1932-1938 Fascism rises - March of the Blackshirts

spacer 1933 Italian fascist chiefs greet Mosley

By the early 1930s Rotha Lintorn-Orman's British Fascists were a spent force. In May 1932 the movement sank further when Neil Francis Hawkins led a breakaway of the core active membership, leaving Lintorn-Orman with, it was said, "three old ladies and a couple of office boys". Amid lurid rumours of heavy drinking, drugs and wild orgies, her mother cut her allowance and the BF sank into bankruptcy. When Rotha Lintorn-Orman died, in March 1935, the organisation ceased to exist.

One of the earlier by-products of the BF, Arnold Leese's Imperial Fascist League, persisted throughout the 1930s, but its membership averaged a mere 150 and it did little more than peddle antisemitic literature. Although Leese was on one occasion gaoled for six months for "creating a public mischief", in general the authorities seemed reluctant to use the law against racist propaganda - even the outrageous filth for which Leese was responsible.

The great hope for British fascism in the 1930s was the movement led by Sir Oswald Mosley, a charismatic baronet with a chequered history (he had become a Tory MP in 1918, an Independent MP in 1922 and a Labour MP in 1926).

spacer 1932 Sir Oswald Mosley founds the British Union of Fascists

Although Mosley, "the aristocratic coxcomb" (as Leon Trotsky aptly described him), was mistrusted in the Labour Party, he rose rapidly. As a minister in the second Labour government (from 1929) he proposed radical measures, encompassing protectionism and Keynesian "demand-management", to solve the rapidly worsening unemployment crisis. When the government rejected the "Mosley Memorandum" in 1930 he resigned his post, and after issuing the "Mosley Manifesto" left the Labour Party, in 1931, to form the New Party as a challenge to the discredited "old gang" of the established parties.

The New Party was clearly proto-fascist. Mosley's plan for economic recovery proposed government by a Cabinet of "five dictators" and the party had squads of thugs, known as Mosley's "biff boys". John Strachey and other socialist recruits to the Party soon jumped ship, having detected what one called the "cloven hoof" of fascism. Following the party's humiliation at the October 1931 general election, any lingering doubts about Mosley's political trajectory were cleared up by his "fact-finding" visit to Italy (in January 1932) and his movement's subsequent absorption of Francis Hawkins's faction of the BF.

On 1 October 1932 the New Party's successor, the British Union of Fascists (BUF), was formally inaugurated, ostensibly as an attempt to unify all British fascist groups (although BUF members were soon addressing the IFL and other rival factions in the "fraternal" language of truncheons and knuckledusters). From the outset the BUF affected a paramilitary style, with ranks, Blackshirt uniforms, stiff-armed "Roman" salutes and (from 1933) a barracks-style headquarters - the Black House in Chelsea. A Women's Section, a Fascist Union of British Workers (FUBW), a Blackshirt Automobile Club and even fascist flying clubs were established. Rather more enigmatic was the BUF's shadowy "Z Department", headed by "P G Taylor" (who was actually an MI5 agent named James McGuirk Hughes).


BUF thinking was expounded by Mosley (the "Leader"), and the likes of W E D Allen, A K Chesterton and Alexander Raven Thomson, in books and party journals (in the early years Blackshirt and Fascist Week). The BUF's programme was a variant of the Italian "Corporate State" idea. Its ideology was a typically fascist blend of nationalism, quasi-mystical romanticism and rhetoric about "modernisation".

Prize recruits in the early years included John Beckett (of the Independent Labour Party), Major-General J F C Fuller and Captain Robert Gordon-Canning. Discreet links with businessmen and other influential people were forged through the "January Club". From early 1934 favourable publicity courtesy of Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail (which proclaimed "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!" in January 1934), did much to swell BUF ranks and by August 1934 membership had reached 50,000.

From spring 1933, following Hitler's rise to power and a shift in Communist policy, organised anti-fascism began to grow in Britain. A turning point was the BUF's June 1934 rally at London's Olympia, when fascist stewards brutally beat hecklers. At Hyde Park in September 1934, anti-fascists got the better of the Blackshirts, a pattern often to be repeated. Unfortunately, this has led some "revisionist" historians to endorse the fascists' spurious complaint that they were the innocent victims of "red terrorism".

The Olympia rally brought widespread condemnation of the BUF. Shortly afterwards, Rothermere withdrew his support and was accused by Mosley of bowing to threats by Jewish businessmen to remove advertising from his newspapers. In speeches at Manchester and London's Albert Hall in September and October 1934 Mosley avowed himself an antisemite (precipitating the resignation of his deputy, Robert Forgan).

The fascists, and the "revisionists", maintain that Jews picked on Mosley first and he merely responded. In addition, the rival fascist leader, Leese, mocked Mosley, the "kosher fascist", and his "British Jewnion of Fascists" for their lack of thoroughgoing antisemitism. But the BUF always contained dyed-in-the-wool Jew-baiters, not least William Joyce (formerly of the BF), who became Head of Propaganda. And the pull exerted by Nazism was clear: in 1933 the BUF had banned Jews from membership, called Jewish refugees from Germany "unwanted aliens" and warned British Jews not to campaign against Hitler. If Jews did "pick on" the BUF it was only because they could see the very real threat it posed.

According to Mosley's sister-in-law, he argued "that a dynamic creed such as Fascism cannot flourish unless it has a scapegoat to hit out at, such as Jewry". Given this, and the circumstances of 1934, the turn to antisemitism looks like a cynical manoeuvre intended to restore the BUF's flagging fortunes.

