British Union of Fascists

Book Review: ‘Searching for Lord Haw-Haw’ by Colin Holmes

The kind folk at Routledge sent me a copy of Searching for Lord Haw-Haw to review as promotion for their new Fascism and Far Right series and I am delighted to review the book below.

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Colin Holmes, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Lives of William Joyce (London/New York: Routledge, 2017) pp. 494. ISBN 978-1-138-88886-9.
(£14.99 softcover/£75.00 hardcover)

After Oswald Mosley, William Joyce (infamously known as Lord Haw-Haw) is probably the most well-known British fascist of the inter-war period. A leading member of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF), Joyce was forced from the party in 1937 and after passing through a series of pro-German groups and societies in the lead up to the war, fled to Berlin in the days before the Second World War started. Joyce joined a small bunch of English-speakers in Nazi Germany who worked for Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, who broadcast pro-Nazi material over the airwaves and wrote similar tracts for distribution in German POW camps and elsewhere. As the deftest of these propagandists, Joyce became known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ to British listeners, who remained unaware of Joyce’s real identity (although several MI5 staff suspected that he was Haw-Haw). Captured by British soldiers trying to escape Germany at the end of the war, Joyce was repatriated to Britain to stand trial for treason. Despite having an American birth certificate (and hence US citizenship), Joyce was found to betrayed his allegiance to the British Crown and was hanged in early 1946.

Although there have been studies of Joyce’s life before, Colin Holmes, an expert historian on anti-Semitism in modern Britain, has undertaken considerable new research to bring a more well-rounded picture of Joyce and his motivations, both personal and political. Born in the United States, his family traveled to County Galway when he was a child and was a pro-Unionist protestant throughout his youth. Despite Holmes’ diligent research, there are aspects of Joyce’s life in Ireland that are unknown and the first chapter is possibly the weaker section of the biography. However his recruitment as an informant for the Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence and the battles he had with local Irish Republicans, explored in detail by Holmes, is important, because it shapes his future political outlook – fiercely pro-British, a believer in British imperialism and willing to be involved in political violence.

Moving to England in the 1920s, Joyce fancied himself as an academic and tried to pursue a career in English literary studies, while at the same time joining the Conservative Party. Soon Joyce found the Tories too timid and became involved the British Fascisti formed by the eccentric Rotha Lintorn-Orman. Joyce and future Imperial Fascist League leader Arnold Leese both joined a splinter party from the BF called the National Fascisti before Leese formed the Imperial Fascist League in 1929 and Joyce joined the BUF in 1932. One of the interesting things about Joyce for historians is that his journey on the right hand side of politics saw him travel through almost every organisation on the far right and Holmes does a great job to explore the various small and sinister organisations that Joyce encountered in both the 1920s and 1930s.

Joyce did not join Oswald Mosley’s New Party, but was an early member of the BUF, formed in late 1932 after Mosley travelled to the continent to witness Italian fascism in person. Joyce soon found himself in a leading position within the BUF and was known as a confident, yet vitriolic, public speaker. Holmes shows that Joyce gained considerable influence within the BUF during his tenure, but as his star rose, his relationship with Mosley soured and was eventually excluded from the BUF in early 1937.

From the time that he was kicked out of the BUF until his leaving for Germany in August 1939, Joyce, again, was involved in a number of organisations on the British far right and who pushed for stronger links between Britain and Germany. As well as the National Socialist League that he founded with fellow ex-BUFers John Beckett and John MacNab, Joyce was also associated with the Nordic League, the Anglo-German Fellowship and the Right Club. Despite a small number of wealthy benefactors, Holmes shows that Joyce was always looking for sources of income for his political ventures and his associations with many of those who pro-German were as economically motivated as they were political. Holmes also shows that MI5 had penetrated deeply into these circles by the late 1930s, although they were unable to detain Joyce before he fled to Germany in the month before the war.

Joyce and his wife moved to Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War, using his British passport to leave the country, but not becoming a German citizen until after the war started. For several months in the early days of the war, Joyce assisted the Nazis while holding a British passport, even though he was born in the United States, and was later to be a naturalised German. This is an important detail which becomes relevant at this 1945 trial. Holmes emphasises the irony of the extreme British patriot having to renounce his British citizenship and pledge allegiance to a foreign power during the time of war.

While in Germany, Joyce worked for Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry and while also authoring works on Germany’s future triumph over Western Europe and the bankruptcy of modern Britain, he was most well-known for broadcasting Nazi propaganda in English. Although he was not the first Lord Haw-Haw, a pseudonym used by several different broadcasters, Joyce came to personify the character. Looking at the effect that Lord Haw-Haw’s broadcasts had upon British morale during the war, Holmes uses Mass Observation records to show that while many British listeners dismissed Lord Haw-Haw’s ravings and thought of him as foolish, others were perturbed by his message, particularly as these broadcast often included information about Allied losses not covered in the British media. The book also shows that from the very beginning, the security services were also listening to Lord Haw-Haw and had been informed by several contacts that the voice of Haw-Haw was indeed Joyce.

Holmes depicts how Joyce, who desired attention and praise from his German employers, was given favourable treatment in the early years of the war, but as the war dragged on, this favourable treatment dried up and Joyce started to resent living in a country where wartime restrictions were so harshly felt. Increasingly plagued by alcoholism and abusive towards his wife, Joyce raged against his situation. As the Soviets got closer to Berlin, Joyce and his wife fled westwards and Joyce was eventually captured near the German-Danish border in late May 1945 by British soldiers, who shot him in the buttocks during a quick scuffle. Injured, he was taken back to Britain and within a few months was to be put on trial for treason.

The prosecution of Joyce was complex as it hinged upon the fact that Joyce, although an American citizen by birth, had travelled to Germany on a British passport and from the outbreak of the war until July 1940 (when he and his wife became naturalised German citizens) had broadcast at the behest of the Nazi regime, who were at war with Britain. Holding a British passport implied allegiance to the British Crown and by working for the Nazis while holding this passport, the prosecution argued, Joyce committed treason. Joyce was convinced that his American birth certificate would save him, as it had Eamon de Valera who was pardoned for treason after the 1916 Easter Rising.

Holmes navigates the intricate legal arguments put forward by both the prosecution and defence, though both the initial trail and the appeal. The reader is left with the impression that the successful prosecution and the upholding of the guilty verdict was a controversial interpretation of the law as it stood, with a suggestion that it was unlikely that Joyce would be ever be found not guilty. Once the guilty verdict was upheld in December 1945, execution was quick to follow and in early January 1946, Joyce was hung at Wandsworth Prison in London. Joyce seemed to have accepted his fate and according to Holmes, showed little regret for his political views and where they had led him since the 1920s.

Colin Holmes has done more than write a biography of Joyce, with a book that also explores the social history of the British far right in the inter-war period, outlines the intrigues of the British security services during this era and delves into the legal history surrounding Joyce’s trial for treason. It is an enjoyable read that uses the life of Joyce to traverse down a number of historical paths, tying together several fields of historical scholarship. Overall an ambitious, yet very accomplished, book.

You can order a copy of Searching for Lord Haw-Haw here.

The Communist Party of Australia reports on ‘the Battle of Cable Street’

The importance of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ for the Communist Party of Great Britain has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, but I thought readers might be interested in how it was reported on in the Workers’ Weekly, the bi-weekly newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia. On Friday October 9, 1936, the newspaper reported:

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Of interest to the Communist Party of Australia, and to historians of Australian politics, was that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who refused to ban the march by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, had previously been the Governor of New South Wales. As Andrew Moore has written, Game gained similar notoriety in Australia for the dismissal of the Premier Jack Lang in 1932.

As the creation of the Public Order Act 1936 followed quickly in the wake of ‘Cable Street’, the Workers’ Weekly printed a follow up article denouncing measures by the state to curb Mosley. .On 13 October, 1936, the newspaper published this report:

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The article mentions that the CPGB could not rely on the state to deal decisively with the BUF, as the POA was more likely to be used against communists than fascists, as discussed by David Renton here.

The fascist threat in Australia, presented by Eric Campbell’s New Guard, had resided largely by 1936 and there is little in the CPA’s literature that discusses combating the New Guard in a similar fashion to the street fighting seen in Europe. By 1936, the fascist threat was largely external, with a number of Australian communists traveling to Spain the fight in the Civil War.

The Communist Party’s campaign for the Race Relations Act 1965

This month is the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1965 by the Wilson government, the first piece of legislation dealing with racial discrimination in the United Kingdom. As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), a major part of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s anti-racist activism between the 1950s and the 1970s was the introduction and use of legislation to combat racial discrimination, namely the Race Relations Act. The following post looks at the CPGB’s call for legislation before 1965 and how it responded to the Act once it was in effect.

