w w w . b r e n t o n p r i e s t l e y . c o m


Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists: Destined to failure? (2000)
Brenton Priestley


 

 

With hindsight, it seems clear that from the beginning the British Union of Fascists (henceforth the BUF) was doomed to fail. This essay will therefore set out to establish that in England in the middle of the 1930’s, the necessary ingredients for the success of a Fascist movement were lacking.

In 1931, the Great Depression continued to tighten its grip on Britain. After the post-war boom, it had been especially hard-hit, unemployment was widespread and the economic crisis was deepening. Britons began to develop a distaste for party politics. This problem was compounded by growing tensions within the Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties. In Germany, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were capitalising on similar political and economic strife, and marching towards power. At the time, the closest thing to Fascism in Britain was Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League, an insignificant, obscure party that was more interested in disseminating anti-semitic propaganda than offering any real economic policies. Despite this, the British political climate was as opportune as it would ever be for a Fascist party to seize power; people were searching for leaders who stood for national interests and who had the power to remedy the ailing economy and political system.

The pressure placed on the party system by the Great Depression eventually caused it to collapse in August of 1931. However, the nation did not turn to dictatorship, like Italy or Germany, but rather to a National Government that upheld the democratic process. By October of the next year, the economic and political crises were beginning to pass; although unemployment was still widespread in the north, prosperity had begun to return to the south and the Midlands. Mandle writes; ‘The British had rejected an openly authoritarian solution at the time of greatest stress.’ [1] Whether related to a strong democratic tradition or another unknown aspect of national character, it seemed that it was unlikely that a dictatorial party could ever thrive in Britain. Despite this, in the October of 1932 Sir Oswald Mosely founded the British Union of Fascists.

Although Mosley has been considered by some as being one of the 'great lost talents of British politics,' [2] others saw him as being a 'cad and a wrong 'un.' [3] Infamous for his womanising and his vanity, Mosley founded the BUF after his New Party came to a humiliatingly unsuccessful end in late 1931. Mosley decided that a democratic government was unable to provide the necessary leadership to bring Britain out of the growing economic turmoil. In a visit to Italy in January 1932, he saw the success of Mussolini's Fascist government; how order and economic prosperity had been returned to the nation through the Fascist corporate state. Mosley concluded that the surest way to social unity and welfare in Britain was through a Fascist dictatorship.

Social, political and economic factors seemed to be against the BUF from the beginning. Although Mosley was charismatic and a skilled orator, his public image had been tainted by his defection from the Labour Party in 1930. Even Mosley himself admitted that his public image had been one of the factors in the failure of the BUF; ‘If I had not organised and led the Blackshirts our Movement would never have existed under...conditions [of strong opposition].’ [4]

The BUF entertained a brief period of success in the first six months of 1934. Lord Rothermere, the owner of the British newspaper The Daily Mail wrote a front-page article entitled ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ in January 1934. Like Lord Rothermere, many members of the Establishment saw in the BUF a stronghold against Communism and an opportunity for moving from what they saw to be as a moderate and undynamic government to one that was more nationalistic and powerful. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day explores some of the appeal that fascism held for some of the upper-class British. Mosley targeted a good deal of propaganda towards the Prince of Wales, who is believed to have harboured some fascist sympathies. The membership of the BUF grew from 10,000 at the beginning of 1933 to 50,000 in June of 1934. [5]

It was the same month that Mosley decided to hold a mass rally in London’s Olympia Hall. Surrounded by banners and spotlights, Mosley stood at the front on a heightened platform, dressed in the blackshirt uniform that the BUF had adopted. The whole setting of the meeting was too reminiscent of the Nazi rallies of Germany, soon vast numbers of anti-fascists had gathered and were protesting. Eatwell effectively summarises the events of the Olympia Meeting. [6] The blackshirts fought back violently, and the media covered the events sensationally and thoroughly, and the British began to see the BUF as being demagogic and violent, two political qualities that were seemingly antithetical to national character.

