Review: Fascism’s local history offensive

Gordon Stridiron, 'Blackshirts in Geordieland', Black House Publishing 2013, pp260, £12

Oswald Mosley: Britain’s would-be Hitler

An unlikely candidate for infamy, Gordon Stridiron, is short, quietly spoken, polite, non-abusive and well liked among the old folks of his Wardley community. One would not credit his infamy as a long-standing supporter of the far right since a teenager.

I once lived in the same street as he did, and we both moved on to the same new council estate. Members of both our families worked at the same pit, and I was employed alongside his dad down the mine. But, whereas I graduated to the Young Communist League and then anarchism, Gordon became a committed supporter of the British fascist movement - swastikas, jack boots, stiff-arm salutes and all. I have one of his early leaflets, bearing all the Nazi insignia and addressed “To the people of Gateshead”. I have no idea what it says though, as this double foolscap sheet is full of German. Gordon was a founder-member of the National Front, when they were no-holds-barred fascists and Hitler-worshippers. He later moved on to the British National Party.

When I returned to Tyneside in 2005, I was quite surprised to find him playing a prominent role in the local history societies. He has written an extensive, two-volume history on the people of Wardley Colliery, which can be found in local libraries. These contain straightforward, ‘non-political’ stories, the only political references being to the local communist and far-left leaders of the lodge and their supporters. Of late Gordon has been a regular attendee at the commemoration to Tommy Hepburn, the early founder of the Northumberland and Durham Miners Union and early Chartist leader, at the Durham Miners Gala and at similar local events.

I had assumed that this local churchgoer had long ago hung up his political boots and turned to god. He sometimes chats to me about mutual points of mining and regional interest without any political reference. However, the publication of this first book of his shows that this impression of mine was far from accurate: indeed it suggests that his pleasant demeanour is part of an attempt to sanitise fascism and allow it to take a place as just another political iron in the fire of working class history, then and by extension now.

For example, here he is writing about the annual Tommy Hepburn memorial commemoration:

Every year many colourful miners’ banners surround Hepburn’s grave, where part of the service is performed and the miners’ hymn Gresford is played … Gresford was the scene of a terrible explosion on September 22 1934, when 266 miners lost their lives, including [British Union of Fascists] members Stephen Penny and William H Higgins. Unit leader Stephen Penny had recently been present at the BUF rally in Hyde Park that was attended by over 100,000 people …

Penny had already completed his shift and spent some spare time selling copies of Blackshirt at the entrance to the pit. Keen to ensure he had sufficient funds for the Oswald Mosley meeting at Belle Vue Manchester, he volunteered to do a second gruelling shift. At 2.08am on the morning of the 22nd a violent explosion ripped through the Dennis section of the mine … A British Union Gresford Disaster Appeal was set up and contributed to the £566,546 raised for the widows and children of the miners killed in this great tragedy (p134).

Block against communism

The history is quite illuminating in terms of the fascist movement on Tyneside. I had no idea how apparently popular it was across the region and in particular within the working class. Gordon makes particular mention of its support among miners. Were this just a book simply dealing with factual history, no-one could have much objection to it. But it is more than that, being a clear restatement of fascist politics and perspectives.

The basic narrative is that the fascists were dynamic, young visionaries with an exciting, new plan (‘new’ is very much in vogue in the propaganda) to sweep aside all the old reactionaries. They were ruthlessly repressed and attacked by “the reds”. What was true of the British Union of Fascists was also true of Franco Spain, Italy and Germany. It is obvious to the author that the main threat came from communism, and that fascism was the only way to block to it. This was the theme of many rallies:

About 30 Blackshirts took up a stand in Gill Bridge Avenue at Sunderland … it seemed as though they might get a fair hearing from the crowd that soon gathered around them, but then the communists arrived and there was so much noisy interruption that the police ordered the meeting closed. The Blackshirts obeyed, as they always did, and marched back to the Central Station.

The local paper wrote: “Although one may think there is absolutely no need for fascism in this country, there is no denying that these young men are endowed with a good deal of personal courage. It was pitiful to see a mob of street-corner loafers yapping at their heels and shrinking back like frightened puppies whenever a fascist turned round defiantly” (pp60-61).

And how about this?

On October 21 [1930] general Blakeney addressed the Newcastle Conservative Club and told them fascism was a real force against communism and stood for great ideals and two great principles - “nationality and absolute loyalty”. He said that the struggle was “going to be between those who love their country and those who do not” (p18).

The author attempts to create a widespread anti-communist consensus by not only chronicling the many clashes, but also recording every other organisation’s disputes with ‘communism’, such as efforts by Labour and some trade unions to ban party members. The idea is that everyone had seen the reds as the main enemy: “During the November election, the Seaham Division was seething in disgust at the organised terrorism of ‘reds’, which had broken up three of Mr Ramsay MacDonald’s meetings in two days” (p170).

