Fascist in the Family: The Tragedy of John Beckett MP
London & New York: Routledge, 2017 (Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right)
Here is a book of deep political scholarship and heartbreaking family history. It misses being great because the author lost the plot during the many years he worked on it, and he wound up hanging his father’s story on a lurid promotional “hook,” which I’ll get into below. I assume this sensationalism was to make the biography of his beloved father more agreeable to the editorial direction of the Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right, an ongoing series which is anything but pro-fascist.
The author’s initial plan was to write the tale of how his father John Beckett (1894-1964), onetime Labour MP (he managed Clement Attlee’s first election) and sometime Mosleyite, was harassed till his death by government officials and the security men of MI5.
Some of this persecution may have been just petty revenge by old political rivals. Herbert Morrison carried a particularly massive grudge against John Beckett, for reasons going back to 1919, and too minuscule to relate. When Morrison got to be Home Secretary during the War, and John Beckett was interned under Regulation 18B, Morrison saw to it that Beckett stayed behind bars long after Mosley and other top Blackshirts were released. Morrison repeatedly denied Beckett parole, even refusing to give him medical leave for a long-standing heart ailment.
When Beckett was released toward War’s end, his restrictions were not over. For years he could not enter London, nor travel more than ten miles from home. As an ex-fascist, ex-jailbird, he was virtually unemployable. Anticipating Internet activists of today, Beckett supported himself and family mainly through subscriptions to investment and political newsletters that he wrote himself. Fortunately he had a wealthy patron in the eccentric, nationalist Duke of Bedford, who lent the Beckett family a mansion to live in – at least for a few years, till after the Duke died. For a while there, John Beckett owned a boat and drove a Rolls, neither of which he really understood, being neither nautically nor mechanically inclined, his son tells us.
For the most part, though, his finances were unsteady. At one point, Beckett found himself obscure, respectable employment as a hospital administrator. But then Mr. Graham Mitchell of the Security Services, later MI5’s Deputy Director-General, put in a word or two. That scotched the hospital job. Mitchell also saw to it that all of Beckett’s mail was opened and read, even Christmas cards. He had the Beckett telephones tapped, and all conversations transcribed, including the ones where John was telling his wife he’d be late for dinner.
Why this seemingly pointless, gratuitous monitoring by MI5? Here and there, Francis Beckett tries to puzzle it out, and comes up with at least two possible answers. One is weak and weaselly: the author supposes that Graham Mitchell and his sort had got into the habit of prying into people’s business back during the War, and it was just too much fun to give up. The other answer, which the author keeps circling back to, is much more cogent and appealing: Graham Mitchell, along with certain other brass in MI5 and MI6, was a Communist. He was the principal author of the evasive, dishonest 1955 White Paper (or “Whitewash paper” as it was called) on the Burgess-Maclean affair, in which the two British “missing diplomats” turned out to be Red spies, and slipped out of England in 1951 through either the negligence or the connivance of MI5. To put it another way, while Mitchell & company were busy preventing John Beckett from traveling ten miles from home, and were reading his mail and tapping his phone conversations, they allowed Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess to drive to Southampton and catch a midnight boat to France.
The notion that Mitchell and his boss Sir Roger Hollis were Soviet moles is an old theory, going back at least to Peter Wright’s 1989 Spycatcher, and still argued persuasively by such writers as Chapman Pincher and Nigel West. Francis Beckett does not pursue or fully endorse this theory, but his investigation of his father’s treatment by Graham Mitchell and MI5 certainly points to a peculiar agenda on the part of these security men. Ex-fascists from the 1930s were to be hounded mercilessly, and their communications examined meticulously, in hopes of discovering links to Right-wing networks; but when it came to Red spies and Soviet assets, MI5 tended to look the other way.
As for Beckett’s actual career among the Blackshirts, it didn’t go on for long, but he was a major player while it lasted. After joining Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1934, Beckett quickly rose to become a prominent speaker and the BUF Director of Publications (he edited both Action and The Blackshirt). He devised the BUF’s popular posters and slogans of the mid-‘30s, e.g., “Mind Britain’s Business” and “Stand with the King” (that is, Edward VIII).
His greatest legacy is probably his redesign for the BUF’s corporate identity, which had initially been a Mussolini-style fasces symbol, but which Beckett replaced with the lightning-bolt device that British Union organizations continued to use for decades. (It has more recently been reincarnated in America in the logo for the inter-city coach service, Bolt Bus.) When BUF money ran low and tempers flared in early 1937, Beckett and his friend William Joyce bade farewell to Mosley and founded the short-lived National Socialist League. A couple of years after that, of course, Joyce fled to Germany, where he made clever broadcasts for the Nazis and gained the English nickname Lord Haw-Haw.
By then, Beckett was devoting his efforts to pacifist organizations and to his own new British People’s Party (a quasi-mainstream, nationalist, anti-war movement). For months after the start of war in 1939, he engaged in efforts with Lord Halifax, Max Beaverbrook, and several Labour MPs to advance peace negotiations. This last initiative is somewhat startling to read about, if only because the peace efforts that continued in the first year of the War are so seldom written about. Far more than having ever worn a black shirt, Beckett’s attempt to shut down a needless war may well have been his real “crime,” and the reason he was imprisoned in 1940 and then monitored by MI5 till the end of his days.
Persecution by security services has long been a major concern of Beckett’s son and biographer. Francis Beckett was once the Labour Party press officer, and has a keen eye for the ways that ruthless, vengeful politicians can punish their enemies. This was a theme of his three books about the Tony Blair administration (most recent: 2015’s Blair Inc.: The Man Behind the Mask by Francis Beckett, David Hencke, and Nick Kochan). On several occasions in the mid-2000s, he used the subject of the Blair government’s new Terrorism Acts to warn about the abuses of an unrestrained security apparatus.
