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The Matter of Britain Series

British Fascist movements up to 1940

Sir Oswald Mosley. So... Who would want to come out of the woodwork and play along with the forces of Occupation? Erm, not that many people, actually.

The best-known British fascist of the period is Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley. Born to an aristocratic background in 1896, his parents fell out and 'Tom' as he was always known to family and friends, was brought up by his mother and paternal Grandfather, the fourth Baronet Mosley. In WW1 he was commissioned in the 16th Lancers, later transferring to the Royal Flying Corps but sustained a leg injury in training which left him with a permanent limp and one leg three inches shorter than the other. He returned to the trenches before the injury was healed and at the battle of Loos stayed at his post until he passed out with the pain. He served out the rest of the war in desk jobs.

In 1920 married Lady Cynthia Curzon, daughter of Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India and prominent Tory politician. Cynthia was always very supportive of her husband's political activities.

He entered Parliament as a Conservative, became an Independent and crossed over to the Independent Labour Party. His wife was also elected for Labour. He became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Macdonald government. With the huge growth in unemployment in 1929-30 he proposed very radical measures to alleviate the problem in a memo to the government. In the 1930 Labour Annual Conference at Llandudno, a constituency motion supporting his measures was narrowly defeated.

Mosley thus started planning his own political movement, a 'modern' (a word he used a lot, as did the Mussolini fascists) movement of younger men and women rather than the old farts who were, as he saw it, ruining the country. At this time he had friends among the younger politicians of all parties, including Aneurin Bevan, Harold Macmillan and the flamboyant, untrustworthy bisexual Bob Boothby.

In 1930-31 he formed the New Party with a small group of friends and fellow-MPs, including his wife, drawing massive odium from his old friends in the Labour party in the process. It soon became necessary, as Mosley saw it, to have stewards to prevent New Party public meetings being broken up by lefties. These men quickly became known in the popular press as the 'Biff Boys', and were direct forerunners of his Blackshirt stewards.

The formation of the National Government and the general election of 1931 wiped out the New Party in Parliament. All MPs lost their seats and all by two out of 224 candidates lost their deposits in the National Government landslide.

Mosley now decided to model his movement more closely on Mussolini's and formally set up the British Union of Fascists on October 1 1932.

At this time there were a number of other fascist parties. The largest of these was the British Fascists, founded by Somerset dairy-farmer Rotha Lintorn-Orman (d.1937) in the early 1920s and which for a while had several thousand members until fragmented by infighting.

Arnold Spencer-Leese. Then there was the Imperial Fascist League, founded by Arnold Spencer-Leese (1877-1956). Leese had worked as a vet for 20 years in India and Africa and was the world's leading authority on camels. A non-smoker and teetotaller, Leese was an animal-lover and an extreme antisemite, partly on account of the kosher method of slaughter. Leese's Imperial Fascist League was never that large, rarely managing to field more than about 20 bully-boys at even its biggest events, but as a loony right ideologist Leese was very influential. The IFL adopted the swastika as its emblem and was dressing its supporters in black shirts long before Mosley came along. Mosley invited Leese to join the BUF but he refused, and always damned the BUF as a bunch of pansies and milksops who weren't serious enough about the Jewish threat.

An aside: throughout our period, there's a big debate in fascist circles as to how it should be pronounced. British fascists tended to pronounce it 'fassist', though not always.

The BUF soon acquired an old teacher training college in Chelsea in which they set up HQ. It was known as the Black House, but had to be sold a couple of years later in one of the party's several financial crises.

In 1933 Cynthia Mosley died of peritonitis and her husband threw himself into his political work. The movement grew quite quickly, having an estimated 5,000 paid-up members at this time. These were not enough to pay the party's huge running costs (there were well over 100 paid officials, plus vehicles, buildings and publications). The funds came from Mosley himself, who in modern money would be a millionaire, from shadowy private and industrial donors and, quite probably, from Mussolini. There is no evidence that Hitler supported Mosley financially, though it seems highly likely, especially given his attachment to the Mitford girls. Some historians claim that Hitler funded the BU via a French banker named Armand Gregoire, who was later banker to Wallis Simpson.

At the beginning of 1934, Rothermere's Daily Mail came out in support of the BUF, which at this stage is not overtly anti-semitic and which does not yet have a reputation for violence. At this time, the BUF also scored a significant recruit in the form of Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, one of the most senior aristocrats in Scotland. He soon lost interest and returned to Kenya, where he was murdered in 1940 (remember 'White Mischief'?). With the Mail's help, the BUF packed 10,000 people into the Albert Hall for a huge rally which was a great success.

