The Rise and Fall of British Fascism

James A. Chisem

James A. Chisem is an contributor at British Online Archives. He has previously written for the BBC, The Times, and Reuters. He has also appeared on the Sunday Politics, Sky Sports, and BBC Radio 5 Live.

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21 Responses

  1. InMD says:

    Interesting read but I don’t really see how you get to your conclusion. Are you saying the best way to address extremism is to use war powers to lock people up without trial and outlaw publications? If so it seems like there’s a lot of unpacking and defending that didn’t make it into the pieceReport

  2. Chip Daniels says:

    The takeaway seems to be the fascists were defeated by courageous and determined resistance.
    The resistance refused to play by the rules and used interruption and confrontation to block and prevent the fascists from appearing to be like any other political party.Report

    • That is part of it.

      Another part of it, described in part III, is exclusion from participation in practical political discourse. If existing, legitimate political figures choose to make common cause with the Devil, the Devil now has a seat at the table.

      Britain may have been saved by chance — the OP describes Olympia as one of several blunders that drove away those who would otherwise have found the fascists useful allies, imagining them to be doomed to permanent junior partner status.

      Germany, Italy, and Spain were not so fortunate.

      Whether America will follow Britain’s example or Italy’s is probably something we will not really know until the 2020 election.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Burt Likko says:

        The German aristocracy did not necessarily like Hitler but they thought they could use him and the Nazis to gain power against the Weimar coalition of Social Democrats and Catholics. They turned out to be wrong. The Italian upper class had a more ambiguous relationship with Mussolini earlier in his career but still thought it was better to deal with him than the socialists and communists.Report

  3. George Turner says:

    Well, there’s also the problem that Fascists had already spent a decade denouncing British and American Anglo-capitalism and British Imperialism. That would make it a hard sell in Britain.Report

  4. LeeEsq says:

    This article assumes that Mosley was a bigger threat than he turned out to be at the time. While he appeared scary during the 1930s, the historical evidence reveals that Mosley failed to institute fascism in the United Kingdom because there weren’t enough British people interested in what Mosley was selling,Report

    • PD Shaw in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Yeah, the 50,000 membership in the BUF appears to be what the BUF claimed. I cannot find anything comparable to votes for communists given below.

      I think there is also great risk of anachronism on the issue of fascism, which meant different things to different people in different places at different times. There seemed to be a lot of the English intellectual class that said admiring things about Hitler at some point, mostly it seems based on the sense that he is energetic promoter of an active government.Report

  5. dragonfrog says:

    Public institutions and figures have a great deal of power to influence popular opinion.

    So, the trick is to not have fascists rise to power within the most influential of public institutions by being / riding the coattails of the ultimately victorious candidate for the highest office in the country? Got it! Let’s get right on that, shall we?Report

    • Chip Daniels in reply to dragonfrog says:

      “Now and again a woman would shrill at the top of her voice, a crowd of Blackshirts would hustle round her and, knotting her arms behind her back, bundle her out.

      She was warned. She was given an explanation.
      And yet, she persisted.Report

  6. PD Shaw says:

    An interesting piece, though I am reflexively inclined to believe history is not made by great men. Given that there were anti-Democratic movements throughout Europe at the time, some succeeding and others not, one of the significant distinctions appears to be that there was not a strong Communist movement in the U.K. The pre-War high-point for the CPGB was 69,692 votes, which was 0.3% of the total and awarded zero seats in parliament. Had the CPGB been perceived as a greater threat, the middle class could have moved towards more energetic opposition and the great men of the Conservative party would have been more willing to engage coalitions with extremists.Report

    • Chip Daniels in reply to PD Shaw says:

      In this case, it appears that history was made by a few great women.

      Yeah, I’m still struck by that little passage.

      Imagining being a woman in an age where female suffrage was a radical idea, and having the courage to attend the rally, and in the midst of hundreds of men, rise and speak out loudly against injustice.
      Knowing full well what could and would happen to her, her noisy disruption was an instrumental factor in turning the tide of British history.

      Imagine what would have happened had no one risen to protest.Report

      • PD Shaw in reply to Chip Daniels says:

        Female suffrage was the law in Great Britain at the time. In fact, many of the former suffragettes gravitated to the British Union of Fascists, though it still wasn’t an important or sizable movement.

