no platform

From Olympia to Hyde Park: British anti-fascism in the summer of 1934

On 9 September 1934, a BUF rally at Hyde Park was opposed by a massive anti-fascist counter-demonstration, coming a few months after anti-fascists attempted to disrupt a BUF rally at Olympia and after a summer of similar confrontations across a number of metropolitan areas in England. This post is based on an early chapter from my book project on the history of no platform, to be published by Routledge’s Fascism and Far Right series.  

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The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was formed by Oswald Mosley in late 1932 and it grew exponentially in its first years, with nearly 50,000 members allegedly joining.[1] Enjoying support from Lord Rothmere’s Daily Mail and other sections of the Conservative right, Mosley attempted to establish the BUF through a series of public meetings, demonstrating its supposed mass support at rallies, inspired by Mussolini and Hitler. There were frequent mobilisations by anti-fascists against these public meetings and rallies in the early years of the BUF, culminating in two events in 1934 that solidified the militant anti-fascist approach of physical confrontation and also revealed the violent nature of the BUF.

Robert Skidelsky suggested ‘[f]or both fascists and anti-fascists Olympia was the epic battle of the 1930s’, explaining:

Fascists looked back with satisfaction on the ‘beating’ they had given the ‘Reds’ and claimed that it had restored ‘free speech’ in Britain. Anti-fascists regarded it as the moment when they unambiguously exposed the brutal face of fascism and condemned it thereafter in the eyes of all decent Englishmen.[2]

Olympia was to be a demonstration of the strength of the British Union of Fascists. As mentioned above, its membership growth had been strong throughout its first 18 months. After several well-attended meetings at the Albert Hall, Mosley believed that a larger venue, such as that of Olympia Stadium, was necessary. Around 10,000 people filled the stadium, with anti-fascists (primarily members of the Communist Party) securing around 500 tickets. The Communist Party portrayed Olympia as a chance to build the anti-fascist movement and confront the growing BUF. Regarding threats made in the run up to the meeting by Mosley, the Daily Worker declared:

Already the Blackshirts have used provocative threats against the workers…

They have made such threats at many meetings, but [past] events have shown that all their thuggish methods were unable to prevent the workers having their say. To-night will again prove this rule…

[T]he workers’ counter-section will cause them to tremble. All roads lead to Olympia to-night.[3]

A counter-demonstration by anti-fascists was held outside the venue, while anti-fascists heckled the speakers, including Mosley, and sought to disrupt the meeting. These disruptions were staggered over the evening, so to ensure the maximum disruptive effect. As The Times reported the following day, ‘The campaign of interruption had been well planned so that it should affect every part of the meeting in the course of the evening’.[4]

BUF bodyguards violently ejected the anti-fascist protestors, with The Times stating the constant interruptions were ‘countered with similar thoroughness and with a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence’.[5]The newspaper continued:

Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing at the end of his resistance he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays.[6]

Once ejected, there were a number of arrests of anti-fascists outside the venue, where further violence was meted out by the police. The Daily Workerreported that outside Olympia, ‘seething crowds of thousands of workers kept up a continual anti-Fascist uproar, despite the enormous special concentration of police forces which had been gathered… for the Blackshirts’ protection’.[7] The following day, the newspaper stated that 24 anti-fascists had been arrested, compared to one BUF supporter, claiming that this was ‘a striking fact, which [spoke] volumes’ about the differing treatment by the police towards the BUF and the CPGB.[8]

Mosley and the BUF complained about the tactics used by the anti-fascists, described as ‘highly organized groups of Reds’, to break up the public meeting. Quoted in The Times, Mosley claimed:

For over three weeks certain Communist and Socialist papers have published incitements to their readers to attack this meeting. The result was that a large Red mob gathered outside the hall for the purpose of intimidating those who entered, and very many of the audience were in fact jostled before they managed to enter the meeting at all.[9]

