Fascist in the family – the tragedy of John Beckett MP
28 November, 2016 — By Peter Gruner
FRANCIS Beckett, acclaimed journalist and contemporary historian, thought he knew his dad until he discovered that the man he hero-worshipped had been a fascist in the 1930s.
In his extraordinary book, Fascist in the Family, he chronicles how his late father, John, went from being a popular Labour MP and friend to the young Clement Attlee, who was to become post-war socialist prime minister, to becoming propaganda chief for fascist leader Oswald Mosley.
John Beckett was an unlikely fascist. He had a sense of humour for a start, and referred to Mosley not as the “leader” but as the “bleeder”.
The events took place more than 70 years ago but the issues of racism, nationalism and anti-semitism have strong resonances today.
Francis digs deep into the mind of his father the racist bigot and finds a man of great warmth and concern for the underdog – who at the same time has a serious problem in accessing and accepting the truth.
He describes his father as clever, but lacking self-awareness and intellectually lazy.
What’s more, John Beckett, who also became an anti-semite, may well have been a self-hating Jew, according to his son. For what he kept hidden, at least through the latter part of his political life, was that his own mother was Jewish.
Incidentally, in an interview with this paper, Francis did not subscribe to the recent claim that today’s Labour Party has become infected by anti-semitism. He said: “We have been conned into believing that anti-semitism is now a disease of the left. In fact, it is found mostly in racism’s traditional home, on the right.”
His father was a rising political star when he was elected as Labour’s youngest MP in Hackney in 1924. He was constantly in the news and tipped for greatness.
Moving rapidly leftwards, he was expelled from the Labour Party and lost his seat in 1931, joining Mosley’s fascists in 1933. He and the notorious William Joyce were chief propagandists for the Blackshirts, until Mosley fired them for dissent in 1937.
Francis writes: “The intense nationalism of fascism, which turns so quickly into racism, was no trouble to him [John] at all. He always felt sure that some races were better than others. He had never in his heart much liked his Labour colleagues’ desire to dismantle the empire. A bit of him was still jingoistic.”
With the change to the right John quickly lost his Labour Party friends. Instead he became chummy with, among others, William Joyce. Joyce later went to Germany in the war and was dubbed Lord Haw Haw for pro-Nazi propaganda broadcasts to Britain that opened with the chilling: “Germany calling, Germany calling”, spoken in an affected upper-class English accent. He was hanged for treason in 1946.
Other fascist supporters included AK Chesterton, a cousin of the popular writer GK Chesterton, and of course Mosley himself.
But what was the fascination in fascism? Francis writes: “Fascism and superstition often go hand in hand. William Joyce, AK Chesterton and John were all deeply superstitious.”
John Beckett later founded the National Socialist League with Joyce before spending four years interned in prison during the war.
For the rest of his life, and all of Francis’s childhood, John and his family were closely watched by the security services. MI5 operatives made life intolerable for the Becketts in the early years after the war and their devious machinations were traced in records only recently released.
Francis described his father as a most unlikely fascist. “He was irreverent, spontaneous, and funny. He loathed accepting orders. He spoke and wrote with fluency, humour, logic – the weapons of a democratic politician, not a demagogue.
“He had no time for the trappings of fascism, which he called ‘heel-clicking and petty militarism’. He did not have the proper reverence and admiration for The Leader. He referred to Mosley as ‘the Bleeder’.”
Francis was only 19 when his father died in 1964. He would have liked to have asked him many questions. Including why he covered up being a Jew?
Imagining how his father might reply to accusations of anti-semitism, Francis writes: “He would tell me that he was never an anti-semite; he just disliked financial power, and Jews exercise a lot of it.”
Francis obviously loved his father but in this brutally honest account he pulls no punches. “Everything [John] said contradicted everything he was. A Jew who denounced Jews, a socialist who denounced socialists, a working-class champion with snobbish disdain for the working class, an opponent of the ‘money power’ who spent the last 20 years of his life looking for moneyed patrons and admiring wealth. He had forgotten who he was.”
• Fascist In The Family: The tragedy of John Beckett MP. By Francis Beckett. Routledge £16.99