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date: 19 September 2019

Britain and its Empire

Abstract and Keywords

Traditionally, fascism in Britain has been seen in fairly narrow terms as a phenomenon of the 1930s associated with Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF). This approach to the subject made it easy to account for the fortunes of fascism as a movement essentially marginal to British society and thus of limited significance. The Union Movement that Mosley founded in 1948 campaigned for imperial control of Africa, a united Europe, and an end to coloured immigration. But this did not amount to a full fascist programme; the movement found itself caught halfway between the conventional parties and the racist fringe. More extreme elements soon spawned a range of new groups including the National Party, the National Workers Movement, and Chesterton's League of Empire Loyalists, which proved to be influential as a training ground for a new generation of leaders of the far right.

Keywords: Union Movement, Sir Oswald Mosley, fascism, BUF, united Europe, coloured immigration

Traditionally fascism in Britain has been seen in fairly narrow terms as a phenomenon of the 1930s associated with Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF). This approach to the subject made it easy to account for the fortunes of fascism as a movement essentially marginal to British society and thus of limited significance. It seemed doubtful whether Mosley, admittedly the one outstanding leader thrown up by fascism, was ever capable of turning it into a serious contender for power. Regarded as an opportunistic and unstable politician who rose rapidly through the Conservative and Labour parties during the 1920s, he resigned too hastily after serving as a junior minister in Ramsay MacDonald's government in 1929–30. A brief flirtation with the New Party led Mosley to humiliation at the general election of 1931, but the experience accelerated his migration to fascism. Using upper-class ‘Biff Boys’ recruited by the England rugby captain, Peter Howard, and working-class ‘stewards’ led by Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, a former welterweight boxing champion from the East End, the New Party countered the violent attacks by Communist and Labour supporters who regarded Mosley as a traitor. ‘Tom [Mosley] says this forces us to be fascist’ commented Mosley's associate Harold Nicolson MP.1

After a visit to Italy in January 1932 Mosley felt ready to commit himself to the new course. He calculated that the National government was no more likely to solve the problem of unemployment than its hapless predecessors; having seen both main (p. 490) parties at close hand he thought them ineffectual, unpatriotic, and intellectually bankrupt. In this situation, committing himself to the BUF was not such a risk; all over Europe parliamentary regimes were giving way to authoritarian ones, leaving Britain and France increasingly out of step. During the summer of 1932 Mosley drew up an impressive manifesto, The Greater Britain, prior to the launch of the BUF on 1 October. From the outset the BUF boasted a paramilitary organization. Mosley justified this on the grounds that without it he would be denied a platform and driven off the streets by the left; and in the longer run, as society descended towards chaos, the middle class would increasingly appreciate a movement organized to defend it from disorder and communism.

After a slowstart the BUF began to growrapidly when it attracted subsidies from Mussolini in 1933, enabling it to employ a large staff and publish several journals. It achieved a dramatic breakthrough during the first six months of 1934 when Lord Rothermere used his newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Sunday Dispatch, to support it and publicize its activities. An audience of 9,000 attended Mosley's Albert Hall rally in April. By June the organization claimed nearly 500 branches and around 40,000 members apparently largely drawn from Conservatives who felt disillusioned However, the bubble burst at the notorious Olympia Rally where 12,000 people, including large numbers of MPs and society figures, witnessed fascist methodsatfirsthand. Theviolencemeted outtohecklersbythe blackshirt stewards provoked a wave of criticism by right-wing politicians and journals. ‘At this stage in our political evolution we certainly have no need of private armies marching about in exotic costumes and under exotic names’, pronounced the MorningPost, arguably the most right-wing national newspaper.2 Olympia was thought to have opened people's eyes to the real character of the BUF and thus alienated ‘respectable’ opinion drawn to the movement by the Daily Mail's campaign. Deeply rooted British beliefs in parliamentary democracy, respect for law, and freedom of speech now reasserted themselves, leaving the fascists permanently marginalized. The passage of the Public Order Act in 1936 completed the process by banning political uniforms and quasi-military organizations, giving the police more control over marches, and making it illegal for people attending public meetings to carry offensive weapons or to use abusive, insulting, or threatening language. During 1935–7 Mosley's movement compounded the reputation already earned for extremism and violence by concentrating on an anti-Semitic campaign in the East End of London which culminated in the battle of Cable Street in October 1936. This helped to discredit fascism by putting it in the context of continental fascism during the later 1930s when Jewish refugees were fleeing persecution from the Nazis. After 1939 the BUF's opposition to the war with Germany damned it in the eyes of almost all British people. In May 1940 Churchill's Coalition government introduced new regulations to detain over 700 fascists, including Mosley, though they were released in stages (p. 491) during 1942–3. By that time Mosley and his movement had been so comprehensively discredited as to pose no real threat to the war effort.

The topic of British fascism rested at this point until the publication in 1975 of Robert Skidelsky's biography of Mosley forced scholars to take it more seriously. By examining the evolution of Mosley's ideas Skidelsky demonstrated that fascism involved far more than crude propaganda and one-track anti-Semitism. On the contrary, by the early 1930sheoffered a programme at least comparable with anything put forward by the conventional parties in Britain and more considered than the proposals of either Mussolini or Hitler before coming into power. In particular, Mosley's combination of Keynesian policy for stimulating the economy and corpo-ratist proposals designed to protect workers from the ravages of capitalism made a constructive and compelling alternative solution for the problems of the depression to that of the conventional politicians. This was a crucial part of Mosley's appeal as a fascist. Moreover, insofar as Mosley fitted into the Keynesian framework, the more, by implication, he and his movement were part of the political mainstream of inter-war Britain rather than merely marginal and extremist.

