Mother Was A Blackshirt was a documentary produced by BBC Radio 4 in 2010. It tackled the almost totally overlooked role of Women in the British Fascist movement of the 1930s, but how Women constituted a sizable presence within the British Union of Fascists ranks. The premise was the discovery of the narrator’s mother being one of the members of this radical group and his research into the Fascist movement in Britain during the 1930s.
The British Union of Fascists, or BUF, was a fascist political party in the United Kingdom formed in 1932 by Oswald Mosley. It changed its name to the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists in 1936 and, in 1937, to British Union. It was finally disbanded in 1940, after it was proscribed by the British government following the start of the Second World War.
The BUF emerged in 1932 from the British far-right, following the electoral defeat of its antecedent, the New Party, in the 1931 general election. The BUF’s foundation was initially met with popular support, and it attracted a sizable following. The press baron Lord Rothermere was a notable early supporter of the Blackshirts. As the party became increasingly radical, however, support declined. The Olympia Rally of 1934, in which a number of anti-Fascist protestors were attacked by the paramilitary wing of the BUF, the Fascist Defense Force, isolated the party from much of its following. The party’s embrace of Nazi-style anti-semitism in 1936 led to increasingly violent clashes with opponents, notably the 1936 Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End. The Public Order Act 1936, which banned political uniforms and responded to increasing political violence, had a particularly strong effect on the BUF whose supporters were known as “Blackshirts” after the uniforms they wore.
Growing British hostility towards Nazi Germany, with which the British press persistently associated the Blackshirts, further contributed to the decline of the movement’s membership. It was finally banned by the British government in 1940 after the start of the Second World War, amid suspicion that its remaining supporters might form a pro-Nazi “fifth column”. A number of prominent BUF members were arrested and interned under Defense Regulation 18B.
The BUF claimed 50,000 members at one point, and the Daily Mail, running the headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”, was an early supporter. The first Director of Propaganda, appointed in February 1933, was Wilfred Risdon, who was responsible for organizing all of Mosley’s public meetings. Despite strong resistance from anti-fascists, including the local Jewish community, the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, the BUF found a following in the East End of London, where in the London County Council elections of March 1937, it obtained reasonably successful results in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, and Limehouse, polling almost 8,000 votes, although none of its candidates was elected. The BUF never stood in a General Election.
Having lost the funding of newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere that it had previously enjoyed, at the 1935 General Election the party urged voters to abstain, calling for “Fascism Next Time”. There never was a “next time”, as the next General Election was not held until July 1945, five years after the dissolution of the BUF.
Towards the middle of the 1930s, the BUF’s violent clashes with opponents began to alienate some middle-class supporters, and membership decreased. At the Olympia rally in London, in 1934, Blackshirt stewards violently ejected anti-fascist disrupters, and this led the Daily Mail to withdraw its support for the movement. The level of violence shown at the rally shocked many, with the effect of turning neutral parties against the BUF and contributing to anti-fascist support. One observer claimed: “I came to the conclusion that Mosley was a political maniac, and that all decent English people must combine to kill his movement.”
To get some idea of what this movement was all about, and the involvement of Women in the movement during its early stages, here is Mother Was A Blackshirt, as it was aired over BBC Radio 4 on January 4, 2010.