British Union of Fascists

Fascism, as a subject of historical inquiry in twentieth-century Britain, has heretofore been examined predominantly through a lens of political failure. Using the undeniable fact that no such movement in the country has ever secured national power as an analytical fulcrum, fascist groups, from the British Fascists of the nineteen-twenties to the present-day British National Party, have been discussed as eccentric at best, and, more often than not, violent and misguided political flops.

Despite there having been a number of organizations that have identified themselves as fascist in the last seventy years, much of the existing literature has focused its attention on Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF) for at least two reasons: Mosley’s party of the nineteen-thirties had the greatest following of any of the fascist organizations of this century and is thereby the most significant; and in the last decade the British Home Office has begun declassifying the records kept on both Mosley and the BUF during the inter-war period, allowing a greater measure of precision in illuminating specific points of interest such as membership and the extent of government infiltration within the group.

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However, closely tied to most explanations of fascism’s political failure has been the general “reluctance of authors to accept . . that those who supported the Fascists may have done so for genuine ideological reasons. “2 Contemporary claims, in the nineteen-thirties, that fascism, and “Mosleyism” in particular, was something “un-English” which simply was “not done” have neatly dovetailed with the assertions of later authors to create an implicit argument that fascism could only be an intruder on the principled political scene of parliamentary Britain. 3 Further, studies such as W. F.

Mandle’s Anti-Semitism and the British Union of Fascists, by concentrating on single issues, have neglected examining the whole of the BUF’s ideological and practical concerns during the inter-war years and had the effect of limiting analysis in other areas. 4 The sentiments of such arguments and studies have been summarized by Stanley Payne in his work A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 where he wrote that there “was neither space nor ‘need’ for revolutionary nationalism” in Great Britain, and that the amount of literature on the BUF was actually “inversely proportionate to the group’s significance. “5 G. C. Webber, however, has argued that to dismiss a political ideology because it failed to result in “immediate or tangible reforms” would be a mistake as “[e]ven ‘rejected’ ideologies . . . can tell us about the political culture of which they were a part.

And while the intrusion arguments often provide solid reasonings for the overt political failure of the BUF, they tend to neglect or downplay the contemporary issues the movement attempted to address and the sources from which it drew both ideas and support. Inter-war Britain was home to a political culture, deeply affected by a harsh economic situation, that saw the Conservative Party, the British right in general, and all of society undergo a profound ideological crisis which, as a direct result, fostered the political emergence and rise of fascism. After World War I the Liberal Party in Britain was decimated. and, for the first time, in 1924 the Labour Party tenuously formed a government.

This shift left, which was noticeable in nearly all of post-war Europe, was accompanied in Britain by the reinforcing of a more extreme, but often fractured, position on the right. But this was more than a simple reaction to the rise of the left, for this was a “new conservatism,” as Modris Eksteins has called it, that had to rebuild, as much as conserve. “The right, too,” he wrote in the Rites of Spring, “had to engage in radical reform if the world was to be set right. Political polarization, which was to be the hallmark of the interwar era everywhere, confirmed the disappearance of a normality everyone craved but no one knew how to effect. “7

As was already alluded to, the most intractable obstacle to a settled normality in Britain was, seemingly, the country’s economic position both internationally and domestically immediately following the war. In an attempt to lower the country’s rampant unemployment which had damaged both its industrial output and the availability of a home market for goods, as well as address the apparent loss of British dominance in trade globally, governmental policy in the inter-war years largely followed a conservative program that emphasized savings and slow investment with a return to the gold standard, abandoned during the war, as both the goal and the key to a return to economic normalcy. However, return to the gold standard was delayed, at least initially, by a post-war boom, “based on a universal desire to replenish stocks,” which “got under way in 1919-20. ” Reestablishing the standard then would have “involved violent deflation, and to start the peace with a depression seemed an appalling prospect. “9