In the BUF press, the violence was blamed on the Communists, but the fascist response was also celebrated, with A.K. Chesterton declaring it a ‘fascist victory’ and the ‘Red Terror Smashed’.[10] On the other hand, the Communist Party also claimed a victory as Olympia, with the Daily Workerdeclaring the following day:

Terrific scenes were witnessed at Olympia last night, when the workers of London staged a mighty counter-demonstration to the Mosley Fascists. Mosley’s carefully-planned arrangements were turned into a complete fiasco.[11]

There was an outcry by some in the press and some politicians at the violence witnessed at Olympia, which has been documented by a number of scholars. For example, The Times quoted Conservative MP Geoffrey Lloyd as declaring, ‘I am not very sympathetic to Communists who try to break up meetings, but I am bound to say that I was appalled by the brutal conduct of the Fascists last night’.[12] Although a number argued that the tactics of the anti-fascist protestors was just as deplorable as the actions of the BUF stewards. The Timesreported on debates in the House of Commons in the aftermath of Olympia, summarising that ‘members were about equally divided between unqualified condemnation of alleged Fascist brutality towards interrupters, and the feeling that allowances must be made for those who had been sorely provoked by Communists’.[13] Rajani Palme Dutt, a leading CPGB figure, wrote in his editorial for Labour Monthly that it was only because of the anti-fascist demonstrators that ‘the eyes of millions’ had been opened ‘to the real character of Fascism’.[14] Dutt proclaimed, ‘It is solely thanks to their stand that the present universal outcry against Fascism has developed, where before there was silence or indifference or amused toleration’.[15]

Scholars have debated whether the violence had a negative effect on the popularity of the BUF in 1934. David Renton has written that after Olympia, Lord Rothmere withdrew his support and that ‘BUF membership fell from 40,000 to 5,000 by the summer of 1935’.[16] Both Martin Pugh and Stephen Dorril have shown that some were put off by the violence on display at Olympia, but to some BUF supporters, the violent confrontations with the Communists solidified theirdedication to Mosley.[17] The columns of the mainstream newspapers were filled with both expressions of horror at the violence and letters of praise for Mosley’s tactics. As Pugh has explained:

The truth is that while the violence alienated some people, it also added to the appeal of the BUF among the young and militant anti-Communists, with the result that the organisation experienced a major turnover of membership during 1934-35.[18]

Whether the violence turned people away from the BUF or attracted them to it, it was clear that violence was an inherent part of the BUF’s programme.

The violence meted out to anti-fascists who broke up the meeting at Olympia roused the anti-fascist movement. Dave Hann wrote, ‘[a]nti-fascists had certainly taken a beating at Olympia but their growing movement responded in force, with an increase in the number of BUF public appearances interrupted by anti-fascists and the number of people involved in anti-fascist activity.[19] By the latter months of 1934, the anti-fascist movement was confident of disrupting the BUF’s staged rallies and while expecting fascist violence and police intimidation, were also confident that popular sentiment (particularly amongst workers) was turning against Mosley.

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After Olympia, there had been in-roads made by the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party and some trade unions to form a broad anti-fascist front. The Communist Party, transitioning from the ideas of ‘social fascism’ and ‘Class Against Class’ of the previous half decade to the Popular Front against fascism and imperialism of the mid-to-late 1930s,[20] sought to lead the anti-fascist movement and work with the ILP, while criticising the timidness of the Labour Party and the TUC.[21] As the General Council of the TUC debated its approach towards fascism in September 1934, the Daily Worker rhetorically asked, ‘who was it that had led the struggle in Olympia? Who was going to lead the struggle at Hyde Park on September 9?’[22]

On September 9, 1934, the BUF planned to hold a massive outdoor rally in Hyde Park, London. Taking the initiative seized at Olympia and continued through the summer of 1934, the CPGB and ILP attempted to mobilise a large contingent of workers and anti-fascists to Hyde Park. In the lead up to the event at Hyde Park, the CPGB warned:

Incitement to violence and the carrying out of the most bestial brutality is the stock-in-trade of the Blackshirt thugs of Mosley.