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

Since the end of the Second World War, the Communist Party had campaigned for the introduction of legislation combat racial hatred and the incitement to racial violence. With the influx of Commonwealth migrants in the 1950s, the Party also campaigned for legislation to fight the racial discrimination faced by many of the new arrivals to the country. In 1955, the International Department published the pamphlet No Colour Bar in Britain, which contained the ‘Charter of Rights’ for Commonwealth migrants coming to Britain. The first point of this Charter called for:

No form of colour discrimination by employers, landlords, publicans, hotel proprietors or any aspect of social, educational and cultural activity. Any racial discrimination to be made a penal offence.[i]

This meant support for Fenner Brockway’s attempts to pass legislation that would ban racial discrimination and the ‘colour bar’ in Britain. In June 1956, Brockway introduced a Bill ‘to make illegal discrimination to the detriment of any person on the grounds of colour, race and religion in the United Kingdom’.[ii] Brockway acknowledged that ‘there must be a limitation to the powers of legislation’, but cited three main areas where legislation was ‘justified and necessary’ – public areas, housing and employment.[iii] At this time, Brockway was also National Chairman of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, which founded in April 1954.[iv] Between 1956 and the introduction of the Race Relations Act in 1965, Brockway proposed a bill on racial discrimination a number of times, all defeated by the Conservative majority. Kay Beauchamp wrote in Marxism Today in 1967 that Brockway had introduced a Bill on racial discrimination ‘no less than eight times’ and this had been supported by the MCF, the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and other progressive organisations, as well as the Communist Party itself.[v]

There were two main arguments made by the Communist Party for the introduction of the Race Relations Act. The first was a continuation of the CPGB’s anti-fascist stance, calling for a ban on the incitement to racial hatred. The other was the wider argument for legislation to combat racial discrimination that was much more widespread and institutionalised than that explicitly perpetrated by the fascist far right minority. The CPGB argued that this was not an issue of free speech, but stated that preventing race hatred was a ‘guarantee of peace, democracy and progress’.[vi] To defend these ideals, the Party demanded that fascist organisations, such as Mosley’s Union Movement, be banned from using public halls, and that workers should ‘oppose every form of colour discrimination’ and make ‘such discrimination or propaganda for it, a criminal offence’.[vii]

This argument was raised again in July 1962, when anti-fascists, in what were the beginnings of the Yellow Star Movement, battled in Trafalgar Square against the fledgling National Socialist Movement (NSM), led by Colin Jordan and future National Front leader, John Tyndall. According to The Guardian, the first public meeting of the NSM ‘ended with 20 arrests, fights, bleeding faces, abuse, and tears’.[viii] In the weeks following, the CPGB demanded that ‘racial incitement be made illegal… as a result of the widespread and deep indignation aroused by the recent re-activisation of fascist organisations in Britain’.[ix] The Party repeated that Fenner Brockway had been proposing legislation against racist propaganda for years and declared that it, along with the British working class, would ‘give its wholehearted support to the efforts being made for the carrying of such legislation in Parliament’.[x]

However, the Party was wary about the state using the 1936 Public Order Act to combat public racist agitation. In the same article, it warned that a ‘Tory MP, incidentally, has seized the opportunity to propose a ban on ALL political meetings in [Trafalgar] Square’,[xi] which would have had a much harder impact on the left and other progressive movements than the fascist far right. The fact that the Public Order Act had been ‘mainly used against those who resent and protest against provocative racialist propaganda’ was one of the reasons why the Communist Party supported Brockway’s Bill, rather than amending the 1936 Act.[xii] In a memorandum presented by the London District Committee in December 1964, the Party declared that:

There should be no question of amending the Public Order Act (1936) instead of introducing a Bill. The Public Order Act is an Act directed against the working class movement and any strengthening of it will tend to be used not against fascists, but as in the past, against anti-fascists.[xiii]

The other side to the campaign for legislation against racial discrimination was the much more widespread and institutionalised racism that black people in Britain faced in public places, in employment, in seeking housing and in their interactions with the state. Any legislation brought in could not eliminate all racism within British society, but Fenner Brockway’s aimed to ‘end, by legislation, the practice of race discrimination in… public relations’.[xiv] Despite the very real instances of racial discrimination that were experienced by blacks in Britain, the Conservatives opposed any legislation, declaring that ‘it would be almost impossible to prove that a person had been turned away on the grounds of colour and on the grounds of colour alone’.[xv] Describing Brockway’s proposals as ‘badly drafted and ill-conceived’, Conservative MP Bernard Braine claimed during a Parliamentary debate on the Bill that ‘a large number of coloured people… have not experienced any form of discrimination ‘ and ‘discrimination, therefore, is something which ought not to be tackled by legislation, but… by education’.[xvi]

The Communist Party countered these claims by the Conservatives that legislation was unnecessary in the Daily Worker and other CPGB literature. In a memorandum submitted to the Labour Government by the London District Committee in March 1965, the Party declared that racism was ‘widespread in relation to employment, housing and recreational facilities’ with ‘many examples of refusal to serve coloured people in restaurants, public houses and other public places’.[xvii] To counter this, the Party proposed that discrimination should be made illegal:

  • by a keeper of a Hotel, Public House, Café or Restaurant…;
  • by a keeper of any kind of Boarding House, Common Lodging House or in granting a tenancy;
  • by a keeper of any public place of entertainment… to which the public are admitted.[xviii]

In the sphere of employment, the Party proposed legislation making it illegal for ‘employers or workers to refuse employment, apprenticeship, training or promotion’ on the grounds of race, along with attempts to ‘pay a lower rate to a worker’ on racial grounds.[xix] The Party proposed that any public incitement of racial hatred or contempt should be an offence, to be applied to the spoken word and that used in leaflets, newspapers or any other printed or duplicated material. The Party reiterated that ‘existing legislation is inadequate with this menace’ of explicit racial prejudice and ‘the matter cannot be effectively dealt with by amending the Public Order Act’.[xx]

Throughout the Communist Party’s campaign to support the creation of what became the Race Relations Act, there was the acknowledgement of the limitations of legislation without wider education and efforts made at local grassroots level. ‘No one would pretend that such legislation, by itself alone, would be sufficient to wipe out colour-bar practices’, wrote Kay Beauchamp, ‘let alone to rid people’s minds of the racial ideas which more than three hundred years of capitalist rule have plated there’.[xxi] But what it was hoped the Race Relations Act would do was ‘deter those who at present practice racial discrimination’ and ‘restrain those… who deliberately incite racial hatred’, as well as preventing ‘the more open forms of their insidious propaganda’.[xxii]

In November 1965, the Race Relations Act was enacted by the Labour Government. On the issue of discrimination, the Act made it illegal for places of public resort to ‘practise discrimination on the ground of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins against persons seeking access to or facilities or services at that place’.[xxiii] In the sphere of housing, tenancy could not be withheld on the grounds of race, but this only applied to freestanding properties and not to lodgings where the landlord also lived.[xxiv] The Labour Government established a Race Relations Board to investigate complaints of violations of the Act and facilitate conciliation between the parties concerned. Punishment for violation of the Act could only be delivered by the Attorney General, to whom the Race Relations Board would report. While racial discrimination was now in violation of civil law, it made racial incitement, published, distributed or publicly spoken, a criminal offence. However the final clause of the Act also amended the 1936 Public Order Act, extending it to any words or writings deemed ‘threatening, abusive or insulting, with intent to provoke a breach of the peace’ and not limited to the issue of ‘race’.[xxv]

The Race Relations Act was a significantly weaker Act than the one which had been proposed by Fenner Brockway and was, as Dilip Hiro noted, ‘criticized by liberal opinion both inside and outside Parliament’, including criticism from the Communist Party.[xxvi] The Act was described as ‘marred by weakness which represented a dangerous concession to the most reactionary and racially prejudiced of the Tory Party’.[xxvii] Tony Chater claimed that the Act worked as a ‘barrier against prosecution for incitement to racial hatred’ as it relied on the Attorney General to initiate any proceedings.[xxviii] Conciliation machinery was viewed as ‘very desirable, but only within the framework of criminal proceedings’, not as a substitute for legislation.[xxix] ‘If such machinery becomes a substitute for legislation against racial discrimination’, warned CPGB member Harry Bourne, ‘then full licence will be left to the racialists to carry on their foul work’.[xxx]

In July 1967, Beauchamp wrote in Marxism Today:

The Race Relations Board recently reported that out of 309 cases referred to it, 224 referred to matters outside its powers, including 97 on jobs and 23 on housing. Of the remaining 87, 17 had been settled out of court, 2 had been referred to the Attorney General and 31 were being looked at.[xxxi]

The amendments to the Public Order Act in the 1965 Act were claimed by the CPGB to have ‘nothing to do with race relations’ and its extensions going ‘beyond the intention’ of the Act, with the possibility of it being ‘used to curb the normal political activities of the people’.[xxxii] Despite its weaknesses, the Communist Party saw the Act as ‘a first limited step to combat the spread of racial discrimination and incitement’ and called for support for it ‘in principle by all progressive people’.[xxxiii] The CPGB continued to call for ‘amending of the Race Relations Act to make it more effective against incitement to race hatred and against discrimination, particularly in housing and employment’.[xxxiv] It also proposed that ‘it should be easier for a victim… to have recourse to law without having to seek the Attorney General’s intervention’.[xxxv] However as the Act was strengthened by the Labour Government in 1968, this happened as more severe restrictions were placed on black immigration in Britain.