        What would have happened if the Communist Party hadn’t orchestrated the disruption of the meeting? Nothing.Report

        • Chip Daniels in reply to PD Shaw says:

          Women’s suffrage had only been in existence for six years!

          And according to this article, the main theory for the fascist downfall was exactly those noisy women, and the unorthodox explanation only tempers this slightly.Report

    • George Turner in reply to PD Shaw says:

      Why would the Conservatives want to form a coalition with Fascists? It seems they would be a better fit for the various liberal and labour parties in Parliament. After all, in Italy’s 1934 election, the same year addressed in the article, only Italian trade union members and soldiers were allowed to vote. The result was of course 99% support for Mussolini, a former labor organizer and communist agitator/propagandist.

      The Italian Fascists promised lots of labor reforms (minimum wage, paid vacations, land reform, etc), which had already occurred in Britain, along with a strong government, an expansive foreign/military policy, and dynamic national leadership, all of which Britain already had.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to George Turner says:

        Why would the Conservatives want to form a coalition with Fascists?

        To gain political power by winning elections.Report

      • I don’t fault your description of how the Mussolini government (already in power) chose to apply the concept of “universal male suffrage” but you’ve left out a couple of rather salient facts about the election in a way that presents history through a VERY distorted lens.

        1. The election was a referendum on a list of 400 Fascist party-approved members of the House of Delegates. If the list were rejected, the Fascist party would have produced a second list for another vote.

        2. The ballots were not secret and were easy to identify at a distance because a “Yes” vote had a big Italian flag on it and a “No” vote was on plain paper.

        3. Mussolini had come to power in 1924 after deploying violence to intimidate non-Fascist voters from casting ballots, and had used that power to incorporate his party apparatus into the government itself. In that last multi-party election, the communists and socialists actively opposed Mussolini, and many of them paid for it with their blood.

        The socialists and communists of Italy hated and feared Mussolini. That doesn’t necessarily vindicate their ideologies, but they were right to hate and fear him — he’d betrayed them and he made no secret of his desire to unleash violence on them.

        These elections were no freer than the ones that returned Saddam Hussein and his Baathists to power every couple of years in 1990’s Iraq. The results were similarly one-sided, and for similar reasons: if you were unfortunate enough to have the “franchise,” the way you used it was literally a life-or-death decision.Report

        • George Turner in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Of course the socialists and communists thought Mussolini betrayed them, because he used to be a communist labor organizer and was later a leading socialist writer/editor/thinker who felt entitled to head the Italian Socialist Party – but they stiffed him out of the role. He swore vengeance upon them and had quite a few of their leaders killed.

          As the war went badly even the Fascists turned on him. They booted him out and he fled north to form the short-lived Italian Socialist Republic.

          It was amusingly said that the Fascists spent their time in power combing through Italian libraries to destroy all the old socialist articles Mussolini wrote for Avanti! (The Italian Socialst Party’s newspaper, which he used to run) and other socialist publications, and that after the war the socialists went back through the libraries to make sure the Fascists hadn’t missed any copies.Report

      • PD Shaw in reply to George Turner says:

        They would be interested in a coalition if they perceived a threat of the radical Left gaining power, by which I don’t mean Labour, but revolutionaries that looked to Stalin in admiration.

        (I don’t believe I agree with what I take is an underlying assumption that fascism and communism are essentially the same. I think fascism appeals to the European right, and variously aligned with monarchism, state religion and military privilege against democracy. A lot of its strength came from the success of the more radical left.)Report

  7. Kolohe says:

    I’d like to think ‘deep democracy’ helped. The UK had by then a longer tradition of political pluralism than most (certainly more than Germany and Italy, who still hadn’t gotten past nation-state adolescence, much less any sort of liberal institution building (they had an excess of non-liberal institutions) (which also might be a thing – the British Army was never an institution of the State the way the Navy was, and the way continental armies were in their respective societies)Report

    • InMD in reply to Kolohe says:

      I think this is closer to the mark. The UK’s democracy has roots going back at least to the late 17th century. Unified Italian and German nation-states didn’t really exist until the late 19th and the types of democracy they had in the interwar period was particularly unstable.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    Roderick Spode was Oswald Mosely, and he inspired Wodehouse to as political a speech as he ever wrote. (Note: Spode was too late to the dictatorship game for Black Shirts, so his gang wore black shorts.)

    “The trouble with you, Spode, is that because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of halfwits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone.

    “You hear them shouting ‘Heil Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode, swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher!’ “