Skidelsky's book also began to change explanations for fascism by charting the process that led a typical upper-class youth via the army and the First World War into conventional politics and eventually to fascism. It was otherwise tempting to dismiss support for fascism as an expression of individual psychology, as an irrational response by people of a certain mentality. This approach was clearly inadequate and implausible. The striking thing about Mosley was how long it took him to become a fascist after first entering parliament in 1918 until the formation of the BUF in 1932.Itwas notsomeimaginaryfascistmentalitybutthe experiencesand pressures of wartime and post-war Britain that led him along the road to fascism; moreover, this was far from unusual, for many of his contemporaries travelled some way along the same path even if they did not all reach the same conclusion.

Subsequent studies of lesser-known fascists such as A. K. Chesterton and William Joyce have suggested a common explanatory framework. Men like Chesterton who had experience working in the empire for lengthy periods often developed extreme racist and xenophobic views which were not uncommon there; then on returning to Britain they were shocked to discover that the homeland had become a more liberal and democratic society during their absence. Feeling betrayed and marginalized they easily succumbed to conspiracy theses that portrayed Britain as the target of plots by German, Jewish, Irish, or Bolshevik elements attempting to destroy the empire and promote disruption at home. The war heightened such obsessions and seemed to offer proof in the shape of the Russian Revolution, followed by the publication of The Protocols of the Elders ofZion (1920), the Zinoviev Letter in 1924, and the General Strike in 1926. William Joyce's fascism developed from his early life in a loyalist community in Ireland at a time when the Liberal government in London was determined to grant Home Rule to the Irish Nationalists. Inevitably Joyce was outraged by the settlement of 1921 which partitioned Ireland and ended the (p. 492) Union. The betrayal seemed proof of the moral decay afflicting the heart of British political life even among Conservative politicians. Like many other imperialists Joyce interpreted the loss of Ireland as the first step towards the dismemberment of the British empire. This was the mental framework for many British fascists between the wars—one they shared with large sections of British society.

Despite its impact Skidelsky's biography represented too great a challenge to conventional British assumptions, including British academic thinking, to be entirely acceptable. Critics thought he had been too sympathetic towards Mosley and his movement. Some felt he had exaggerated the Keynesian element in Mosley's thinking. Others argued that he had played down the anti-Semitism and portrayed fascists as the victims of violence rather than simply as the instigators of it. Although Skidelsky subsequently modified his original views, this did not detract from the importance of his book as a corrective to usual assumptions and as a means of opening up British fascism as a serious field of study.

For many years the chief restraint on scholars was the shortage of primary sources; in particular they were hindered by the withholding of official documents for fear of embarrassing well-connected people who had been associated with inter-war fascism. However, recent years have seen the release of quantities of material at the Public Record Office. Yet as many of these files originate with the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office they tend to reinforce the existing bias in assumptions about fascism in Britain. They focus on the paramilitary organization, on anti-Semitism, on urban fascism and the opposition to it, on the violence and the complaints made by MPs about it, and on the intelligence gathered by Special Branch and MI5 about internal splits and rivalries within the movement. Though very useful, this has helped to maintain a narrow picture of fascism as a law-and-order problem concentrated in a few big cities and hindered the appreciation of other aspects of the movement.

However, changing perceptions of the phenomenon of fascism in Britain owe less to the official papers than to a broader appreciation of the chronology of the movement. In effect, fascism enjoyed a much longer history in Britain both before 1914 and after 1918 than was once thought. Like other European countries Britain had a pre-fascist tradition; in fact many of the ideas later associated with fascism enjoyed wide circulation during the late Victorian and Edwardian period including anti-Semitism, fear about racial degeneracy, enthusiasm for eugenics, and obsessions about Britain as a victim of alien conspiracies.3 The inter-war fascist critique of parliamentary democracy as an effete, corrupt system lacking legitimacy was articulated by the ‘Radical Right’ during the crises of the Edwardian period.

Such notions reached a climax during the First World War. Despite the triumphant outcome for Britain, some on the far right refused to be reassured, and, (p. 493) as early as 1923, only months after fascists came to power in Italy, the first fascist organization had been launched. Despite the conventional emphasis in British historiography on theGermanNazis,the contemporary perspectiveonfascism was far more influenced by the Italian example. This was partly because Mussolini's coup in 1922 marked the first check to what had looked like the inexorable march of bolshevism across Europe. Also, far from regarding fascism as something suited to the excitable Latin temperament, many on the right saw it as relevant to Britain; the problems being tackled by Mussolini—labour militancy, subversive forces, a corrupt parliamentary system—were all prevalent in Britain in the early 1920s. The impression that Mussolini had rejuvenated the Italian race’ and restored national pride and unity made a heady appeal to those who felt disillusioned and alienated from the post-war democracy in Britain.4

