Posh Fascism

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Looking back on history, it is shockingly easy to break everything into we and they. WE were the good guys, THEY were the bad. WE would not do the terrible things that THEY would. It is easy, but also very very dangerous. Consider fascism. It is very easy to say it was an Axis issue. German Fascism, Italian Fascism…Hitler and Mussolini and Franco’s Spain. The Anglo-American Allies however were lily white and tried and true paragons of liberal democracy. Yeah, right. The same cries can be heard these days. The Arabs are the terrorists, the North Koreans…the West has an unshakable history of tolerance.

Consider the question of Oswald Mosley, the charismatic British leader who many historians feel came within a few bad breaks of leading England into a world of pre-war Xenophobia and Fascism. At the time, his message was just as powerful, relevant and appealing to working class Brits (as well as many of the highest reaches of the upper classes) as National Socialism was to depressed, humiliated Germany. The following article does a fine job looking at the cautionary history of Anglo-Fascism and reminds us that no one people, no one party has a monopoly on political, institutionalized evil. As Pogo once said…The enemy is us.

The following is reposted from History Today.

Contextualising Mosley

by Paul Martin

Channel 4’s Mosley, shown in February 1998, received a rather guarded critical reaction. It was a bold decision to make the series, but some critics have condemned what they see as Mosley’s rehabilitation. In our post-modern society, the past is often seamlessly reincorporated into the present as though it were a new idea, and doubts about the intentions of the film-makers are understandable.

Just as the anniversary of VE Day offered us an opportunity to reflect and remember those who fought and fell in the Second World War, Mosley equally afforded us the opportunity to look at the British prewar admiration of fascism. Significantly, in the series Mosley is shown primarily as a philandering playboy, his political activities reduced to a supporting role; his son Nicholas’ biography, recently republished, enhances this swashbuckling image. Thus we can more easily condemn him as a bad husband than as a political extremist.

The interwar glitterati are fashionable again: it is perhaps not coincidental that the dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was reshown at the same time as Mosley, following closely Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Subliminally, we pick up the message that it was understandable – if mistaken – exuberance that turned Mosley’s earlier idealism into ‘wayward’ fascism. The recent re-run of BBC2’s The Traitor King showed Edward VIII’s image as a tragic romantic to have been politically convenient, masking his treasonable political allegiances. Many influential prewar fascist sympathisers have pleaded a similar naivety; thus in the film of Ishiguru’s novel The Remains of the Day, ‘a misguided’ aristocrat hosts a meeting between British fascist businessmen and Nazi trade officials. On a different level this naivety translates as buffoonery, as in the case of P.G. Wodehouse who made several broadcasts from Berlin in 1941 which he described – rather like a character from one of his novels – as ‘purely comic in tone’. He was adjudged ‘an ass rather than a traitor’ for it.

The habitual excuses for upper-class British fascist sympathisers allow Mosley’s legitimate political past conceptually to accommodate his fascism, just as appreciation of Wagner’s music is not vitiated by his virulent anti-Semitism. Mosley’s progressive ideas for dealing with unemployment, though rejected in 1929, were implemented after 1945 and this fact can be used to explain his fascism as frustration with the political process rather than totalitarian in intent.

To treat Mosley’s fascism as an aberration is dangerously flawed. So, too, his British Union of Fascists (BUF) should not be demonised in order to distance them from ‘people like us’. A closer examination reveals Mosley as the inheritor of an older reactionary tradition, which he reinvented as his ‘modern movement’, elevating him above his fellow travellers.

Mosley, in 1918 as the Tory candidate for Harrow, stood partly on a platform of anti-immigration. In so doing, he was voicing establishment sentiment. In Britain, between 1901 and 1905, The British Brothers League (BBL), ‘an organisation which conducted an agitation against Jewish immigration’, had a membership of some 12,000. Like Mosley, it operated principally in East London. It was strongly eugenicist, a trait inherent in Victorian muscular Christianity, which was itself a contributory factor in British fascism. In 1902, thirty-four years before the infamous battle of Cable Street, one A.T. Williams, addressing a meeting of the BBL, stated that:

… as I walk through Mile End or Cable Street, as I walk about your streets, I see names have changed; I see good old names of tradesmen have gone, and in their places are foreign names…

The BBL soon lost members to Conservative Party initiatives, which ultimately led to the 1905 Aliens Act. By 1909, the Anti-Socialist Union was only one of a rash of radical rightist leagues aimed at reversing the advances made by organised labour and the rise of workers’ militancy before 1914. A number of patriotic and ultra-conservative organisations emerged during the First World War, which hoped to consolidate themselves in its aftermath, such as Henry Page Croft’s National Party (Croft’s sister was to later stand as a BUF candidate) and H. Rider Haggard’s anti-Bolshevik, Liberty League. By 1919, Henry Hamilton Beamish had formed ‘The Britons’, which from 1922 acted as a publisher and clearing house for anti-Semitic literature, as did the Duke of Northumberland’s Boswell Press from 1921.

The first indigenous fascist grouping in Britain, the British Fascisti (BF), was formed in 1923 by Rotha Lintorn-Orman. It essentially volunteered ‘personal services for patriotic purposes’, and is mostly remembered for its role during the General Strike of 1926. Typically British, it became in 1924, the ‘British Fascists Ltd.’, and represented what has been termed ‘conservative fascism’.