The Olympia meeting was bad enough press for the BUF as it was, when less than a month later, the Nazi Night of the Long Knives occurred. The two events were compared extensively in the media. According to Eatwell, Hitler’s bloody and brutal purge of the party and party enemies ‘reinforced images of fascist lawlessness and bloodletting, and associated Mosley even more clearly with alien powers.’ [7]

The Olympia meeting marked the beginning of the end for the BUF. The government sent secret instructions to the media to starve the BUF of publicity; the press barons were more than willing to comply.

The BUF had to have a new stand, membership was shrinking, and they needed somehow to revitalise the party, so Mosley turned to anti-semitism, which proved to be one of the major factors that lead to the BUF’s downfall.

Initially, the BUF wasn’t anti-semitic. Lord Rothermere had written ‘As a purely British organisation, the Blackshirts will respect those principles of tolerance which are traditional in British politics. They have no prejudice either of class or race.’ [8] Even in early 1934, there were Jewish members. However, as Mandle writes, ‘the British had rejected an openly authoritarian solution at the time of greatest stress; later, as danger receded, the appeal of Fascism fell upon increasingly deaf ears. So Mosely chose a more strident cry, that of anti-semitism.’ [9] Anti-semitism had proven to be successful political stance for Hitler in Germany, but for some reason, it wasn't for Mosley. Although anti-semitism was widespread in the East End of London in the 1930's, it seems that Mosley's campaign against the Jewish backfired. While Hitler found a convenient scapegoat in the generally economically prosperous Germans Jews, the situation in Britain had neither the tension nor the extreme economic distress. Furthermore, anti-semitism in Britain tended to be much more covert, and far less likely to erupt into violence.

Another way of looking at the failure of anti-semitism to become politically successful is in the half-heartedness of the BUF's anti-semitic campaign. Mandle writes of Mosley; 'He was anti-semitic, but not totally so, and this gave a certain hesitance, a certain lack of commitment to the BUF's anti-semitism.' [10] While it has been said that Hitler's one consistent idea was anti-semitism, it certainly wasn't the case with Mosley and the BUF. Perhaps, if the anti-semitic campaign was more intense and deeply-felt, the BUF might have been able to play on the emotions of the people and rise to power, but the fact that its anti-semitic propaganda was so inconsistent, and in many cases ludicrous. Pulzer has argued that the key to the Nazi party's success in Germany was due to the 'courage of their anti-semitic convictions,' [11] and although a determined campaign of anti-semitism would probably have been unsuccessful in Britain, it was never even attempted by the BUF.

Ironically, one of the major catalysts for the demise of the BUF grew from what was supposed to be a show of their strength and a celebration of their cause. On the fourth of October, 1936, Mosley had planned a march for the BUF through the East End of London, a racially mixed area in which much of London’s Jewish population resided. Five thousand members of the BUF were involved in the demonstration, but an estimated 100,000 anti-fascists gathered to protest against it. It was not long before their chants of ‘Mosely Shall Not Pass’ drowned out the BUF’s ‘M-O-S-L-E-Y. We want Mosley!’ Anti-fascist violence soon erupted, despite the six thousand police who had been drafted in to keep the peace.

Newspaper reports (the Daily Mail, the Daily Worker and the Daily Mirror) from the time [12] recount the events of what became known as the Battle of Cable Street. When the BUF march reached Cable Street in the East End, they came against a barricade that had been erected, consisting of an overturned builder’s lorry, piles of bricks and timber, sheets of corrugated iron and barrels. Broken glass was even strewn along the street’s entrance, to ward away police horses. Bricks were tossed at the police. It is interesting to note that most of the violence came from anti-fascists and the police; the members of the BUF were essentially law-abiding. It was not even two hours into the rally when the Police Commissioner, Sir Phillip Game called it off; the march and the four meetings that had been planned were cancelled. Mosley and the BUF members marched off down the Embankment, in the opposite direction, where they soon dispersed after a failed attempt to hold a meeting in Trafalgar Square. [13]