In this context the emergence of the British Fascisti, subsequently British Fascists, under Rotha Lintorn-Orman in May 1923 was not so surprising. It drew upon a mixture of disgruntled peers and landowners, ex-military and naval officers, and people feeling politically marginalized or experiencing a declining income. In 1924 a breakaway group formed the National Fascisti, and in 1928 Arnold Leese established the Imperial Fascist League, a highly anti-Semitic organization with a more explicit fascist ideology than its predecessors. A more characteristically English expression of fascism appeared in 1930 in the shape of English Mistery, which gave rise to English Array in 1936. This collection is a reminder that fascism had put down an organizational base in Britain long before the appearance of Mosley's movement in 1932. The early fascist groups also enjoyed respectable connections with Conservative MPs, in the case of the British Fascists with Sir Patrick Hannon and in the case of English Mistery with Viscount Lymington. The British Establishment showed itself remarkably tolerant towards the paramilitary organization adopted by fascist groups during the 1920s; although military drilling was unquestionably illegal, the Home Office and the police made no attempt to enforce the law.5 In some cases at least this reflected a widespread fear that society might well require some unofficial force to help restore order in the face of the alleged Soviet-inspired machinations such as the General Strike of 1926.

In recent years the traditional picture of fascism has also been extensively revised as a result of research into the character of the movement at local and regional level which has exploded the idea of a one-track fascist appeal or of a single type of fascist personality. In some ways the movement emerges from this work as highly opportunistic, exploiting issues of relevance to particular sections of society or to certain localities. It is well known that fascists disseminated anti-Semitic propaganda in areas such as Manchester, Leeds, and the East End where Jewish communities were (p. 494) concentrated. But oral evidence has now revealed extensive activity in the textile districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire where fascists claimed to be able to recover thousands of jobs by imposing controls on output and exports from India, for example.

It seems clear that, as the country slowly recovered from the worst of the depression after 1934, the fascists targeted those regions, classes, and occupations that were not benefiting and felt a strong grievance towards the government. Agriculture, for example, proved to be susceptible to their message because so many landowners suffered from falling rents and land values and farmers were angry about collapsing prices and consequent bankruptcies. This is not eccentric when considered in the light of the farming districts in Germany, which had been the first to give support to the Nazis in the 1920s. It is easily overlooked that Mosley devoted much of his time to speeches in market towns all over England where he attracted huge crowds that responded enthusiastically to his attacks on City financiers and big business who made profits by flooding the country with imported food. A number of his leading BUF colleagues, including Jorian Jenks, Reynall Bellamy, and Robert Saunders, were recruited from the farming community. Where records of local organization survive, for Dorset for example, they show that fascist campaigns took place in rural and small-town England without the disorder associated with fascism in the big conurbations.6 But this dimension still largely awaits its historians.

During 1937–9 the fascists also devoted much attention to the plight of small shopkeepers and to a lesser extent taxi drivers, barbers, clerks, and hotel employees suffering from competition and low incomes. They found a convenient scapegoat in the rapidly spreading multiples and chain stores, many of which were under foreign ownership and undercut corner-shop prices by bulk purchase and cheap foreign imports. According to Raven Thompson, the BUF's chief ideologist, ‘shopkeepers have almost more to gain from corporate organization than any other section of the community’.7 He argued that under the corporate state the number of stores would be regulated by issuing licences, big shops would be restricted to selling specific products, and businesses that failed to deal in British goods could be closed down.

In addition to recruiting from all social classes fascists also relied heavily on female participation, something not expected in view of their reputation for machismo. In this respect the British organizations seem to have made more compromises with women than their counterparts on the continent. Some of the leading women in the BUF had experience in Conservative organization while a few had even been suffragettes before 1914. The BUF pitched its appeal to them at two levels. Under the corporate state women would be represented in their conventional role as housewives and mothers; but their interest as workers would also be protected (p. 495) by the system, for example, by guaranteeing them equal pay with men. This has been characterized not as feminism but as a feminist version of fascism.8 At least a quarter, and perhaps as much as a third, of BUF membership was female. Their role became increasingly important later in the 1930sinthepeacecampaignand as doorstep canvassers in developing an electoral machine. Mosley boasted that 10 per cent of his parliamentary candidates were women, a higher proportion than in the other parties. Their prominence went some way to giving the movement a fresh and more respectable image.

One of the consequent effects of this research into the range and character of local support for fascism has been to cast doubt on the chronology of the movement's fortunes during the inter-war period. Admittedly, the lack of reliable figures for the membership of fascist organizations makes it difficult to generalize confidently. On the one hand there are what seem to be very inflated claims made by the early organizations in the 1920s, whose membership probably reached a peak around the GeneralStrikein 1926. On the other hand, intelligence reports from 1934 onwards may indicate broad trends but are unlikely to give an accurate picture of support in the provinces. It is worth noting, for example, that in the summer of 1935 when the BUF is thought to have had only 4,000–5,000 members, sales of The Blackshirt stood at 22,000, while in the spring of 1936 The Blackshirt sold 23,000 and Action 26,000 copies.9 This is a reminder that in the low periods fascist support was probably much wider than the formal membership of the BUF, and that the movement always had many passive members who are difficult to count because of their reluctance to identify themselves publicly.