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Beauchamp’s 1967 article in Marxism Today

 

(Full refs are available upon request)

[i] Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 11.

[ii] Hansard, 12 June 1956, col. 247.

[iii] Hansard, 12 June 1956, col. 248-49.

[iv] Howe 1993, p. 231.

[v] Beauchamp, ‘Racialism in Britain Today and How to Fight It’, Marxism Today, July 1967, p. 203.

[vi] ‘Stop Racial Propaganda’, n.d., Manchester: CPGB flyer.

[vii] ‘Stop Racial Propaganda’

[viii] The Guardian, 2 July 1962.

[ix] Jones, ‘Outlaw This Incitement to Racial Hatred’, Comment, 11 August 1962, p. 381.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Zaidman, ‘Fight Race Hate Here Too’, Comment, 5 October 1963, p. 631.

[xiii] London District Committee, ‘Memorandum on a Bill against Racial Discrimination and Incitement’, 16 December 1964, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/01/01, LHASC.

[xiv] Hansard, 30 April 1958, col. 388.

[xv] Hansard, 24 May 1957, col. 1604.

[xvi] Hansard, 24 May 1957, col. 1602; col. 1606.

[xvii] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement: What Should Be in the Bill?, March 1965, p. 2, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/01/04, LHASC.

[xviii] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement, p. 5.

[xix] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement, p. 6.

[xx] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement, pp. 8-9.

[xxi] Beauchamp, ‘Colour Bar’, Comment, 11 January 1964, p. 22.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Race Relations Act, 1965, 1 (1)

[xxiv] In most discussions of the shortcomings of the first Race Relations Act, it is generally mentioned that ‘it did not apply to the areas of employment and housing’. While employment was not included in the Act, some mention of housing was included, but this is commonly overlooked. Even contemporary reports in the Communist Party press generalised about the weaknesses of the Act, stating that, ‘Discrimination in the important fields of employment and housing is not within its scope’. Miles and Phizacklea 1984, p. 57; Hiro 1992, p. 210; Moore 1975, p. 103; Chater 1966, p. 62; Daily Worker, 29 April 1965.

[xxv] Race Relations Act, 1965, 7

[xxvi] Hiro 1992, p. 210.

[xxvii] ‘Political Committee Statement on Race Relations Bill’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/01/02, LHASC.

[xxviii] Chater 1966, p. 62.

[xxix] Chater 1966, p. 63.

[xxx] Bourne, Racialism, p. 12.

[xxxi] Beauchamp, ‘Racialism in Britain Today and How to Fight It’, p. 203.

[xxxii] ‘Political Committee Statement on Race Relations Bill’

[xxxiii] ‘Political Committee Statement on Race Relations Bill’

[xxxiv] Beauchamp, ‘Racialism in Britain and the Fight Against It’, p. 617.

[xxxv] Bourne, Racialism, pp. 12-3.

Forming the National Front of Australia: ASIO and the fledgling far right group

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On Saturday June 2, 1978, a group of nine people gathered in a room of the Southern Cross Hotel in the Melbourne CBD to launch the National Front of Australia (NFA). According to the ASIO informant, nine people attended the meeting, including several well-known far right activists, a 16 year old schoolboy and an undercover reporter for the newspaper The Age. Seven out of the nine listed were already known to the authorities in some regard. The meeting was led by a 23 year old law student and army reservist, Rosemary Sisson, who had travelled to the UK in 1977 to seek permission from the National Front’s John Tyndall to establish an NF in Australia. According to ASIO, Tyndall had appointed Sisson to be Chairwoman of the NFA until a directing body was created. In a report on Sisson by the Victorian Police’s Special Branch, Sisson was described in these terms:

She appears to be intensely sincere in her beliefs but politically naïve and immature. I do not believe that she has the ability to form a political party on her own volition and would most likely be used by other persons taking advantage of her enthusiasm, while maintaining their anonymity.

The meeting, which lasted between two and four hours, commenced with the playing of God Save the Queen and passed several motions relating to the outlook of the NFA, the composition of the National Directorate, membership fees and a statement of ambition regarding the contesting of elections in the near future. The ‘highlight’ of the meeting was listening to a tape recording of Tyndall. The ASIO informant described Tyndall’s speech as such:

Tyndal’s [sic] speech included greetings to the newly formed NFA and congratulations and it is encouraging to him that the National Front had extended to Australia… He pointed out that the National Front had been established for almost 12 year and during this time there had been clashes with the authorities, Police Special Branch and most left-wing groups. In spite of all this, they had conducted massive demonstrations and never instigated violence but violence was forced upon them… The speech continued with the usual self praises and self congratulations for the National Front.

Tyndall also mentioned in his speech that National Fronts had been established in several other countries, such as New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Rhodesia. After Tyndall’s speech, a letter of congratulations from the leader of the New Zealand National Front, David Crawford, was read out. Sisson saw the connection to the British NF as very important and most of the policies outlined at the meeting centred around maintaining Australia’s links with Britain, the Commonwealth and the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ race. These included the establishment of the Commonwealth National Front (CNF) as a (theoretical) co-ordinating body of the various NFs across the globe and the call for the reconfigurement of the British Commonwealth as ‘an exclusive closely-knit association of White states’, where there was either a large white population or ruling white elite. This led to the calling for the re-entry of Rhodesia and South Africa into the Commonwealth and support for white rule in both countries. As evidenced by the singing of the old national anthem, loyalty to the British Crown was paramount to the NFA.

The Age journalist that attended the meeting was David Wilson who wrote about the establishment of the NFA in the newspaper the following week. Wilson described the secret meeting of nine people as:

the culmination of 12 months’ work: trips by England by two of the nine, talks with the head of the English movement, Mr John Tyndall, letters to the chairman of the New Zealand division, Mr David Crawford, and weeks of long hours carefully selecting the initial members of the Australian movement, printing, letter writing and telephone calls.

According to ASIO intelligence reports, a Birmingham based NF organiser, Jeremy May (who had previously lived in Australia), had travelled in early 1978 to assist Sisson in setting up the NFA, while Sisson also communicated with Tyndall in writing. In an intercepted letter between Sisson and Tyndall, written in late November 1977, she concurred that the NFA would supposedly operate differently than the British NF, writing:

We agree with your suggestion that an Australian NF body should aim to function – at least initially – as a pressure group concentrating on basic political technique and party organisation, rather than attempting to achieve mass popular appeal and publicity.

This letter was written in the wake of the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977 when the British NF attempted to march through a borough of south-east London with a large African-Caribbean community. The clashes between anti-fascist protestors and the police, as well as with some NF members, brought the NF to attention of many Australians as the scenes were broadcast on the news. The NF had shifted in their strategy from attempting to gain influence amongst ex-Conservative Party voters and building its membership base to a strategy of ‘owning the streets’ and gaining as much as publicity as possible from these street battles, whilst simultaneously contesting elections and trying to siphon off disaffected Labour voters. It seemed from Sisson’s letter that the NFA were not expecting to mimic the British NF’s approach just yet – with only a handful of interested people, occupying the streets was too tall an order for them.

The 'Battle of Lewisham', August 1977

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’, August 1977

The month before the establishment of the NFA, May wrote an article in Tyndall’s journal (aligned to the NF at the point in time) Spearhead, titled ‘Towards a National Front of Australia’. Like Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, the NF saw Australia as ‘a vast and fascinating country with tremendous social and economic potential’ and while the country was ‘almost completely self-sufficient in economic resources’, it was perceived that Australia was at the mercy of foreign investment and international liberalism. May pointed to the ending of the ‘White Australia Policy’ as a particular symbol of Australia’s despair, lamenting the ‘invading hordes’ from southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Furthermore, May focused on Australia’s ‘complete absence of protection for almost the entire length of the country’s vast coastline’ as another example of the country’s weakness, with the naval defences, described as a ‘bathtub floatilla’, unable to prevent ‘Chinese drug racketeers, Pacific Islanders and, most recently, Vietnamese refugees’ from reaching its shores. Despite this, Australia was still seen as a bastion of the old white Commonwealth at a time when South Africa and Rhodesia seemed on the verge of collapse. May warned Spearhead’s readers:

Let us be clear on one point. Should South Africa ever fall to the forces which threaten to engulf Western civilisation, we can be sure that Australia will be next on the list. Liberalism is a luxury which Australia simply cannot afford, if only for geographical reasons. No protection money will ever be sufficient to dissuade the teeming Asiatic billions from erupting into the island continent once they get their chance.

