Thanks to the work of the anti-fascist historian Evan Smith, many socialists are aware that the anti-fascist tactic of “No Platform” was first written down at the start of the 1970s, and had become by April 1974 the policy of the National Union of Students. But 1974 can hardly be the start of the story. There had been anti-fascists in Britain since Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Ellen Wilkinson in the early 1920s. How had anti-fascist in the 1930s or 1940s responded to the criticism that, by confronting the far-right, they were damaging free speech?
In the 1930s, anti-fascist protests were largely restricted to the political left. At Olympia in 1934, socialists, Communists and others forged tickets to a fascist rally, managed to get in, and heckled the fascist leader Oswald Mosley from inside his meeting. As the anti-fascists heckled, Mosley stopped speaking, and his supporters shone spotlights on the hecklers so that they could be beaten. In the meeting’s aftermath, Mosley was widely denounced in the public press, and his wealthiest domestic backers abandoned him. Two years later, at the Battle of Cable Street, a crowd of 150,000 socialists and British Jews, summoned onto the streets by East End Communists, confronted Mosley and the police and prevented him from marching through the East End.
The conflict between left and right was violent; with fascists boasting of the beatings they inflicted on their opponents, and the left being unafraid of using force in its defence. Unsurprisingly therefore, when you read fascist accounts of these struggles, the references to free speech are few and shallow. In February 1933, Oswald Mosley told readers of The Blackshirt that anti-fascist protests meant that “we have reached a point in this country in which free speech is a thing of the past.” This was stated briefly, in a matter-of-fact manner and with little suggestion of regret. The real purpose of invoking free speech was to advertise the fact that a “Fascist Defence Force has been organised to protect free speech”. It had already “often met and defeated ‘Red’ violence.” Mosley had in fact been operating a private militia for two years by this point, explaining in a message to its members that they would be “an iron core in [our] organisation around which every element for the preservation of England will rally when a crisis … comes.”
On the other side of the barricades, the discussion of free speech was more intense. Anti-fascists argued that by standing up against the far right they were creating the conditions for more speech, not less. In 1937, the poet Nancy Cunard wrote to 148 of her fellow writers asking them their opinion of the Spanish Civil War. A victory for fascism, the poet W. H. Auden argued, “would create an atmosphere in which the creative artist and all who care for justice, liberty and culture would find it impossible to work.” “Civilisation,” the novelist Storm Jamieson maintained, is incompatible with fascism, “this doctrine which exalts violence and uses incendiary bombs to fight ideas.” “Two things make the future real,” the journalist John Langdon-Davies wrote, “the artist’s imagination and the worker’s hope. Fascism destroys both.” Being for free speech, each of these writers insisted, meant opposing those who would turn Europe into a jail.
The dilemmas of repression
From 1939, Britain was at war with Germany. Mosley’s main activity was now to campaign for peace with the two fascist states, from which he had received (as civil servants had identified) tens of thousands of pounds of financial subsidy. On 9 April 1940, Britain’s ally Norway was invaded by the German army. On the same day Vidkun Quisling the leader of the Nasjonal Samling Party proclaimed himself prime minister. Ministers concluded that Mosley was the prime candidate to play the role of Quisling in Britain. Accordingly, from 22 May 1940, the authorities began to intern prominent fascists under Defence Regulation 18B. More than 750 supporters of Oswald Mosley were eventually detained. Almost all the leading fascists were held in custody.
Responding to Mosley’s internment was not a straightforward question for the left. Any moves to oppose it would have been interpreted as an alliance between two groups of extremists. At a time when the USSR and Nazi Germany were co-operating in a non-aggression pact, any such move would have been political suicide. But if they supported internment, they were giving their backing to practices of detention without trial, with every possibility that such weapons would be used against them next. The Daily Worker was banned in early 1941; the Cabinet discussed extending interment to Communists – Winston Churchill supported the move.
The Communist Party determined to bluff the crisis out, supporting the internment of the fascists and then (i.e. after Hitler’s declaration of war on the Soviet Union), positioning itself as the keenest exponent of the continued internment of Mosley’s followers. In 1943, the barrister and Communist fellow-traveller, D. N. Pritt, drafted legislation to make fascism unlawful. It would have created six offences: the advocacy of fascist doctrines, the veneration of fascist leaders whether dead or alive, the display of fascist symbols, the advocacy of racial hatred, printing of literature for any of these purposes, or the membership of a proscribed party.
In November 1943, Oswald Mosley was released. Reports gathered by the Home Office showed indignation storming across the country. The Communist Party organised a series of demonstrations against his release, especially in factories engaged in war production.
Champions of free expression often argue that measures to limit speech are counterproductive, that they only serve to radicalise the unwanted minority, sending it underground, encouraging its supporters into ever more violent acts. Others argue that when the state intervenes against a party it can destroy the latter’s capacity to organise and deal it a shattering blow from which that movement never recovers.