They tried to repeat the success in June at Olympia and once again the Mail pressed its readers to buy tickets. But the rally was a disaster; the huge, and largely respectable audience was horrified at the brutal way BUF stewards ejected left-wing hecklers and innocent people, while the police had to fend off thousands of antifascist protestors outside.

Olympia led to a decisive fall in the popularity of the BUF. Hitler's Night of the Long Knives a few weeks later decisively turned British middle-class opinion against fascism and Rothermere's support for the BUF fell away.

Through 1935, the BUF underwent a major reorganisation. Neil Francis-Hawkins became Mosley's second in command. He was an unimaginative bureaucrat, a former sales man of surgical instruments who was totally loyal to Mosley. William Joyce, a sneery working-class intellectual who fancied himself as the movement's chief ideologist, became Director of Propaganda. The Director of Publications was John Beckett, a former Labour MP. By this time, JFC Fuller was now also a prominent member of the Policy Committee. A former army officer and one of the first theorists of tank warfare, Fuller was a far more original thinker than many of the movement's other ex-officer members. Fuller was a hardline antisemite and dabbler in the occult and had for some time been an admirer of Crowley. Fuller and Joyce disliked one another intensely; Joyce never got on with the movement's upper-crust members.

One other interesting member active at this time was Henry Williamson, WW1 veteran, Aryan mysticist, virulent antisemite and author of the bestselling 'Tarka the Otter'. What the hell is it with animal-lovers and fascism? Williamson contributed several articles to the BU newspaper 'Action' and allowed it to reprint several extracts from his book. 'The Patriot's Progress'.

At the start of 1936 the BUF was renamed the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists but the new title was rarely used, and instead it was mainly known as the British Union. The changes reflect the waning of the Mussolini influence and the rise of the Hitler influence. In British Union literature, the word 'fascism' was used less and 'national socialism' was used more. A favoured recruiting slogan at this time was 'If you love your country you are National, if you love her people you are a Socialist - Be a National Socialist.'

Despite the Olympia debacle, the BU embarked on what was in effect a completely new career in 1936 when it managed to gather something approaching a mass-following in the East End of London, especially Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and Stepney, where around a quarter of the population were Jewish. The BU's recruiting and propgandising activities in the area yielded a new raft of Cockney, and to a lesser extent, Irish, support.

BU's campaigning in the East End culminated in the Cable Street Riots of 5.10.1936, when 2,000-3,000 fascists tried to march through but were stopped by police fearing major bloodshed from socialist and Jewish counter-demonstrators. The Cable Street Riots led directly to Parliament passing the Public Order Act which banned political uniforms, the use of stewards at open-air meetings and gave the police the power to ban marches. BU success in the East End continued for some time after this, however; in the 1937 London County Council elections, the BU stood candidates in three East End Wards and won a fifth of the vote. This was later to prove the high-water mark of pre-war British fascism. Cable Street also fully established a tactic that British far-right groups have used ever since - marching provocatively through a sensitive area, with police protection, and playing the innocent when socialists turn out to riot. On this occasion, no-one was in any doubt whose fault it all was, which is a curious contrast with those Nationl Front marches of the 1970s when the Tory press would try and claim that the violence was all the fault of the Socialist Workers Party.

In 1936 Mosley married his longstanding mistress Diana Guinness, (nee Mitford) in Germany. After the ceremony, the couple dined with Hitler, Goebbels and other top Nazis. There is little evidence, however, that Hitler and Mosley hit it off.

In the Abdication Crisis, the BU was firmly behind Edward VIII, having long-since seen in him the kind of 'modern' monarch who would fit in well with the new fascist order. There were also personal connections between Mosley and Edward. His first wife's sister Alexandra Curzon, known to her friends as 'Ba-Ba' had married Edward's best friend 'Fruity' Metcalfe. When she became an ardent Mosleyite she got nicknamed 'Ba-Ba Blackshirt'. Edward and Mosley were essentially part of the same social set, had met several times and had carried on a long correspondence about fascism.

The critical thing about the Abdication Crisis, though, was that Mosley saw this as a possible opportunity to seize power. PM Baldwin threatened that he and his government would resign if the King openly married Wallis, and he had an undertaking from Labour leader Attlee that he would not try to form a government. If the King stood firm, then in the ensuing constitutional crisis, Mosley might have been able to seize power on a tidal wave of popular support for the monarch. Unlikely, but just about possible. This, I think,  is why the political establishment, Labour and Tory alike, were so keen to keep Edward out of the country once he'd abdicated. Hitler later said that this episode demonstrated Mosley's poor political judgement.