May declared that the only way to ‘safeguard the nation from this fate’ was the creation of the NFA, which he described as ‘an urgent and imperative necessity’. ‘Native Australians’, by which May meant white Australians with an Anglo background, ‘are a proud, strong-minded and independent people’, who also maintained their links to British. And it was up to the NFA to ‘ensure that this distinctive national identity… is encouraged, enforced and politically activated.’

With this mission in mind, the establishment of the NFA was preceded attempts to gauge public opinion through the secret distribution of literature across Melbourne. As David Wilson wrote in The Age, ‘The only indication of the secret spread of the movement was through the carefully circulated newsletter, The Australian Nationalist.’

The Australian Nationalist had started appearing from January 1978 and was a mimeographed publication written by Sisson. The first issue called for a united Australian nationalist party and bemoaned that the nationalist movement at that time was ‘almost hopelessly and irretrievably fragmented into mutually suspicious, competitive, and absurdly idiosyncratic, exclusive little groups.’ But Sisson declared:

IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT WE REGROUP AND UNITE! Only though unity and the strength this gives us can we begin to tap and realise the incalculable political potential of national patriotism within this country.

Sisson pointed the British NF as the example ‘forever before our eyes’ of the unification of several different far right groups (in 1967, the NF had formed from the remnants of the League of Empire Loyalists, the British National Party, the National Democratic Party, the Greater Britain Movement and the Racial Preservation Society). The Australian Nationalist expressed a pro-British Commonwealth nationalism and its influences were very much drawn from the British fascist movement, rather than the American far right. Similar to May’s article, Australia was portrayed as the bastion of the white British civilisation on the periphery of Asia and Sisson argued that this meant that a strong nationalist movement was needed to maintain this position. The fear of invasion by Asians was long-standing in Australia and Sisson evoked this in a January 1978 article:

The geographical situation of Australia, with its close proximity to some of the most populous of Asiatic nations, impels us to be very much on our guard against nationally destructive propaganda…

In the editorial to the April 1978 edition of the newsletter, Sisson further championed Australia’s links to Britain and the importance of their ‘proper ethnic pride’. She argued:

Australia owes almost everything it has to Great Britain. The conquering and pioneering spirit of our forefathers was British. This can never be denied. If anything, we should seek closer links not only with white Europe, but to a greater extent with our mother country. Even though we are no longer a cluster of colonies, but are fully self-governing and independent, there is no reason why we should forsake our history and clamour for a republic.

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The first leaflet produced by the NFA

In June 1978, The Australian Nationalist became Frontline: Magazine of the National Fronts of Australia and New Zealand, with the debut issue dedicated to the formation of the NFA. Unlike the descriptions by ASIO and by David Wilson in The Age, the June meeting of the nine people to form the NFA was described in Frontline in grandiose terms. Quoting the opening address by Sisson, meeting supposed ‘mark[ed] an important event in the political history of Australia’ by forming a new political party that ‘represents the future of the Australian people’ and ‘revive national pride’. The magazine also carried the text of Tyndall’s speech heard at the meeting, in which Tyndall described Australia as a terra nullius transformed by British settlers into a bulwark of white civilisation on the edges of the British Empire:

Australia was not so very long ago a wilderness inhabited by a few savages, and it took some very hardy determined, self-reliant and tough pioneers to carve a great country and a great civilization out of that wilderness…

Tyndall enthused about the formation of the Commonwealth National Front, remarking that the ‘realisation of the National Front spanning the whole British Commonwealth has always been a dream to me’ and with the establishment of the NFA, ‘the sight of this dream being fulfilled is enormous encouragement to me’. Tyndall asserted that the NFA was not subordinate to the British NF and there was to be ‘equal partnerships’ between the NF in the UK and those in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In an article in Frontline, the CNF was to co-ordinate activities amongst the various NFs across the Commonwealth, but allowed discretion to each NF to function as it desired. The article explained:

Subject to their adherence to a common set of basic principles and objectives, National Front organisations in various countries are free to determine their own rules of association, to make their own executive decisions and to determine themselves all policies relating to their own countries’ domestic political affairs.

The above will include the right to determine whether the National Front in a particular country will function as a fully fledged political party, seeking power in its own right by the ballot box, or whether it will function merely as a pressure group or society for the furtherance of National Front ideals.

The magazine also carried the letter of congratulations from the NFNZ’s leader David Crawford, which described the NF as ‘the vanguard of the most impelling force ever to strike your country in the last 100 years’. Crawford mentioned that National Fronts now existed in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. The journal Patterns of Prejudice noted the announcement of the Commonwealth National Front in mid-1978, but stated that the only NF that had been set up by that time was in New Zealand – although by March, 1979, ASIO believed that the NFNZ was ‘almost finished’. Patterns of Prejudice that NFs in Canada and South Africa were still in development.

The 16 year old schoolboy that attended the inaugural meeting of the NFA was David Greason. In his autobiography, I was a Teenage Fascist, Greason described the meeting as a ramshackle and ill-organised affair, with him moving a motion for the formation of the NFA, even though he had not seen the motion previously. Greason described that in the days following the meeting and the publicity given to the NFA in the mainstream media, several different far right identities, usually linked to the now defunct national Socialist Party of Australia claimed to part of the NFA’s leadership. This is borne out in the ASIO files, which catalogue that various people in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales all claimed to represent the National Front in Australia. According to Greason and ASIO, the NFA seemed to be limited to Victoria and Queensland, where the Queensland Immigration Control Association (run by John C.A. Dique) had significant influence. The rival to the NFA in Sydney was the National Alliance, which eschewed the pro-Britishness of the National Front and leaned more towards the white supremacism coming out of the United States, influenced by the infamous newspaper National Vanguard. According to Greason, National Alliance tried to foster a uniquely Australian nationalism, appropriating the symbolism of the Eureka Flag and promoted the idea of an Australian republic. The leading figure of the National Alliance was Jim Saleam, who had been a member of the NSPA and went onto form groups such as National Action and the Australia First Party.

By mid-1979, Patterns of Prejudice was reporting that the NFA had between 100 and 300 members, but had been subject to in-fighting, particularly as Sisson made trips to the UK to meet with Alan Birtley, a NF member jailed for weapons and explosives offences. The ASIO file carries significant correspondence between Sisson and a NF member named Margaret Swan, whom Sisson discusses her links to Birtley extensively.

In the UK general election in May 1979, the British NF contested more than 300 seats and were wiped out at the polls, receiving barely more than 1 per cent of the vote on average. Similar electoral contests by the NFA in 1979 and 1980 led to the same results. Greason outlines that by 1980, there had been several defections from the NFA to the National Alliance, but the National Alliance was unable to make any more headway than their rivals. The media also focused less on the National Alliance, which did not have the same name recognition of the ‘National Front’, which was infamous across the English-speaking world.

The Commonwealth National Front did not last long into the 1980s. The NFA emerged to a completely hostile media and fared very poorly in its electoral pursuits, but was also not popular enough to take up the strategy of ‘occupying the streets’. Besides the production of Frontline, Sisson’s organisation dwindled and eventually over taken by rival groups, namely National Action. Patterns of Prejudice also reported in 1978 that the National Front of South Africa was in talks of merging with another small racist group and that the Chairman, Jack Noble, had resigned. The NFSA’s other major figure, Ray Hill, also left South Africa in 1980, before returning to the UK to join the British Movement as an undercover anti-fascist mole for Searchlight magazine. The British NF, which was seen as the beacon of the CNF, also collapsed after the 1979 election into warring factions. Tyndall formed the New National Front in 1980 and in 1982, transformed this into the British National Party. The remnants of the NF in the 1980s became known as the Official National Front and the NF Flag Group, which competed with the BM and the BNP for support amongst football hooligans and skinheads in the Thatcher years.

John Tyndall, leader of the NF and the BNP

John Tyndall, leader of the NF and the BNP

In his PhD thesis (acquired through the University of Sydney), Jim Saleam suggests that it was the authorities, particularly ASIO, that stifled the development of the NFA, writing ‘two facts were demonstrated: some Extreme-Rightists had strategies, and the para-State intended they not blossom.’ However while ASIO had infiltrated the NFA from its very inception and monitored it closely, the hostility it faced from the Australian public and its inability to gain any sort of traction politically was more to do with the NFA’s ideology and its membership.