Traditionally, BUF fortunes were believed to follow a simple pattern. A dramatic rise during January to June 1934 to around 40,000 or 50,000 members was followed by a sharp fall during 1934–5,triggeredbyreactionstotheOlympiarally,from which it never really recovered. It now seems that the picture is more complicated. While Olympia shocked and alienated some people, it had the opposite effect on others. Britain enjoyed a long tradition of political violence and many Tory MPs openly defended the BUF's methods on the grounds that tough stewarding was the only way of ensuring freedom of speech for the right in the face of organized disruption by communists. To this extent the rally justified Mosley's claim that he alone possessed the organization needed to protect society from left-inspired chaos. Also, many young men found the prospect of violence and military training rather appealing. This interpretation was corroborated by Special Branch reports in the immediate aftermath of Olympia to the effect that hostile newspaper comments were misleading because the rally ‘provided an unprecedented fillip to recruitment. For several days people of different classes queued up from (p. 496) morning to night at the National Headquarters [of the BUF] in Chelsea.’10 The safest assumption is that there was, and continued to be, a considerable turnover of membership, and some of those who left in 1934 were probably reconnected via fascist front organizations designed to overcome the reservations ofrespectable people.

Subsequently the BUF managed to regain members in the East End of London largely through a vigorous anti-Semitic campaign, and a high proportion of total membership was concentrated in the area during 1935–6. The movement also regained momentum during 1938–9 as Mosley's peace campaign struck a chord with a country fearful of being dragged into another European war. Estimates put the membership at between 22,000 and 36,000 bythesummerof1939.Thisexpansion probably involved further changes in composition. Observers of Mosley's rallies noted how he was recovering the ‘respectable’ support he had enjoyed in 1934,that is middle-class people who made his meetings resemble those held by the Conservative and Liberal parties.11 Conversely, he probably lost some of his working-class followers whose patriotic instincts reasserted themselves at the prospect of war with Germany and who felt embarrassed by association with pacifism. What seems certain is that fascism enjoyed another peak during the later 1930sevenifit didnot matchthatof 1934 by the time war broke out.

Recently scholars have begun to adopt fresh approaches by moving away from the empirical and narrative investigation of small fascist pressure groups, which tends to assume the inevitable ‘failure’ of fascism in Britain, partly by considering the cultural expressions of fascism and partly by analysing its role in the main political issues and crises of the inter-war period. The cultural approach includes fascist thinking about the cinema, theatre, music, masculinity, femininity, and rural life, all of which were seen to be relevant to contemporary fascist concerns about the demoralization and revival of the British race. They were especially anxious to stem the influence of America generally and Hollywood in particular on the younger generation; the domination of American cinema by Jewish interests was seen as posing an underlying threat to British ideas on race and empire. ‘One of the duties of Fascism will be to recapture the British cinema for the British nation,’ as Chesterton put it. To this end they hoped for a revival of interest in Shakespeare, regarding the Elizabethan era as the culmination of imperial greatness and cultural achievement, and thus as a proto-fascist period in British history.

If fascism is approached via the issues of the inter-war period the movement appears much less marginal not least because fascists framed their appeal in distinctively British terms. To some extent, of course, this was tactically necessary in order to deflect criticism of the movement as alien, especially in the later 1930s when links (p. 497) with the Nazis became increasingly damaging and embarrassing. One Huddersfield fascist recalled that ‘all our members present were taken aback and confused’ in October 1936 when their evening drink was interrupted by the news that Mosley had married Diana Mitford in Goebbels's drawing room in Berlin.12

However, tactics are not a complete explanation. In many ways the thinking of British fascists reflected authentically British conditions and traditions. Chesterton, for example, placed fascism in a historical evolution from medieval times when the guilds and the feudal system had fostered a stable society and a community in which output, prices, and wages were regulated.13 He believed that under fascism the corporate state would perform a similar function, safeguarding the interests of workers and consumers. According to the historian Sir Charles Petrie, ‘the Feudal State was essentially a Corporate State in which the individual counted for very little and the community for a great deal ’.14 Fascists regarded the decline of feudalism as a disaster which had opened the way to divisions within society along class lines and the destruction of communities. They also held that medieval England enjoyed a real monarchy in which the king expected loyalty from his people and protected them in return; the king granted representation to interests and communities by allotting two MPs to specified boroughs and counties, not to mere numbers. All this had been swept away by the cult of the individual during the nineteenth century as England fell under the influence of liberalism and equality following the French Revolution.

From this perspective it was natural for fascists in English Mistery and English Array to see their movement as restoring the finest English traditions, especially medieval kingship, rather than introducing something novel. Until recently the relationship between fascism and monarchy in Britain has been neglected, but it was clearly a major element. Petrie argued that the experience of Italy in the 1920s demonstrated that fascism and monarchy went comfortably together; cooperation was natural because monarchy and fascism shared a common interest in the nation as a whole as opposed to the sectional interests represented by political parties: ‘The case for a dictatorship in times of crisis can hardly be overstated.’15 The problem was how to achieve one. According to Petrie, Victor Emmanuel had engineered the transition from a failing parliamentary democracy to a fascist system with minimal bloodshed by inviting Mussolini to form a government.

