There is a long-standing current of opinion in Britain that fascism could never take hold here—that it is an “un-British” phenomenon that the establishment would never allow.
Yet fascists in 1930s Britain won support from important sections of the ruling class and created a mass following that was only broken by a powerful movement.
Oswald Mosley was an established political figure when he set up the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932. Two years later the BUF had grown to 40,000 members.
It grew by exploiting the economic crisis of the 1930s and using the competition that existed for jobs and housing to scapegoat Jews.
Yet the BUF’s growth would not have been possible without the capitulation of Labour and trade union leaders to a capitalist system intent on making workers pay for the economic crisis.
The then Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald formed a coalition government in 1931 whose only commitment was to attack workers’ living conditions.
Oswald Mosley defected from Labour and formed the New Party, which originally received support from sections of the left.
But Mosley’s aim was not to build a left alternative to Labour. It was to embrace fascism. The New Party was short-lived and the BUF was formed a year later.
Mosley had been an MP for 13 years, first as a Tory and then Labour. He was an opportunist and a populist.
He argued to put “Britain First”. He claimed to stand against bureaucracy and the powers of large corporations, fighting for the “little man”. He blamed immigrants for society’s problems.
Mosley visited Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and aimed to emulate them. Mosley said in 1934, “Fascism today has become a worldwide movement, invading every country in the hour of crisis as the only alternative to destructive communism.”
Hitler was clear that the fascist movement had to be moulded and shaped into a fighting force. That was the purpose of Mosley’s Blackshirts—to make BUF members feel powerful.
BUF members paraded through areas with high immigrant populations such as the East End of London, where half the population was Jewish.
Blackshirts would march through east London chanting “The Yids, the Yids, we gotta get rid of the Yids”, plastering the area with racist graffiti and attacking individual Jews.
The Blackshirts were well organised thugs, backed up by the overwhelmingly middle class BUF leadership, including many ex-army officers.
Fascism never broke into the organised working class, or into areas where there was resistance to unemployment.
Mosley—like Hitler—may have used populist rhetoric about the “little man”, but it was the big corporations fascism really set out to protect.
Like Hitler, he planned to abolish parliamentary democracy and ban independent trade unions.
Sections of the ruling class—frightened about losing their profitable system—started to court the fascists.
In Germany, where the economic and political crisis was much sharper, the rulers embraced them fully.
Mosley received considerable support during his “golden years” from 1932–34.
One of the richest press barons and owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, used his Sunday Dispatch to give £1 prizes for the best postcards explaining “Why I like the Blackshirts”.
Society magazine Tatler gave Mosley a full page, praising his “rare gift of political courage”.
Tory and Labour MPs supported Mosley as did the Duke of Wellington, the Duke of Montrose, the Earl of Marlborough, Lady Douglas Hamilton and Admiral Nicholson.
The BUF had no trouble with funding and received generous donations from the captains of industry.
Mosley was wined and dined by many establishment figures and he used this to gain respectability and to be regarded as a part of mainstream political society.
Arguments raged on the left about how to stem the rise of the fascists.
The leadership of the Labour Party was hostile to the left. In 1933 the Labour Party issued a statement saying, “Communist dictatorship, or fear of it, has led to fascist dictatorship.”
They were to denounce almost every anti-fascist protest—as were the TUC. They believed that fascism could be beaten by argument and education.
Mosley was invited to the Cambridge Union, debated with the leader of the Labour Party Clement Attlee and shared a platform with the ex-prime minister Lloyd George on the BBC.
This only served to give Mosley the respectability he wanted.
Mosley’s aim was to capitalise on the BUF’s support and growth by holding large rallies. These, he hoped, would deliver a final seal of approval from his rich backers, galvanise his members and demonstrate his power as a future leader of the country.
Mussolini had been in power in Italy for over a decade, Hitler had just succeeded in Germany and now Mosley thought it was his turn. It may have worked, were it not for the “destructive communism” that Mosley’s fascism set out to crush.
A fascist rally planned for the Olympia in London in June 1934 was a turning point. The opposition to the rally (organised by the Communist Party, with less than 7,000 members) signalled an end to Mosley’s strategy.
Over 12,000 people attended the BUF rally, amongst them many dignitaries, journalists and MPs.
Thousands gathered to protest and hundreds managed to get into the hall to heckle. Anti-fascists met brutal force—from the fascists inside the hall and from the police who attacked them outside.
This caused outrage among sections of the audience. From this moment onwards, his respectable support began to falter. Lord Rothermere withdrew support, saying he did not believe in dictatorship, antisemitism or the corporate state.
The next rally was cancelled. But the fascists regrouped and called for a mass rally in Hyde Park, three months after the Olympia event.
The Communist Party had gathered more support for their actions and united with ad-hoc groups, and trade union and Labour Party left wingers to form the Committee for Anti-Fascist Activities.
They called a counter-demonstration to confront the fascists. Up to 150,000 anti-fascists drowned out Mosley’s speech to a mere 2,500 fascists, who were cordoned in by 6,000 police.
These were the days before mobile phones and computers—the huge protest was built by throwing leaflets from the roofs in Whitehall, hanging banners from the BBC HQ and from the Law Courts, and chalking on pavements.
This was the future—a movement that could confront the BUF, expose them politically and halt their growth.
It was born amid political hostility from the leadership of the TUC and the Labour Party, who denounced the demonstrators, saying they were as bad as the fascists.
Despite this, hundreds of thousands of anti-fascists came out and confronted the BUF.
The movement included members of the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the Quakers, the Catholic church, trade unionists, community groups and many other political, social and cultural organisations.
Over the next two years the anti-fascist movement successfully held Mosley and the BUF back by mass protests. In every instance the police protected the fascists and demonstrators built barricades and had running battles with the police.
In 1936 around 300,000 people took to the streets to stop the Blackshirts marching, in what has become known as the Battle of Cable Street. Housewives united with Irish dockers, who joined arms with Jewish residents and students.
Tram drivers abandoned their vehicles and builders’ merchants erected barricades.
The chief commissioner of the police abandoned the route, leading the fascists away from east London. This happened again in Bermondsey, south London, one year later.
There was a fight on for the political direction of society. It was sharp, it was brutal and it was quick. The resistance to Mosley worked—after Olympia in 1934 and Cable Street in 1936 the BUF lost respectability, supporters and members.
Fascism in Britain was stopped by mass protests, led by the left and in opposition to the “official” leaders of the movement.
Today’s fascists, like Mosley and the BUF, hope to exploit a system in crisis and gain support by disguising their politics. The struggle of the 1930s has left a lasting lesson for anti-fascists in Britain—that we can only defeat the Nazis by confronting them.