that fawned over Mosley’s turn of phrase. For Mosley’s future biographer, Robert Skidelsky, witnessing this debate was a life-changing moment:

Mosley evidently had a hopeless task. His main point was that if we insisted on condemning every country which failed to live up to our particular moral requirements we would soon have no friends left in the world. But the highlight of the speech came when he trapped Mr Thorpe in a series of brilliantly timed and calculated exchanges which the Liberal M.P. seemed to have won completely till Mosley demolished him with a final crushing rejoinder. It was a superb example of the art of public debating, which failed to win the vote, but won for Mosley an ovation.[22]

The Union Movement’s paper, Action, complained that ‘[t]he Left turned out in force in the desperate effort to prevent Mosley’s case being heard again in Oxford… with ape-like grunts, yells, screams from hysterical females, and even rattles.’[23] The Mosleyites argued that the protestors did this because they were ‘hopelessly defeated in argument, and once more resort[ed] to screaming’.[24]

A few days later, Mosley spoke again at Oxford, this time to the Humanist Group, debating Marxist scholar Raymond Williams.[25] Cherwell reported on the hostile reception that Mosley received:

Heckling, hisses and boos swelled from an opening disturbance to an overwhelming uproar at Sir Oswald Mosley’s address on ‘Racial Purity’ on Tuesday. Shouting at the top of his voice, Sir Oswald was finally drowned out by chants of ‘Seig Heil’, cheers for Hitler and choruses of booing…

Violent protests and allegations from the largest-ever Humanity [sic] Group audience, packed into The Taylorian, interrupted Sir Oswald’s speech constantly, and his voice was drowned in uproar…[26]

Several students from the women’s college of Oxford, Somerville, wrote a letter to Cherwell, criticising the Oxford Union and the Humanist Group for ‘us[ing] their positions irresponsibly to give a platform to a man whose views are not only scientifically and economically untenable, but positively abhorrent in human terms’.[27] The students warned that there was an impression in the press that Oxford was ‘veering towards the extreme Right’ and warned ‘those who wish to be… Liberal-minded should guard against confirming this impression.’[28]

In fact, Mosley’s son, Max, was Secretary of the Oxford Union at the time and was key to inviting his father, as well as becoming a touring speaker for the Union Movement in the early 1960s.[29] When Oswald Mosley came to Oxford in January 1961, Max came into conflict with editor of the student magazine Isis, Paul Foot (later to be a member of the International Socialists and Socialist Workers Party).[30] After criticising the choice to allow Mosley to speak and alleging that Mosley had ‘done his best for 30 years to stir up racial violence’, Mosley requested an apology from the magazine and publishers.[31] The publishers apologised, but Foot resigned as editor rather than apologise to Mosley.[32]

While receiving numerous opportunities to speak, particularly from Oxford and Cambridge, there were times when Mosley was prevented from speaking at universities. For example, in December 1960, the University Debates Union at the University College of North Staffordshire, Keele voted by a small majority to withdraw an invitation for Mosley to debate on South Africa’s readmission to the Commonwealth.[33] The editor of the student newspaper Cygnet moved the motion for the withdrawal of the invitation, saying ‘there is no place for [Mosley] at Keele’.[34] The Guardian also quoted a member of the university’s Liberal Society who supported maintaining the invitation as arguing, ‘Every time you demonstrate against Mosley, boycott his meetings or ban him, you just enhance his reputation among his followers.’[35]

A few months later, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester banned Mosley from speaking at a debate on nuclear disarmament, after a vote to disinvite Mosley by the Leicester University Student Union Council and a wider student vote in favour of inviting Mosley.[36] The Vice-Chancellor cited the possibility of disturbances if Mosley came to the university as one of the reasons to disinvite him, as well as ‘the considerable offence he would give in the university’.[37] The Daily Mail reported that over 1,000 students held a protest meeting against the Vice-Chancellor’s intervention[38] and an article in the student newspaper at Leicester, The Ripple, questioned the Vice-Chancellor’s actions:

surely the way in which the Vice-Chancellor acted leaves much to be desired. It seems autocratic to say the least… hasn’t rather a dangerous precedent been established? Could not the Vice-Chancellor consider to a greater extent the express wishes of the Union? [39]

