Who were the young people drawn to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists?

When, on 7 June 1934, Oswald Mosley addressed a tumultuous rally at London’s Olympia, his British Union of Fascists seemed on the verge of political acceptability. Yet with its chaos, violence and subsequent condemnation in the press, Olympia marked the beginning of the end for the Blackshirts. 

When researching her new play, Nicola Baldwin examined reasons why the movement may have been attractive to disenchanted young people of the 1930s…

Oswald Mosley receives a fascist salute. (Bettmann / Getty Images)
Oswald Mosley receives a fascist salute from his followers in October 1936. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

 

I started researching British fascism in 2008, after adapting Fritz Lang’s dystopian film Metropolis (1927) for 60 young people at Bath Theatre Royal. The project left me curious about youth involvement in politics in the 1930s. At the National Theatre studio, I taped paper to the wall and accumulated questions: What is fascism? What is particular about British fascism? Why did women/young people join? Why did they stay? Would I have joined?

 

Unemployment and austerity

By 1933, London and the South East had largely recovered from economic depression but in Greater Manchester the trade of producing cotton textiles was undercut by imports of Indian cotton produced by cheaper foreign labour. Unemployed cotton workers bore the brunt of austerity measures introduced by the coalition National Government in response to the 1929 banking crash. Young, fit, unskilled workers were ineligible for assistance from the Means Board.

While my main character Flora Poole, a 19-year-old ‘spinner’ or weaver is fictional, hundreds like her fled the North to London’s East End during the 1930s. William Woodruff, later professor of history at Oxford and Fulbright Scholar at Harvard, quit Blackburn during the cotton slump and worked in an East End iron foundry while attending night school. He recalled his experiences in Beyond Nab End (2003). Professor Woodrow might have been swept into a (socialist) political career had he not refused – unlike fellow Oxford don Harold Wilson – to contest an ‘unwinnable seat’ as a Labour candidate in the 1945 election.

For Mosley’s fascists after Olympia, the dream of middle-class membership ebbed away. Newspaper owner Viscount Rothermere, who had championed the movement in the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror with headlines such as “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” and “Give the Blackshirts a Helping Hand”, withdrew support. The BBC decided to ‘no-platform’ Mosley. As middle-class, middle-aged ‘respectable’ voters shunned the party, the BUF poured its diminishing funds into poorer London boroughs such as Poplar, Stepney and Bethnal Green. 

By 1936, according to Stephen Dorril’s biography of Mosley, Blackshirt (2006), half of the BUF national membership was in the East End. Bethnal Green branch was typical, being primarily “shopgirls, apprentices, the unemployed”, paying no subscription, or “on the lowest rate”. Indeed, since many in the Youth Section were employed by the party, it cost more to keep branches going than they raised in subs.

 


Police remove barricades after the 'battle of Cable Street', during which anti-fascist protesters clashed with Blackshirts. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images) 
 

‘The battle of Cable Street’

In October 1936, Mosley planned to march from Stepney to Limehouse, to celebrate the movement’s fourth anniversary. ‘The battle of Cable Street’ saw 3,000 Blackshirts, protected by 6,000 mounted and foot police, blocked by a counter-demonstration 100,000-strong: Jewish, communist and socialist groups, alongside local people would not let the fascists pass. ‘Cable Street’ led to public order legislation which banned uniforms and political marches, and is widely regarded as the hard stop of Mosley’s British fascist project.

Of those 3,000 who rallied with Mosley at Cable Street, three-quarters were under 18. Four hundred were women. Former suffragettes such as Norah Elam and Mary Richardson joined the British Union for its radical policies on gender equality and what Richardson called the “courage, action, loyalty and gift of service… I had known in the suffrage movement”. They introduced female recruits to direct action, marching and public speaking. Across the BUF, young women made up around one in four members. 

Anti-fascist journalist Winifred Holtby described a young Blackshirt woman outside party headquarters, Black House: “Business-like, determined, her air pleasantly self-confident. Perhaps she saw the Blackshirts as crusaders, marching to sweep away from their beloved country decadence, lethargy and confusion. They would smash the foul slums and build a new Jerusalem.”

A defining feature of the Youth Section was anger. Many had lost fathers in the trenches, or (as with my character Flora Poole) grown up with the personal and economic consequences of fathers physically disabled or psychologically broken by combat. Many young fascists shared a resentment bordering on loathing towards the older elite, Mosley’s “old men in government” who took their country to war with little personal risk, and squandered the futures of a generation. Decrying Olympia, The Yorkshire Post accused Mosley of “setting up a kind of glamour of civil war to attract youth”.


Of those 3,000 who rallied with Mosley at Cable Street, three-quarters were under 18. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
 

 

The figure of Oswald Mosley

Mosley himself was commissioned in the 16th Lancers but joined the Royal Flying Corps at the outbreak of the First World War. Injured in a crash in 1915, he rejoined the Lancers and fought in the trenches between October 1915 and October 1916. He joined the Conservatives after military service to become an MP at 22. From the first, he challenged the old guard even within his own party, and was re-elected as an Independent before crossing the House to join Labour where he campaigned on unemployment. With his matinee idol looks and dramatic oratory, Mosley cut a darkly glamorous, radical figure. At 34 he founded the New Party, which – influenced by Mussolini – morphed into the quasi-military British Union of Fascists 19 months later in October 1932, with Mosley himself as the leader.

Julie Gottlieb described the BUF as a “cult of one man” around Mosley, but it also celebrated youth. The BUF employed aggressively modern marketing, an iconography of speed – motorbikes, aircraft and striking graphics. Politician William Allen and broadcaster Peter Eckersley were among those who contributed their expertise in poster campaigns and popular broadcasting respectively. Equality of opportunity and employment across classes and gender was the mantra. The Youth Section established militarised youth clubs in deprived areas, offering training and jobs. Young women and men wore the ‘classless’ black shirt. 


