The struggle on the inside: the effect of internment
The expansion of the number of people interned following the Tyler Kent Affair posed another significant threat to the survival of British fascism. However, in converse to what one might assume, it was behind the prison walls where the flame of British fascism was most passionately and successfully nurtured. The clanging of closing cell doors was to echo through the decades, and understanding the impact of internment on the victims of Defence Regulation 18B is imperative to understanding the nature of the fascist movement after the war.24
Unsurprisingly, the experience of internment proved to be such an ordeal that some committed and ardent fascists decided to withdraw from active politics once they were released.25 As Nellie Driver put it, ‘Some of them have suffered too much in one way or another, and now they ask to be forgotten’.2“ However, little evidence exists of damascene moments where incarceration awakened a fascist to the folly of their beliefs, though one can find examples of fascists who became disillusioned with politics more generally. Reginald Windsor, an active BUF member in Leeds before the war, claimed that he was ‘sick of politics, which have brought me in here and ruined my life’.27 Others such as Mick Clarke, who had been one of Mosley’s ‘old East End boys’, followed suit and ‘settled for a more peaceful life than that which had brought hardship to his middle years’.2“ Many had attempted to build a respectable life post-internment and rid themselves of the shame attached to being labelled a fifth column traitor and simply did not want to risk any further affiliation with individuals and groups that might hamper their rehabilitation back into mainstream life.29 But if a large proportion of fascist internees withdrew from active politics due to the effects of Regulation 18B, many did not.
For some, locked away in camps at Ascot and Peel, the experience actually served to radicalise them further, forging deeper commitment to the fascist cause. Internment acted like a greenhouse, which helped individuals’ political consciousness blossom and develop. Pulling together fascists from different ranks within the movement and from all over the country provided an opportunity for unprecedented knowledge transfer between members. Ralph Dawson, one-time antiquarian, actor, novelist and detainee, found 18B a most welcome opportunity to meet other fascists: ‘I said it was certainly more of an asset for the people to get together and know one another. ... I knew practically nobody in the British Union [before internment]’.30 There is little doubt that internment greatly increased the ability to build fascist networks and created an environment where political friendships could be forged, which doubtless helped when attempts were made to rebuild the movement after the war.
In many ways the prisons and internment camps became schools of fascist learning where political skills were honed and ideological knowledge expanded. Walter Wallace, BU District Leader for Pudsey and Otley before the war, wrote to the notorious antisemite Arnold Leese in 1948 explaining that, ‘Apart from reading before the war I had some introduction to your views in the exercise-yard of Brixton in the spring of 1942’.31 Rigorous political debate was the norm with many commenting how they missed the intellectual stimulation and verbal jousting.32 Reginald Windsor complained that he must have ‘rest and quiet for as you might realise we have people who drive one crazy with continuous arguments, in fact I have had enough to last me a lifetime’.33 As well as casual conversations and debates there were formal lectures in the camps to help further political awareness and deepen indoctrination. Arthur Beavan noted in his diary that he had,
attended lectures by very able men in a lot of subjects it has taught me the value of patience, it has given me an insight to the processes of reasoning of many of my comrades, in fact very little of the time has been wasted, but it will only have been useful if the time ever comes or the opportunity arises in which I can make use of the knowledge.34
Thus, far from isolating fascists from politics, interment created the perfect environment for fascists to meet and debate and thus advance their understanding of the fascist creed and made party collaboration easier than ever before.35 Forcing Britain’s fascist ideologues and activists together created a hothouse effect that provided the opportunity for fascists from all levels of activism and education to be schooled in the faith. The result was often an increased understanding and commitment to ideas for which they had already been interned. As Beavan confirms,
It only remains to place on record that, far from discouraging me, This detention has served to make me more determined than was to see that The Cause + The Leader emerge victorious. I consider that I am now more fit to take my place in the ranks of The Leader’s followers.36
One can see parallels with Della Porta’s study of militant radical prisoners in Germany and Italy that similarly found that ‘participating radicals acted as a selfreinforcing mechanism to drive radical activists to become increasingly more radical’.37 Francis Hamley, the British Union Propaganda Organiser for South Yorkshire before the war, is one such example. When considering a revision or relaxation of the restrictions on him it was deemed inadvisable because if anything he was ‘a more convinced fascist than ever’.38 Hamley was deeply bitter over his incarceration and treatment, and he was by no means alone in being radicalised by bitterness. In a letter to his wife, the internee Ralph Dawson wrote, ‘It only embitters us, makes our resentment stronger, and increases our unfailing purpose to overthrow the system’.39 For many resentment was the fuel that fed their postwar activism. As Simpson stated in In the Highest Degree Odious, ‘There is absolutely nothing to equal persecution for consolidating ideological beliefs’.40
