SEVERAL FRIENDS contacted me to urge me to watch the new BBC documentary, Rise of the Nazis. Coincidentally, travelling back from a rally in Scotland, I met a young man who was part of the editorial team that made the film. Like my friends he impressed upon me the extraordinary relevance of the film for today’s politics.
My father was a sergeant in the British army in the Second World War. Like most of his generation he was a conscripted soldier. New Labour decided to privatise the national military records office in my constituency. When I visited the site as part of the campaign to save the staff’s jobs, the workers asked me if any of my family served in the military. I mentioned that my dad did and within half an hour they produced an old browning paper file of my dad’s war service.
I was quite moved. In the file my dad’s commanding officer recorded that my father was a smart and good soldier. The records staff took a laughing delight in ribbing me that the file also revealed he had been fined half a crown for damaging his motor bike.
My dad didn’t talk much about the war. Like most, he just wanted to put it behind him. I once saw a picture he saved of the German family he was billeted with and whom he looked after for food and safety. Their son was pictured very young but in an SS uniform. My father’s group was among those who were taken to see Belsen concentration camp. I am part of that post-war generation that always hoped that fascism had tragically been endured, lessons had been learned and it was forever behind us.
The BBC documentary forensically recounts and analyses the way in which the fascists came to power in Germany and the ingredients that made up the toxic political climate enabling fascism to secure its grip.
First, it relied upon the existence of politicians whose sole aim was the ruthless pursuit of power.
Second, it needed politicians who were willing to lie, outrageously if necessary, to mobilise a populist movement to secure power.
Third, it involved the effective use of a crony media to promote the lies.
Fourth, it comprised political leaders who disregarded the role of the institutions and practices of democracy, both of Parliament and the rule of law.
The film is not just a historical account but a deliberate warning - a warning to us all to be constantly vigilant in identifying the signs of the rise of fascism once again. Since the Second World War there has only been one return of any serious mobilisation of fascism in this country - and that was in the 1980s. The creative mass campaign by the Anti-Nazi League effectively saw off that threat. The fear now is that over the last three years we have seen a dramatic shift to the right in British politics. The Brexit debate has unleashed a politics and forces on the right that are degrading our political discourse and system.
Just let me recount two recent personal examples. Earlier this month Jeremy, Diane and I left a large-scale rally in Salford. Outside we were greeted by a group of 30 fascists, surrounding the car and hurling threats and abuse. People were fearful of physical attack. Eventually a fascist was arrested.
Also this month the Mail newspaper ran a series of attack stories on me, publishing pictures of my home and street. Two days later at the top of our street the white painted wall of a children’s nursery was daubed with swastikas and “McDonnell Out - Leave means Leave.”
I am a parliamentarian and a street activist politician. I participate and encourage people to participate in demonstrations, occupations and picket lines to protest and express their feelings about what governments or bosses are doing to them. I have learned, though, especially from my constituents of Indian origin, that the Gandhian method of non-violent protest is the most effective way of securing advance in any campaign and that violence is unacceptable and counter-productive.
It’s highly likely that when this article is published the right wing press will suggest that I am accusing Johnson and Cummings of being fascists. I am not. I am simply urging them to heed the warnings of the BBC documentary and recognise that actions and words often have consequences far beyond what is intended.
Harold Laski, the chair of the Labour Party after the war under Attlee, warned that fascism in this country will not come with a strutting dictator in a military uniform, but with the slow incremental assault on our civil liberties and the institutions that were founded to protect them. Let us all be warned - and let us all take care.
Shadow Chancellor, MP for Hayes and Harlington, Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and Chair of the Labour Representation Committee. John has been involved in Labour Briefing since the early years.