The psychological damage that internment caused to British fascists illustrates both of these reactions at once. Plenty of 1930s fascists simply gave up politics. Nellie Driver, who had led the BUF in Nelson in Lancashire, swapped fascism for Catholicism. Alec Miles, one of the BUF’s industrial organisers, left the movement and reinvented himself as a left-Labour councillor in Westminster. The novelist Henry Williamson begged his fellow fascists to renounce politics. “[Mosley] was news,” Williamson wrote, “but bad news.”. Others, meanwhile, saw themselves as having been unjustly martyred and used their anger at repression to justify increased activity. James Larratt Battersby a Stockport factory-owner became convinced that Hitler had been a “divine spirit” sent to free the world of evil. Around a specially built altar, he and around a dozen friends in a fascist commune held midnight services praying to God and to Hitler his messenger.
Kicking over the platforms
After the war ended, various attempts were made to revive the British Union of Fascists. These efforts reached their peak in summer 1947, with a succession of different fascist groups holding street meetings at up to 20 different locations on Saturdays. Following the bomb attack on the King David Hotel, and the killing of two British sergeants at Netanya by people calling for the creation of an ethnic Jewish state in Israel, there were large -Jewish riots in August 1947, in Liverpool, Eccles, Salford and Manchester. These anti-Jewish riots gave Mosely’s supporters a national profile. The Daily Mail reported the fascists’ weekly meetings under the regular title: “The Battle of Ridley Road”. Mosley’s supporters across London were required to attend these meetings, which for a period of two months had a regular audience of around two to three thousand people.
Different left-wing and anti-racist groups were involved in the struggle against fascism in the 1940s, including members of the Communist and Labour Parties, Commonwealth, and supporters of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen. Anti-fascist journalists published articles warning of the growing strength of Mosley’s movement. In recent years, the best known anti-fascist organisation from this period has been the 43 Group, a body of around five hundred young Jewish men and women, many of whom had recently served the British army during the war.
The 43 Group had its own newspaper, On Guard, which sought to both report on events in Britain, and give coverage to anti-fascists elsewhere. The singer Paul Roberson gave an interview. Other articles criticised the first sitting of the House Un-American Activities Committee, recognising the threat it posed to free speech.
Much of what the 43 Group did was the sort of campaigning that anti-fascist groups have done in Britain and elsewhere both before and since. Spies were sent to infiltrate fascist meetings. Speakers were teased and heckled (“Hello, Clark Gable … Take his photograph. Mussolini used to stand like that”). If members of the 43 Group could defeat Mosley’s supporters peacefully – for example, by claiming a local speaker’s corner before the fascists did, they would.
The distinctive tactic of the 43 Group, in 1946 and 1947, was to form its members into what was termed a flying wedge, a group of about fifteen people who would charge a fascist speaking platform, knocking it over and sending the speaker flying.
One member of the 43 Group, Morris Beckman, conveys the extent to which their activities focussed narrowly on turning over speaker’s platforms. By summer 1946, “Between six and ten fascist meetings per week were being attacked by the Group … A rough estimate showed that one third were ended by the speakers’ platform being knocked over, another third were closed down by the police to keep the peace, and the remaining third or so continue to the finish due to too heavy a presence of police or stewards.”
This was a time before television, when most people would get their news from the radio, the press or cinema. Entry to these media was closed off to the far right, as indeed to the far left and to religious minorities, but particularly to the right because this was after a war in which hundreds of thousands of British people had died fighting fascism. Beneath the public world of high political debate, there was a busy tradition of informal discussion, with dozens of town and urban markets in which people would stand on a wooden box and speak.
While no-one had yet formulated the phrase “no platform” nor would for twenty years, the day-to-day political work of the 43 Group was a practical application of that tactic. It was a narrow and specific method, limited to fascists. It was intelligence-driven: the 43 Group had infiltrators within the circles of Oswald Mosley’s most senior supporters; and relied on them to provide credible accounts of when a fascist assembly was due to start.
It was based in certain contexts: not the universities (although these have been much more important in recent times), nor elections, nor new media, but an older forum – street meetings. When thinking of “platforms”, Beckman and his comrades meant them literally. The members of the 43 Group wanted to close off any possible means by which fascism might win new recruits. The tactic emerged in a Britain where, if it was possible to turn over twenty platforms in one afternoon, then Mosley’s route to his audience would be closed off entirely.
The anti-fascists of the 1930s would look back on Cable Street, and invoke its name. But it was in the late 1940s, for the first time in British history, that anti-fascists could seriously envisage a future where no fascists were permitted to speak – none, anywhere.
(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my own next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here.)
(Tickets for the book-launch – tonight – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths, can be ordered here).