Red Clydeside: A history of the labour movement in Glasgow 1910-1932


Resistance to Fascism

The first avowedly fascist organisation in Britain was the 'British Fascisti' (later just plain old 'British Fascists') formed in 1923. Largely comprised of military officers it was little more than a strong-arm squad for the Conservative Party, stewarding Conservative meetings and calling for votes for the Conservative Party. One of their few policies was, as a means of reducing unemployment, a demand for a reduction in income tax so that rich people could hire more servants. During the General Strike of 1926 they served as scabs, and through this they acquired a martyr when one of their members scabbing on the railways leant too far out of a window and was decapitated by a bridge. They also worked as agents for Special Branch and MI5. However, in 1920's Britain admiration for Fascism mostly meant admiration for the Italian government rather than agitating for fascism in Britain.

It was in the 1930s that British fascism had its first and so far only flowering in the form of Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF), formed on 1October 1932. Mosley had moved from the Tory Party to the Labour left to fascism, and formed the 'January Club' as a sort of discussion group / front organisation to attract establishment types to his blackshirt movement. Devotees of the January Club included Wing-Commander Sir Louis Greig, Lord Erskine (a Conservative-Unionist MP), Lord William Scott (brother of the 8th Duke of Buccleuch and Conservative-Unionist MP) and Lord and Lady Russell of Liverpool. The BUF. began to receive support from the influential Conservative press in the form of media baron Lord Rothermere, who's paper the Daily Mail backed Mosley enthusiastically, beginning with the infamous 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts' headline of 8 January 1934.

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Scotland in the 1920s and 1930s proved to be barren ground for the advancement of fascism. The BUF attempted to establish a presence in the central belt of Scotland but with little success. Apart from a few Mussolini-inspired fascist organisations which were established by Italian immigrants to Glasgow in the mid-1920s, and a few high profile Scottish supporters of Mosley's BUF, fascism never gained a foothold of any kind in Scottish political life.

However, Scotland did produce a variety of extremist parties, some with links to fascist organisations. In the 1930s anti-Catholic parties including the Scottish Protestant League (SPL) in Glasgow and Protestant Action in Edinburgh took up to a third of the votes in local council elections. Alexander Ratcliffe, leader of the SPL, had previously been a member of the 'British Fascists' who famously claimed, "What Britain needs is a Hitler", as was Billy Fullerton, erstwhile leader of a band of sectarian thugs called the 'Billy Boys', who was awarded a medal for strikebreaking in the 1926 General Strike. John Cormack of Protestant Action lacked such fascist connections, and even led physical opposition to Oswald Mosley on his visit to Edinburgh in 1934. The Blackshirts' sympathy for a united Ireland and Mussolini's associations with the Vatican were too much for them to take.

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Outside of these quasi-fascist / sectarian organisations, the voice of authentic fascism struggled to be heard in Scotland. Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) had been organised in Scotland by Dr Robert Forgan, a former Labour MP who was also responsible for organising a series of public meetings in Glasgow for Mosley's previous party the 'New Party' in 1931. The first meeting was at Shettleston Town Hall in the East End of Glasgow, and although Mosley was constantly heckled and given a torrid time by the assembled crowd the heavily policed meeting passed off with only minor violence. The next meeting, held a few days later on Glasgow Green, attracted some 20,000 people, however on this occasion Mosley and his leading officers were attacked by a well-organised grouping of anti-fascist demonstrators led by members of Glasgow's Jewish community and the Communist Party. Mosley's BUF did no better in their attempts to organise in Scotland. BUF meetings were regularly broken up wherever they were held, and in Glasgow, with its large Jewish population, BUF meetings were routinely disrupted by an alliance of Jewish anti-fascist organisations, communists and socialists.

Although fascist organisation and activity in Scotland was weak there were a number of high-profile Scots who had strong links to various British fascist organisations in the 1930s. The 22nd Earl of Erroll, the Lord High Constable for Scotland, was perhaps one of the most famous Scottish supporters of Mosley and the BUF. He was famously accused of degrading Scots traditional dress by wearing a silver BUF emblem on his sporran at various BUF public meetings. One of the principal founders of the pro-Nazi 'January Club' was Captain Luttman-Johnson of Luncarty, and an influential member was Lord William Scott, Unionist MP for Roxburgh and Selkirk from 1935-50. Another January Club member was Sir Adrian Bailie, the Unionist MP for Linlithgow from 1931-35. The pro-Nazi movement known as The Link, chaired by the anti-Semitic Sir Barry Domville, held its first meeting in Edinburgh in February 1939.

However, the most dangerous and secretive pro-German group was the 'Right Club' founded by Captain Archibald Ramsey, the Unionist MP for Peebles and South Midlothian. The aristocratic Ramsey, who was a member of His Majesty's Bodyguard for Scotland, was well known in establishment circles for his extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic views. Accused of plotting with defeatist and pro-fascist elements in Britain for a negotiated peace with Germany, Ramsey was arrested under Regulation 18B and interned in Brixton prison until September 1944. Unapologetic to the end, two years before his death he published The Nameless War, an anti-Jewish polemic directed at 'international Jewry'. The Right Club included amongst its Scottish membership such luminaries as Sir Samuel Chapman, the Unionist MP for South Edinburgh, and Sir Alexander Walker, the Chairman of Johnny Walkers.

It should also be remembered that many Scots joined the British Battalion of the International Brigade to fight against Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War. It is estimated that of the 2,000 soldiers in the British Battalion, 500 were killed and 1,200 were seriously wounded, including many Scots.

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