Olympia showed this plain for all to see.[23]

‘Should any violence take place on Sunday with regard to the great anti-Fascist demonstration’, the Daily Worker editorial declared, ‘then the responsibility dfor this rests on Mosley’s gang’. With the experience of Olympia in recent memory, the CPGB readied itself for potential violence, while at the same time, it warned against unnecessary violence. Jon Lawrence has suggested that this was part of the CPGB’s attempts to build the United Front with the ILP and a general shift away from violent confrontation by the Party leadership.[24] However it could also be argued that the CPGB (and the ILP) had learnt the lessons of Olympia and did not want individual anti-fascist protestors from suffering the same level of violence at the hand of BUF stewards or from the police. In the end, there was a massive turnout against the BUF at Hyde Park (between 60-150,000), with ‘much booing, heckling and ridicule from anti-fascists’, but ‘no serious disorder’.[25] Two days later, the Daily Worker reported that 18 people had been charged with a variety of offences after being arrested at the Hyde Park demonstration,[26] down from around 24 after Olympia, but with much larger number of anti-fascist demonstrators.

The Daily Worker called the demonstration at Hyde Park a ‘great blow against fascism’ and that Mosley’s rally had been ‘an utter fiasco’.[27] Despite the Labour Party and the TUC not supporting the demonstration and the police presence to maintain order (or to protect Mosley’s Blackshirts), the large crowd swamped the BUF rally ‘in a sea of organised working-class activity’.[28] On the other hand, the BUF claimed this was ‘the most remarkable display of the strength of Fascism ever seen in Britain’, but complained about the ‘intimidation of the opposition and the most definite attempts to create an impression that there would be considerable disorder in the Park’.[29] Even if the large crowds were not dedicated anti-fascists as the CPGB proclaimed, the BUF were vastly outnumbered and failed to win over those who had assembled in Hyde Park.

The momentum shifted away from the BUF after 1934, towards the anti-fascist movement, but also towards the National Government. As a number of a scholars have shown, the events of 1934 had led the National Government to debate laws regarding the policing of political meetings and public order, but shelved at the time. This was partly due to a reluctance by some politicians to curtail the freedom of political expression and partly because the BUF began to co-operate with the police.[30] Martin Pugh also suggests that the BUF avoided large urban cities where there was more likely to be an anti-fascist mobilisation, preferring to hold meetings across provincial England.[31] It was not until 1936, when Mosley and the BUF shifted tactics towards explicit anti-Semitism and trying to attract more working class supporters in the East End of London, that confrontations between anti-fascists, the police and the National Government reached a new crescendo with the ‘Battle of Cable Street’.

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The mainstream media’s take on events at Hyde Park

[1]Michael A. Spurr, ‘“Living the Blackshirt Life”: Culture, Community and the British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940’, Contemporary European History, 12/3 (2003) p. 309.

[2]Robert Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (London: Papermac, 1990) p. 365.

[3]Daily Worker, 7 June, 1934, p. 1.

[4]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[5]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[6]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[7]Daily Worker, 8 June, 1934, p. 1.

[8]Daily Worker, 9 June, 1934, p. 1.

[9] The Times, 9 June, 1934, p. 11.

[10]The Blackshirt, 15 June, 1934, p. 3.

[11]Daily Worker, 8 June, 1934, p. 1.

[12]The Times, 9 June, 1934, p. 11.

[13]The Times, 12 June, 1934, p. 14.

[14]R. Palme Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, Labour Monthly, July 1934, p. 390.

[15]Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, p. 390.

[16]David Renton, This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2001) p. 139.

[17] Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism (London: Penguin 2007), pp. 298-301; Martin Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars (London: Pimlico, 2005), pp. 156-163.

