In Europe in the early 1930s, fascism was fashionable. You could be forgiven for thinking that all of the really important people were doing it. Anyone who mattered was into fascism.
In 1932, the politician Oswald Mosley spotted an opportunity and founded the British Union of Fascists. He modelled himself on Mussolini, and as with Mussolini, his supporters became known as Blackshirts. In order to build support for his nascent organisation, Mosley’s idea was to target the poorest, most deprived areas of the country to secure support — the areas where people had the least to lose.
One of Mosley’s chosen areas was the town of Stockton-on-Tees in the North East of England. At the time it was experiencing extraordinary hardship as one of the most poverty-stricken places in the country. It was perfect for Mosley’s purposes.
On a Sunday morning in 1933, between a hundred and two hundred Blackshirts arrived in Stockton to hold a rally. They encountered just one problem. Two thousand local men had also gathered with the express intention of making sure that Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts knew there was no welcome for them in Stockton. The resulting fracas wasn’t pretty, and blood was spilled, but the fascists were chased off.
The importance of stories
Despite being a long-time resident of the North East of England, I had no idea of this piece of local history. That is, until I came across it told, in song form, by local folk band The Young ‘Uns. The Battle of Stockton features on their 2012 album, which itself is titled using a line from the song — When Our Grandfathers Said No.
Therein lies the importance of telling stories; of making sure that these events, small but significant to those who experienced it, are never forgotten. We must all tell our own stories, stories of triumph and hope. I am afraid that the time is coming when we will need them.
We don’t have to do it alone
Two thousand men did not just wake up one Sunday morning and decide to say no to fascism. The demonstration against the Blackshirts was co-ordinated, planned, and probably sprang to fruition in the minds of just a few people.
In these strange and turbulent times, it is all too easy to believe that we are powerless. The hatred rising on all sides is all too reminiscent of 1930s Europe, and nobody can see that without remembering what followed then.
I would never condone the violent tactics of the Stockton demonstrators as a means to an end, but our battlegrounds have changed now. Where they fought with wooden staves and broken masonry, we have the internet and the right to peaceful protest. Perhaps our greatest weapon is our interconnectedness. A few men in Stockton raised two thousand others — how many could we raise, with words online, to stand against racism, against hatred?
The Overton window has shifted
The Overton window is defined as the range of ideas that can be publically aired without censure. Over the last months there is no doubt that it has shifted drastically to the right — much in the same way that it did in Europe in the 1930s. There are things written and spoken that until recently would not even be considered acceptable. Now they are not only acceptable, they are condoned, sometimes even lauded. Racism and sexism have become more overt than I have ever known them in my lifetime. The rights of minority groups are being eroded, and in some cases openly attacked.
The men of Stockton said no. I also will say no. I will raise my own voice in protest, and I will invite all those of a like mind to join me. Many people across the world are already making their voices heard; announcing to any who will listen that they will not stand for this. Together, saying no in unison, we can enact change.
It starts here, now, with me, with you, with one word that we say. Not just in private, in safe spaces, but loudly and openly, for all to hear. No. ‘No’ can do great things.
The British Union of Fascists was banned in 1940. Oswald Mosley never held power.