The newspaper The Daily Worker reported on the next day: ‘The rout of the Mosley gang is due to the splendid way in which the whole of East London's working-class rallied as one man (and one woman) to bar the way to the Blackshirts. Jew and Gentile, docker and garment worker, railwayman and cabinet-maker, turned out in their thousands to show that they have no use for Fascism.’ [14] Although the Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper, is bound to be biased against the Fascist movement, this quotation does illustrate to a certain extent a general feeling among the population of opposition. In any case, the Daily Mail reported 84 arrests and scores of injuries, as well as damage to shops, vehicles and the streets. [15]

The violence of what became known as the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ prompted efforts by the police and the Home Office to enforce greater public order. This culminated in the Public Order Act. The Act gave police greater power in controlling marches and demonstrations, prohibited the wearing of political uniforms and made the use of inflammatory and abusive words by political orators an offence. The BUF’s members had dwindled significantly by the time the Act was passed, in January, 1937, and the Act curtailed the movement considerably. The attention that the uniform elicited while the Fascists were marching was lost, as was its glamour; more than one wag pointed out the scrawniness of many members of the BUF when they were deprived of their black crossover shirt. The prohibition of threatening and insulting words marked a significant change in the tone and content of the BUF’s speeches – those who challenged it were promptly fined and threatened with jail by plainclothes policemen who attended the meetings. Many consider the Public Order Act to have been one of the most significant factors in the failure of the BUF, Herbert Morrison, a Home Secretary during the Second World War said that it ‘...smashed the private army and I believe commenced the undermining of Fascism in this country’. [16] Mandle also identifies the significance of the Public Order Act: ‘In October 1936, it seemed possible that the situation might get out of control. The addition of a political conflict and the consequent intensification of activity meant that the risks of real trouble might have increased had the BUF been allowed its uniforms, its obscenities and its stewards...we must adjudge the Government’s maintenance of order and its strengthening of the law as an important reason why [the BUF] failed to become politically active.’ [17]

Once an official declaration of opposition against extremist groups like the BUF was made by the Government through the Public Order Act, more and more resistance and suspicion sprung up throughout Britain. Local authorities forbade the use of town and public halls by the BUF. Some towns imposed certain restrictions on BUF meetings, including the mandatory presence of police. A planned speech and march in Edinburgh in September, 1937 was eventually cancelled after the authorities warned Mosley that he would be unable to use an amplifier. By the same time of the next year, the BUF ‘found itself in a position where it could not rent a large hall or theatre in London.’ [18] Yet another year later, Action, the BUF newspaper reported that the movement was unable to hire a large meeting hall anywhere in England. [19]

The British libel law also proved to be an effective measure against the BUF. John Beckett, one of the leading members of the BUF was hit with two libel suits in 1936, resulting in the BUF having to pay twenty thousand pounds to the plaintiffs, Lord Camrose and The Daily Telegraph.

This essay has mainly focused on the external factors that caused the downfall of the BUF, but there were also several internal crises that damaged the movement’s stability. Financial difficulties began to seriously cripple the party in 1937. Unlike the Nazis, who were supported by many right-wing German companies, businesses stopped funding the BUF in 1934, after the botched Olympia meeting. The movement depended on funding from Mosley himself (he put more that �100,000 into it), Mussolini’s Italian Fascists and the party members. Plagued by lawsuits and with Mussolini’s support and membership drying up, Mosley realised that he had to do something in order to make money. An ill-fated series of commercial radio stations sapped at funds even more quickly. Eventually, many of the paid staff were told that they would no longer be receiving salaries. Many of the party’s most intelligent leaders (including Beckett and William Joyce) subsequently left.

As time passed, the divergence in policy between the East End movement and the more isolated, idealistic Fascist branches in the provinces and the countryside became much greater. In 1936, the small Fascist groups that were scattered all over the British countryside were more patriotic groups more than anything else, in contrast to the East End branches, who were spreading anti-semitic and pro-Nazi propaganda. The BUF became naturally weaker as the two sides became more alienated from one another.