Using the post-war boom as a stepping off point, and following a cautious plan that laid attention on the economic basics of work, wages, and family welfare, the country seemed to head down a road of recovery. In fact, “the British record of growth in the inter-war period was considerably better than in the decade before the war, and . . . ttention has been drawn to rapid economic progress in the expansion of ‘new’ industries. “10 An unexpected, and positive, consequence of the war, these industries were in areas that “Britain was forced to develop . . . which had hitherto been neglected. Chemicals, electrical goods, motor vehicles, aircraft and precision engineering were stimulated, as well as the science-based industries such as radio and pharmaceutical. ” What is more is that the country also benefitted from the less tangible variables of economic development such as stricter standardization, mass production, and more efficient management that the rigors of war had forced upon the industrial base. 11

This apparently prudent economic plan, coupled with the growth in new industries and increased efficiency in all industries, as well as the fact that four-fifths of Britain’s merchant fleet survived the war, accounted for not only the experienced growth, but also an apparent continued economic recovery as the real wages of the employed steadily increased from 1924 to 1931 while the cost of living steadily decreased in the same period. 12 These factors and economic indicators provided the hopeful impetus for a continued conservative policy during much of the decade. 13 As Robert Skidelsky writes in Politicians and the Slump, while “government intervention in the economy had to some extent been legitimised during the war, the climate of opinion in the nineteen-twenties favoured a swift return to laissez-faire, and this dictated the course of British economic policy. “14

The gold standard, which “was a device for keeping the national currencies of different countries at a fixed value” and ideally generating “the confidence required for international trading,” remained the supposed panacea for the country’s remaining economic ills. As the world’s pre-war leader in global trading Britain was “anxious to take the lead in re-establishing [it and getting] back to the pre-war rate of parity. ” A rate that was seen as not only a “symbol” of returning normality but also of “London’s financial strength,” and it was generally believed that “nothing short of return to the old parity would restore confidence in London’s ability to resume her former role. “15 Thus, Britain’s eagerness to re-institute an equalizing tool as powerful as the gold standard was believed to be, that would also aid the country in returning to pre-war industrial and export levels, was understandable.

The country had entered WWI as perhaps the most affluent nation in the world and left it with a legitimate fear of economic collapse. Previously, a “century and a half of economic growth, expanding trade and the accumulation of foreign investments had led Britain to the position of being a major–if no longer the sole–workshop of the world and the hub of international trade and finance. “16 Even facing the growing competition of a unified Germany and a forcefully emerging United States, the country was still a primary international supplier of the base industrial products of coal, textiles, iron and steel. Citing John Stevenson’s British Society 1914-45:

In 1913, the shipyards of North-East England alone produced a third of the world output of shipping. The cotton mills of Lancashire were still producing enough yarn and textiles to clothe half the world, contributing more than a quarter of the country’s total exports. Britain was the second largest producer of coal in the world and its exports alone were greater than the national outputs of major powers like France and Russia. Britain’s merchant fleet accounted for almost half the world tonnage, while abroad Britain was a major international creditor with a large inflow of invisible earnings from investments, shipping and insurance. 17 There was, however, a dangerous underside to these incredible levels of exportable industrial output.

Nearly fifty percent of the country’s available labor force was engaged in either mining or manufacturing which meant that roughly three-quarters of its foodstuffs and much of its raw materials had to be imported. Consequently, and more than most other industrialized nations, Britain was susceptible to economic repercussions that were the result of fluctuations in the world market and its own industrial efficiency. 18 However, Britain’s economic international position and domestic stability were important and decisive issues because they impacted more than simply the material well being of the nation’s populace. They were, in fact, at the root of the country’s construction of its identity both internally and internationally.

Perry Anderson has argued that “[c]apitalist hegemony in England has been the most powerful, the most durable and the most continuous [of] anywhere in the world. ” And it has been the “cumulative constellation of the fundamental moments of modern English history” that has allowed such a complete capitalist victory to take place. 19 For Anderson, these fundamental moments, prior to WWI, were the Civil War of 1640-49, the industrial revolution, and the seizing of the largest empire in history by the end of the nineteenth century. Each has played an important and collective role in crafting not only the formal structure of British society, but also the ideological construction of British identity.