[18]Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’, p. 162.

[19] Dave Hann, Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2013) p. 46.

[20]See: Matthew Worley, Class Against Class: The Communist Party in Britain Between the Wars (London: IB Tauris, 2017).

[21] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain (London: Routledge, 2017) pp. 21-24.

[22]Daily Worker, 5 September, 1934, p. 1.

[23]Daily Worker, 8 September, 1934, p. 2.

[24]Jon Lawrence, ‘Fascist Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Inter-War Britain: The Olympia Debate Revisited’, Historical Research, 76/192 (May 2003) pp. 259-261.

[25]Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 26.

[26]Daily Worker, 11 September, 1934, p. 1.

[27]Daily Worker, 10 September, 1934, p. 1.

[28]Daily Worker, 11 September, 1934, p. 1.

[29]The Blackshirt, 14 September, 1934, p. 1.

[30]Richard C. Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back: Public Order, Civil Liberties and the Battle of Cable Street’, in Tony Kushner & Nadia Valman, Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society (London: Valentine Mitchell, 2000) pp. 83-84; Lawrence, ‘Fascist Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Inter-War Britain’, p. 263,

[31]Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’, pp. 169-170.

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In defence of no platform

Last week I debated Harvard University’s Lawrence Summers on free speech at universities and the tactic of no platform for The Economist. My opening statement was edited for word length, so I am posting the longer version below. 

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The principle of ‘no platform’ is that speakers or organisations that publicly espouse violent, racist or fundamentally anti-democratic ideas, as well as others forms of hate speech should be prevented from doing so. Although not limited to university campuses, student organisations across the global West have attempted to implement a policy of no platform to deny explicit racists and fascists from publicly speaking, organising or recruiting on campuses. As a defined policy, no platform began within the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK in the mid-1970s in reaction to appearances by the fascist and populist far right (particularly the National Front and the Monday Club) on British university campuses. The policy meant that invitations for far right and racist speakers would be withdrawn and prevented, venues would be off-limits to these speakers and that these organisations would not be allowed to have a physical presence on campus. This would often be enforced bureaucratically, but elements of the student movement also argued that physical confrontation might be necessary to prevent these speakers from speaking or assembling on university grounds.

Since the mid-to-late 1960s, the growing student movement in Britain, as well as across the world, had attempted to prevent certain people from speaking at universities, often representatives of the government or supporters of the Vietnam War or apartheid South Africa (as well as other controversial speakers like psychologist Hans Eysenck), but this was on a much more ad hoc basis. The policy of no platform was formulated in a period of crisis, when the forces of the far right were starting to mobilise more confidently.

Physically confronting fascists did not simply emerge as a tactic in the early 1970s, but was influenced by the anti-fascist traditions of the inter-war period. Militant anti-fascism existed across the global West in the 1920s and 1930s and although it was not as violent as in Italy or Germany, anti-fascism in Britain (and the United States) was indeed physical and confrontational. The anti-fascist movement of the 1970s, instrumental in developing the no platform policy, built upon the tactics fostered in the 1930s (and again in the late 1940s), primarily encouraging venues not to allow fascists to speak or organise in them and physically occupying public spaces where fascists attempted to congregate.

The policy of no platform, first explicitly pronounced in Britain, spread across the global West and was embraced by anti-racists in the student movements in the United States, Canada, Australia, West Germany and France, amongst others. For instance, from the mid-1970s onwards, the phrase was being used in the US by Trotskyist activists (such as those in the Spartacist League) against the National Socialist White Peoples’ Party and the Ku Klux Klan from organising on university campuses or appearing on television. In the mid-1980s, university campuses across Canada saw student activists disrupting speaking engagements of the South African Ambassador Glenn Babb. In Australia, student groups mobilised to drive far right groups, such as the Australian National Alliance and the Progressive Nationalist Party, off university campuses around the country.

