In 1934 Oswald Mosley’s small but active British Union of Fascists was increasing its activities. Mosley, an aristocratic ex-Tory MP, then Labour Party minister who had fallen under the spell of Mussolini and Hitler and was determined to rise to a similar power in Britain. He recruited ground-level support from rightwing elements in the middle and working classes, but garnered much financial backing among the aristocracy and capitalist classes. As in Germany and Italy, these elements saw the potential need for fascist organisation to be nurtured, in case it should be required as a bulwark to defend capitalism and class rule against any growing working class movement. Famously newspaper baron Lord Rothermere was an early backer, prompting his Daily Mail to headline with ‘hurrah for the Blackshirts’ (he owned the Daily Mirror at this time too, which also went through a Mosley-adoring phase).
Mosley’s fascism was initially not specifically anti-semitic, but anti-jewish rhetoric grew within the Union after 1933, as nazi sympathisers increased their influence with it. White working class anti-migrant support for the BUF was notable in parts of East London But Mosley’s would-be beer-hall putschists found themselves opposed wherever they reared their head. The anti-fascist movement of the time, centred around (though not exclusive to) the Communist Party, became very active and defeated the BUF on a number of occasions.
A British Union rally at Kensington’s ‘Olympia’ in June had been successfully disrupted by anti-fascists, many of who marched from the East End. Despite a heavy police cordon and violent stewarding from fascist goons, so many managed to get into the hall and sabotage the rally that Mosley was unable to make himself heard. However extreme violence from the BUF stewards used against protesters alienated a number of Mosley’s more genteel supporters; the Olympia rally is often quoted as the beginning of a decline in the fortunes of the crap fuhrer. Rothermere and the Daily Mail hastily backed away from their earlier enthusiasm for a fascist takeover.
Following this, the BUF announced a rally to Hyde Park on 9th September 1934… Anti-fascists determined immediately to “Turn the Fascist Rally into an Anti-Fascist Triumph”. Determined to build on the successful disruption of the Olympia fuhrerfest, the call went out to rally in Hyde Park in opposition to the BUF. On his part, with his supporters increasing their street presence, but also being confronted (and usually routed) wherever they gathered, Mosley threatened to “deal with’ any opposition…
Many trade union organisations and other groups mobilised to bring contingents to oppose the rally. However, the Labour Party and TUC issued a statement calling on workers to stay away from the rally instead of confronting the fash.
In reply the CP pointed to the effects of nazi rule in Germany and suggested that you had to oppose fascism on the street or it would grow to smash all working class organisations (including the Labour and the TUC)…
A well-organised publicity campaign spread the word about the upcoming anti-fascist mobilisation: huge banners announcing the event were hung from scaffolding on the Royal Courts of Justice in Fleet Street, another banner unfurled from the top of the BBC building in Portland Place, showers of leaflets thrown from the roof of Selfridges in Oxford Street and the Post Office in Newgate Street… Live broadcasts by the BBC were interrupted by small groups who grabbed microphones and made short announcements telling people to rally to oppose fascism (before the broadcasts were shut off).
This guerilla publicity and other mobilising brought some 150,000 people out on the day, who marched to Hyde Park. The fascist rally was a fiasco. The BUF marched in at 6pm and out again at 7pm, protected by a vast force of police, their speakers in the park having been drowned out by the crowd of antis.
The violence of the Olympia shindig may have alienated a chunk of the upper class support for Mosley, but the BUF’s support would rise again in the later 1930s. They had to be more decisively beaten at the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, and at a number of other rallies. However, it has be to be speculated that some of the need for a strong fascist movement to be kept in the wings was declining. Although the ‘30s saw mass poverty and much working class anger, it was clear that there was little immediate prospect of a revolutionary upsurge in Britain. Also, Mosley had proved himself somewhat inept; scheming would-be backers can put up with a successful Strong Man who uses violence to keep the plebs down, but a Weak Strong Man is just embarrassing.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online