Such thinking was widely echoed by British fascists. Arnold Leese assumed that under fascism the Prime Minister would be appointed by the king, and when the need to replace him arose, the Fascist Grand Council would offer alternative names from which the king would choose. English Mistery held an almost mystical belief (p. 498) in monarchy. They claimed that the finest traditions of English kingship had been subverted by successive party politicians who had turned the king into a mere figurehead. Fascists believed that, if the king could be liberated, he would want to reverse unpatriotic policies such as the concessions to nationalist movements within the empire. Unfortunately George V appeared keen to stick to his constitutional role and remain above political controversy. Yet even he gave a tantalizing glimpse of royal power in 1931 following the collapse of Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government. For fascists this was a classic crisis of the inept parliamentary system. George V had boldly intervened to install a new National government and, in effect, to choose the prime minister.

Inevitably fascists looked with eager anticipation to the succession of the Prince of Wales who showed none of his father's respect for the constitution. He insisted on his right to intervene in foreign affairs to promote Anglo-German friendship, spoke tactlessly about the need for a dictatorship in Britain, and expressed his sympathy for the unemployed and his dissatisfaction with government policy when he visited the depressed regions. During 1936 the idea of reviving royal power received enthusiastic endorsement from a number of right-wing figures including the eccentric but wealthy Lady Lucy Houston who owned the Saturday Review. Following the death of George V in January 1936 Houston ran a series of shrill articles urging Britain's need for a benevolent dictator. ‘We want to hail [Edward VIII] as our man of destiny who will free us from our perplexity’, wrote Houston. ‘Italy has her Mussolini; he is her man of Destiny.’16 Consequently, when the abdication crisis broke in November and December, fascists were eager to join the king's party. Westminster was rife with speculation that following Baldwin's resignation there wouldbearoyal coup.'Arewetohaveafascist monarchy?',one MP reportedly asked. Certainly Mosley expected to be invited to join a government formed by Churchill to support the king. Rank-and-file fascists regarded Edward VIII with great affection. ‘With a member of the war generation and a kindred spirit on the Throne there would be a close understanding of our hopes and aspirations,’ wrote Reynall Bellamy.17 Another BUF official, Jorian Jenks, explained that the king ‘clearly believed in many of the things we believed in: in Britain and her Empire; in the need for real action to relieve the desperate poverty of the poor; in avoiding another war … and consequently in not picking another quarrel with Germany’.18The BUF quickly organized a countrywide campaign, chalking and painting three-feet-high slogans, ‘STAND BY THE KING’, on walls, roads, hoardings, and pavements. Thousands of people attended Mosley's rally in Victoria Park in Bethnal Green where he demanded: ‘How would you like a Committee of Bishops and old skirts (p. 499) in parliament to pick your girl for you?’19 Mosley was undoubtedly tapping into a deep vein of pro-monarchist and anti-Establishment sentiment especially among working-class and lower middle-class people. This would have attracted a wider swathe of popular support into his camp and might also have brought Mosley himself into office; but the king's sudden decision to abdicate abruptly killed off this prospect. However, during the rest of the decade the BUF remained ready to organize a welcome for the Duke of Windsor when his much-heralded return to Britain materialized.

Even more than attachment to monarchy, the fascists opposition to what they saw as a policy of ‘scuttle from Britain's imperial responsibilities placed them squarely in the mainstream of inter-war politics. For fascists the empire offered proof of the virile qualities of the British race but also a warning that they were being betrayed by spinelessness among the politicians of the Liberal-Conservative consensus. The imperial cause enabled fascists to combine patriotic, racial, and economic themes in a very satisfying way and to make an effective pitch for both Conservative and Labour support in some areas. During the 1920s several small and obscure groups broke away from the British Fascisti to form the British Empire Fascists, the Empire Fascist Movement, and the Empire Fascist League. In November 1933 Lieutenant Colonel Graham Seton Hutchinson founded the British Empire Fascist Party, an extremist organization that advocated the abolition of political parties, the introduction of a corporate state, and the suppression of nationalism in Ireland and India.20 There was also a transfer of personnel from British fascism to colonial territories, notably to the ‘White Highlands’ of Kenya. This largely involved alienated aristocratic émigrés including Lord William Scott, a son of the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earl of Erroll, the Marquess of Graham, heir to the Duke of Mon-trose, and Viscount Lymington. In Africa they escaped the democratic conditions they so disliked at home and managed to use their limited resources to recreate a feudal lifestyle. Although they were too few and too scattered to sustain any significant organization, they maintained links between domestic British politics and the colonies. In 1934 the British Union of Fascists found it worthwhile to appoint Lord Erroll as its delegate from Kenya.21 Lord William Scott was elected to parliament in 1935 and joined the BUF's front organization, January Club.22 Later in the 1930s these men developed pronounced pro-Nazi sympathies; the Marquess of Graham and his brother, Lord Ronald Graham, joined the notorious Right Club in 1939 and worked for peace with Germany before and during the Second World War.23