Oswald Mosley inspects women's sections of the British Union of Fascists in May 1939. (Photo by National Media Museum/Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)
 

In forming the play, my dramatic argument developed as follows: Fascism is a cult of winning, which by definition requires other people to lose. British fascism in the 1930s was fuelled by economic collapse, austerity and damage inflicted by war. Women and young people were attracted by Mosley, and aggressively modern proposals for change.

But I was stumped on why they stayed. While I could imagine the reasons why women and young people may have been attracted into the British Union of Fascists, I could not fully understand why they remained, as promises were abandoned and the BUF’s anti-Semitism became ever clearer. Of course, some were anti-Semitic; it is not my intention to gloss over what the BUF was ultimately about. However, as a playwright, I needed to get under my character’s skin and see the world through her eyes. And for the longest time, the play stalled. I could not find a way in.

 

Detention under Regulation 18b

Defence Regulation 18b of 1939, enacted by the British government in the Second World War, enabled the wartime arrest and detention of enemy sympathisers. It suspended the right of habeas corpus to permit arrest without charge, and detention without trial. Detainees were interviewed at tribunals, without legal representation, to determine what they knew and any threat they posed. Sir Oswald and Lady Diana Mosley were arrested, along with BUF members and supporters. But also German refugees, including Jewish people who fled the Gestapo, spent their war in British prisons or camps. AW Brian Simpson’s book In the Highest Degree Odious gives a detailed and fascinating account of Regulation 18b, which still informs anti-terror detention today.


Female Blackshirts in Liverpool. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
 

These 18b detainees offered me valuable insight into ordinary rank-and-file BUF supporters – for example, Miss GL Fisher, a schoolteacher who joined the BUF aged 21 “for its new dynamic policies for dealing with Britain’s problems”. A member of an ‘Anglo-German Friendship League’, Fisher had taken a trip with her fiancé to the Rhineland, attending “a tourist drinking place” which the tribunal claimed was a meeting of local National Socialists. Miss Fisher expressed gratitude for the kindness of the policewoman who encouraged her to bring a warm coat, and horror at the antiquity and filth of Holloway, the dirty toilets and “mentally deranged prisoners who carried on all night”.

Another 18b detainee was Blanche Greaves, who joined the party as an enthusiastic 18-year-old, and rose up the ranks to become Women’s District Officer and Women’s Canvass Officer: “Although we had these wonderful titles, it didn’t really mean a lot to be perfectly honest. You were there so you did it.” Blanche joined the BUF Women’s Drum Corps: “We were good. We were really good. Because none of us knew anything about it before we started. We must have driven the neighbours mad every Tuesday night.”  Blanche told her tribunal she was chosen to play bass drum out in front at Cable Street, “Because I was big and fat! Because I wanted to! I had no experience before. I just liked the idea.”

Fay Taylour was already a well-known dirt-track motorcycle rider and racing car driver when she joined the BUF. Taylour used her celebrity to campaign against Regulation 18b during her detention, writing poems and letters to the press. She described her own intercepted private letters being read out at 18b tribunals, and reports of her conversations and remarks. According to Taylour, it was indicated to her that a public retraction would secure her release, but that her refusal led to black-listing which thwarted her successful motor racing career. She complained later that she “was trailed, arrested and refused visas constantly through travels in the late 1940s and 1950s” despite no charges being brought.


Fay Taylour was already a well-known dirt-track motorcycle rider and racing car driver when she joined the BUF. (Photo by J. Gaiger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Through these women, and ephemera such as copies of The Woman Fascist magazine in the British Union Collection at Sheffield University Library, I began to appreciate why these women and young people remained with the British Union; for some, it became their whole life. In my play, ‘Flora’, like Blanche, leads the Women’s Drum Corps, then joins the motorcycle squad to emulate her idol Fay Taylour. ‘Charlie’ is trained to be a champion boxer by Tommy Moran (real-life Blackshirt Boxer, and BUF candidate). Artist ‘George’ is given a propaganda budget to design posters and stage direct actions. ‘Violet’ and ‘Eva’ relish their job titles, fundraising dances and chance to learn shorthand and first aid.

Would I have joined? No. My mother couldn’t even make me go to Brownies, and I don’t believe I would ever have been attracted to fascism, even in 1933. And yet there is a final twist. The venue for our UCL Festival of Culture reading on 10 June (for more details on this, see below) is on the corridor where – as a 19-year-old student at UCL – I slept for two nights in a protest occupation. Visiting again I recalled the excitement and camaraderie of the occupation, the arguments, singing and jokes, the buzz of young people taking action together. But, while I remembered being in that corridor among my friends I could not remember what the occupation was about. As research following the 7/7 attacks on London discovered, what motivates extremists operating in a cell is less loyalty to ideology, but loyalty to the group. So, while I cannot imagine joining a fascist party, I can understand that young people take part in political actions for complex personal reasons. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but as Robert McKee says, at the end of every completed story, a writer finds themselves. 

 

Over several years (and many drafts) Black Shirts; the 18b Testimony of Flora Poole, Spinner is my attempt to provide honest answers to the questions that were once taped to the wall at the National Theatre studio. This June the play, which is about young people and women in Mosley’s fascists, will be read in UCL Festival of Culture (hosted by UCL Urban Lab), featured alongside events exploring Women and the Miners’ Strike and 1984: Live, a reading of George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Nicola Baldwin is a playwright, scriptwriter and research fellow at the Royal Literary Fund. Her most recent radio play, Abdication: the Crisis of Wallis Simpson, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in December 2016.

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