As it was originally devised, the principle of no platform meant preventing violent and organised racist groups and speakers from appearing on university campuses. It was not intended to apply to the Conservative Party and other socially conservative groups. The reasoning was that these fascist organisations were anti-democratic and sought to remove the democratic rights of others, so they could not rely upon the democratic principle of free speech if it was to be denied to people they demonised.

However because the principle relied upon combining grassroots political activism with bureaucratic measures, it was extended by certain student groups to others, infamously to student groups supporting Israel and to sexists, as well as to some right-wing Tory MPs (such as Keith Joseph and John Carlisle). In more recent years, some activists have attempted to no platform radical feminists who they believe are transphobic.

The widening of the scope for no platform has led to controversy within student and activist circles since the 1970s, but while many agree on applying the principle to explicitly racist and fascist organisations and speakers, it has been individual student unions or student groups that have sought to extend it. No platform is a tactic that needs to be negotiated with regard to its immediate context and requires democratic debate over it use in any given campaign. At the moment, the NUS only applies the policy of no platform at the national level to several openly racist or jihadist groups, such as the British National Party, National Action and Hizb-ut-Tahir. Individual student unions can apply the principle to other groups depending on the local situation. No platform is about preventing what is colloquially known as ‘hate speech’ rather than speech that is merely offensive. In many Western countries, unlike the United States, this opposition to hate speech is in line with broader human rights legislation that protects people from hateful or harmful speech (although these laws are often portrayed as against ‘free speech’).

The question as to whether universities should or should not host speakers who propound offensive ideas does not fully grasp the situation. Students and activists are not simply mobilising to prevent those propounding offensive ideas, but harmful speech that is often linked to harmful actions. As institutions, universities promote the notion that they are neutral venues where competing ideas are debated and for the most part, attempt to excuse themselves from taking any action that prevents people or organisations from publicising their ideas on campus (although critics point out that anti-extremism programs, such as Prevent in the UK, have been implemented to a degree that curtails freedom of speech). With the case of the UK, universities are not allowed to hinder free speech under the Education Act no. 2 1986. However this does not apply to student unions or individual student bodies that exist as separate legal entities to the university. It is predominantly a democratic decision by the student bodies at the grassroots level to allow or not allow speakers that may engage in harmful or hateful speech, rather than the university administration.

Free speech absolutism often proposes that, above all else, university are a marketplace of ideas where students should be intellectually challenged and while students are presented with a range of ideas on campus, students also have the right not to be subjected to hateful or harmful speech and can forcefully reject proponents of these ideas. These forms of hate speech call for taking away the rights of certain sections of society and are thoroughly anti-democratic, and cannot be tolerated as within the realm of democratic ‘debate’.

When figures of the fascist or populist far right are invited to speak on university campuses (and in other public venues), these speakers do not present their ideas into a vacuum and often a broader coterie of far right forces are mobilised to attend these events, which can lead to intimidation, harassment and violence. Many students are unwilling to allow this to happen and organise to prevent these forces from coalescing on campus. In the past few years, various ‘alt right’ figures and groups have attempted to hold public events, campaign or recruit on university campuses in the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada. As the far right forces gain notoriety in an era of populism, many people, including students and other younger activists, are worried about what these forces might lead to. The battle for the university campus is part of a wider resistance to what they see as the zombie march of a regressive and reactionary right that should have been left behind by now.

No Platform book project: An appeal for sources

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I am very excited that my book project on the history of the NUS policy of no platform in the UK is moving forward. At the moment, I am on the lookout for further primary sources from no platform campaigns from the 1970s to the present (particularly from the 1980s and 1990s). So if anyone has any material relating to specific campaigns, please send an email to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com.

I am especially interested in any material relating to campaigns to prevent Enoch Powell and representatives of the apartheid regime in South Africa from speaking on university campuses in the mid-to-late 1980s.

In the meantime, you can also read this book chapter which gives an overview of the no platform policy in the 1970s and 1980s.

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