(p. 500) However, although fascists hoped to develop the economic potential of empire and even to extend white control in Africa—hence their support for Mussolini's ambitions in Ethiopia—they were thwarted by three obstacles. First, the economic nationalism in Canada, Australia, and India made it impossible to use the empire simply as a source of food and raw materials for Britain and as a market for her manufactures. Second, they lacked political support, as became obvious from the consideration given to returning the territories Britain had recently obtained as mandates from Germany. Though the National government stopped short of returning them, its willingness to use colonies as weapons in the bigger game of international diplomacy was demoralizing. Thirdly, fascists were appalled but impotent in the face of concessions to nationalist demands in India. ‘What folly to foist on India Western parliamentary institutions, which were never suitable to the East, at the very moment when they were breaking down at home’, argued Mosley in the context of the 1935 Government of India Bill.24 Although Mosley campaigned relentlessly in the depressed cotton districts of Lancashire where he proposed to recreate thousands of jobs by suppressing the Indian textile industry, there was no chance of the government taking up his ideas because of the provocation it would offer to the national movement. In India itself the official British community was, however reluctantly, increasingly committed to eventual self-government for Indians. The younger Indian Civil Service men increasingly displayed liberal sympathies, while the provincial governorships were filled by politicians appointed to ensure that the reform policy was implemented. Despite these problems the imperial cause enabled fascist propaganda to combine the patriotic, racial, and economic themes satisfactorily, and in so doing to extend their appeal to the supporters of both Conservative and Labour parties.

Although the aristocratic émigrés represented an influential metropolitan element in colonial society, a larger potential basis for an indigenous fascist movement existed in the poor, white farming communities suffering from falling agricultural prices, economic dislocation, and a consequent loss of confidence in conventional parties and liberal democracy. In Canada the depression fell heavily on farming in the prairie provinces and on the export of timber, pulp, and paper, undermining support for the Liberal and Conservative parties. During 1919–22 the United Farmer parties won elections in Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba and held the balance of power in the House of Commons. They advocated occupational representation and regarded conventional parties as inherently corrupt, much as fascists in Britain did. In Quebec the economic discontent acquired a racial element because the French population resented the influx of British capital which threatened to integrate Canada into the world economy and destroy their traditional way of life. They found the idea of a corporate system under Catholic auspices much more attractive. Such sentiment was most effectively articulated by the Union Nationale under (p. 501) Maurice Duplessis, who won power in Quebec in 1936 and aspired to create a self-contained French state, though without complete separation from Canada. However, although the Union Nationale and the United Farmer movements enjoyed a certain amount of common ground with fascism and sympathized with General Franco and Benito Mussolini, they were never fully-fledged fascist parties. In effect, their emergence helped to absorb the discontent that might have been tapped by fascism.

During the 1920s and 1930s Australia also saw a good deal of complaint about the failure of democracy and second-rate political leaders and generated a corresponding need for discipline and effective leadership, even to the extent of dictatorship. Hence a fashionable demand to modernize the economy by applying science to industry during the 1920s, and the sympathetic interest in the work of Mussolini in ‘making the desert bloom’ by revitalizing rural economies. However, although some Australian intellectuals predicted that democracy would give way to strong leadership and a corporate state, the discontent was increasingly diverted away from an explicitly fascist movement towards the rising hostility among nationalists to links with the British empire. It was not until the mid-1950s that a grassroots movement based on the discontents of peasant proprietors emerged in the shape of the Democratic Labor Party, a breakaway from the Australian Labor Party. Essentially a pro-Catholic, pro-immigrant, and bitterly anti-communist movement, the DLP placed little importance on direct representation in parliament. It was not fascist, though its anti-democratic and anti-communist views enabled it to occupy the ground that a fully-fledged fascist party would have seized in Australia.

The centrality of issues such as empire and monarchy underlines how closely the British fascists were involved with the mainstream political system. On the one hand they adopted a militantly anti-Establishment line, but on the other they assiduously cultivated connections with it; Mosley, for all his contempt for the British Establishment, had no doubt of his ability to seduce enough of it for his purposes. This relationship was crucial to his short-term tactics and to his long-term strategy. The attention usually given to the paramilitary aspects of fascism has obscured the fact that Mosley never planned to obtain power by a coup. Rather, he expected to be invited into office during some crisis—just as Mussolini and Hitler had been. He boasted of the links his movement enjoyed in all the armed forces, especially in the RAF. Though a great deal remains to be discovered about these connections there is no doubt that some serving officers were fascists, the most senior being Air Commodore Sir J. A. Chamier, who joined the January Club (see p. 501) and organized Empire Air Days for the Air League.25 In Britain as in other countries air power exercised a special fascination for fascists as a modern approach both to policing the empire and suppressing domestic revolt. As a result a number (p. 502) of inter-war fascists shared a background in the Royal Flying Corps or as aviation pioneers and enthusiasts, including Mosley himself, L. T. C. Moore-Brabazon MP, Lord Semphill, and Charles Grey, the editor of The Aeroplane.

There is much more evidence about fascist connections within the Conservative Party and the House of Lords, although for many years this was obscured because the obituaries of inter-war politicians, and even their later entries in the Dictionary ofNational Biography, managed to omit any reference to their fascist history. It was, in fact, crucial to Mosley's strategy to cultivate these links because his entry into office when the parliamentary system eventually broke down was expected to be easier if the conventional politicians were already familiar with the idea of the corporate state. To this end in 1934 the BUF launched the January Club, one of several front organizations. Its secretary, Captain H. W. Luttman-Johnson, a Scots landowner and ex-cavalry officer, was well placed to present upper-class recruits with a respectable form of fascism that operated through dinners and lectures not through rabble-rousing and street fighting. Aiming to attract people who were ‘in sympathy with the fascist movement’ and ‘believed that the present democratic system of government in this country must be changed’, the January Club enrolled large numbers of Conservative MPs, peers, writers, and intellectuals as well as corporate members among leading British companies.26