The message to workers was that strikes were useless and we always lost them. Under a fascist state all workers’ grievances would be addressed and workers’ organisations would be part of the corporate state:

The constant repetition of strikes and lockouts … would bring about such a grave, chaotic industrial position, resulting in misery and starvation to the workers, that the workers themselves will demand some protection from such calamity. The BUF believes we can organise the necessary machinery to prevent such disaster …

Let me point out as one who has had experience in these matters that the trade union leaders are never out for the good of their members in such disputes as these … under fascist control no owner could lock out his men and no worker would strike … Can any trade union leader tell of a strike that has brought any lasting good to the industry which has had to suffer it? (p58).

BUF member Patrick Moir, speaking in North Shields, declared:

Fascism is a creed of the 20th century which inspires us to face the problems of our day by bringing to bear on them the full effects of modern science released by the state. We envisage an ordered state in which all sectional and factional interests are subordinated in the interests of the whole nation.

The machinery of government will be rationalised and modernised to cope with the development that has taken place and is still taking place in the industrial field. The ever growing problem of poverty and unemployment can and must be solved, and the corporate state of fascism provides the most viable machinery for such economic planning … Fascism means the rebirth of Britain (p53).

Democracy?

The fascists make no secret that democracy plays no part in their scheme. Elections are useful for the one-off vote which gets them elected, then government is reorganised and democracy put to bed.

Mosley, the hero of this book, is quoted:

Dictatorship under fascism was not dictatorship in the old and vicious sense of the word, which meant government against the will of the people, but it is dictatorship in a modern sense, which meant government armed and equipped by the people, with the people to do things that the people want to be done ... The first act of a fascist majority in parliament would be to confer on a fascist government absolute power to order action (pp59-60).

But what about national minorities? Here is Mosley again:

We never attack any man on account of his race or religion, but it is a fundamental principle of fascism that no section, no minority within the state, shall organise against the state. An immense amount of Jewish money has been used in Britain to work up war fever with Germany. We say that fascism will not lose British lives in a Jewish quarrel (p71).

When a letter-writer in the Shields Gazette points out that, however a dictator gets into power, once there he cannot be removed, BUF staff officer Henry Gibbs replies that unemployed, poverty-stricken people do not care about that, so long as they get decent jobs and high wages: “British fascism is using constitutional methods to place its proposals before the people in the same way that Herr Hitler formed the Third Reich through obtaining a majority support from the German voter” (p220).

Director of BUF policy Alexandra Raven explains that “Fascism would mean the dictatorship of the will of the whole people … Power action meant selecting a leader and giving him power to carry through their will. It will mean the end of the multi-party political system. It will be smashed up and a new system of government set up on an occupational franchise” (p168).

According to the book, William Joyce (soon to be Lord Haw Haw) spoke at Hetton-Le-Hole Miners Welfare on January 9 1934:

However much you may hate Hitler and Mussolini, those men command the overwhelming and enthusiastic support from the majority of their countrymen … Although Hitler is one of the most powerful figures in Germany, he comes from the working class and there you have the best possible proof that fascism has no connection with social favouritism. Mussolini is the son of a blacksmith ... I admit that Sir Oswald is an aristocrat, but we only have one. The trouble with socialism is that it has 30 or 40 aristocratic leaders (p76).

Joyce goes to Germany in July 1939. He takes out German citizenship and becomes a Nazi propagandist, broadcasting nightly to Britain. The author tells us how useful these broadcasts were, citing the case of a Jarrow family whose son was missing serving in Norway. Joyce announces that he is a prisoner of war and his mother comments: “... whatever people say about Lord Haw Haw, he did a good deed last night” (p220).

No platform?

Reading this book is one of the hardest things I have ever done - it left me feeling physically sick on occasion. This is not merely history. Not even far-right history, but a political restatement of fascism, undiminished and unmodified since pre-war years. It is being presented as part of an effort to gradually reincorporate a discredited creed.

As yet there have been no attempts to sell the book on stalls at local history, community or labour movement commemorations, but adverts have started to appear for books in this series. Local history societies need to be on their guard - the sale of fascist literature under cover of history is not something any of them will want to endorse or allow.

So how do we approach a man like Gordon Stridiron? He is 68 years old, frail and physically inoffensive. I would certainly not agree with any physical attack on him. While he has not recently been part of any demonstration or counter-demonstration against the left, the unions or the progressive movement I know of, and is not engaged in physical attacks upon anyone, no-one can have any justification for attacking him.

However, on the basis of his own politics, as represented publicly in this book, he is an unreformed fascist and a card-carrying activist of the British National Party. His politics and those of the far right can and should be confronted at any opportunity which presents itself at community events, labour commemorations and history forums.

David Douglass