Back in 1994 I was on a demonstration against the British National Party (BNP) headquarters in Welling. Police had launched into the 60,000-strong march leading to an afternoon of constant police attacks as they blocked us reaching the Nazi offices. As we reached the end a strange group handed out a leaflet explaining not just why they hadn’t joined our march but how they opposed it because the BNP were not a problem! Apparently the Nazis had a right to free speech and we were ignoring the real racists in the shape of the ruling Tory government and their Labour friends. They did not go down well.
Reading Martin Pugh’s Hurrah for the Blackshirts reminded me of that day. From page one he assures us Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) could never have seriously challenged for power in 1930s Britain and the real danger came from the friends and appeasers in the Tory Party and the upper classes.
Maybe… but following the victory of Mussolini, Hitler, Franco and the takeover of Austria by the far right the idea that fascism was a clear and present danger in Britain was not so farfetched. And it was the rise of fascist movements, whether ultimately successful or not, that had pushed liberal and conservative rulers across Europe in a more authoritarian and racist direction.
I suspect that this book began as a study of the pro-fascist inclinations of much of the pre-war Tory party, the aristocracy and all those who believed in snuggling up to Hitler and Mussolini. Anti-communism was one overriding concern that in the early 1920s drove Lord Rothermere, the Daily Mail‘s proprietor, to begin his long love affair with fascism – starting with the adulation of Benito Mussolini in Italy. Pugh points out he was not alone, quoting Winston Churchill’s and Christabel Pankhurst’s support for il Duce.
At a time when Blair and Bush like to brand the left and the anti-war camp as ‘appeasers’ any book which lists the real appeasers in the final years of the 1930s and points out just what a grip they had on the Tory party deserves plaudits. It is worth knowing that Price Waterhouse was one of the corporate sponsors of the Anglo-German Fellowship in 1936 alongside Thomas Cook, Unilever, the Midland Bank and the Dunlop Rubber Company. The fellowship organised dinners with special guests including Ribbentrop and Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s foreign secretary and deputy respectively.
Pugh is clear too that the appeasers in Downing Street and on the pheasant-shooting circuit were not responding to public opinion – they were defying it. From Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 the popular mood was for standing up to the fascist dictators. The mood in Downing Street was for giving them a free hand.
But this book does not live up to the promise of its title. It is not a study of the BUF. It suggests that British capitalism was not shaken by the crisis of the 1930s to the same extent as Germany, which provided Hitler with his opportunity to come to power. But of course British capitalism still, just about, straddled the globe in the 1930s. Is Britain so immune today?
Neither was the victory of fascism simply based on objective factors in both 1922 Italy and 1933 Germany. In Italy the left and hopes of revolution were well dashed by the time the Italian liberals, Tories, Catholics, generals and the king decided they had no alternative but to hoist Mussolini into the premiership. In Germany the Nazis were slipping in the polls by the close of 1932 and many of the measures which cut unemployment in the mid-1930s were in place.
The more interesting question is why liberals, Tories and all shades of ruling class opinion decided to hand power to people they found rather distasteful and to whom they had shown little support up until that moment. There were after all options in both cases but options which involved centre-left participation in government had become unacceptable to a ruling class gripped by irrational fears.
Pugh gives us a glimpse of a ruling class in Britain prey to fears of its own irreversible decline, which hated the Labour Party and resented the rise of US capitalism. Mosley waited for a crisis to lift him into parliament and on to office. The list of those prepared to back him or at least to flirt with him shows what might have been. Above all fascists and their friends found an echo in ruling circles for their pro-Hitler, anti-Jewish, anti-communist beliefs.
Mosley was, like Hitler and Mussolini, playing a double game – courting traditional right wingers and liberals while also letting his ‘rougher’ street thugs loose in the East End of London against the Jews. All fascist movements operate on both levels and all experience tension between the two wings.
Mosley was a scion of the ruling class, at home in the best of circles, but also capable of playing the ‘rough game’ to its full. Many in the drawing rooms of the wealthy thought him a ‘cad’ and an adventurer. But he was a safer bet for those people than Hitler or Mussolini. His moment did not arrive. It does not mean fascism is not a threat or even a possibility (as ever in a guise suitable for the times) in the Britain of the 21st century.
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