As John Blaxland has acknowledged in his volume on the official history of ASIO, the security services had monitored the far right in Australia since the inception of the NSPA in the early 1960s and continued to monitor the far right throughout the 1970s, even though the various far right groups did not seem to present a danger to the parliamentary system and the ‘poor quality’ of its small membership. Troy Whitford has shown that when National Action was formed in 1982, both ASIO and the NSW Special Branch took measures to monitor and infiltrate the organisation, especially in the late 1980s when NA became increasingly involved in racist and political violence (as noted in the 1991 national inquiry into racist violence in Australia).

These three large files of ASIO’s surveillance of the National Front of Australia make for very interesting reading and show how the NFA attempted to seize the initiative presented by the British NF, creating an antipodean version of the UK organisation. The NFA had a particular pro-British outlook and saw a white-dominated British Commonwealth as its goal, but like many white supremacists and far right activists in the 1970s and 1980s saw South Africa and Rhodesia as symbols of white ‘civilisation’ being attacked by non-white and communist forces. Solidarity with these former settler colonies was paramount to the NFA’s worldview. The files show that the internal structures of the NFA (with the disputes over the leadership and direction of the party), as well as the media’s spotlight on the fledgling group and its inability to gain a widespread following, all led to the demise of the NFA by the early 1980s. However, as National Action, the Australia First Party and nowadays, the United Patriots Front demonstrate, the far right in Australia may change and shift, but not necessarily go away.

Public engagement ftw!

Exeter

Two guest posts by yours truly have been published in the last two days. The first is on my research into the UK perspective on the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975 and has been published by The Conversation. The second is on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and their view of Australia as a ‘proto-fascist’ settler colony. This post has been published by the wonderful Imperial and Global Forum run by the University of Exeter.

I did a radio interview about the Whitlam controversy with Dom Knight on ABC Radio Sydney last night. I think the episode is available for reply for the next week.

 

‘By whatever means necessary’: The origins of the ‘no platform’ policy

Recently the concept of ‘no platform’ was in the news again when there were attempts to cancel a talk by Germaine Greer at Cardiff University. While there is no doubt that the use of ‘no platform’ has expanded since its first use in the 1970s, the term is bandied about in the media with little definition and understanding of how it was developed as a specific response to the fascism of the National Front (and later the British National Party). This post looks back at the origins of the term and how it was developed into a practical anti-fascist strategy.

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In the early 1970s, the term ‘no platform’ was first used to describe the anti-fascist strategy of denying fascist organisations the public space to organise and disseminate their propaganda. The denial of public space had been an integral part of the militant anti-fascist movement since the 1930s, employed by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), various Jewish groups and other assorted anti-fascists. Fighting Oswald Mosley’s BUF, these anti-fascists broke up meetings, occupied spaces to prevent the BUF gaining access and mobilised massive demonstrations to physically confront the fascists in the streets. This continued after the war with various groups, such as the 43 Group, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the Revolutionary Communist Party, joining the CPGB to combat Mosley’s Union Movement. As well as physically confronting the UM, part of the anti-fascists’ strategy was appealing to the local councils, particularly in boroughs where the Labour Party was in charge, to deny the UM (or its various aliases) access to any council property. The anti-fascist movement was quite successful in its approach and Mosley fled to Ireland in the early 1950s. Until the emergence of the National Front in late 1960s, the fascist groups in Britain remained small and the anti-fascist movement gradually faded away.

Forming in 1967, the National Front brought together a number of disparate fascist and anti-immigration groups and by the early 1970s, it was making headway by attracting disaffected Conservative Party voters who felt that the Tories were ‘too soft’ on immigration. Particularly when the Ugandan Asian controversy emerged in 1972, the NF publicised its opposition to letting these British citizens into the country after the Heath government acknowledged that it had legal reason to deny them entry. The first use of the term ‘no platform’ (that I have been able to find) comes from that year. The Red Mole was the newspaper of the International Marxist Group (IMG), a Trotskyist organisation that built quickly amongst the student and anti-Vietnam War movements in the late 1960s. In the issue for September 18, 1972, the front page headline declared ‘NO PLATFORM FOR RACISTS’. It described the NF and the Monday Club (a pro-empire and anti-immigration grouping within the Conservative Party) as ‘mortal enemies of the working class’ and stated that these two groups ‘must be stopped in their tracks’. The newspaper argued that these groups needed to be confronted and were ‘not going to be convinced by rational argument’, calling for ‘a concerted counter-attack’ at meetings of both groups.

The IMG proposed that groups like the NF could not be afforded ‘free speech’ because ‘their racist campaigns are a means to destroy the organisations of the working class which defend such bourgeois democratic rights’. The same issue claimed:

the only way to deal with fascist type organisations like the National Front is to break up their activities before they grow to a size where they can begin to smash the activities of the working class.

While acknowledging that ‘[w]e are nowhere near a threatened Fascist coup yet’, but said ‘the methods necessary on preventing such a threat must be explained and demonstrated in practice now… We must begin to adopt the right tactics right from the start.’

The IMG was one of the most influential leftist groups amongst the student movement in Britain in the early 1970s, but competed with the International Socialists and the CPGB (who were part of the Broad Left group with students associated with the Labour left). The NUS in 1974 was under the leadership of Steve Parry, a member of the CPGB and the Broad Left, and were in agreement (in principle) that a policy of ‘no platform’ should be applied to NF and other fascist organisations attempting to recruit students on university campuses. At the Liverpool conference in 1974, the policy of ‘no platform’ was devised as part of a wider stance against racism. Amendment 4 of the resolution on the fight against racialism stated:

Conference recognises the need to refuse assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societies… and to deny them a platform.

However conference believes that in order to counter these groups, it is also necessary to prevent any member of these organisations or individuals known to espouse similar views from speaking in colleges by whatever means necessary (including disrupting of the meeting).

Student unions were called upon to ‘prevent any racist or fascist propaganda being displayed, sold, distributed, or propagated through meetings by whatever means may be necessary’.

Although agreed in principle the concept of ‘no platform’, the Communist Party, the IMG and the IS differed on the details of the resolution and how the strategy should be applied. The IMG felt that the joint action suggested in the resolution would not transfer into practice and declared that the other left-wing groups were unwilling to be involved in such joint practical action. Steve Webster wrote in Red Weekly (the renamed paper of the IMG):

The fascists will not be defeated by resolutions or statements alone. There are three specific issue which face us immediately: the activity of the right in the colleges, the campaign against the reactionary anti-abortion group, SPUC [the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children), and the fight against racism. The other groups of the left rejected joint action around these issues. But it is only by such joint mobilisations, by confronting the right wing head-on, that the fascists and racists will be routed.

The LSE branch of the International Socialists put together a newsletter called The Red Agitator which stated that they believed that the policy was ‘fundamentally correct’, but took issue with the lumping together of racists and fascists in the resolution as there was a difference in approach to fascists and those in the mainstream who promoted racist ideas. The IS raised the point of the racist claims made by the psychologist Hans Eysenck who toured universities in the early 1970s, espousing the idea that there were significant differences in mental capacity between the races. Eysenck was a racist, but not a fascist, and the IS suggested approaching his meetings in a slightly different way than the employment of the ‘no platform’ strategy:

To debate with Eysenck, to treat him as a genuine scientist, is thus to indirectly legitimise Powellism. This is not to say that we should go out to break up meetings which he addresses – the real threat lies in organised fascist groups – but rather that we should picket them and organise counter-meetings in order to show up the real nature of his ideas.

But dealing with the openly fascist NF, the IS agreed with the IMG. The Red Agitator newsletter finished with this:

The racists and fascists of today are not something that we can ignore. They are a growing menace. The liberties we have today are worth defending, small though they are. Fascism aims to smash, racism creates the conditions for their destruction. We cannot allow the open fascist, or the concealed fascist working in the Monday Club or some similar organisation to gain a hearing. Every meeting that they hold gives them confidence. Every apologist for racism lends them comfort. Every liberal who debates with them gives them aid – much against their will.

Every time they are stopped from meeting, every time their meetings are broke up, their task becomes harder and harder. The moral of the fascists fall. People turn away from them as a miserable and pathetic group with nothing to offer. Every success that we have demonstrates to the waverers that we are a better solution. That is the only way to fight fascism and racism.

The Communist Party’s National Student Organiser Dave Cook also took exception with the broad nature of the ‘no platform’ resolution devised by the NUS. Cook, writing in the CPGB’s Morning Star, argued that the second part of the resolution calling for the prevention of those speaking who espoused ‘similar views’ by any means necessary endangered support for the NUS policy because of its broad interpretation and could have potentially isolated the more moderate and centrist elements in the NUS. Cook proposed that there should not be all-applying response set at the national level, but allow each individual student council to decide whether to implement the policy of ‘no platform’. Like the Party’s wider anti-fascist strategy in the 1970s, Cook also warned against the vanguardist approach of breaking up meetings by a minority of students, writing ‘It is important that direct action does not become a substitute for the often more difficult task of winning the majority.’