The newspaper’s editorial in the same issue defended the Vice-Chancellor’s position asking why the student union did not ban Mosley themselves, claiming that the Vice-Chancellor  ‘showed more foresight, more humanity, than did the Union’.[40] However the President of the student union was quoted by The Guardian as arguing that Mosley should have been allowed to speak ‘[o]n the ground that a university is a bastion of freedom of speech’ and that the student body had voted to invite him.[41] He further complained in The Ripple that the university ‘could have expected… one of the best debates this Union has ever known’ as Mosley was ‘a speaker of outstanding brilliance’ and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament would have provided another eloquent speaker to oppose him.[42] 

It was not only Mosley who was invited to speak or debate at universities in the 1960s – Colin Jordan was also invited to speak at times, particularly as the notoriety of his National Socialist Movement (NSM) grew. The NSM had begun in the early 1960s as Jordan sought to move away from the other fascist groups that existed in the 1950s, such as A.K. Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists or John Bean’s British National Party. Jordan was more interested in a transnational neo-Nazism, making connections with other Hitler worshippers in North America and Europe, than the other groups, who sought to promote the ‘Britishness’ of their fascism. Paul Jackson shows that Jordan was invited to speak at Southampton University in October 1965, addressing an audience of around 600 students.[43] The student newspaper at Southampton, Wessex News, reported that there was ‘virtually no interruption’ when Jordan first spoke, adding ‘what heckling there was, was largely good-natured’.[44] However, the student paper described that during the Q&A session that followed, there were cries of ‘Hitler Youth’, ‘a barrage of positive applause, which lasted for over half a minute’ when a student questioned Jordan about white supremacy in Africa and a ‘pale, and quivering with rage’ student who called Jordan a ‘human abomination’.[45] A final student turned his back on Jordan and ‘told how three of his coloured worker friends had been beaten up by “Jordan’s thugs”’, which Jordan dismissed as ‘nonsense’ before winding up.[46]  

Jordan was also invited to speak at the Oxford Union in January 1966, although, as Jackson notes, ‘this event was subsequently cancelled as the organizers felt that the event would only end up being wrecked by opponents.’[47] As well as these invitations to speak, Jordan was also interviewed by several student newspapers (including student publications at the University of Manchester, the University of Warwick, Manchester Metropolitan University and Aberystwyth University).[48]

Of the various far right figures in post-war Britain, Oswald Mosley and Colin Jordan were probably the most famous and generated the most headlines, although Jeffrey Hamm, A.K. Chesterton, John Tyndall, John Bean and Martin Webster all received a fair amount of publicity from the press, particularly around the political stunts and public displays that these far right figures took part in. While the various student groups that invited Mosley and Jordan to speak or debate at various universities predominantly spruiked the principle of free speech and allowing ‘minority’ or controversial views to be heard, these two far right leaders were invited because of their notoriety. Although Mosley was described by many of those who invited him as a brilliant orator, it was controversy and publicity that a Mosley speech would create that often drove people to book him for student union debates. Jordan was similar in this regard, as he had achieved national attention in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Not only was Jordan invited to speak at Southampton and Oxford (although this invitation was later withdrawn), several student newspapers published interviews with Jordan in the mid-1960s.