In 2005, for example, he wrote an essay in the Guardian about his father’s friendship with William Joyce (the MI5 files had only recently been opened), but his real subject is the security state:
Should we care about the secret power of the security services, when the victims were men like Beckett, Joyce and [A. K.] Chesterton, with their unpleasant political views, their racism, and their postwar belief that the Holocaust was a myth, probably invented by Jews? Yes: we cannot demand civil liberties only for people with views we consider acceptable. It’s a point worth remembering today, as the government plans the greatest clampdown since MI5 stopped transcribing my father’s telephone calls.
That Odious Sales-Hook
And now we come to that odious “hook” I mentioned, with which the book has been promoted in blurbs and early reviews. Namely, that John Beckett – 1920s MP, 1930s fascist, 1940s internee, nationalist, and a political writer with a decided point-of-view on the Jewish Question – was himself part Jewish. The story goes that John Beckett’s mother, one Eva Dorothy Salmon at the time of her marriage, was actually born Solomon. The author and publisher present us with this revelation (or rumor) as news, a long-hidden family secret that Now At Last Can Be Told. But true or not, the rumor is neither particularly scandalous nor even news. Francis Beckett divulged it in a History Today article way back in 1994. Stephen Dorril repeated it as fact in his error-ridden 2005 biography of Mosley. Colin Holmes’s 2016 biography of William Joyce neatly skipped around it, no doubt because his publisher, Routledge, was about to follow it up with the Beckett book, and didn’t want to spoil the promotional buzz.
Francis Beckett seems to have first heard the Jewish bit decades ago as a family rumor. Now he recycles it yet again, in a sort of special pleading for his fascist father. Alas and alack, after all these years he has nothing really factual to add. He shows us an extensive family tree on the Beckett side – Yeomen of Cheshire, John called his father’s people – but nothing for the “Solomons” prior to Eva’s parents. The mysterious lady herself doesn’t even get a photo in the book’s family gallery. And talk about old news: this allegation about John Beckett’s uncertain origin was already current during his Blackshirt years. Sir Oswald must have heard it, and likewise with Beckett’s good friend William Joyce. As recounted in Fascist in the Family, when he was interned during the War, a gang of East End Mosleyites came up to Beckett and taunted him about it.
Is it true? We’d have to see the evidence. What we do know is that such rumors will inevitably spread in certain circles, out of pure spite or misunderstanding. They even were circulated about Mosley and his first wife, Lady Cynthia. In the end you have to wonder if the Beckett story is all fig-leaf and fluff, with scarcely more substance than the old saw about Hitler’s Jewish grandfather.
It must be admitted that the secret-Jew motif makes for good sales copy. So Francis Beckett and Routledge have framed their story with it, in a vulgar, ham-handed manner. The first chapter actually begins with a reference to Shylock and his runaway daughter, while the last chapter is called “Legacy of a Jewish Anti-Semite.” It’s no surprise that reviewers latched onto this frothy sales-pitch and described the book accordingly. “Intimate View of Mosley’s Jew,” ran the kicker in the Jewish Chronicle.
The good news is that this crass signaling does not disfigure most of the narrative. The second half is particularly touching and tragic, drawing heavily upon the author’s memories from the 1950s. As noted, for some years post-war, John Beckett maintained his family in a state of precarious affluence thanks to his ducal friend. After the Duke of Bedford died in 1952, Beckett’s fortunes slid in straight-line depreciation. John Beckett’s political and stock-tip newsletters never brought in enough, so after selling off his boat and the Rolls and moving the family to a succession of every-more-poky houses and flats, the former MP wound up working as a uniformed security guard at a bank. This was much to the embarrassment of his adolescent son, Francis, by then a student at Beaumont College, a prestigious-but-failing Catholic public school whose fees the Becketts could not really afford.(William F. Buckley, Jr. briefly attended this “Catholic Eton” in the late 1930s. It eventually closed and the grounds are now a conference center.)
And it wasn’t until much later, long after John Beckett’s death of stomach cancer in 1964, that Francis came to understand the really dark secrets of his father’s career: internment, the Mosley years, the National Socialist League, the British People’s Party – the reason his father was unable to obtain regular employment. The real scandal in the story, as Francis found out years ago, is the unremitting, undeserved punishment meted out to his father and family by the secret, unnamed watchers of the security state. That was Francis Beckett’s initial theme, and he should have stuck by it.
1. As recounted in many books on the Philby-Burgess-Maclean matters (e.g., Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, 2014), in May 1951 Maclean had recently been identified as the Soviet mole “Homer,” and was about to be interrogated by MI5. Although he had been under constant surveillance, the MI5 men trailing him about were ordered off duty for the weekend, giving him and Burgess the opportunity to slip away.
2. See Pincher Chapman, Their Trade Is Treachery (New York: Random House, 2014); Peter Wright, Spycatcher (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987); Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev (eds.), Triplex: Secrets from the Cambridge Spies (New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 2009).
3. Francis Beckett, The Guardian, February 10, 2005.
4. Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt (New York: Penguin, 2006). Reissued 2017.
5. Colin Holmes, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw (London: Routledge, 2016).
6. It was often alleged in the London press that Lady Cynthia “Cimmie” Mosey, Lord Curzon’s daughter, had a Jewish grandfather who’d been a department-store tycoon in Chicago. Time magazine even repeated this as fact in its 1931 cover story on the Mosleys. Chicago department-store tycoon, yes; Jewish, no. Levi Ziegler Leiter, co-founder of Marshall Field & Co., was from a Lutheran family of Swiss-German and Dutch extraction.