The Civil War, which was a “‘bourgeois revolution’ only by proxy,” effectively “led to the creation of a modern capitalist” state. This was achieved through “three major idiosyncrasies of the English Revolution. ” First, it destroyed the “juridical and constitutional obstacles to rationalized capitalist developments in town and country: monopolies, arbitrary taxation, wardships, purveyance, selective enclosure, etc. ” This, in turn, had the effect of hurrying the development of the economy in the latter half of the century; making it a “supremely successful capitalist revolution . . . [but one that] left almost the entire social structure intact. ” Second, this was achieved by “profoundly transforming the roles but not the personnel of the ruling class.

The types of production that the ruling class now pursued were capitalist in nature (“landlord, tenant farmer and landless agricultural labourer, which eventually destroyed the English peasantry and made Britain the most agriculturally efficient country in the world”), however, “landed aristocrats . . . continued to rule England. ” Moreover, mercantile capital “expanded on a new and imperial basis. ” Still, it was never able to “constitute itself as an internally compact or autonomous political force,” and instead prosperous merchants purchased estates while landowners invested in trading interests. 20 Thus, there was “a permanent . . . interpenetration of the ‘moneyed’ and ‘landed’ interests” which ultimately bound the two together. Third, radical Puritanism was repressed which allowed for an unbridled pursuit of capitalist development. 21

The industrial revolution was most remarkable in that it “produced the earliest proletariat when socialist theory was least formed and available, and an industrial bourgeoisie polarized from the start towards the aristocracy. ” Emerging during the French Revolution and Napoleonic expansion, the industrial class was marked by a “whole era of war against the French abroad [rallying to the cause of the aristocracy] and repression against the working class at home. ” Further, as the economic importance of agrarian capital fell and that of industrial capital rose towards the end of the nineteenth-century, the intertwining trend of the two classes continued–industrialists purchased greater estates and landed aristocrats pursued industrial interests. The end result of these convergent mutations was the eventual creation of a single hegemonic class, distinguished by a perpetually recreated homogeneity and actual–determinate–porousness. ” This resulted in the development of a two-party political system of upper and working classes with, at best, a “large, diffuse, polymorphous reservoir,” ready for use by the upper class, between the two. 22

The creation of the British Empire “saturated and ‘set’ British society in a mould it has retained to this day. ” With the advent of “military-industrial imperialism” in the late nineteenth-century the lasting “contours of British society” were cast in sharp relief. 3 It was this which gave its “characteristic style to that society, consecrating and fossilizing to this day its interior space, its ideological horizons, its intimate sensibility. ” While the general “motifs” of Empire were most likely internalized by the entire society, the real imperial influence came to bear “on the character and ethos of the ruling bloc. ” The most conspicuous illustration of the imperial motifs was “the new religion of monarchy which marked the late Victorian era. ” In this, the “‘manifest’ function of the monarchy was (by assertion) to unify the nation; its ‘latent’ function was (by example) to stratify it. ”

In this way “social-imperialism . . . reated a powerful ‘national’ framework which in normal periods insensibly mitigated social contradictions and at moments of crisis transcended them altogether. “24 Taken as a whole, the points and issues which Anderson has developed led to a total victory of capitalism in British society which served to set the course and parameters of political and cultural ideology and identity for nearly three centuries. It was the untrammeled success of capitalism in England that provided the “organized, governed social world” of all of Britain with the “remote and elevated conceptions that allow[ed] them to sustain a sense of continuity and adequacy, to identify with other individuals and groups, and to perceive and define a relationship to past, present, and future. 25 Consequently, the seeming downward spiral of the country’s economic system also cast the society’s “symbolic structures,” which gave life its apparent coherence and comprehensibility, into doubt. 26