As the Club was not a political party it minimized any embarrassment for members already involved in existing parties. Not that Conservative MPs were inhibited from speaking outinsupport of fascisminpublic. TheConservativeParty hadsuch an informal and decentralized approach to membership that many men and women found no difficulty in working within fascist and Conservative organizations simultaneously. Several MPs including J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon, Henry Drummond Wolff, Patrick Donner, Lord Lymington, and Lord Erskine were particularly closely connected to Mosley. It was important to him to have a number ofparliamentarians ready to speak up for him when the time came to enter office. Meanwhile Mosley promoted this strategy by developing an electoral machine for the BUF from 1936 onwards, another aspect that has been largely neglected in accounts of the movement. Close advisers such as Major-General Fuller had been urging Mosley to abandon the vulgar image the BUF had acquired by tapping into its wider support as the National government lost credibility. The aim was to organize a trained agent, a candidate, propaganda, and women canvassers in each constituency. By the end of 1936 Mosley claimed to have 100 candidates in place. Some of their names—Viscountess Downe, Lady Pearson, Major-General Fuller, Admiral Powell—offered evidence of fascism as a respectable and patriotic movement, thereby making it unlikely that, despite regular surveillance by the intelligence services, any attempt wouldbemadetosuppressit. Even in 1940 none of these well-connected candidates was incarcerated, though their official role in fascism fully qualified them!

(p. 503) While extensive research has created a broader and more credible picture of fascism in Britain, at least two aspects have remained controversial. Perhaps surprisingly, there is disagreement about the extent of anti-Semitism within the movement. The traditional view, which sees anti-Semitism as central, still commands wide support. Jews formed a fundamental element in the analysis of most inter-war fascists who regarded them as an unpatriotic section of society, profiting from residence in Britain but, as investors in the industry and agriculture of competitors, responsible for flooding the market with cheap foreign goods. The BUF made Jews the target of its most sustained local campaign in the East End, and eventually it threatened to exclude them from parliament, deport them, and expropriate their property if they had been working against British interests. By the late 1930swhen relations with Germany were deteriorating, fascists blamed the Jews for dragging Britain and the United States into war in order to seek revenge on Hitler.

However, some qualifications to this view are in order. Since anti-Semitism was rife in all parties and all classes between the wars, the prejudice expressed by Mosley was fairly routine. There is no evidence that he originally intended to make anti-Semitism a central part of BUF propaganda; but he claimed, with some reason,thatJews were so prominentinattacking thefasciststhathewas justified in responding. It is significant that many fascists, such as Arnold Leese of the Imperial Fascist League, regarded Mosley as rather soft towards the Jews, and the BUF attracted leading figures including Joyce, Chesterton, and Fuller whose obsessive anti-Semitism made Mosley appear almost moderate; as a result some of them left to form more extreme organizations like the Nordic League. There was a distinction between the fanatics who saw the Jewish question in racial terms, and those like Mosley who treated it more as a matter of tactics. As early as 1933 he recognized that Hitler had been mistaken in making violent attacks on Jews, and from time to time he issued instructions to his followers to tone down their rhetoric, with little effect it must be said.

Another dispute that says as much about the participants as about the issues involved concerns the ideological character of the BUF. Some contemporary critics always disparaged the organization as a left-wing version of fascism, perhaps influenced by Mosley's own history in the Labour Party. It is fair to say that he distinguished his ideas from the more reactionary expressions of fascism such as English Array. Mosley's economic strategy for tackling unemployment clearly involved large elements of state intervention, and he and his colleagues argued that workers and consumers would benefit from the regulation involved in the corporate state. The left-wing image was compounded by the violently anti-capitalist rhetoric adopted by fascists when blaming big business for bankrupting small shopkeepers and undermining British interests.27

(p. 504) However, Marxists find it hard to take the idea of a ‘left-wing’ fascism seriously. For them fascism arises as a symptom of the crisis of capitalism and its purpose is to save it rather than to overthrow it. It is fair to say that the hostility towards big business shown by continental fascist movements before they obtained power often gave way to a more compromising stance subsequently. On the other hand, the Marxist view is essentially too simplistic and rigid to accommodate the complexity of the empirical evidence for fascist ideas and support. During the 1930stheBUF attracted many recruits with a background in the Labour and Communist parties who were disillusioned with the inability of the left to respond to the depression and responded positively to Mosley's proposals. Rank-and-file members actually explained that what they liked about the BUF was the combination of socialism and patriotism it offered, something unavailable in the conventional parties. This element proved to be important in sustaining the movement. In the Blackburn branch Nellie Driver noted that ‘Ex-Communists made the best active members. They were not nervous of street work or of opposition.’28 Despite this sceptics claim that the BUF failed to win over the working class because it was too loyal to the trade unions and the Labour Party. However, such claims suffer from an obvious flaw. By the 1930s large numbers of workingmen had left the unions and only a minority were mobilized by the Labour Party even as voters let alone as members, leaving a huge untapped constituency for a populist movement. This is not to say that Mosley entirely succeeded, but as research into fascism in manufacturing districts proceeds it seems to suggest the viability of working-class fascism.

