Hurrah for the Blackshirts! Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh

Why it didn't happen here
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A couple of years ago, the novelist Nicholas Mosley gave an interview in which he suggested that Eton had "saved" him from Fascism. This statement would have amused anyone who recalled that Mosley's father (Oswald, the founder of the British Union of Fascists) spent his own formative years among the jackbooted thugs of Winchester College. More generally, perhaps, the novelist's remarks capture the sense that Fascism in Britain never exercised much influence over the Establishment and never stood much chance of becoming an important political movement.

Martin Pugh's new book sets out to counter this interpretation. He takes his title from the article that Viscount Rothermere published in support of Oswald Mosley in the Daily Mail on 15 January 1934. Rothermere was the most prominent of the many wealthy and influential people who expressed support for the British Union of Fascists or for Fascist ideas.

Pugh looks at such people but also at the full social spectrum of British support for Fascism. He stresses that the Fascist movement did not begin or end with Mosley and that support for Fascism did not just come from East End toughs. It also came from women, from the countryside and from parts of the industrial North. Pugh explores these various strands with a keen eye for detail and a lively sense of the absurd. When a Blackshirt in uniform boarded a bus in Lancashire, the passengers thought he was the conductor and tried to give him their fares.

For all his amusing anecdotes, Pugh takes British Fascism seriously. He argues that the explanation for the failure of Fascism here does not lie "primarily in British political culture". On the contrary, some cherished institutions fitted neatly into a particularly British conception of Fascism.

This was true of the monarchy. Ever since before the First World War, some British conservatives had complained about the loss of monarchical power to parliament. During the inter-war period, British Fascists ostentatiously paraded their loyalty to the King.

Blackshirts in Bognor obtained special permission to wear their uniform during a coronation procession in 1937. Pugh suggests that Edward VIII - young, self-consciously "modern", prone to interfere in politics and sympathetic to Germany - was an attractive figure for the British Fascists, and the crisis around his abdication could have provided an opportunity for a coup d'état. Empire was another cause that could easily be turned to Fascist ends. Pugh argues that conservative distaste for what they saw as retreat in India encouraged some to look to Mosley.

He shows how easily Fascism intertwined with established authorities in Britain. A Conservative MP wrote in 1934 that "there cannot be any fundamental difference of outlook between the Black Shirts and their parents the Conservatives... why should there not be concord and agreement between that old historic party and this new virile offshoot?" The police sometimes looked on Fascists with indulgence or sympathy. People who described themselves as Fascists often enlisted as special constables, and some offered help in keeping order during the general strike of 1926. The Battle of Cable Street in 1936, which has entered left-wing mythology as a battle between the Blackshirts and the anti-Fascists, was really a battle between anti-Fascists and the police.

Fascism did not, however, come to power, or come close to coming to power in Britain. Partly because of Rothermere's support, the British Union of Fascists attracted a degree of attention that its predecessors in the 1920s had never managed. Its membership seems to have increased sharply in the first six months of 1934. But, in June that year, the brutal treatment of demonstrators by Fascist stewards at a meeting in the Olympia stadium alienated some members of the Establishment. Even Rothermere withdrew his support soon afterwards and, the following year, Stanley Baldwin caught Mosley's movement by surprise by calling a general election before it had had time to prepare a list of candidates.

Pugh argues that all this was largely a matter of "timing and contingencies". If the general strike had gone on longer, if the economic crisis had occurred later or if the king had proved more resolute during the abdication crisis, then Fascism might have stood a chance.

These are big ifs. One does not have to be a naive admirer of the British democratic character to think there are significant reasons why Fascism was weaker here than in many continental countries.

First, the British economy was different. In particular, it was less dependent on agriculture than that of any other European country. Consequently, Mosley's exploitation of rural resentment of cheap imports and church tithes did not get him the kind of mass support obtained by peasant fascists in eastern Europe, or even by Henry Dorgères's Greenshirts in France.

Second, mainland Britain had no land frontiers and experienced none of the turmoil caused in central Europe by the ways in which such frontiers were redrawn in 1919 and 1920. Third, violence was remarkably absent from inter-war British politics - probably more so than it had been before 1914.

After the Olympia meeting, Mosley mocked his critics by asking: "Where are the bodies?" This was a fair question: in Bulgaria, the right-wing coup of 1923 left 20,000 bodies. Yet the very passivity of British political life undermined Fascism. On the Continent, Fascism flourished in countries where the propertied classes were so terrified of Bolshevism that they turned a blind eye to other sorts of violence.

Mosley's supporters were tame by Continental standards. At one point, his meetings were protected by a group of "biff boys" led by the England rugby captain. But, in the absence of any serious threat of violence from the left, even this limited violence was enough to repel much of the middle class.

Of course, these arguments might be summed up by saying that Britain had no significant Fascist movement because those groups who turned to Fascism on the Continent never needed it in Britain. They kept everything that they wanted - a prosperous middle class, a monarchy, a hereditary aristocracy, an established Church - and did so without having to fire a shot or wield a rubber truncheon.

Perhaps this is what George Orwell meant when he suggested that Fascism in England "is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate, it won't be called Fascism)". Perhaps this, too, was why Continental conservatives admired Britain. The journalist Elizabeth Wiskemann suggests in her memoirs that the Hungarian aristocracy seriously considered asking an Englishman to be their king. Their candidate was Lord Rothermere.

Richard Vinen's 'A History in Fragments: Europe in the 20th Century' is published by Abacus

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