Moreover this capitalist crafted ideology was so pervasive that even those opposed to it, such as the Labour Party, were forced to define themselves and establish their relationship to others through it, even if it was in terms of opposition–that which they were not and struggled against. 27 Hence, while the partial economic recovery of the nineteen-twenties and thirties mentioned above was decidedly welcome, the governmental conviction, along all party lines, to return to the gold standard, which was accomplished in 1925, was as much an ideological imperative as it was a supposed economic one. Although “the restoration of the . . . ystem [was] an extremely precarious undertaking,” given that a substantial portion of Britain’s assets “had been sold to pay for the war” and “her exports could no longer produce a surplus sufficient to finance international growth on the pre-war scale,” it was one that had to be taken perhaps, in the words of Skidelsky, “almost as an act of faith. “28

For the Conservative Party, which had spent the nineteenth-century becoming the party of both the landed and industrial interests (or more simply, Anderson’s ruling bloc), return to the gold standard was an attempt to recapture the years before the war when the lines of social demarcation were clear and the “terminology of ‘rank’ and ‘degree'” were the norm. 29 Economic debacle and decline coupled with the economist Pigou’s “intractable million,” and increasing radicalization of the left brought on by the war along with the “gradual extension of the franchise” proved an unsettling mixture for the British right. 0

“Modernity has meant in significant part,” wrote Craig Calhoun, “the breakup–or the reduction to near-irrelevance–of most all-encompassing identity schemes. “31 With conventional remedies unable to effectively attack unemployment, which continued to hover around ten percent for much of the nineteen-twenties, and the language of “class” encroaching on the traditional categories of rank, not simply the British right, but the whole of British society was facing an ideological crisis that was the result of the breakup of its traditional identity schemes. Because of this, “an important section of influential opinion had, by the end of the decade, come round to the view that traditional remedies would not meet the new economic facts. “32 In The Ideology of the British Right 1918-1939, G. C.

Webber has argued that for much of the first-half of the century the British right has faced an ideological crisis. And in asserting this he places the context of the crisis as having been, until the mid nineteen-thirties, “determined by questions of nationalism and imperialism. ” For him, it was not until after this time, and “not fully until the late 1960s,” that “sharp economic . . . disagreements” came to the fore of the debate. 33 However, while the language of the Diehards did use “a basic vocabulary of nationalism,” it was a loss of the status quo (which includes nationalist concerns), predicated on British economic standing across the globe, that was feared. 4

Hence, economic concerns, in the nineteen-twenties and before, served as the actual locus of debate for the ideological crisis of the British right during this time, and this remains the case whether its discourse was couched in a nationalist vocabulary or not. Britain’s capitalist economy was evolving before WWI as is evidenced by the country having “enjoyed a tremendous [international] preeminence in particular fields” as well as base industries such as textiles and steel up to 1913. 35 The war, however, forced this maturation into a frenetic pace and created, after the conflict, what William Sewell, Jr. , in another context, identified as the capitalist phenomenon of uneven national development. 6

The results of this uneven development in Britain were the advances in the new industries as well as the less tangible economic variables which accounted for the sectional recovery of the economy mentioned earlier. The pace of modern mechanized war had pushed all the combatant nations to face the resultant economic evolution that came with it, and Britain’s global presence made this confrontation more radical than nearly anywhere else. For Britain, modernity came in the guise of truly modern capitalism, with its concomitant uneven development and language of class, and this disrupted the country’s traditional identity schemes. It was for this reason that there was a substantial, and influential, section of opinion that began to search for new means of dealing with the problem of hyper-unemployment during the inter-war years.

For, many came to believe that only if this ill could be cured would anything at all remain of British society. Webber’s text makes it clear that this period witnessed a radicalization of the Conservative Party where members were willing to revolt against party leadership and “organised dissent was becoming a commonplace feature of Conservative Party politics. “37 However, Skidelsky has noted that there is an unfortunate tendency “to view inter-war politics in terms of a struggle” between parties, when the “real cleavage of opinion occurred . . . between the economic radicals and the economic conservatives. This cut right across party lines,” and quickly spilled out into the general populace. 8

Extension of the franchise, expansion of educational opportunities, and the growth of the popular press widened not only the potential audience for the current political debates but also increased the number of those actually participating in them, and this brought to bear on Parliament a larger active constituency than ever before. 39 Again, the dominance of the issue of unemployment in social and economic debate during this time can not be overestimated. No matter how often or loudly discussion of the rising standard of living for the employed was attempted, it could not drown out the murmur of the over two million insured workers who were without employment between 1931 and 1935. The most obvious effect of this persistent problem was the increasing dependence of many on continued government assistance. By the late nineteen-twenties there were entire villages that relied on programs such as public relief, or “the dole,” to simply survive.

