Open main menu

John Beckett (politician)

John Warburton Beckett (11 October 1894 – 28 December 1964) was a leading figure in British politics between the world wars, both in the Labour Party and in fascist movements.

John Beckett
1929 John Warburton Beckett.jpg
Beckett in 1929
Member of Parliament
for Gateshead
In office
Preceded byJohn Purcell Dickie
Succeeded byJames Melville
Member of Parliament
for Peckham
In office
Preceded byHugh Dalton
Succeeded byViscount Borodale
Personal details
John Warburton Beckett

11 October 1894
London, England
Died28 December 1964 (aged 70)
London, England
Political partyIndependent Labour Party, British Union of Fascists, National Socialist League, British People's Party
ChildrenFrancis Beckett
Occupationsoldier, politician

Early lifeEdit

Beckett was born in Hammersmith, London, the son of William Beckett, a draper, and his wife Dorothy (née Salmon), who had been born into Judaism but abandoned the faith to marry Beckett.[1] According to his son Francis he was christened Jack William Beckett but assumed the name John Warburton Beckett in 1918.[2] He was educated at Latymer Upper School until the age of 14 when his father lost all his money in a scheme run by notorious swindler Horatio Bottomley and could no longer afford the fees; as a result the young John was forced to work as an errand boy.[3] On the outbreak of the First World War he enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment before being transferred to the King's Shropshire Light Infantry soon afterwards. He was invalided out of the army in 1916 because of a heart defect.[4]

Early careerEdit

After serving in the army during the First World War Beckett set up the National Union of Ex-Servicemen in 1918 to look after the needs of the war veterans (although it was eventually absorbed into the later Royal British Legion having failed to gain Labour Party recognition).[5] At this time he also joined the Independent Labour Party, sitting on Hackney Council from 1919 to 1922.[5]

Beckett first stood for Parliament at the 1923 general election but failed to capture Newcastle upon Tyne North.[5] He was elected Labour MP for Gateshead in 1924, moving to Peckham in 1929, after which he served as an ILP whip.[5] In these early years Beckett was considered a close ally of Clement Attlee, alongside whom he had worked as a Labour Party agent before his election to Parliament.[5] He achieved notoriety in 1930 when he lifted the Ceremonial mace during a Commons debate over the suspension of Fenner Brockway and it had to be wrested away from him at the door.[5] As a campaigner Beckett was noted for his fiery, passionate speeches.[6] Beckett opposed Ramsay MacDonald's formation of the National Government and returned to the ILP fold in 1931, failing to hold his seat, with the vote split between three "Labour" candidates. Retiring from active politics he visited Italy where he was impressed by the corporate state that had been set up.[5]


Beckett joined the British Union of Fascists in 1934 and before long had risen through the party to become Director of Publications (serving as an editor of both BUF publications, Action and Blackshirt, for a time).[5] He gained some notoriety for his activism, such as when he was arrested outside Buckingham Palace during the Edward VIII abdication crisis[7] and also for being the only BUF activist to win a court case against its opponents, securing £1,000 in damages in a slander suit against an anti-fascist organisation (although it disbanded before payment was collected).[8] Beckett however struggled to reconnect with his former supporters on the Left and in 1934 when he returned to Gateshead and Newcastle upon Tyne for speaking engagements he was met with large hostile crowds and shouts of "Traitor".[9] He was forced to cancel one such speaking engagement near Newcastle on 13 May 1934 when a crowd of around 1,000 anti-fascists rushed the stage on which he was due to speak.[10]

After initial successes, the BUF started to flounder and began to devolve into two factions, a militarist one led by Neil Francis Hawkins and F.M. Box, and a more political one that hoped to convert the masses to fascism under Beckett and William Joyce.[11] In 1937 Oswald Mosley sacked Beckett from his salaried position, in part because of a lack of funds but also due to Mosley's increasing support for the Hawkins wing.[12] Beckett soon returned to politics by forming the National Socialist League along with William Joyce, although his membership did not last long as he left the League in 1938, disillusioned by Hitler and arguing that Joyce was being too extremist in his public anti-Semitic outbursts.[13]

While a leading figure in the League, he was also prominent in the British Council Against European Commitments, an attempt by Viscount Lymington to establish an umbrella movement of right-wingers opposed to war with Germany.[14] He continued his close association with Lymington after his departure from the League, and the pair launched a journal, The New Pioneer, which tended to reflect a strongly anti-Semitic and pro-German world view.[15] He left the journal in mid-1939 to become Honorary Secretary of the British People's Party (BPP), a newly established party controlled by Lord Tavistock.[16] After the outbreak of war he became secretary of the British Council for Christian Settlement in Europe, a group that sought a swift peace settlement.[17]

