HC Deb 16 May 1934 vol 289 cc1765-72

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the wearing of uniforms for political purposes. It is imperative at the outset that one point should be made clear. There is no wish on my part to prevent the followers of any party from wearing distinctive emblems. Let people continue to wear distinctive button-holes, badges, ties and even noticeable shirts. Nor is there any wish to prevent non-partisan bodies like the Salvation Army or the Boy Scouts from continuing their admirable work in recognisable dress. Let individuals and organisations continue to wear distinctive emblems or dress which mark them off non-provocatively. This is the point : do not let them so change and adapt their dress as to convert it from something civilian into something military in character. Hitherto nobody has worn uniform in this country with military intent except those who served the King in the three Services. Lovers of democracy must deprecate the departure from that most admirable tradition. They must resent the appearance in the streets and elsewhere of politicians who put on uniforms as part and parcel of their everyday life, and who, for this very reason, seem to wish to drop the old English weapon of persuasion for something else.

The appearance of the uniform in British public life must mean the gradual extinction of government by consent, and must lead to government by coercion. It is the new spirit of foreign force in our affairs which this Bill is meant to combat, whether the spirit is indicated in the international bleatings of the would-be Soviet dictator, the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps), or in the spurious nationalism of Sir Oswald Mosley. Both challenge the sanctity of society as constituted by Parliament, and the success of either means death to free discussion, free institutions and free life.

If it is thought that I exaggerate, may I give some facts. The most serious clashes recently between the authorities and public people have been owing to the presence at meetings and in the streets of ominous dusky figures in garish regimentals. There were 19 Fascists who broke the law under orders in Suffolk, and were arrested on a warrant, not by a Socialist magistrate, thank God, but by a Peer of the Realm. The only case in the annals of our law courts when a man has sued another for pouring an aperient down his throat was when an ex-Fascist brought an action for assault against his former friend. If those facts do not speak for themselves, may I quote two sentences from the speeches of the Fascist leader?

In a Debate with the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton), Sir Oswald Mosley said that Fascism was a revolutionary creed facing a revolutionary position with a revolutionary proposal. They were prepared to meet the situation, not with words of the hon. Member for Bridgeton, but with Fascist machine guns. In an interview in the Press on 30th June, 1933, Sir Oswald Mosley was asked : "Will you use force to obtain power?" "We shall use force," was the answer, "to confer on a Fascist Government the absolute power of action." The next question was, "Will you abolish Parliament?" The answer was, "We shall abolish Parliament as it exists to-day." The third question was, "Will you abolish the House of Lords?" The answer was, "Yes. It will be replaced"—not by Socialist ex-Ministers—"but by a national corporation of industry."

These quotations show the drift of recent events, and they show why Sir Oswald Mosley wants the uniform. Some people say that this is trivial. They say "Leave Mosley alone. He can never become even the castor-oil king of England." I would say this : Violence breeds violence, and, if you want to turn England into a Communist camp, encourage Mosley to arm and dress and to break the law. Mosley breeds Bolshevism at every step, and he does it on purpose. Let his opportunities of appearing heroic be limited by a Bill like mine. In defending himself last week, he did not attack living opponents; he selected a dead statesman for abuse. He actually taunted the Unionist party with going abroad for Lord Beaconsfield. If the people of England had to make a choice between those two men as leader, I know whom they would choose; and, if they had to decide which of them was the more English, I know on which side they would vote. They would choose the Hebrew dreamer, who might have had a foreign ancestry, but who was British to the core, whose speeches in this House were in English, and unforgettable English, in which he preached a political philosophy which will live as long as the English language is talked. Whom should we regard as the more English, Disraeli or Sir Oswald Mosley—Disraeli, whose triumphs were in free debate, or Sir Oswald Mosley, who has to dress up like a Continental dancing master, who masquerades as Mussolini with his dirty shirts, who has had to go to Italy for the name of his organisation, and to Ger-many for its bullying spirit? We do not want uniforms in English public life; we do not want even uniformity. We have something deeper, nobler, truer than uniforms, and that is unity. British unity beat German uniforms in the War, and I am going to prophesy that the union of all decent democratic hearts in this country will smash alien anarchy and tyranny and wrong.


So far as my hon. and gallant Friend's speech and proposal are a demonstration against either Fascism or Communism, I think that we in this House should all be in favour of it, probably without exception, but I oppose it on two grounds. One is that I cannot believe that it would be possible to produce a Bill that would be workable, and, alternatively, if the Bill did succeed, I think it would do good to the very institutions which my hon. and gallant Friend seeks to harm. Perhaps I ought to say that I have not the slightest bias towards Fascism. The Fascists have a strong branch in my constituency, and have been making active attacks on me, some of them of a personal nature. By the Rules of the House, I must put my arguments in rather a tabloid form, though the subject is of great importance, and is not easily susceptible to such treatment. Therefore, I must ask the indulgence of the House if my arguments are rather compressed.