There are several possible reasons why the student press decided to interview Jordan, with one being a student indulgence in contrarianism and shock, particularly as there was a broader growth in student rebellion in the mid-to-late 1960s in Britain (and around the world). From the various student groups that invited Mosley and Jordan, it seems that in many instances, it was Conservative and Liberal groups which supported inviting them, while Labour and other communist or socialist groups opposed – although there often divisions within these groups over these invitations. For example, the Cambridge University Conservative Association was divided in 1961 over whether to invite Mosley to speak, with future ministers Kenneth Clarke and Michael Howard at odds over this (Clarke was for inviting Mosley and Howard opposed).[49]

Mosley and Jordan, who personally benefitted from these events, used these speaking events as opportunities to legitimise themselves and their ideologies. Mosley in particular believed that he had been denied his rightful place in British political leadership and craved legitimacy. Presenting himself at these debates as a person of interest worth engaging with, these student audiences reinforced Mosley’s ego, while at the same time, Mosley relished the controversy that surrounded him.

There is some indication that the Union Movement saw the tactic of speaking at universities as a way to recruit youth, who they believed were rejecting ‘the Old Gang’ in the 1950s and supposedly looked to Mosley ‘as a leader who can inspire.’[50] In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Union Movement were frustrated that they were banned from holding meetings in public halls in several London boroughs and used university debates as alternative recruiting grounds.[51] After Mosley was banned from speaking at the University of Leicester, but allowed to speak at Oxford, Action declared that the ‘Union Movement’s progress in the universities is frightening the old parties’ and that the ‘old world fights back with the only weapon it possesses – suppression’. [52] But as the 1960s progressed, it became clear that the majority of youth were not willing to listen to Mosley and other far right cranks, as much as they looked to youth to regenerate their movements.

Often invited by Conservative or Liberal student groups, these speaking engagements by Mosley and Jordan drew considerable student protest from Labour, Communist and Jewish student groups. And in these student actions of the 1950s and 1960s, we can see the antecedents of the eventual ‘no platform’ strategy in the 1970s.

[1] Belfast Newsletter, 10 May, 1954, p. 4.

[2] Varsity, 8 May, 1954, p. 1 & p. 16.

[3] Union, 22 May, 1954, p. 3.

[4] Daily Mail, 12 May, 1954, p. 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Daily Express, 12 May, 1954, p. 5.

[8] Daily Mirror, 13 May, 1954, p. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Times, 25 October, 1957, p. 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Times, 25 April, 1960, p. 7.

[15] Varsity, 30 April, 1960, p. 1.

[16] Action, May 1960, p. 12.

[17] Letter from Peter Temple-Morris to Oswald Mosley, 25 April, 1960, OMD 1/1/4/10, Oswald Mosley Papers, University of Birmingham.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The Times, 20 May, 1960, p. 14.

[21] Cherwell, 21 May, 1960, p. 4.

[22] Robert Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (London: Papermac, 1990) p. 15.

[23] Action, 1 February, 1961, p. 12.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Cherwell, 28 January, 1961, p. 1.

[27] Cherwell, 1 February, 1961, p. 1.

[28] Ibid.

[29] See: Action, 21 November, 1961, p. 2; Action, 15 November, 1962, p. 2.

[30] Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley & British Fascism (London: Penguin Books, 2007) p. 622.

[31] The Times, 1 March, 1961, p. 5.

[32] Ibid.

[33] The Guardian, 3 December, 1960, p. 12.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] The Guardian, 21 February, 1961, p. 3.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Daily Mail, 22 February, 1961, p. 5.

[39] The Ripple, 1 March, 1961, p. 1.

[40] Ibid., p. 2.

[41] The Guardian, 21 February, 1961, p. 3.

[42] The Ripple, 1 March, 1961, p. 4.

[43] Jackson, Colin Jordan and Britain’s Neo-Nazi Movement, p. 134.

[44] Wessex News, 11 November, 1965, p. 3.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Jackson, Colin Jordan and Britain’s Neo-Nazi Movement, p. 134.

[48] Ibid., pp. 134-135.

[49] Kenneth Clarke, Kind of a Blue: A Political Memoir (London: Macmillan, 2016) pp.

[50] Union, 29 May, 1954, p. 1.

[51] Action, 27 February, 1959, p. 5; Action, December 1960, p. 6.

[52] Action, 1 March, 1961, p. 12.

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