This, in turn, had the consequence of changing the attitudes of a large segment of the general populace in regards to the role of the government in managing the economy. Many lost sight of any personal qualms they previously might have had concerning receiving government assistance, and came to now believe that it was the Government’s role to take an active hand in directing the economy. 40 The sense of urgency surrounding the economic situation and the active debate that followed it moved T. S. Eliot, author of The Waste Land and editor of The Monthly Criterion, to write that “politics has become too serious a matter to be left to politicians. We are compelled to the extent of our abilities, to be amateur economists, in an age in which politics and economics can no longer be kept wholly apart. “41

The call to political action that Eliot was sounding found many sympathetic ears, as a growing number of people feared that the current situation was quickly eroding British culture along with the economy. Wyndham Lewis spoke for many when he wrote that Britain was going rotten at the bottom and at the top, where the nation ceased to be the nation–the inferior end abutting upon the animal kingdom, the upper end merging in the international abstractness of men–where there [were] no longer . . . English men, but a gathering of individuals who were nothing. 42 More than anything perhaps, what people demanded, both inside Parliament and out, was that the Government take a firm step in one direction or another.

Webber has pointed out that many in the British right had long since wearied of the “pragmatic” coalition governments that dominated much of the period, and “erupted with enormous force after the electoral defeat of 1929” that was marked only by Baldwin’s careful and disastrous slogan of “Safety First. “43 The attitude towards state interference in personal economic affairs had so dramatically shifted among many that in 1934 the economist J. A. Hobson could write The old individualist conception of the State and its government, as rightly confined to the protection of persons and their property from injuries by other members of the nation or from foreign aggression, has almost disappeared. It was in effect owners’ anarchism, condemning every State activity except those which safeguarded existing rights of person and property. . . Their lives were in their own keeping, their incomes were of their own making, and any interference by the State with their full freedom of action in either of these spheres was an unwarrantable abuse of governmental power. Save for a little group of die-hards, this view . . . no longer exists in this country. 44

As early as 1926 Wyndham Lewis had expressed his abstract preference for the Soviet system and praised Fascist Italy because in these systems there “will not be an extremely efficient ruling caste, pretending to possess a ‘liberal’ section, or soft place in its heart for the struggling people, on the traditional [E]nglish model. ” These governments will, according to Lewis, govern in a straightforward way, and, perhaps most importantly, [e]conomics will simply disappear in such a State.

On a more popular level, in 1933 the general populace was drawn to the theory of “technocracy,” as related by Professor Soddy, and pamphlets on the subject were “added to the huge politico-economic literature which was challenging the works of . . . Elinor Glyn and Edgar Rice Burroughs as the chief reading of the people. “46 There can be little doubt that as the inter-war period progressed a growing segment of the populace recognized that the persistent economic problems of the era were eroding more than simply the material well-being of the nation, and many sought out new answers for a new age. “[N]ew certainly to this extent,” wrote Eliot, “that the nineteenth century gave us a very inadequate preparation for it. “47

It was from this social-political fray that fascism emerged in Britain, and under the guidance of Sir Oswald Mosley that it came nearest to political success. There had been at least two fascist groups in Britain before Mosley founded his BUF, the British Fascists and its outgrowth the Imperial Fascist League, founded by a former veterinarian Arnold Leese. The former organization was little more than a conservative pro-Britain group with few more than a couple of hundred members at any time, and Leese’s movement was influential only in terms of propagating a racialist anti-semitism. It was Mosley’s British Union of Fascists which “represented the mature form of the fascist phenomenon in British society. “48