As the Second World War approached, opposition from the general public continued to grow. Eatwell argues that British support for the appeasement of Mussolini and Hitler was far less widespread than many historians make out. [20] Mosley, however, was pro-peace, and while the British certainly didn’t want war, they could sense that his pro-German sentiments were treacherous. This had especially grown after his highly publicised visit to Germany in early 1937, where he was married in a ceremony that, it is rumoured, Hitler was best man. [21] Soon after, Mosley renamed the party the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists. When Germany annexed Austria, the BUF held celebrations in the West End. Much as it had been with the Night of the Long Knives the BUF was linked to Kristallnacht in November 1938. All of these factors led people to believe even more strongly that Fascism was an ‘alien, menacing creed.’ [22] Charles Wegg-Prosser, a former member of the BUF wrote in a vitriolic letter to Mosley in mid-1937:

‘...Your methods have become increasingly dictatorial and un-English. You are side-tracking the whole issue of social betterment by the anti-Semitic campaign. Anti-Jewish propaganda, as you and Hitler use it, is a gigantic side-tracking stunt, a smoke-screen to cloud thought and divert action with regard to our real problems...Our people are fair, tolerant and humane. You introduce a movement imitating foreign dictators, you run it as a soulless despotism. You sidetrack the demand for social justice by attacking the Jew, you give the people a false answer and unloose the lowest mob passion.’ [23]

Although the reliability of this source might be challenged by Wegg-Prosser's highly emotive language, many of the concerns he addresses are valid, and could be seen as a representative view for British feeling towards the party.

The outbreak of the Second World War sounded the death-knell for the BUF. Oddly, just before it was finally closed, there was a brief increase in the BUF membership, but international tensions were running high. Mosley realised the danger that the party was in, and wrote in Action in early 1939: ‘To our members my message is plain and clear. Our country is involved in war. Therefore I ask you to do nothing to injure our country or to help any other power.’ [24] Despite this, the Government saw in Mosley and the BUF a clear threat to national security. Prompted by the German blitzkrieg of France, the Government decided to intern Mosley and many of the leading members of the BUF. At that point, the police still had no evidence on which to justify closing the BUF headquarters. Not long after Mosley was put in jail, in early 1940, the remaining members published an issue of Action in which the headlines read ‘FREE MOSLEY – SAVE BRITAIN’. The police returned to the headquarters the very day and acting under the Defence Regulations, dissolved the BUF and banned its publications.

The BUF had lasted for eight years, more than half of which it battled opposition, shrinking membership and the draining of funds. Many historians have wondered why Mosley persisted for so long with what seemed to be a doomed movement, so much so, that A.J. Cummings wrote in the News Chronicle in 1936, ‘In this country the Mosley brand of Fascism will soon be as dead as witchcraft.’ [25] Benewick has suggested that if Mosley had abandoned the BUF when he realised that it was bound to fail, his political career would have been at an end; 'To have deserted the Fascist cause would have been an admission of failure [that was] out of the question for a man of such pride and egotism.' [26] In any case, it was to be a doomed movement, whether he acknowledged it or not. In conclusion, from our perspective of more than sixty years after the BUF failed, it seems apparent that it never had a chance at success.