In the Party’s internal documents, the broad and all-applying response of ‘no platform’ was criticised further. The Communist Party was particularly concerned with making the distinction between the fascism of the National Front and the racism of the Conservatives (and other right-wing groups), which nonetheless operated within a democratic framework. The Political Committee stated:

It is important to state from the start that the resolution is not a threat to the right of the Tory party to politically operate in the colleges. The resolution clearly and correctly differentiates between the expression of a Conservative viewpoint and organisations whose declared objective is racist. This is not to say that racism is an attitude that stops at the boundaries of the Conservative Party. On the contrary. Certain Tory leaders are more potent symbols of racism than anyone in the National Front… However it id important to draw the distinction between individual Tory racists, and organisations that are part of the Tory party like the Monday Club on one hand; and organisations whose declared objective is to further race hatred on the other – not because our opposition to them is any less intense, but because they are often best fought in different ways. It is so that it can more effectively fight them that NUS policy must hinge on this distinction. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, 22 May, 1974, CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

The Party also felt that the resolution could be used to enact the ‘no platform’ policy against individuals, rather than organised fascist groups, and that this went past necessary anti-fascist activism and contravened the idea of ‘free speech’. Another internal document made this clear:

No matter how nauseous we find the views of individuals who are not members of such [fascist] organisations, e.g. [Hans] Eysenck and [William] Shockley; or the views of the right wing of the Tory Party, e.g. the Monday Club; the fact is that both of these differ significantly from organisations whose aims is declaredly fascist. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, n.d., CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

While the NUS resolution, as well as the IMG and the IS, all saw the Monday Club to resemble a proto-fascist organisation that should be barred from meeting and organising on university campuses, the CPGB stressed that the Monday Club (from which there was a conveyer belt of recruitment into the NF in the early 1970s) was merely a group within the Conservatives and thus should be allowed to organise publicly.

Furthermore, the CPGB was worried that the phrase ‘by any means necessary’ could be interpreted in a number of ways and was concerned about physical violence at public events involving sections of the non-fascist right wing, such as Eysenck’s university tours. This had already occurred the previous year when the tiny Maoist group the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) (featuring the future leader of the Workers Institute for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, Comrade Bala) broke up a presentation by Eysenck at the LSE.

The resolution was heavily criticised in the mainstream media, with even The Guardian’s John Fairhall describing the move as a denial of free speech, voted for by student ‘under the spell of Mr Parry’s oratory’ (April 9, 1974). Fairhall predicted that ‘[t]rouble and violence seem inevitable’ and warned:

Students should perhaps remember that frustration which leads to a denial of the right of one section of society is not something new. It is classic pattern of fascism.

Parry replied in a latter to the newspaper (April 16), arguing:

Our members overseas have been singled out for abuse, threats and outright economic attack by powerful extreme right-wingers during the time of the last Government. All our conference agreed was that at least they should not be subject to that abuse in our own student union.

Parry further addressed his critics in the press in an article in the journal Labour Monthly (June 1974) which had been run since the 1920s by CPGB stalwart, R. Palme Dutt. Unlike the position taken by Dave Cook, Parry saw the Monday Club and the National Front as very similar and posed the question, ‘What is the difference between the ideologies of the National Front and the Nazi party?’ Responding to the claim that the notion of ‘no platform’ put restrictions on ‘free speech’, Parry answered at length:

One must accept that to deny racists and fascists a platform is to ‘limit freedom of speech’ but one cannot see this freedom as something which exists in the abstract. It is a freedom which is already limited by such laws as the Race Relations Act and the law of libel, and must also be seen in the context of a class society in Britain which limits the freedom of speech for the vast majority of people… In refusing to assist the spread of racism the NUS is fighting for a freedom of even greater importance: the freedom to live without discrimination on the basis of race. It is only in relation to reality that principles of freedom can be seen. It is not an abstract intellectual exercise.

Because of the controversial nature of this resolution, the NUS held a special emergency conference in London on 15 June, 1974. This was the same day that the NF attempted to hold a meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square and a counter-demonstration was held by Liberation and other anti-fascists, including the IMG. The resulting melee between anti-fascists and the police led to the death of Warwick University student Kevin Gately.

At the June conference, the debate was over the application of resolution. Dave Cook, writing again in Morning Star (21 June, 1974), said that the IMG and the IS wanted to maintain the resolution as it was passed, ‘which dictated a common response to all racist and fascist organisations in all situations’. The Communist-affiliated Broad Left group opposed this arguing that ‘the best way to implement national policy was for decisions to be made by each individual union in accordance with its local situation’. Put to a vote, the amendment suggested by Broad Left failed to get over the line and the resolution remained as it was, despite the Federation of Conservative Students seeking the opportunity to defeat the resolution in its entirety. But the death of Gately at an anti-fascist demonstration bolstered the argument made by the Trotskyist groups – if fascism was not countered ‘by any means necessary’, then people on the left were to become targets of violence.

By this time, the National Front were starting change tactics. For most of the early 1970s, the NF had played up its ‘respectability’ and tried to attract disaffected Tory voters (and members) who were anti-immigrant, pro-empire and anti-Common Market. ‘No platform’ was probably at its most controversial, but also very necessary, during this period, when a determined anti-fascist movement was needed to break the respectable veneer that the NF was putting forward while trying to woo the Tory right.

It reached its highest membership during this period and concentrated on electoral politics. The NF continued to contest elections from 1974 to 1977, but switched to an attempt to siphon off right-leaning Labour voters. However the small electoral fortunes of the NF kickstarted the anti-fascist movement against them and the years from 1977 to 1979 saw increasing confrontation between the NF and anti-fascists on the streets. By the late 1970s, the idea of ‘no platform’ seemed fairly straightforward – occupy the streets and the places where the NF seek to publicly assemble. Colin Sparks, from the SWP, explained in a 1978 pamphlet, Fascism and the National Front:

We do not engage in this sort of activity because we like violence or because the NF are reactionary. There are many other reactionary organisations around, for instance the Tory Party, which we do not attempt to smash up. The National Front differs from the Tories because their aims are precisely to control the streets, to build a mass fighting movement. In this, they need the marches and rallies. (p. 41)

The Communist Party, which was largely critical of the SWP’s ‘adventurist’ approach, also recognised the need to confront the NF, but argued that this needed to be done on a mass scale. But they also advocated using the Race Relations Act to combat the NF and their ‘claim to have a democratic right to flaunt their racism’. In the 1978 pamphlet, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, Dave Cook, now the CPGB’s National Organiser, wrote:

Communists support, and will defend to the utmost, the right of people to freely speak their mind. But to attack people because they are black is not a political argument. People form their political views on the basis of conviction. They are born with their colour. That is why to attack someone because of his or her race is to attack that person as a human being. Their political views can change, colour cannot.

To permit the NF the ‘freedom’ to be anti-human can end up destroying the freedom of us all. That is why incitement to racial hatred must have no place in a civilised society. (p. 28)

Even the Labour Party accepted a form of ‘no platform’ for the National Front, when the Party’s National Executive Committee in 1978 declared:

Labour candidates should not share platforms at meetings or appear on constituency programmes on radio or television with candidates or other members of the National Front.

Despite the original NUS resolution targeting specifically openly fascist and racist organisations, such as the NF and (perhaps controversially) the Monday Club, there were fears that the policy could widened to be used against any political organisation and individual that fell foul of the NUS leadership. In their 1974 pamphlet, Fascism: How to Smash It, the IMG gave instances where ‘no platform’ had been applied to political ‘enemies’ who were not fascists:

Racists like Powell or Harold Soref – who are not fascists – have often been driven off university campuses. This is because the effect these people can have is similar to fascists – that is, terrorising black people or others chosen as scapegoats for capitalism’s social ills, and encouraging social violence, legal or otherwise, against them…

‘No Platform’ has been applied to many people by the workers’ movement. Trade unionists, for example, would generally expel employees who attended their meetings. Print workers sometimes censor by blacking a newspaper editorial attacking the unions. When Mr. Godber, Tory Minister for Agriculture, [was] sent to Birmingham one day last year to do a public relations job for Tory price policy, he was mobbed off the street by angry housewives. All these actions are against ‘free speech’ and sometimes involve a physical struggle.