However, for the most violent and extreme interwar antisemites, often those outside the ranks of the BU, further radicalisation was hardly possible. For these people internment often simply confirmed and vindicated already firmly held beliefs. Put simply, for those committed to their belief in the Jewish world conspiracy, their imprisonment without trial was nothing short of definitive proof of their conspiratorial assertions. Their imprisonment was not a precautionary measure against possible fifth column activity but rather punishment for their anti-Jewish work.41 The best example of this reaction came from the most notorious British antisemite of the 20th century, Arnold Leese. In his viscerally antisemitic tract The Jewish War of Survival, in which he reiterates his argument that World War II was fought for Jewish interests, he declared the cause of his incarceration under 18B to be Jewish power, writing, ‘I was jailed so that I might not divulge to others the result of careful investigation into the menace of the Jew’.42 For Leese, internment did not end his fascist beliefs but rather irrevocably confirmed them and his commitment to his mission. Leese was not alone in rationalising internment through a conspiratorial antisemitic lens. Captain A.H.M. Ramsay, leader of the Right Club, believed that of all those interned the ‘one common denominator was they opposed Jewish power over this country in general’.43 Admiral Sir Barry Domvile, founder of The Link, argued that interment ‘is clearly outlined in the Protocols. . . . Everything points to the fact that World Jewery is closely connected with the conception and conduct of this regulation’.44 He viewed 18B as the 20th-century version of Shylock’s pound of flesh and hoped that it would prove as ill-fated for the modern day Jewish conspirators as it did for the moneylender in Shakespeare’s play.
If one is to properly understand the postwar British fascist movement and the Union Movement in particular, it is necessary to grasp the ability of collective persecution to forge deep unity. Internment during the war years resulted in a newfound inter-activist solidarity and the solidification of even deeper collective devotion to their leader, Oswald Mosley. Graham Macklin has written about how ‘ “coterie charisma” ensured the survival and comparative triumph of fascist ideology over adversity”4’ while Della Porta has explained how radicals in prison are ‘bound together by personal ties and by their shared activist experiences’.46 Internment resulted in an unprecedented new loyalty towards Oswald Mosley from BU internees. For those locked in Brixton with Mosley being in such close proximity to their leader and sharing a common experience was to solidify their loyalty for a lifetime. Charlie Watts wrote of the effect of being interned with Mosley in his autobiographical account of internment, It Has Happened Here, stating:
The door opened and out stalked The Leader. ... I dropped my can of porridge and grabbed hold of his hand, saying how pleased I was to see him. . . . I can honestly say that I felt prouder at that moment than on any other occasion in my life; just to know and feel that I was sharing with the Leader one of his greatest triumphs, perhaps the greatest.47
Such an experience was not uncommon. While also in Brixton Andy Burn said to Watts that the day he was interned was
undoubtedly the proudest day of his life; that he considered it a great honour and privilege to be considered dangerous and important enough to be worthy of incarceration in the same prison and for the same reason as that great Englishman - Mosley.48
Many of the internees were forever bound in loyalty to their Leader, and as Macklin has rightly pointed out, ‘Long after their commitment to fascism had waned, many fascists remained personally loyal to Mosley’.49 This unbreakable loyalty forged through internment goes some way to explaining why Mosley was able to relaunch his political career after the war.
Another key part of the increased unity and loyalty was the internee’s development of a common martyr complex born out of collective persecution for his or her beliefs. The internee’s belief that honour was accrued by willing sacrifice is abundantly clear in a letter from a released detainee to Frank Wiseman who remained interned. It stated:
Do you realise that you are a member of the “epic generation”? - In case you do not allow me to prove some: You, Frank, one of God’s souls have sacrificed greatly + even dared all that Britain might live? . . . From the depths of a worldly complacency you cheerfully but heroically spurned the secure tranquillity of a schoolmaster’s made by virtue of principles that have captured your heart! . . . What can I say to you? Are there words that can do justice to such a spirit!?50
The potential to create martyrs of the internees was a concern recognised by some at the time. Even non-fascists could see that locking people away for their beliefs without trial or sentence was a dangerous game. Writing in the Sunday Pictorial Stuart Campbell stated, ‘We are turning every one of the victims into martyrs. . . . When we have won the war we shall have to let them all out again . . . they might get out in a body and use their martyred zeal to inflame the civil population’. Campbell’s article showed astute foresight, as this was exactly what the internees attempted to do.
