Book Reviews from the August 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
Martin Pugh: Hurrah for the Blackshirts! Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars. Jonathan Cape.£20.00.
Nigel Copsey and David Renton, eds: British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State. Palgrave Macmillan. £50.00.
These two books are not recommended for the various views expressed by the authors and contributors, but for the wealth of information, much of it new, on British Fascism.
The first fascisti, under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, was founded in Italy in 1919; Britain’s first Fascist organisation emerged in May, 1925, six months after Mussolini’s coup. It, too called itself Fascisti, but the following year changed its name to the British Fascists. Most of its leaders were aristocrats or men from military or naval backgrounds. They were militantly anti-Jewish and, through endorsement by such newspapers as the Times, Morning Post and the Daily Mail, believed in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy as portrayed by the infamous forgery, The Proctocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The British fascists soon, however, split into even more extreme sects such as the National Fascisti and Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League.
Martin Pugh demonstrates in considerable detail the close connections between the Fascist groups and parties and rightwing, and even “mainstream”, conservative politicians. The Fascists were often looked upon as more decisive Tories who. wanted a more powerful, corporate state which would, hopefully, keep the “lower orders” in control and stop “alien” immigration. Many members of the Conservative Party would also be members of one of the fascist groups at the same time. Both could be depended upon to defend the Nation and the Empire. Indeed, between the two world wars, not a few members of the Royal family, including the then Prince of Wales, were sympathetic to Mussolini’s Fascism and later Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill expressed admiration for Mussolini, and the Prince of Wales had Nazi friends.
Of course the Fascists opposed the General Strike of 1926. In fact, as Pugh notes, they were particularly enthusiastic anti-strike volunteers, enrolling in the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, and as Special Constables. Chief constables welcomed the Fascists, but only as individuals and not as uniformed members of Fascist parties as these had hoped.
In 1920, the Conservative Member of Parliament, Oswald Mosley, crossed the floor to sit as an independent; in 1924, he joined the Labour Party. His views were already interventionist, corporatist, almost Fascist, but he was enthusiastically welcomed into the Labour Party. By 1929, Mosley was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but he soon resigned, and in February 1931 he launched his New Party.Then in 1932, after visiting Rome, he founded the British Union of Fascists. The BUF adopted the Corporate State, with the abolition of political parties, as its official policy. At this stage, Mosley and the BUF looked to Italy for their model, and it was not until 1936 that the BUF became pro-Nazi. Pugh notes that Mosley regularly visited Italy, and was rewarded with funding by Mussolini for several years. Mosley did not meet Hitler until 1935. During this period, the British Union of Fascists, which added the phrase “and National Socialists” to its title, became increasingly anti-Jewish. The BUF was organised militarily, complete with uniforms until these were banned in 1936. For a number of years, the Daily Mail, owned by Lord Northcliffe, supported the BUF and promoted Fascism.
Besides the BUF, there were still a number of small Fascist parties, as well as various “front” groups such as the January Club and Anglo-German Fellowship and, later, the Link. As in the 1920s, such groups had many Tories, rightwing and mainstream, as members. Indeed, most Conservatives, in Parliament and the country at large, were either pro-Fascist Italy, pro-Nazi Germany or, like Neville Chamberlain, appeasers, as Martin Pugh demonstrates in some detail. Many of them continued to hold similar ideas even after Britain had declared war on Germany, on 3 September, 1939. In 1940, Oswald Mosley, as well as about 800 Fascists and others considered to be pro-German, were arrested and imprisoned. But by 1942, most had been released. Mosley was conditionally released from prison in 1944. The BUF had been banned in June, 1940.
British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State is a collection of fairly short and diverse essays by various authors. Richard Maguire discusses the use of Fascists by the Conservative Government in defence of what Stanley Baldwin called the “community” in defeating the miners, and during the General Strike of 1926. And, as noted in Pugh’s book, the authorities were more than prepared to use Fascists as strike-breakers, their views being that the Fascists could be depended upon as Special Constables and the like.
Richard Thurlow outlines the formation of the Security Service (MI5), and its collaboration with Special Branch in surveillance of the Communist Party, and Comintern agents in Britain, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s. After about 1933, MI5 and Special Branch began to interest themselves in the British Union of Fascists, which hitherto they had not done. Interestingly, Thurlow points out that Maxwell Knight of MI5 had himself been the British Fascists’ Director of Intelligence in 1927. Graham Macklin discusses the attitude of the police and magistrates towards the Fascists in their confrontations with the Communists, and shows that in general they were more sympathetic towards the Fascists than the Communists. Not surprisingly, Oswald Mosley was particularly effusive in his support for the police, many of whom were anti-Jewish. Philip Coupland outlines what he calls “left-wing fascism”, in which the BUF use leftwing terminology to attract workers and disillusioned Labourites and Communists. In parts of the country this was quite successful.
David Renton discusses the so-called anti-Fascism, during the 1974-79 period, by such organisations as the Anti-Nazi League, the Trade Unions and the SWP, all of which from a socialist viewpoint achieved nothing in defeating fascist ideas and activities. Indeed, a party like the BNP today probably has as much support as did the BUF in 1935. Possibly more.
Peter E. Newell