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘no platform’ policy was challenged at the NUS annual conference. At the 1977 conference, concerns were raised about demonstrations against Sir Keith Joseph speaking at Essex University. In The Guardian (March 23, 1977), John Fairhall wrote that the NUS Executive Committee felt that actions, such as the one against Joseph, were ‘against the interest of the union, and damage an anti-racialism campaign’. Alan Elsner, a member of the Union of Jewish Students, wrote in the New Statesman (May 13, 1977) that the Joseph incident ‘heightened the fear that “no platform” policy could be used as a means of silencing people whose views might be controversial or unpopular’. Elsner also raised the controversy over the use of ‘no platform’ against organisations that were explicitly Zionist or supporters of Israel.

Fairhall reported that some on the NUS Executive Committee wanted to change the policy from ‘no platform’ to ‘no invitation’, allegedly supported by the Communists in the Broad Left coalition, but this was defeated, 182,333 to 154,033 (with 33,948 abstentions) (The Guardian, April 1, 1977). Future Labour MP Charles Clarke was, at the time, NUS President and a member of the Broad Left, but after the vote, defined the existing policy of ‘no platform’ as:

A student union would do anything it could physically – such as picketing and demonstrating – to prevent people whom the student union decided by a general meeting vote were racists or fascists from speaking on a campus. But prevention would stop short of violence.

The Times’ Ian Bradley stated that the policy was dropped by the NUS in December 1977 but reinstated at the 1978 NUS conference just four months later (April 7, 1978). Although the moderate NUS leadership opposed it, the far left, including the National Organisation of Labour Students, managed to get the policy reinstated. Trevor Phillips, the incoming NUS President and who was personally against the policy, maintained that the policy would be used against the National Front, but ‘would oppose any attempt to use it against Mrs Thatcher or other members of major political parties’. The outgoing NUS President, Susan Slipman added, ‘The new policy will not mean the infringement of the democratic right of any members and it will definitely not mean reraising the question of banning Jewish student organisations.’

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By 1979, the NF had fallen into disarray, marginalised by the growing anti-fascist movement from one side and by the right-wing shift of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher from the other. However the ‘no platform’ policy was maintained and many would argue, succumbed to the newly developed interest in ‘identity politics’. Writing in Socialist Worker Review in 1986, Lindsey German said:

the policy often means little in confronting racism and sexism on more than an individual level. But what is more, it broadens the definition of no platform to an almost unworkable degree. The original no platform went for stopping organised fascists and racists, because their organisation was such a threat. That is not the case with individual members of the rugby club, however noxious they might be. Those people have to be defeated politically, in open and hopefully large union meetings.

German defended the policy, but argued that it needed to be limited to its original intent – against the National Front and other fascist organisations, such as the emerging British National Party. She warned that there were two things that were to be avoided if the NUS was to maintain the policy:

The first is to widen the policy far too far, and therefore allow the right wing to make capital from particular issues. The second is to get trapped into allowing the right to pose as defenders of free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It seems that student activists at British universities have not heeded German’s warning and that the strategy of ‘no platform’ employed against political opponents far removed from the original targets, the organised fascist far right. ‘No platform’ was developed as a specific tactic to prevent the encroachment of the National Front (and the Monday Club) onto university campuses in the mid-1970s. However it seems that almost from the time of its implementation, it has been open to misinterpretation and abuse by certain student groups. This post has sought to show that before it became a widely used tactic by various student groups, ‘no platform’ had a discreet and specific context to be used in an explicitly anti-fascist framework. Contemporary discussions in the media of the tactic often ignore this origin story, but do so at their own peril.

The Communist Party and Mosley’s Union Movement, 1947-51

News came through this week that veteran anti-fascist campaigner Morris Beckman had died. Beckman had been involved in the 43 Group, a militant anti-fascist organisation set up in the late 1940s to combat Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement. The 43 Group worked alongside the Communist Party of Great Britain to fight the UM in the late 1940s and it can be argued that one of the reasons that Mosley fled to Ireland in the early 1950s was that the UM had encountered stiff anti-fascist resistance on the streets, led by these two organisations. Beckman’s account is worth reading, alongside Dave Hann’s history of militant anti-fascism – but the best account would still be David Renton’s book from 2000 on the subject.

The following post is an extract based on my forthcoming book on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’, which, I anticipate, will be off to the publishers in the next week or so…

An anti-fascist meeting in the late 1940s

An anti-fascist meeting in the late 1940s

One of the key areas of the anti-racist struggle in the late 1940s was the fight against Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, which arose out of the ashes of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). A prominent organisation in building this anti-fascist resistance to the Union Movement was the Communist Party of Great Britain. The anti-fascist work of the CPGB during the inter-war period was one of the Party’s highest achievements and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, where the Communist Party helped lead over 100,000 people in a demonstration against the BUF in October 1936, had quickly become part of the Party’s mythology. In his study of Mosley and British fascism, D.S. Lewis wrote of the importance of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the history of British anti-fascism and the vital role the Communist Party played:

On the day itself the CP divided responsibility for different streets amongst its members, as well as establishing first-aid posts, information posts, and runners to carry messages to other sectors of ‘the front’. The rest, of course, is history.[1]

Mark Neocleous wrote in his study of fascism, ‘seeing fascism as a historical phenomenon that ended in 1945 or thereabouts… encourages a dangerous forgetting’.[2] While Mosley and leading members of the BUF, as well as the leader of the tiny Imperial League of Fascists, Arnold Leese were interned during the Second World War, this did not happen to the majority of fascists. Although the War and internment were huge blows to British fascism, it did not end in 1940.[3] Richard Thurlow correctly pointed out that the fascist organisations that existed in the inter-war period did not survive the War, but that did not stop Mosley and other fascists attempt to adapt fascism to the post-war period.[4] From 1945 and 1951, Mosley’s Union Movement, alongside other fascist organisations and agitators, revived a campaign of violence and intimidation, with a programme that still ‘smacked of fascism’, despite attempts by the Union Movement to distance itself from the BUF.[5] As the majority of British people were clearly hostile to fascism in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Union Movement was ‘always doomed to failure’, but as James Eaden and David Renton acknowledged, anti-fascists, including the CPGB, ‘can also claim some credit for having helped to hasten fascism’s demise’.[6] In the post-war period, the Communist Party was a leading organisation in the anti-fascist movement after the ‘failure of the Labour Party to take a lead in the street campaigns against Mosley’.[7] Alongside the CPGB were Jewish organisations, such as the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, progressive organisations, such as the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), and the radical organisations, such as the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and the 43 Group.

Despite the decision of the state to intern fascists during the Second World War, the post-war Labour Government was reluctant to act decisively against fascist agitators, believing the existing laws would contain the negligible fascist elements that existed in post-war Britain.[8] However the state was far from neutral on the issue of post-war fascism, with Noreen Branson recounting:

Home Secretary [Chuter] Ede had imposed a temporary ban on all political processions in London… Yet, as the Communist Party Executive pointed out, hundreds of police were being used to protect meetings by the fascist Oswald Mosley who was trying to re-establish his anti-semitic organisation.[9]

As E.P. Thompson wrote in a 1947 pamphlet, Fascist Threat to Britain, ‘It is quite clear that the fascists welcome the police at their meetings – not as a warning, but as protection from the justice of the people’.[10] This did not prevent the Communist Party from demanding that the state be used to contain fascist activity. Arguing against the common assumption that ‘the police already have enough powers to deal with [the fascists]’, Thompson declared, ‘If they have, they should use them. If they have not, they should be given the powers they need’.[11] As the Labour Government was viewed as not dealing effectively with the fascist resurgence, the Communist Party, with its ‘reputation for anti-fascist work going back to Cable Street’, began anti-fascist work against Mosley and the Union Movement.[12]

However there was a move by the CPGB leadership away from the direct militant action of the 1930s, such as that witnessed at Cable Street, to a position of reliance upon the state. In Thompson’s pamphlet, the actions advocated by the Party did not include direct action, instead demands were made that ‘spreading of specifically fascist doctrine… be outlawed’, ‘spreading of racial hatred and anti-Semitism… be made a crime’ and that ‘existing laws… be strictly enforced’.[13] Alongside this, the Party urged that other organisations ‘go on record for the outlawing of fascism’ and more immediately, ‘If the fascists come into your locality, get all the inhabitants to sign a petition of protest to the Home Secretary’.[14] Nigel Copsey suggested two reasons for this move away from direct militant action. The first was that the ‘decisive action taken by the state’ against the British fascists during the Second World War led the CPGB leadership to believe that a ‘non-confrontational policy towards fascism was the most appropriate’.[15] Secondly, the cautious post-war policy by the Communist Party should be read as a result of their support for the Labour Government in the early post-war years.[16] As part of the transformation by the CPGB to adjust to Britain’s post-war conditions, the Party leadership ‘officially discouraged any anti-fascist activity likely to give the Communist Party a bad name’. By demanding a state ban on fascism, the CPGB attempted to appear as a respectable political party.[17] This reliance on the state and reluctance to be involved militant actions contributed largely to how the Communist Party anti-fascist campaigns throughout the post-war period.