The question of the fascist legacy in British society has not provoked much disagreement. There is a strong case for saying the Second World War effectively put an end to fascism properly understood. For this there were three main reasons. First, the fascists had been damned as apologists for Nazi Germany; and although the accusations against them as fifth columnists had not been justified, they never managed to shake off their reputation. The execution of William Joyce for high treason in 1946 was seen as a reflection on the movement as a whole. Second, the Holocaust made such a lasting impact on the British conscience that anyone associated with anti-Semitism was regarded as beyond the pale. Third, the wartime success of the liberal state in rallying to defeat the enemy went a long way to discrediting the fascist analysis of the parliamentary system as effete and unpatriotic.

Yet post-war conditions were not entirely inimical to a fascist revival. Mosley could claim that his diagnosis that by going to war with Germany Britain would open Europe to the hegemony of the Soviet Union, seemed to a large extent to have been vindicated. By 1947 the British empire was being dismembered. Finally, a second great war had led the country once again into an era of high taxation and (p. 505) state intervention as the critics had warned. However, none of this made the impact that it had in the aftermath of 1918. With Ernest Bevin as Foreign Secretary no one could plausibly argue that the country was seriously succumbing to communism or subversion. As the domestic agenda had moved decisively to the left, full employment and social welfare had become priorities for both political parties. As a result fascists and their concerns appeared far more marginal and even irrelevant by comparison with the situation in the aftermath of the First World War.

Thus, although Mosley and Chesterton continued to be political active after 1945, they denied that they were fascists, and Chesterton even revised his anti-Semitic views. The Union Movement that Mosley founded in 1948 campaigned for imperial control of Africa, a united Europe, and an end to coloured immigration. But this did not amount to a full fascist programme; the movement found itself caught halfway between the conventional parties and the racist fringe. More extreme elements soon spawned a range of new groups including the National Party, the National Workers Movement, and Chesterton's League of Empire Loyalists which proved to be influential as a training ground for a new generation of leaders of the far right. They founded the White Defence League in 1956, the British National Party in 1960, the National Socialist Movement in 1962, and the National Front in 1967. It is, however, widely accepted that but for the issue of immigration none of these would have made any impact. Usually described as neo-fascist, these organizations claimedthatHitlerhadbeenrightabouttheJewsandtriedtocastdoubtonthe Holocaust. But they were notable chiefly for their internal feuding and for their failure to develop the kind of coherent or comprehensive programme that fascism had offered between the wars.


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(1) H. Nicolson, Diaries and Letters, i: 1933–1939 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966), 21 September 1931.

(2) Morning Post, 3 May 1934.

(3) See for example, D. Stone, Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race and Eugenics in Edwardian and Inter-war Britain (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002).

(4) M. Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’: Fascists and Fascismin Britain between the wars (London: Cape, 2005), 39–43.

(5) Memorandum, 12 November, 1924, National Archives of Scotland: Gilmour Papers GD 383; PRO HO/144/22282, L.S.B. to Bovenden, 30 August 1930.

(6) Robert Saunders Papers, A1, A2, A3, Sheffield University Library: Special Collections.

(7) Action, 4 June 1936.

(8) See J. Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain's Fascist Movement 1923–1945 (London, I.B. Tauris, 2000).

(9) PRO HO/144/20146, Special Branch Reports, 20 January 1936,3 March 1936.

(10) PRO HO/144/20142/108, Special Branch Report, 1 August 1934.

(11) PRO HO/144/21282, Special Branch Report, 16 July 1939.

(12) L. Grundy, Don't Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide (n.d), 43, Sheffield University Library: British Union Collection 5/3.

(13) Action, 13 August 1936;see also Fascist Quarterly, July 1935, 360–4;April 1939, 195–201.

(14) Sir C. Petrie, Monarchy (London: Bodley Head, 1933), 25–8.

(15) Ibid. 18; see also Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’, 50, 239–42.

(16) Saturday Review, 13 June 1936.

(17) R. Bellamy, in J. Christian (ed.), ‘We Marched with Mosley’ (n.d.), 170, Sheffield University Library: British Union Collection 5/5.

(18) J. Christian (ed.), Mosley's Blackshirts: The Inside Story of the British Union of Fascists 1932–1940 (London: Sanctuary Press, 1986), 25.

(19) Daily Express, 5 December 1936.

(20) T. Linehan, British Fascism 1918–1939: Parties, Ideology and Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 132–3.

(21) The Blackshirt, 29 June 1934.

(22) See Imperial War Museum: Luttman-Johnson Papers, Box 8,10.

(23) R. Griffiths, Patriotism Perverted: Captain Ramsay, the Right Club and British Anti-Semitism 1939–1940 (London: Constable, 1998), 118, 224–5.

(24) Daily Mail, 9 April 1934.

(25) Hendon: RAF Museum, DC76/74/187, Air Ministry file for Sir J. A. Chamier, 23 October 1943; The Aeroplane, 30 May 1934.

(26) The Times, 24 March 1934;Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’, 146–8; Imperial War Museum: Luttman-Johnson Papers, Box 1, 2.

(27) P. Coupland, ‘Left-Wing Fascism in Theory and in Practice: The Case of the British Union of Fascists’, Twentieth Century British History, 13 (2002).

(28) Nellie Driver, ‘From the Shadows of Exile’ (n.d.), 30, J. B. Priestley Library, University of Bradford: Nellie Driver MSS.