1937 sees another financial crisis and some 100 of the BU's 130-ish paid officials had to be laid off. Beckett and Joyce were also sacked, though the reasons aren't clear beyond perhaps the fact that Mosley didn't see either of them as being sufficiently loyal to him.

Beckett and Joyce now formed a rival organisation, the National Socialist League, which never attracted much of a following, perhaps 100 or so members at most. Beckett quit after Munich. Joyce always said that he would fight for Hitler, even if Hitler was fighting Britain, because Hitler was fighting the Jews and ultimately this was more important. What Hitler was doing was for Britain's good in the long run. It's worth noting that Joyce was not actually a British citizen, never had been. He was American.

In the 1938 municipal elections, 22 BU candidates across the country polled less than 3,000 votes in total. It was a complete humiliation, and is worth noting in that that they were a spent force long before the war actually broke out.

At this time another leading supporter, A.K. Chesterton left the party. Cousin of the famous novelist and poet G.K. Chesterton, AK had been a member since the earliest days and was (probably) the only BU member to have been offered a job by the Nazis (as a propagandist, based in Berlin) before the war. A.K. turned the offer down, since although he was pro-Nazi, he was a British patriot first and foremost. He resigned as editor of 'Action' in 1938 because he was concerned that Mosley was getting too matey by half with the Nazis and because he was concerned that the BU had too little regard for the truth in its propaganda.

Mosley was now concentrating most of his energies on lobbying against the war with Germany which everyone could see was threatening, especially after Britain and France issued their guarantee to Poland in March 1939. The BU's swansong was a rally at Earl's Court in July 1939 attended by 15,000 supporters.

On the outbreak of war:

* Chesterton joined the Army.

* Joyce, a few days before hostilities were declared fled to Germany with his wife. He had intended to become a soldier but instead took up the offer of a job as a radio broadcaster. The Lord Haw-Haw title, by the way, he inherited from another Englishman broadcasting from Germany, one Norman Baillie-Stewart, a real weirdo (who'd been at Sandhurst at the same time as David Niven!) who'd lived in Germany and Austria through the 1930s after serving a five-year prison sentence in Britain for spying.

* Mosley, writing in 'Action' instructed BU members to do nothing to harm their country and to obey the law. He lobbied for a negotiated peace while insisting that the BU would do nothing to impede the war effort. In the event of invasion, he insisted, the BU would do everything to repel the Germans. Every public meeting he was at ended in near-riot.

In May 1940, when France had fallen and things were starting to look serious, Parliament passed laws (an amendment to Defence Regulation 18b) enabling the Home Secretary to detain without trial anyone who might endanger the safety of the realm. Mosley and eight other leading fascists were arrested on May 23rd and another 1600 or so followed in succeeding weeks. Home Secretary Anderson dissolved the BU on May 30th. Around three quarters of the detainees were BU members, representing more or less the entire active strength of the party. The best known non-BU detainee was Captain Maule Ramsay, a Scottish Tory MP who had been embroiled in a spy scandal and who was an overt Hitler sympathiser.

* One of the last to be caught was Leese, who went into hiding. Too bad for him he returned to his home in Guildford only to find that detectives were searching the place at the time. He quietly entered his bedroom and, seeing a policeman bent over a chest-of-drawers couldn't resist the temptation to kick him in the pants.

Some say that collaring 1600 people like this was an overreaction. Some of those arrested were in war work, and one man was taken into custody a few days after making several hazardous crossings to Dunkirk and back in his yacht. In the invasion panic, however, the government feared saboteurs and fifth columnists.

Most of the rank-and-file detainees had been released by the end of the year. Those of military age usually got out on condition that they joined the forces. Williamson was interned in 1940 but was released after a couple of years on condition that he did nothing to impede the war effort.

Mosley was taken to Pentonville, his wife to Holloway some weeks later (she'd just had a baby), but later the two of them were given reasonably comfortable married quarters in Holloway. Maule Ramsay carried on his parliamentary activities from his cell, though, of course, he couldn't attend the House.

Home Secretary Herbert Morrison released the Mosleys in November 1943 on medical advice. Morrison didn't want Mosley to become a martyr, but there were enormous protests in the house and about 5,000 demonstrators gathered in Downing Street.

Leese was also released on medical grounds. By VE Day only 23 people were still in prison, including Francis-Hawkins. After the war the latter tried to go back to his job as a surgical instrument salesman, but when the workforce found out who he was they all went on strike until he was fired.

After the war, Leese returned to politics, but just as a writer and publisher. His monthly newsletter 'Gothic Ripples' attacked Jews and the fluoridisation of water. He died in 1956, but it was Leese's philosophies, rather than Mosley's, which were to form the basis of postwar British fascism.
 

ENDS
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