In the 1945 General Election campaign, the CPGB had proposed that anti-Semitism become a criminal offence, an attempt to attract support from the local Jewish circles and emphasise the Party’s anti-fascist stance.[18] While a proposal for banning anti-Semitic propaganda and agitation was a practical task to deal with the immediate threat of fascism, the total banning of fascist organisations by the state was much more problematic. As seen with the 1936 Public Order Act, while the Government stressed that ‘any legislation would apply equally to the Left as well as to the Right’, in practice the state used this legislation ‘almost entirely… against anti-fascist protestors’.[19] The CPGB bore the brunt of the state’s zealousness to keep the status quo and as David Renton has written, the state frequently used its laws to harass the CPGB while sympathising with the fascists.[20]

This did not prevent all Communist members from being involved in militant action to stop the Union Movement organising, with some members of the CPGB working closely with the anti-fascist collective, the 43 Group. Formed in March 1946 as a militant anti-fascist group with the aim to ‘go on the attack against the emergent fascists with a view to destroying them’,[21] a ‘number of prominent members of the Communist Party’ David Renton wrote, ‘had taken part in the discussions leading to the formation of the 43 Group’ with a ‘party cell’ existing within the Group.[22] It was believed at the time by the police and the fascists that the 43 Group was a Communist front organisation, but as Morris Beckman, one of the founders of the Group, told Socialist Review:

It was said that the 43 Group was a subversive Communist organisation… We were not connected to any organisation, but sometimes we worked with the Communists. They wanted to take us over… Sometimes we found ourselves attacking the same fascist meetings as the Communists. We would even pass information to them.[23]

Beckman wrote in his memoir of the 43 Group, ‘the enemy of our enemy was our friend, and the Communists were actively attacking the fascists’.[24] The CPGB leadership could not publicly condone the actions of the 43 Group, but there was no disciplinary action against those Party members involved.

The Communist Party and its anti-fascist work of the 1930s and 1940s has been largely identified with the Jewish population of London and the considerable Jewish membership within the Party. The relationship between the Jewish community and the CPGB has been well-documented by Henry Srebrnik, who described the Party’s anti-fascist legacy and its stature among East End Jews as tapping into a ‘specifically ethnic means of political expression’.[25] For the Jews of East End London, their attraction to the CPGB was the Party’s ‘self-appointed role as a steadfast opponent to all manifestations of domestic fascism’.[26] In the Stepney branch, one of the Party’s biggest, around fifty per cent of the one thousand members in 1945 were Jewish.[27] As the Union Movement began to agitate in the early post-war period, Communist Party members and Jewish activists both fought against the fascist revival, utilising the memory of the Party’s anti-fascist work of the inter-war period. However by the early 1950s, the Jewish Communist subculture had fallen into decline, although as late as 1965, it was estimated that around ten per cent of the CPGB’s membership was Jewish.[28]

There are several factors for this decline. David Renton stated that the physical destruction of London’s East End by the Blitz meant that large numbers of the Jewish population moved north and west, out of the areas where the BUF had drawn support and with the end of the war, more former East End Jews became employed in middle-class jobs, with the number of Jews in trade unions dropping dramatically.[29] Alongside this, Chimen Abramsky, Secretary of the CPGB’s National Jewish Committee, suggested that in the post-war period, ‘Fascism was not the main issue of the day’ and the CPGB was ‘more concerned with the danger of the Cold War, with the Marshall Plan, with the future of India, of the future of Palestine’, believing that Mosley was ‘a spent force’.[30] There was also the Communist Party’s opposition to Zionism, based on Stalin’s statement that Zionism was ‘reactionary nationalist trend of the Jewish bourgeoisie’, as well as the Party’s uncritical support for the Soviet Union when details of widespread anti-semitism amongst the CPSU began to surface in the 1950s.[31] However there was an uneasiness amongst some CPGB members towards the large Jewish membership in London, which is possibly indicative of the latent working class racism that the Party had to face in the post-war period, demonstrated by this passage in Bob Darke’s 1952 exposé on the Communist Party:

Yet I never felt happy with Jewish Communists. They were too sensitive, their feelings were too close to the skin. They were certainly among the hardest-working, most active members of the Party, but they made me uncomfortable. And a great many Gentile comrades felt the same way.[32]

After six years of anti-fascist activity, the Union Movement went into decline and in 1951, Mosley left Britain for self-imposed exile in Ireland. This can be viewed as the end of ‘classical’ fascism in the vein of the inter-war movement, although not the end of fascism in Britain (as the rise of the National Front demonstrated). The defining organisation for the post-war fascist movement was the League of Empire Loyalists (LEL), formed in 1954 by former BUF Director of Propaganda, A.K. Chesterton and an organisation through which nearly all the important figures of post-war fascism passed. However the fascists were now a response to the collapse of world imperialism and the decolonisation process. In the Cold War polarisation between Washington and Moscow, Britain had lost its significance as a world power and for the fascist organisations of the mid-1950s onwards, non-white Commonwealth immigrants became the new scapegoat for the fascists’ perceived threat to the ‘remnants of the British Empire and way of life’.[33]

Once Mosley left for Ireland in 1951, the other fascist organisations that existed were more influenced by the inter-war Imperial Fascist League’s Arnold Leese than Mosley, emphasising anti-Semitism and racism against Britain’s black immigrants. What characterised British fascism between 1951 and the formation of the National Front in 1967 was a series of splits into tiny organisations featuring the same individuals, the result of attempting to adjust fascism to post-war Britain and a succession of personal clashes. From 1957 onwards, the same names – Colin Jordan, John Tyndall, Martin Webster, John Bean, Andrew Fountaine – were involved in various groups, which despite numerous splits and different organisational titles, were only superficially distinguishable from each other, primarily the White Defence League (WDL), National Labour Party (NLP), British National Party (BNP), National Socialist Movement (NSM) and the Greater Britain Movement (GBM). Despite involvement in and brief notoriety from the anti-immigrant agitation of the Notting Hill riots, these fascists achieved little during this period. Copsey remarked that, ‘[f]or the most part, the 1950s in Britain were quiescent years for both fascists and anti-fascists’,[34] despite appealing to populist anti-black racism. The focus of anti-racist activists, including those in the Communist Party, in the 1950s and 1960s was the mainstream prejudice against newly arrived Commonwealth immigrants.

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[1] D.S. Lewis, Illusions of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Society, 1931-81, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1987, p. 125

[2] Mark Neocleous, Fascism, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1997, p. xi

[3] David Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, Macmillan, London, 2000, p. 23

[4] Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History 1918-1985, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987, p. 233

[5] Lewis, Illusions of Grandeur, p. 239

[6] James Eaden & David Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, Palgrave, Houndmills, 2002, p. 108

[7] Eaden & Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, p. 108

[8] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 74

[9] Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1941-1951, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1997, p. 203

[10] Edward Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1947, p. 12

[11] Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, p. 12

[12] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 80

[13] Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, p. 14

[14] Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, p. 14

[15] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 87

[16] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 87

[17] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 87

[18] Henry Srebrnik, London Jews and British Communism, 1935-1945, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1995, p. 75

[19] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, Macmillan, Houndmills, 2000, p. 64; Richard C. Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back: Public Order, Civil Liberties and the Battle of Cable Street’, in T. Kushner & N. Valman, Remembering Cable Street, p. 91

[20] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, pp. 101-129

[21] Morris Beckman, The 43 Group, Centerprise Publications, London, 1993, p. 26

[22] David Renton, This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2001, pp. 176-177

[23] ‘Our War Against Fascism’, interview with Morris Beckman, Socialist Review, March 1993, p. 23

[24] Beckman, The 43 Group, p. 30

[25] Henry Srebrnik, ‘Sidestepping the Contradictions: The Communist Party, Jewish Communists and Zionism, 1935-48’, in Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman & Kevin Morgan (eds), Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party, Pluto Press, London, 1995, p. 136; Italics are in the original text

[26] Henry Srebrnik, London Jews and British Communism, 1935-1945, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1994, p. 53

[27] Tony Kushner, ‘Jewish Communists in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Zaidman Collection’, Labour History Review, 55/2, 1990, p. 66

[28] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 89; Kushner, ‘Jewish Communists in Twentieth-Century Britain’, p. 66

[29] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 89

[30] Cited in, Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 89

[31] J. Stalin, ‘Marxism and the National Question’, in J. Stalin, Works vol. 2, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1953, p. 418, fn. 131

[32] Bob Darke, The Communist Technique in Britain, Penguin Books, London, 1952, p. 44

[33] Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 239

[34] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 102