By addressing issues in terms of programmatic modernity, Mosley reinvented ultra-conservative orthodoxy as activism, making the BF look like part of the ‘old gang’ in comparison.

Mosley’s use of anti-Semitism was always the crassest of blunt instruments, which he wielded increasingly in order to whip up a popular following. Even Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks, the two Jewish script writers of Mosley, stated that in growing up in Jewish households: ‘Mosley was who you were threatened with if you didn’t brush your teeth, Mosley, the tooth Nazi’. There were others equally as pathological in their anti-Semitism as William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw Haw’. Arnold Leese co-founded, in 1928, the Imperial Fascist League (IFL), whose insignia was a Union Jack featuring a superimposed swastika. Leese persistently referred to Mosley as ‘a Jew fascist’ (there were unfounded rumours that both Mosley and his first wife Cynthia Curzon had Jewish backgrounds). Leese refused to merge the IFL with the BUF, which absorbed most of the other right-wing groups, and continued his miniscule organisation independently. This did not stop him, however, from embarking on joint ‘ventures’ with the rank-and-file of the BUF, whom he distinguished from the ‘kosher fascists’ in the hierarchy of the ‘British Jewnion of Fascists’.

The incongruous alliance between Christian pacifists, communists and fascists in 1939 further complicates the simplistic good/bad divide. The BUF’s isolationist ‘Mind Britain’s Business’ campaigns and chant of ‘No More Brother’s War’ in 1939 may not have been to the taste of conventional pacifists, but it did not stop them sharing a mutual platform. Come the war, Britain even had its own SS unit, the British Free Corps, of the Waffen-SS. Tiny and insignificant though it was (drawn largely from disillusioned British POWs with German backgrounds), the fact that it existed at all jars alarmingly, its very name contradicting the generally received wisdom of Britain’s wartime anti-fascist unity. After the war Mosley went on to form his pan-European and anti-immigration ‘Union Movement’. Some, believing him to have gone soft on the Jews, began joining even smaller and more extreme groups, who venerated William Joyce (hung for treason in 1946) above Mosley. Yet there was wider empathy with A.K. Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists (LEL) from 1954, who disrupted Conservative meetings, as the empire was increasingly decommissioned. The LEL would in 1967 help to form the National Front.

Nick Cohen in The Observer (February 15th, 1998), suggested that apologists believed that Mosley would not have copied the cowardly Europeans and collaborated if Hitler had invaded. Mosley in fact advised the BUF on the outbreak of war to ‘do nothing to hurt our country or aid any other power’. The old ultra-conservative motive of empire patriotism, a prime reason for many joining the BUF, caused them to join the armed forces when war finally broke out. Others, whose pacifism was conditioned by bitter memories of the First World War, were interned.

Prior to the 1990s, much of the ink spilt on analysing Mosley concentrated on the leadership and organisational structure of the BUF. We now have a rare populist account, albeit centred on the post-war Union Movement, of the experience of being a British fascist. Trevor Grundy’s Memoir Of A Fascist Childhood has attracted attention for this very reason. Such testimonies convey more about racism and reactionary tendencies as a socio-psychological condition than any number of documents from the Public Records Office ever could. It must be hoped, therefore, that there will be further publications of such memories and experiences. This is important if we are to understand how extremism attracts within different cultures. If not a historical truth and reconciliation commission, it would at least dispel some of the hypocrisy that has accumulated into received wisdom about British distaste for racism.

It is simply not good enough to demonise Mosley’s blackshirts. When we look at them in old photographs, and newsreel film, especially in plain clothes, after uniforms were forbidden by the 1936 Public Order Act, we are looking at people, the same as any of us. This becomes even more uncomfortable when we apply the same rationale to contemporary society, where organised racism is still unfortunately with us. Therefore we should be aware that in condemning fascism, we are also condemning that part of ourselves that we would wish to deny is in us all. Bosnia and Rwanda, in recent years, only too sadly prove that it is.

Some of those who donned the blackshirt and marched for ‘The Leader’ were also paid-up trade unionists, though official labour history represents a denial in terms of historical memory of such an uncomfortable juxtaposition. It is tragic that Trevor Grundy’s lifelong fascist mother committed suicide in 1970 because she could not bear her son to find out she was actually Jewish, whilst John Beckett, a former BUF national official and later co-founder with William Joyce of the National Socialist League, successfully hid the fact that his mother was Jewish. That Jews actually did join the BUF in its early days complicates the historical narrative with the labyrinthian reasoning of the human mind. Between 20 and 33 per cent of the BUF membership (50,000 at its peak in 1934) were women, some of them former suffragettes, including one BUF women’s section leader, Mary Richardson, famous for slashing the Rokeby Venus in 1914. Focusing on the membership rather than the leadership illustrates the contested and often contradictory nature of women’s roles in an envisioned fascist Britain, whilst the ideological uncertainty in the BUF generally reveals the tensions between conventional ultra-conservatism and revolutionary fascism that it contained.

As the BBC series The Nazis: A Warning From History so chillingly showed, the potential for extremism resides in each of us. Demonising Mosley helps us to deny this; to reinvent him more acceptably amounts to the same. We do not wish to see our negative aspects reflected back at us: Mosley, then, ultimately serves as a bogeyman whom we use to absolve us of such considerations.

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