ENDNOTES

[1] Mandle, W.F., Anti-Semitism and the British Union of Fascists; Longman, Green and Co., (London, Great Britain, 1968), p. 65
[2] A.J.P. Taylor, quoted in Eatwell, Roger, Fascism: A History; Vintage, (London, Great Britain, 1996), p. 179
[3] Stanley Baldwin, quoted in ibid, p. 180
[4] Oswald Mosley, quoted in http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/3759/moselyinterview.html [Accessed 9 March 2000]. Eatwell, Roger, op. cit., p. 184
[5] Eatwell, Roger, op. cit., pp. 184-5
[6] ibid, p. 185
[7] Lord Rothermere, the Daily Mirror, 22 January, 1934. Quoted in <http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/3759/moselyinterview.html> [Accessed 9 March 2000].
[8] Mandle, W.F., op. cit., p. 65
[9] ibid, p. 70
[10] Pulzer, Peter G. J., Germany, 1840-1945: Politics, State Formation and War; Oxford University Press, (London, Great Britain, 1997), pp. 324-7
[11] Information obtained from Battle of Cable Street Newspaper Reports <http://www.cockney.co.uk/cabnews.htm> [Accessed 12 March 2000].
[12] Information obtained from Battle of Cable Street Newspaper Reports
<http://www.cockney.co.uk/cabnews.htm> [Accessed 12 March 2000].
[13] Quoted in Battle of Cable Street Newspaper Reports <http://www.cockney.co.uk/cabnews.htm> [Accessed 12 March 2000].
[14] Quoted in ibid.
[15] Herbert Morrison, quoted in Benewick, Robert, The Fascist Movement in Britain; Penguin, (London, Great Britain, 1972), p.264
[16] Mandle, W.F., op. cit., p. 67
[17] Benewick, Robert, op. cit., p.266
[18] Quoted in ibid, p.266
[19] Eatwell, Roger, op. cit., p. 189
[20] Auchinloss, Eve, The Man Who Would Be Dictator, Guardian Weekly, August 25, 1991, p.20
[21] op. cit., p. 186
[22] Charles Wegg-Prosser, quoted in Cross, Colin, The Fascists in Britain; Barrie and Rockliff, (London, Great Britain, 1961), p. 173
[23] Oswald Mosley, quoted in ibid, p. 191
[24] Cummings, A.J., quoted in ibid, p. 181
[25] Benewick, Robert, op. cit., p.264

WORKS CITED

Benewick, Robert, The Fascist Movement in Britain; Penguin, (London, Great Britain, 1972)

Benewick's book is perhaps one of the most comprehensive studies of Fascism in Britain; he writes objectively and fluently. The chapter on the decline of British Fascism uses many sources, of which Benewick identifies; election results, interviews with former members and many references to newspaper reports from the time.

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Cross, Colin, The Fascists in Britain; Barrie and Rockliff, (London, Great Britain, 1961)

Cross's book, one of the earliest to be published on the phenomenon of British Fascism became a staple for future historians, all of these other literary sources reference it at various points. It is highly detailed, and the chapters on the decline and fall of the BUF are especially noteworthy in tracing the internal causes for the BUF's failure.

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Roger, Eatwell, Fascism: A History; Vintage, (London, Great Britain, 1996)

Fascism: A History provides useful, lucid histories on the development of fascism in Italy, Germany, France and Britain. Written in 1996, it is especially advantaged by hindsight and vast bodies of past studies from which it draws. The chapter on fascism in Britain is short, but highly detailed. Noteworthy also is Eatwell's collection of sources, which is highly useful for a scholar of fascist movements in various countries.

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Pulzer, Peter G. J., Germany, 1840-1945: Politics, State Formation and War; Oxford University Press, (London, Great Britain, 1997)

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Mandle, W.F., Anti-Semitism and the British Union of Fascists; Longman, Green and Co., (London, Great Britain, 1968)

This book's main focus is, as the title implies, on the nature of the BUF's anti-semitism, but it does have an effective overview of the BUF movement and a particularly useful chapter on its decline. Mandle, however, doesn't often achieve the necessary objectivity in his evaluations; he is often quite judgmental.

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Periodicals

Auchinloss, Eve, The Man Who Would Be Dictator, Guardian Weekly, August 25, 1991

Electronic resources

Spartacus Schoolnet, British Union of Fascists;

<http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Pfascists.htm>

[Accessed 5 March 2000].

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Who were the Blackshirts?

<http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/3759/moselyinterview.html>

[Accessed 9 March 2000].

This source is slightly dubious; it is a pro-fascist website that seems to have lifted the interview with Mosley from a book of which doesn't actually acknowledge. That they are Mosley's words seems likely, however.

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Battle of Cable Street Newspaper Reports

<http://www.cockney.co.uk/cabnews.htm>

[Accessed 12 March 2000].

This source is likewise not perfect. The website is a guide to traveling London's East End, and the author has copied out various newspaper articles printed at time of the Battle of Cable Street. While the articles themselves seem accurate, they are replete with spelling errors.

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