How Mosley helped them ban May Day
IN one of Jack Lindsay's novels, mounted police are breaking up a May Day rally in London, and one of the characters remarks to his friend that there are only two capital cities in Europe where people are forbidden to march on May Day, one of them being Madrid under Franco, the other being London under Labour.
It's a long time since I read the book, but I'd guess they were talking about May Day 1950, as part of the story was set around Sheffield, and preparations for the World Peace Congress held in the city that year. Lindsay was a prolific writer perhaps better remembered today as a historian than for his ventures into fiction, which I have not seen around for years, nor heard anybody mention.
The Greater London Association of Trade Union Union Councils (GLATUC) has been commemorating 150 years of history this week, dating from the foundation of its predecessor, the old London Trades' Council. There was a rally on Saturday, and there's a celebratory booklet out, with articles on the London Trades Council's origins, the conditions in 1860, the famous 'Matchgirls'' Strike of 1888 which lit the way for trade unionism in the East End, the Police Strikes at the end of the First World War, and so on.
You can read about Stepney Trades Council and Guernica, how West Ham trades council in docklands helped force the tube stations open as shelters during the Blitz, and Brent trades council hosted Nelson Mandela's last public meeting in England before he returned to South Africa, arrest and imprisonment.
It's all well illustrated, and for just a couple of quid it's all a good read.
GLATUC nowadays arranges London's May Day march, usually culminating in a Trafalgar Square rally, but in an article entitled 'The Battle of the Ban' we read how May Day in London, the labour day festival, was banned for three years running 1948, 1949 and 1950, and how the London Trades Council had to stand up and defy Clement Attlee's Labour government.
Trouble began with a 'blast from the (all-too recent) past'. Sir Oswald Mosley's British fascists had been forbidden from wearing their blackshirt uniforms since the late 1930s, and Mosley himself was imprisoned under the wartime 18B regulations. By the late 1940s however Mosley was trying to revive his movement, hoping to exploit anti-Jewish prejudices that had never gone away in spite of Hitler's holocaust, and had been given a new lease in response to Zionist attacks on British forces in Palestine.
This issue might be expected to die down with British withdrawal, and soon Mosley and other racists would find a new target, turning their attention to west London, where housing conditions fuelled tension between poor whites and new West Indian immigrants. But for now there were still clashes at places like Ridley Road, in Dalston, and with not only memories of the East End in the 1930s but the horrors of Auschwitz and Belsen fresh in people's minds, many not only fought the fascists but asked how Labour could tolerate their re-emergence.
Labour Home Secretary James Chuter Ede responded by saying he was considering a ban on all political marches in London. Oswald Mosley then announced that he was going to hold a May Day march, starting from the same place as the London trades council march. The Metropolitan Police obligingly arranged for them to follow separate routes, but on the say there were still clashes, and 30 anti-fascists were arrested.
Chuter Ede announced there would be a three month ban on all processions in London. London Trades Council held a meeting in Trafalgar Square to protest the ban and fascist antisemitic attacks. The government now extended its ban until February 1949. As soon as it ended the fascists were allowed to hold another East End march, which met mass resistance.
The ban was imposed again, this time affecting the 1949 May Day march. Defying the ban, groups of workers met up and marched on the Square, where there was a rally attended by some 30,000 people. frustrated by the defiance, police took out their rage on those leaving the square afterwards, and made arrests.
"The situation now was one where the fascists by their provocative actions could bring a ban on all other political demonstrations and collusion was suspected with the authorities."
(The Battle of the Ban, in '150 Years of Union Struggle', GLATUC pamphlet).
With the ban on marches imposed again in 1950, and due to end on May 2, Chuter Ede announced he was extending it again. London Trades Council meanwhile had a rally planned for May 7. They urged supporters to come from all parts of London, but avoid giving police any excuse to attack them. The police nevertheless still harassed people coming to Trafalgar Square, making several arrests, and then let the mounted police loose to charge on demonstrators.
Meanwhile, adding insult to injury, across London on the same day, Mosley and his cohort enjoyed a police escort to make their foray into Hackney.
As feeling grew, and the government faced a general election, it did not continue with the bans.
But other things were happening. The Attlee government, trying to hold on to what it could of the British Empire, had been the first in Britain's history to maintain "peacetime" conscription. One of the slogans on the May Day marches had been to end the war in Malaya, where British forces were protecting the plantation owners and fighting Communist guerrillas. In June 1950 a new war broke out, in Korea.
Later that year, unable to prevent the World Peace Congress being held in Sheffield, the Labour government did its best to strangle it, by for instance banning delegates from overseas attending. Paul Robeson was among those denied a visa.
The Attlee government had also decided that Britain should become a nuclear power as well as taking its place alongside America in the Cold War. Here too, as we see from Christopher Andrews' new authorised history of MI5, the fascists, however depleted, could have their uses. In December 1947, concerned with the need to step up security in government departments, Attlee minuted:
"We cannot afford to take risks here, and the general public will will support us. Fellow travellers may protest, but we should face up to this. Action should be taken in regard to Fascists as well as Communists, though the former are feeble."
"Feeble though the tattered remnants of British Fascism were, they proved of some use, for public relations purposes in enabling the government to claim that it was protecting the state against extremists of both left and right. In March 1948, following cabinet discussion, the Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons the introduction of what became known as the 'Purge Procedure' , excluding both Communists and Fascists from work "vital to the Security of the State".
(Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, p.383).
I well remember the forms one had to fill in for even the humblest of civil service jobs, demanding to know if you were ever a member of a Communist or Fascist organisation. Since the Mosleyites no longer called themselves the British Union of Fascists but had become simply the British Union, and then more confusingly, the Union Movement, I suppose they could honestly say they did not. I don't know whether they or other far-Right followers have ever been troubled by intrusive "security" probing and blacklisting. Or if the ban on all "extremists" served, as Mr.Andrew says, useful for "public relations purposes". One must allow the Labour and liberal politicians space to keep up proprieties.