Beckett was one of a number of leading fascists and rightists to be interned under Defence Regulation 18b during the Second World War.[18] He spent his internment in HM Prison Brixton, an internment camp on the Isle of Man and then back in Brixton, being moved each time after clashing with BUF members with whom he was imprisoned.[19] While imprisoned, Beckett had received instruction from a Catholic chaplain and subsequently converted to Catholicism.[20] He was released before the end of the war on account of ill health.[21] Beckett's son Francis considers that his father came out of prison far more racist – and, in particular, antisemitic – than he went in, as is common after detention, and had internalised his rage.[22] On his release Beckett, not allowed to live within 20 miles of London or to travel more than five miles from his home,[22] reactivated the BPP and represented the group in talks with A.K. Chesterton, who had organised a group which he called "National Front After Victory" in the hopes of developing a united far-right group that could contest the first post-war election. The scheme was not a success and Beckett rejected the merger.[23]

Post-war activityEdit

After the war Beckett and his wife were under constant surveillance by intelligence agency MI5 until at least 1955, with their movements followed and telephone conversations recorded. Just after the war Beckett found administrative employment at a hospital, but was dismissed on the secret instigation of the MI5 officer in charge of the case, Graham Mitchell. He was unable to find the "quiet, normal job" his wife hoped for; the only work he could get was being paid to run the neo-fascist British People's party by its patron, the Duke of Bedford.[22]

Beckett's first major post-war role was in leading a campaign for clemency for his erstwhile colleague William Joyce, who was facing the death penalty for treason.[24] The campaign was not a success: Joyce was executed. In 1946 Beckett co-operated with a young Colin Jordan and gave him a seat on the BPP national council but the association was short-lived as Jordan soon made Arnold Leese his mentor.[25]

In 1953 the Marquess of Tavistock, who by that time had become the 12th Duke of Bedford, died and the BPP, which he had funded, was wound up.[26] Beckett's income ceased (he was salaried as BPP leader) and the new Duke, who did not share his father's politics, moved to evict Beckett from his home on the family's estate.[27] Beckett started a stock exchange tip magazine called Advice and Information[28] and eventually bought Thurlwood House, where he had been living, from the estate trustees in 1958.[29]

Having sold the house and returned to London in 1962, Beckett was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1963.[30] He survived until the following year, dying on 28 December. He was cremated.[31]

Personal lifeEdit

The Beckett family had originated from rural Cheshire. His mother was the daughter of a Jewish jeweller, whose family refused to attend the wedding.[1] Whilst in the army Beckett met Helen Shaw, and married her four days later.[32] The couple had a daughter Lesley, but split in the mid 1920s due to Beckett's infidelity.[33]

His second wife was Kyrle Bellew, a stage actress from a well-known acting dynasty. Their marital life was short-lived, but Bellew refused to divorce Beckett even though they lived apart for eighteen years.[34]

He subsequently lived with Anne Cutmore, and their son Francis Beckett was born in 1945; they married in 1963.[34] Cutmore was for a time secretary to Robert Forgan at BUF headquarters.[35]


  1. ^ a b Francis Beckett The Rebel Who Lost His Cause — The Tragedy of John Beckett MP, London: Allison and Busby, 1999, p. 13
  2. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, pp. 20-21
  3. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, pp. 15-16
  4. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, pp. 18-19
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Robert Benewick, Political Violence and Public Order, London, 1969, p. 113
  6. ^ Martin Pugh, Hurrah For The Blackshirts! Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars, Pimlico, 2006, p. 133
  7. ^ Benewick, Political Violence and Public Order, p. 114
  8. ^ Benewick, Political Violence and Public Order, pp. 269-271
  9. ^ Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain A History, 1918-1985, Basil Blackwell, 1987, p. 101
  10. ^ Keith Hodgson, Fighting Fascism: the British Left and the Rise of Fascism, 1919-39, Manchester University Press, 2010, p. 136
  11. ^ Thurlow, Fascism in Britain A History, p. 141
  12. ^ Richard Griffiths, Fellow Travellers on the Right, Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 278
  13. ^ Benewick, Political Violence and Public Order, pp. 287-288
  14. ^ Griffiths, Fellow Travellers on the Right, p. 322
  15. ^ Griffiths, Fellow Travellers on the Right, pp. 324-328
  16. ^ Griffiths, Fellow Travellers on the Right, p. 328
  17. ^ J.A. Cole, Lord Haw-Haw: The Full Story of William Joyce, Faber & Faber, 1987, pp. 150-151
  18. ^ Thurlow, Fascism in Britain A History, p. 212
  19. ^ Graham Macklin, Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism After 1945, IB Tauris, 2007, p. 13
  20. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, p. 189
  21. ^ Thurlow, Fascism in Britain A History, p. 227
  22. ^ a b c Beckett, Francis (31 August 2016). "State spying helps to create extremists. My father was one of them". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  23. ^ Thurlow, Fascism in Britain A History, pp. 241-242
  24. ^ Macklin, Very Deeply Dyed in Black, p. 34
  25. ^ Martin Walker, The National Front, Fontana, 1977, p. 28
  26. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, p. 194
  27. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, p. 195
  28. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, pp. 197-198
  29. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, p. 204
  30. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, p. 212
  31. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, p. 213
  32. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, p. 20
  33. ^ Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, pp. 57-58
  34. ^ a b Beckett, The Rebel Who Lost His Cause, p. 10
  35. ^ David Pryce-Jones, Unity Mitford, London: Star Books, 1978, p. 101

External linksEdit