Featured Post

The Rise and Fall of British Fascism

The Rise and Fall of British Fascism

On June 7th, 1934, 15,000 people packed into the Olympia exhibition hall in West Kensington to hear Oswald Mosley speak about the coming fascist revolution.

As the self-styled ‘Leader’ strode confidently onto the brightly lit stage, theatrically late and dressed all in black, he could have perhaps been forgiven for believing his own hyperbole.

After all, despite winning an overwhelming majority in the 1931 election, the National Government was in crisis, seemingly incapable of dealing with the collapse in the value of sterling and persistently high unemployment.

Indeed, there was a widespread perception that the one-time home of Nelson and Disraeli was suffering from a tragic dearth of competent politicians. The prime minster, Ramsay MacDonald, was considered to be a placeholder by those with charitable inclinations and senile by those with none. His deputy, Stanley Baldwin, struggled to inspire his fellow Conservatives, let alone the rest of the country. Winston Churchill, meanwhile, was still seen by many as an unreliable cad, unfit for the responsibilities of high office.

This air of paralysis proved to be a major boon for Mosley and his newly formed British Union of Fascists (BUF). But it was Lord Rothermere’s intervention that really catapulted Blighty’s home-grown autocrats into the public consciousness.

A wealthy press baron and virulent critic of the National Government, Rothermere used a January 1934 op-ed in the Daily Mail to declare his support for the BUF. The article was accompanied by the now infamous headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” and two photographs of Mosley and company in said attire. From then on, Rothermere put his newspapers, which also included The Sunday Dispatch, the Sunday Protocol, and the Evening News, in the service of the movement.

As a consequence of this newfound legitimacy, the BUF’s ranks soon swelled to 50,000. Their support came from across the political and social spectrum. In crude terms, many working class voters were attracted to Mosley’s programme of protectionism and economic interventionism, while the middle classes were enticed by the party’s staunch anti-communism and promotion of traditional imperial values. Still others were excited by the prospect of being involved in a transgressive, even violent, crusade.

On the eve of the Olympia rally, the BUF was thus poised to become a major player in British politics.

So, what happened? Why did they fail to replicate the successes of their brethren on the continent?

I

According to orthodox historians, the Olympia event itself is the prime culprit.

As a journalist from the Manchester Guardian observed:

“With the arc-lamps swung round on him, Sir Oswald began his speech. Almost at once a chorus of interrupters began chanting in one of the galleries. Blackshirts began stumbling and leaping over chairs to get at the source of the noise. There was a wild scrummage, women screamed, black-shirted arms rose and fell, blows were dealt, and then above the noise came the chorus chanted by rough voices, ‘We want Mosley.’”

The meeting continued like this for nigh on two hours:

“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. The arena was soon full of hooting and whistling and chairs and boots and shoes were flying in the air.”

Received wisdom suggests that these ugly scenes were enough to turn polite opinion decisively against the BUF. Troubled by such open violence, Rothermere dropped his support, while potentially sympathetic right-wingers in parliament scrambled to distance themselves from Mosley’s distinctly un-British rabble-rousing. This shunted the BUF firmly outside the boundaries of mainstream political discourse, leaving them starved of publicity, members, and funds.

But is there any truth to this characterisation?

II

Well, yes and no.

The fallout from Olympia undoubtedly had a negative impact on the BUF’s reputation, particularly amongst those with more bourgeois sensibilities.

It does not appear, however, to have been the pivotal factor in the party’s decline. As Martin Pugh points out, “the parliamentary reaction to Olympia was more mixed than has been recognised” and “the response of the press was more complicated.”

There was a debate in the House of Commons, but it was dominated by Conservative MPs who cast doubt on reports of Blackshirt brutality, instead blaming communist and socialist agitators for provoking an understandable backlash. The likes of H.K. Hales and T.F. Howard even went so far as to praise the BUF.

The Rothermere press adopted a similar line. Pugh points out that “Olympia brought about no immediate change” in its coverage:

“In early July the Mail was still reporting in some detail on the content of Mosley’s speeches at Worcester, Swansea, and Ipswich. According to the reports these were enthusiastic meetings which passed off without disorder or violence.”

III

What, then, explains the increasing marginalisation of British fascism from 1934 onwards?

To begin with, Rothermere did withdraw his backing for the BUF, but not because of Olympia. The old Etonian was primarily concerned with convincing the Tories to adopt a protectionist trade policy. For a while, he saw Mosley as a useful pawn in this endeavour, not to mention a foil to Baldwin.

Mosley’s intention to stand candidates in the next election therefore spooked Rothermere, who feared that the BUF would split the conservative vote to the benefit of Labour. Pugh wryly notes that, in the end, it was Mosely’s parliamentary strategy, rather than his militarism, that proved his undoing.

To be sure, losing the patronage of such an influential figure was a major blow. Without the cover of the establishment, members left in their droves, taking their hard earned pounds and pennies with them.

This had two consequences. First, the BUF lacked the funds and infrastructure to contest the 1935 General Election. Second, freed from the constraints of respectable politics, the party became a platform for Hitler-worshipers and anti-Semites such as William Joyce (later known as Lord Haw-Haw) and John Beckett.

The latter development was catastrophic for the party’s mass appeal because it allowed the powers that be to paint fascism as a foreign importation and fascists as a would-be fifth column. It also made it much easier for the left to form a broad based anti-fascist coalition and mobilise effective counter-demonstrations. The Battle of Cable Street is the most obvious example of this strategy in action, but it worked all across the country, limiting the party’s support amongst working class voters.

The revanchist foreign policy of Germany and Italy also played a role in the BUF’s deteriorating fortunes. And, of course, the outbreak of war put an end to its activities altogether. On 23rd May, 1940, just one day after the imposition of Defence Regulation 18B, Mosley and 740 of his followers were arrested and imprisoned without trial. A week later, the BUF and its publications were banned.

IV

The lesson to take from all this is very simple.

Public institutions and figures have a great deal of power to influence popular opinion. This power comes with immense responsibility, especially with regards to extremist organisations that threaten the foundations of liberal democracy. There is, unfortunately, a very fine line between addressing legitimate grievances and legitimising bigotry. Even with the best intentions, openly engaging with these groups will only embolden them. Best, then, to tackle the problem at its source by depriving them of the oxygen they crave.

 

Note: This article was originally published by British Online Archives.


Guest Author
Home Page Public Email Twitter 

James A. Chisem is an editor 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. ...more →

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

21 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of British Fascism

  1. 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 piece

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. 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.

      Quote  Link

    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.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • 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.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  3. 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.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. 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,

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • 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.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  5. 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?

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • “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.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  6. 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.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • 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.

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • 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.

        Quote  Link

      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.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • 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.

            Quote  Link

          Report

      • 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.)

          Quote  Link

        Report

  7. 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)

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • 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.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  8. 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!’ “

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *