Eighty years ago today George Orwell witnessed the British Fascist demagogue Sir Oswald Mosley speaking to a full house at a public meeting in the Yorkshire coal-mining town of Bransley. Orwell was shocked by what happened. It’s worth remembering his notes about the experience, given Donald Trump’s rallies these days.
Writing in his diary that “M is a very good speaker,” although the speech “was the usual claptrap …” Orwell was struck by the “unnecessary violence” of Mosley’s Blackshirt minions, who were “on duty” in the hall to enforce order against hecklers, and by “how easy it is to bamboozle an uneducated audience if you have prepared beforehand a set of repartees with which to evade awkward questions.”
Not to make too much of the parallels with Trump events (like his recent rally in St. Louis or his cancelled appearance in Chicago) and his incitement of violence against protestors, it is nevertheless amazing to see how close they come.Despite the difference in the historical specifics, you can hear an echo across the years in Orwell’s description.
Last night to hear Mosley speak at the Public Hall. … It was quite full — about 700 people I should say. About 100 Blackshirts on duty, with two or three exceptions weedy-looking specimens. … Mosley spoke for an hour and a half and to my dismay seemed to have the meeting mainly with him. He was booed at the start but loudly clapped at the end. Several men who tried at the beginning to interject questions were thrown out, one of them — who as far as I could see was only trying to get a question answered — with quite unnecessary violence. M is a very good speaker. His speech was the usual claptrap — Empire free trade, down with the Jew and the foreigner, higher wages and short hours all round, etc etc. After the preliminary booing the (mainly) working-class audience was easily bamboozled by M speaking from as it were a Socialist angle, condemning the treachery of successive governments toward the workers. The blame for everything was put upon mysterious international gangs of Jews who were said to be financing, among other things, the British Labour Party and the Soviet. … Afterwards there were questions as usual, and it struck me how easy it is to bamboozle an uneducated audience if you have prepared beforehand a set of repartees with which to evade awkward questions …
At the beginning M said that anyone ejected would be charged under the Public Meetings Act. I don’t know whether this was actually done, but presumably the power to do so exists. In connection with this the fact that there are no police on duty inside the building is of great importance. Anyone who interrupts can be assaulted and thrown out and then charted into the bargain, and of course the stewards, i.e. M himself, are the judges of what constitutes an interruption. Therefore one is liable to get both a hammering and fine for asking a question which M finds it difficult to answer.
At the end of the meeting a great crowd collected outside, as there was some public indignation about the men who had been thrown out. I waited for a long time to see what would happen, but M and party did not emerge. Then the police managed to split the crowd and I found myself at the front, whereupon a policeman ordered me away, but quite civilly. I went round to the back of the crowd and waited again, but still M did not appear and I concluded he had been sneaked out by a back door, so went home. In the morning at the Chronicle office, however, I was told that there had been some stone-throwing and two men had been arrested and remanded. …
Postscript: It’s too bad that Elizabeth Warren isn’t running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
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