One can better understand the ability of internment to cause a martyr mentality by drawing on more contemporary studies relating to modern day political prisoners and looking beyond the field of British fascist studies. The similarities between the effects on and the behaviours of fascist internees and modern Nazi and Islamist prisoners are striking. The Anti-Defamation League’s 2002 report on the activities of
Nazis and white nationalists in the American prison system explains the process and effect of prisoners perceiving themselves as martyrs:
Knowing that many of their allies in the free world regard them as martyrs, extremists entering prison are often imbued with a false sense of importance that encourages them to continue their associations and to become active within the prison walls. White supremacists and anti-government activists are told by followers that they are “political prisoners,” “concentration camp inmates” or “prisoners of war.”’1
There was certainly a ‘false sense of importance’ displayed by many fascist internees with some even claiming to be the ‘government in exile’52 or alternatively so dangerous and subversive that the worldwide Jewish conspiracy had chosen to lock them away.53 Furthermore the use of the term ‘concentration camps’ to describe Ascot and Peel was commonplace,54 and the fact that Jeffrey Hamm’s postwar group, the League of Ex-Servicemen, allowed in interned fascists who had not seen active service with the military” shows that many within the movement did perceive internees as ‘prisoners of war’.
With internees being celebrated as martyrs it is worth noting the influence of interment on those British fascists who for various reasons were not swept up in the 18B net. Macklin has written about the ‘guilt and stigma’’6 felt by those who avoided internment and mentions Dorothy, Viscountess Downe who felt ‘so ashamed to be free!’’7 Dorothy was not alone in lamenting her freedom. Gladys Walsh, Women’s BU District Leader for Limehouse in London, also admitted she sometimes wished to be ‘among my own people’.’8 Freedom also came with suspicion from comrades who had not been so lucky.59 The whiff of collusion with the state was attached to those comrades who remained outside the walls of Brixton and Holloway and was also extended to those who were perceived to have been released early.60 It is no surprise then that many who remained in the movement after the war wore internment like a war medal and a badge of honour.
The common experience of persecution and the resulting martyr complexes converged with the deepened sense of comradely solidarity to forge a myth of internment that played a significant role in the movement’s survival and the activists’ desire to re-launch the movement almost straight away despite the crushing of continental fascism.
However, while 18B ensured Mosley and British fascism would never again threaten mainstream success, it also simultaneously guaranteed the movement’s survival due to an increasingly loyal and committed group of activists. An autograph book kept by G.R. Merriman during his internment at Brixton, Walton and Ascot, started with a lengthy quotation from Mosley’s 1938 speech Comrades in Struggle, in which Mosley bellowed, ‘Together in Britain we have lit a flame that the ages shall not extinguish. Guard that sacred flame my brother Blackshirts until it illumines Britain and lights again the path of mankind’.61
Just as organised British fascism did not die outside of the internment camps, nor did attempts to ‘guard the sacred flame’ end inside them. The Hail Mosley and F’Em All Association (H.M.F.E.A.), for example, was formed in the Ascot detention camp with the stated aim of keeping alive the spirit of‘Britain First’. Charlie Watts, its founder, was worried that ‘The words of our Leader, “To give all and to dare all” became a mockery. The “sacred flame” of British Union was slowly dying’.62 In short, ‘a rot had set in at Ascot’.6’ He was concerned at the amount of deviation from the strict dogmatic positions of BU policy64 and desired a return to strong centralised control. The resulting organisation, H.M.F.E.A., worked to keep doctrinal discipline and party' loyalty strong, proving a success on both counts. The group celebrated Mosley’s birthday and the anniversary of the formation of the BU, as well as holding meetings where patriotic BU songs were sung and poetry' recited, all with the aim of keeping the semblance of an organisation together and ready for Mosley to assume control over upon their release. In a memorial book presented to F.C. Wiseman by Charlie Watts as a ‘reminder of those dark day's at Ascot’,65 fellow detainee James L. Battersby wrote,
When the democrats imprisoned us and banned our Movement, they thought they' had broken not only our political machine, but the spirit of social patriotism within us. The flame of British Union is eternal. . . . But there are moments when the Sacred Flame burns low, when those to whom it is entrusted lag in trusteeship and service. It was thus at Ascot Concentration Camp in September 1940. And it was then that a group of men within our ranks, patriots and revolutionaries, determined that the time had come to reinvigorate the spirit of the Movement, to demonstrate not only' to our captors but to our members themselves that no matter what futile legislation the government passed, the inspiration and vitality of the Movement stronger yet under the fires of persecution and imprisonment.“
This passage is typical of others in both its tone and sentiment. The image of the sacred flame is ever present as is the notion of radicalisation and unity' forged through persecution. Merriman’s autograph book is full of comments with similar such sentiments such as, ‘Our Victory is Assured’; ‘British Union still lives, Mosley still leads. On with the fight’; ‘The greater the struggle - the greater the victory’; ‘The Blackshirts will march again! Hail Mosley!’67 The H.M.F.E.A. Association is a concrete expression of the effects of internment on internees as discussed earlier. It showed that even in the face of adversity' and state oppression British fascism survived within prison walls ready to reorganise and relaunch on the outside after their release.