In the first place, I should have supposed that in so far as there was provocation and menace to public order from the bodies that my hon. and gallant Friend has in view, it would arise from formed and disciplined bodies of persons marching through the streets. If this Bill, or any Bill, is going to prohibit that, the result will be that all trade union marches, all marches of unemployed, all marches on such days as the 12th of July, will have to be prohibited. I may say at once that I should suppose that public opinion would not be in favour of any such prohibition. I should have supposed, unlike my hon. and gallant Friend, that, to use a legal expression, conduct likely to lead to a breach of the peace arose in such cases not so much from what happens in the streets as from what happens at meetings themselves. I do not specify any particular party or group of people—it might equally apply to all parties—but it is a fact that in this country it frequently happens at political meetings that bodies of people go there for the purpose of interrupting the speaker, of threatening the speaker, and in some cases of actually using physical violence; and if subsequently in the street, largely as a result of that, free fights start, the police, while I make no charge against them, can hardly complain if that is so.

The police could, if they chose, under the ordinary law, quite apart from the election law, deal with this action, because any conduct, in a place to which the public have access, which is likely to lead to a breach of the peace, can be dealt with. The police in this matter have to make up their minds what they are going to do. I know what the answer would be—a typical piece of British illogicality. It would be said : "Oh, no; you do not want the police to interfere; it would be interfering with political liberty." As a matter of fact, however, far greater damage is done to political liberty by people shouting down speakers at meetings than is ever done by removing the people who are the cause. I do not want to say anything in the least appreciative of the British police or their value, but I confess that, when I remember an answer given by the Home Secretary in which he spoke of certain things increasing the difficulties of the police, I feel bound to point out that there is no country in the world where the police have an easier task in preserving order than in Great Britain. The British are the most law-abiding people in the world. If anybody wants to see difficulties in preserving public order, let him go to India, to France, or to many other countries that I could mention.

I turn to my second objection—how on earth are you going to define a political uniform? My hon. and gallant Friend said he was not opposed to people wearing badges, brassards, and things of that kind; but, if you were to succeed in defining a political uniform, and prohibited people from wearing it, they would, of course, at once put on some large-sized brassard or badge which would have exactly the same effect. My hon. and gallant Friend proposes that people should not be permitted to wear coloured shirts. I do not want to make a joke at his expense, but he himself once belonged to a blue shirt organisation, and I take it that he does not want to prohibit the wearing of shirts, whether they are blue, or red, or black, or any other colour—that, in other words, he does not wish people to go about in singlets. He used, if I may say so, a most extraordinary term. He said, "Let the uniforms be made non-provocative." It would be quite impossible to define a political uniform for the purposes of this Bill. The "Times" has some extracts from foreign newspapers to-day showing the effect in foreign countries of carrying out a proposal like that in the Bill, and I must say that I do not think they lend much support to my hon. and gallant Friend's case. In any case, I deny absolutely that there is any resemblance between the conditions in countries like the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Denmark or Holland, which are contiguous to Germany, and conditions in this country.

My third and last objection is that I am quite sure that, if this proposal were to be adopted, it would be the greatest possible aid and advertisement for Sir Oswald Mosley's movement. I cannot imagine anything better calculated than even the introduction of this Bill to have that effect. In the first place, I do not think it would be efficacious. In the second place, if it were, think what a cheap ready-made martyrdom it would provide. I do not know what the numbers are, but I understand that their organisers claim that they have 200,000 members—probably more. All those people will go about with a grievance. Ever since he started the movement, Sir Oswald Mosley has been attacking this House as an institution. He has said it is an old and decrepit body led by elderly men who have long ceased to be in touch with public opinion. If my hon. and gallant Friend succeeds, he will say, "this old grandmother of Parliaments, stirring in its sleep, has decided to bring in a Bill to stop my movement when for years it has been permitting Communists to attack the Union Jack, to shout down the national anthem and to insult our institutions."


Not in uniform.


My hon. and gallant Friend ought to watch the next Communist procession. In my opinion, Fascism or Communism in this country will only succeed, if it does—I do not believe it will—on its merits. It will only succeed if the parties represented in this House fail in leadership and in policy. My hon. and gallant Friend is allowing his mind to be far too much impressed by what is happening in foreign countries. With a chivalry which we all admire, he has constituted himself the special protector of many very distinguished German Jew emigrés. We all remember the picture that appeared of him last year, obviously feeling very strongly about the matter, with a gamekeeper in the background and a slightly embarrassed look on his face, armed with a shot gun. I can assure him that Bill Smith of England is a very different man from Gustav Schmidt of Germany. Bill Smith does not allow himself to be walked over by anyone in peace or in war. He will not vote for Sir Oswald Mosley because a lot of young blackshirted men tell him to do so. He will only vote for Sir Oswald Mosley, or Mr. Pollitt or Mr. Fenner Brockway if he thinks their policies are right. The mere fact of bringing in this Bill will have a bad effect abroad, and that is why I oppose it. It will lead people in foreign countries to think that this country is menaced by the sort of movements that are going on on the Continent. It is quite untrue. My hon. and gallant Friend, although he has not meant to do so, has done great service to Sir Oswald Mosley by the mere fact that he has brought the Bill in and by the advertisement that he has given him. Although it may be an unusual thing to do, I shall, even if no one else goes into the Lobby, oppose the introduction of the Bill. I think the dignity and common sense of the House will be best served by not allowing it to be brought in and by leaving to responsible Ministers the duty that rests upon them of maintaining law and order.

Question put, and negatived.