Without Rothermere's support, BUF membership went into free-fall and the movement was forced to relinquish the Black House in favour of more modest headquarters at Sanctuary Buildings in Westminster. We now know that the movement's problems were exacerbated by the temporary withdrawal in early 1935 of the huge financial subsidy that it had been receiving from Mussolini since June 1933 (a source of income about which Mosley consistently lied). The price paid for the restoration of the subsidy was the BUF's "Mind Britain's Business" campaign, in support of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. This, predictably, flopped and the BUF remained at a low ebb. By October 1935 it had just 5,000 members. It failed to contest the November 1935 general election, instead advancing the vacuous slogan "Fascism Next Time".

During 1935-36 the greatly diminished BUF underwent a series of organisational changes. Local structures were strengthened and the movement concentrated its energies on a series of localised campaigns (although there were national campaigns, notably an intervention in the 1936 abdication crisis under the slogan "Stand by the King"). Industrial recruitment drives were organised in various regions, most notably among workers in Lancashire's hard-hit cotton industry (the FUBW was abandoned in favour of infiltrating existing unions). In East Anglia the BUF campaigned among farmers resisting the payment of tithes to the church.

The BUF's most successful localised campaign was waged in the East End of London. In the midst of Britain's biggest Jewish community the BUF played up its antisemitism, recruiting thugs and bigots such as the infamous "Mick" Clarke. By November 1936 national BUF membership stood at 15,500; perhaps as many as half of these members were in East London.

However, anti-fascists were determined that the Blackshirts would be denied control of the East End's streets. At the Battle of Cable Street, on 4 October 1936, a quarter of a million anti-fascists thronged the area in opposition to a planned march by 7,000 BUF supporters. The police were unable to force the march through and the BUF was obliged to call it off. Subsequently, the 1936 Public Order Act was passed, outlawing political uniforms and giving the authorities the power to ban demonstrations.

At local council elections in 1937 the BUF stood in several parts of the country but did not win a single seat. Although at the London County Council elections the fascists polled significantly in the East End, their failure to get elected was a bitter blow. Unimpressed, Mussolini withdrew the BUF's subsidy for good. Substantial cuts in the BUF apparatus followed, including a reduction in the size of its headquarters and the redundancy of many full-time officials. Simmering antagonisms among the leadership came to a head, and Joyce and Beckett abandoned Mosley ("the Bleeder") to form the minuscule National Socialist League.

Even before the loss of Italian money the BUF was showing signs of increasing affinity with the Nazis. In 1936 the movement was renamed the "British Union of Fascists and National Socialists", although members now invariably referred to it as the "British Union" (apparently recognising that association with fascism and Nazism was a political liability). At the end of 1936 the theoretical Fascist Quarterly became the British Union Quarterly. The movement also changed its symbol, dropping the Italian fasces for a swastika-like lightning-flash in a circle, intended to symbolise "action in unity" (anti-fascists jokingly dubbed it the "flash in the pan"). And there was an SS-style uniform for sellers of the new BUF paper Action.

Mosley made several low-profile visits to Germany and in October 1936 married his second wife, Diana Guinness, in Berlin with Goebbels and Hitler in attendance. His new wife was herself an enthusiastic Germanophile whose sister, Unity Mitford, was a notorious hanger-on of Hitler. Mosley even had plans to establish a commercial radio station broadcasting from Germany. It seems highly likely that German money found its way to the BUF.

In the late 1930s several associated pro-German and pro-appeasement groups emerged (notably the Nordic League, the Link, the Right Club and the British People's Party); current and past members of the BUF were connected with these circles.

During 1938-39 the BUF campaigned energetically for peace with Hitler under the slogans "Britons fight for Britain only" and "Mosley and Peace". In July 1939 Mosley addressed a "peace" rally of some 20,000 at London's Exhibition Hall in Earl's Court. This campaign brought new members (older and more middle-class than previous recruits), with membership reaching 16,500 in December 1938 and 22,500 in September 1939. Yet, despite this belated upturn in its fortunes, the BUF remained small and isolated.

With hindsight the failure of British fascism in the 1930s was inevitable. Britain's inter-war economic and social crisis was real enough, but its dimensions were very different from those of the crises experienced in continental Europe. Although some parts of the United Kingdom suffered appallingly from the effects of long-term economic decline, others saw the growth of new industries and new prosperity. Britain's unemployment problem was significantly less acute than that in mainland Europe and, despite the many faults of Britain's benefit system, it was enough to ensure that the unemployed were not the political tinder they became elsewhere.

To many people, Mosley was simply "a cad and a wrong 'un" (to quote Stanley Baldwin) who had put himself "beyond the pale", and whose movement seemed more ludicrous than dangerous. In P G Wodehouse's 1938 satire about "Roderick Spode", Leader of the "Black Shorts", Bertie Wooster tells Spode: "because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of halfwits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting 'Heil, Spode!' and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: 'Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?'"

Yet for those who were in physical danger from BUF thugs the menace of fascism was all too tangible, as Jewish East Enders could testify. The fascists threatened to poison the political atmosphere in Britain by pushing onto the mainstream political agenda the antisemitism that was all too prevalent in inter-war British society. Meanwhile, elements of the political establishment and the state seemed too often complacent about, or even favourably disposed towards, the fascists. Those socialists, communists, Jews, trade unionists and others who confronted the fascists, physically and ideologically, in the 1930s undoubtedly performed an invaluable service and set an admirable example.

by David Turner










Fighting fascism in the 1930s