by Prof. Gordon Bowen
Dept. of Political Science, Mary Baldwin College (Staunton, VA USA 24401)
Exclusively for use of students enrolled in PolS 111 Comparative Politics; no other use is authorized without written permission of the author.
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The timeline below describes a series of events that culminated in the Public Order Act of 1936, effective January 1, 1937.
a. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Britain was in a Depression, not unlike that of the USA and Germany. In 1929, a government of National Unity was formed, involving both major parties and led by Ramsey MacDonald (of the Labour Party). Its principal parliamentary support was from the Conservative MPs in the House of Commons, however.
b. Public dissatisfaction with the Depression grew, creating the basis for an appeal by extremists.
The British Fascist Threat:
a. British extremists gathered around a 6th generation nobleman, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists, or BUF.
b. Mosley was an accomplished orator, and served alternatively as an Independent MP, as a Conservative (from Harrow) and as a Labour MP (from Smethwick) in the period 1918-1931. Mosley was well connected in the British elite. His first wife was the daughter of the Foreign Minister during the Lloyd George government (1916-22). His second wife, Diana Mitford, was sister of Unity Mitford, a leading propagandist on behalf of Adolph Hitler's views in Britain, and a reputed mistress of the notorious German Chancellor. (Unity later attempted suicide in Germany, after war broke out). A third sister from this remarkable family, Jessica Mitford, became a famous muckraking author in the post-war USA, publishing The American Way of Dying and many other works.
c. In 1932, Mosley quit Parliament and founded the BUF, "The Blackshirts."
The B.U.F.'s Tactics and Ideology: Mosley and the BUFs tactics were imitations of Hitler's. They included the following similarities:
-The BUF, like the German Nazis, blamed hidden conspiracies for the country's misery.
-They focused public hatred on the British Jews (whose numbers had grown from 160,000 in 1900 to about 300,000 in 1929, principally due to the arrival of East European refugees fleeing the Russian civil war and famines, and escaping repression in Poland).
-BUF used "street politics" to build a movement of unemployed and dissatisfied persons of the lower-middle and working classes. Uniformed "blackshirts'" parades often ended in window-breaking and assaults on Jewish businesses.
-They accused those who opposed them of causing the violence that the BUF usually instigated. Especially, Communists were accused of meeting their "explosion against intolerable conditions, [our] effort at renaissance, [with] organized violence" (O. Mosley, My Life, pp. 288-9).
-This movement sought the legitimization that Parliament could provide, but was unsuccessful. The BUF, at most, received 19% of the vote (for Mosley) in one district in one election, an insufficient total to win any representation under the British single member district system.
The Response by the British Government:
a. In 1936, a new majority government was elected, this time led by the Conservative Stanley Baldwin.
b. The Baldwin government passed the "Public Order Act of 1936", which preserved the spirit of freedom while at the same time reined in the excesses implicitly possible under a system of absolute freedom of assembly. The Act provided:
-Processions: Police could alter the route of parades to avoid areas of likely confrontations. If police could not redesign parade route to avoid likely confrontations, the parade could be banned for up to 3 months. Thus, the BUF was kept out of Jewish neighborhoods and areas where past experience had shown violent local reactions to the BUF to be likely.
-Provocations to violence: The wearing of uniforms by private groups (e.g., the BUF's "blackshirts") was banned at political meetings, parades and rallies. (Sweden, Holland, and Switzerland also did this to retard the growth of neo-Nazi movements). Thus, the esprit de corps of the BUF was reduced and the cloak of anonymity was lifted.
-Paramilitarism: The carrying of weapons to political meetings was made illegal, as was the training in the use of firearms by political parties.
-Restrictions on Free Speech: In regard to rallies, the use of violent, abusive or threatening language was declared to be illegal and speakers who violated this could be jailed. This was a precursor to the Race Relations Act of the 1960s which still bars in Britain the use of language to promote racial hatred in political meetings. Both neo-Nazis and anti-white Black Muslims have been jailed under this latter act.
c. Analysis: In net, the Public Order Act of 1936 tended to reduce the appeal of the BUF and the growth of the party waned in the mid-1930s. The free speech of all did not have to be curtailed in order to protect democracy; only anti-democratic acts and speech designed to promote violence were curtailed.
d. Subsequent actions against the Fascist threat:
-Between 1936 and 1939, the BUF leaders traveled to Nazi Germany frequently, singing the praises of the "New Germany" at every opportunity. In Britain, they lauded each German foreign policy success, from the reoccupation of the Rhineland (1936), the rise of the Franco (fascist) rebellion in Spain (1936), to the absorption of Austria (1938), to the bullying and takeover of Czechoslovakia (1938-39). German rearmament roundly was praised, even though it might threaten England.
-When war did break out in September 1939, the BUF leaders were not immediately jailed, even though the case for their likely collaboration with the enemy was much stronger than, for example, was the case against the Nisei Japanese in the west of the USA, in 1942. (Nevertheless, the US Nisei were interned).
-However, once France had fallen (April 1940) and the Battle of Britain began in earnest, Mosley and the other BUF leaders were interned, under the "Internment Act of 1940" (Order 18-B). This act permitted those with "hostile associations" to be indefinitely jailed without access to the right of habeas corpus (i.e., without formal charges being heard by a judge). Once the threat of invasion of Britain waned, in 1944 the jailed BUF leaders were released from prison.
Afterthought: News brief: Life imitates... PolS 111: A political scandal that threatened to derail London's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games developed in Britain in February 2005. It centered on remarks made by Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London. At the bottom of the controversy was Livingstone's allegation that one of the leading London daily newspapers remains tainted by its associations in the 1930s with Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, and that any Jew who works for it somehow is culpable. Livingstone then was accused of anti-Semitism by slurring a reporter for the daily The Evening Standard, calling him no better than a "concentration camp guard." The scandal highlights the continuing potency of such associations and the political uses of being "correct" on such matters. It also highlights one of the down sides of Prime Minister Tony Blair's policy of devolution, i.e. turning powers once reserved to the central government back to elected local authorities, in this case the choice to create an elected mayor for London, a process that brought left-wing Labour member Ken Livingstone to office. The Conservative Party led the demand that Blair dissociate his party from Livingstone, and quickly censure him. Read more about all this here.
Anne de Courcy, Diana Mosley: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler's Angel (New York: William Morrow, 2003).
Oswald Mosley, My Life (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1970).
Robert Jacob Alexander Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975).
Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: a history 1918-1945 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998).
G. Webber, "Patterns of Membership and Support for the British Union of Fascists," 'Journal of Contemporary History (1984).
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