To commemorate this week's 70th anniversary of the 'Battle of Cable Street', here's my review of Martin Pugh's book 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts' from The Spectator.
‘HURRAH FOR THE BLACKSHIRTS’
Fascists and Fascism in Britain between the wars.
by Martin Pugh
Published by Jonathan Cape £20.00
In David Lean’s classic film ‘This Happy Breed’, husband and wife Frank and Ethel Gibbons pause for a moment to listen to a Blackshirt haranguing the crowd in Hyde Park. They glance at each other, smile and then utter the immortal words 'let’s go for a nice cup of tea.' The view that Fascism never made it big in inter-war Britain, because as a people we will always prefer a brew to a coup, is one which has persisted for over half a century. Yet, as Martin Pugh shows in his masterly study of Fascism and Fascists between the wars, it’s one which if not wholly wrong, certainly requires serious revision.
The Blackshirts may never have made it into power, but fascist ideas were far more widespread in Britain than the official post-WW2 version of history would have us believe. In the aftermath of Belsen and Auschwitz, many will find this appalling. But while today Fascism is considered an extreme and indefensible ideology, for many inter-war Britons, Fascist beliefs seemed eminently reasonable.
The first of several myths that Pugh seeks to debunk is that inter-war Fascism was a ‘political contagion’, arriving like most unpleasant things, from abroad and something against which the British had an inbuilt immunity. While many Fascist groups did draw their inspiration from Mussolini’s Italy- and in the case of the British Union of Fascists (the B.U.F.) their funding too- the pre-conditions for a Fascist movement were already present in Britain before 1914 and the Fascism which did develop had a distinctly British flavour.
Myth two, is the political classification of all Fascist parties as being on the ‘far right’. Some, such as Viscount Lymington’s English Mistery- which sought to turn the clock back to around 1720 were reactionary, but the most popular Fascist party of the period, the B.U.F, had a programme of social and economic reform far to the left of anything the Labour Party was offering at the time. John Beckett, the former Labour M.P. who followed another, Oswald Mosley, into the B.U.F. claimed to have found more sincere Socialist conviction in his new party than he had ever seen in his former one and was not alone among left-wing radicals in believing that the progressive, modernising programme outlined by Mosley in his ‘The Greater Britain’ manifesto of 1932, offered the working classes significantly more hope than the Means Test bequeathed them by Ramsay McDonald.
Another myth is that the Fascist views were too ‘extreme’ to be co-opted by other parties.
The definition of extremist is a relative one- it was not the self-styled ‘socialist imperialist’ Mosley who stated that he was ‘strongly in favour of the use of poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes’, but Winston Churchill, the man recently voted the nation’s greatest Briton. The Fascists were not alone in their staunch support for Empire, nor in their support of economic protectionism- a policy which was adopted, albeit in a diluted form, by the ‘moderates’ of the National Government in 1932.
Neither did anti-Semitism or violence at political meetings come with a Fascist copyright. As Pugh points out there were few politicians who went out of their way to insult Jews more than Sir William Joynson-Hicks, who received as his reward the job of Home Secretary in Stanley Baldwin’s 1924-29 Conservative government. Joynson-Hicks would have felt less at home in the B.U.F, which, at least in its early days, eschewed anti-Semitism and forbade Jew-baiting in any form. The B.U.F.’s slide into anti-Semitism in the mid-to-late 30s is commonly held to have lost it support, but Pugh believes that the party may actually have suffered by not being anti-Semitic enough -at a time when the influx of Jewish refugees was pushing the issue up the agenda and the B.U.F. found itself outflanked by other newly formed Fascist parties. But why, if so many of its tenets were so widely accepted, did Fascism- and in particular the B.U.F,. fail to make a major political breakthrough?
Bad luck and timing undoubtedly played their part. The gravest economic/political crisis of the period reached its peak in 1930/1 before the B.U.F. had even come into existence and by the time the party had hit their stride, unemployment, though still high in many parts of the country, was already falling nationwide. In 1936 the B.U.F. sniffed power at the time of the constitutional crisis, but King Edward VIII’s tame surrender to Baldwin’s ultimatum dashed their hopes of being summoned as members of a new government. The lead-up to war saw the Fascists under increasing pressure: Hitler’s foreign policy highlighted the contradiction between their patriotism and their increasingly pro-German stance. In the end, liberal democracy, long derided by the Fascists for being weak and dissolute, had the last laugh. In May 1940, Mosley, his wife and several other hundred Fascists were arrested under Regulation 18B- and held without charge- the foundation in Churchill’s own words ‘of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist’. As Pugh points out, neither Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Soviet Russia was able to mobilise their human resources and win the co-operation of the population as effectively as Britain in the waging of World War Two. In its moment of crisis, liberalism proved that it worked after all- even if it meant at times doing some rather illiberal things.
But, sixty years on, does Britain’s national story since 1945 really make, as Pugh concludes, ‘the earlier fascist thesis about conspiracy, decline, decadence and rejuvenation appear irrelevant and defeatist’? The jury is surely still out on this one and you don‘t have to be a fascist to have your doubts.