Hurrah for the Blackshirts? Mosley and Failure

6174279At the time, that Mosley’s BUF were seen as a threat would seem obvious: the government passed the Public Order Act for a reason. From the left, the fight against the BUF was viewed as a wider part of the international and internationalist struggle against Fascism: the Battle of Cable Street was Britain’s Spanish Civil War in miniature, and in subsequent years attained a similarly iconic status. By the 1950s, aside from such radical romanticism, history did not take the BUF seriously. However, Robert Skidelsky’s 1975 biography, coming at a time when Enoch Powell was a national figure and the far right seemed resurgent, stimulated a great deal of study of Mosley and his followers. The comfortable assumption that the BUF was confined to the far right, to dissolute aristocrats and angry young men was questioned; the role of women was explored, for example. Equally, one might feel the Whiggish inevitability accorded to the triumph of parliamentary democracy in Britain, between the wars. as evinced in Andrew Marr’s Making of Modern Britain,has also been challenged. In turn, that brings us to the re-evaluation of Baldwin undertaken by Philip Williamson. If, with him, we take Baldwin’s greatest achievement to be the political, social and economic stability of the Britain he bequeathed just before the coming on war, then we sure need to accept the premise behind it: democracy need not have triumphed. In that light, the failure of the BUF might owe less to a supposed instinctive British moderation, alongside an aversion to political uniforms and marching men, than to a Conservative hegemony of the right, and over the politics of the 1930s in general. And that hegemony was, perhaps, the specific creation of Stanley Baldwin.

Arguably, the BUF never represented any kind of electoral threat. That is not to say, for brief while, it did not appear that it could have. Mosley’s predecessor party had attracted considerable support, winning 16% in the 1931 Ashton-under-Lyme by-election, though nothing of note in the general election of that year. At its peak, the BUF had something around 50,000 members. Its members came from wider strata of society than is usually supposed, from workers in the East End of London, unemployed mill workers in Lancashire, to exotic aristocrats, Nazi sympathisers and even former suffragettes. For a brief while, the BUF looked as if would be a serious force, especially when it won the backing of Rothermere’s Daily Mail.


Traditionally, the violence associated with the infamous Olympia rally of 1934 that saw Rothermere withdraw his support marks to end of the movement’s rise. Before embracing Fascism he hardly had the rhetorical touch.

Nor was the later Hitler impersonation convincing: would-be Fuhrers need ‘it’.

By 1935, its membership had shrunk to 8,000 and in 1936 the government passed the Public Order Act. After that though, the BUF did recover, in part thanks to support for Edward VIII and a peace campaign against the idea of war with Germany. In the 1937 council elections it polled respectably in its East End strongholds, but it’s 8,000 votes failed to come close to winning seats. In short, the BUF had more significance as a news story than an electoral force.

Instead, Mosley’s real significance lay in the support he attracted from the elites, and from those with influence. Whilst such support never cohered into a significant threat, it had the potential so to do. This was an age of political fluidity. The Liberals split over Lloyd George, as did the Tories in 1922. Coalitions were commonplace. Labour and the Liberals split in 1931. It was also an age of generational floor crossing: Labour’s Michael Foot had a Liberal father, Lloyd George’s children could be found in both Labour and the Consevatives, Oliver Baldwin was a Labour MP. That Mosley’s New Party might have attracted some significant names should not surprise: early backers included Lord Nuffield (who donated £50,000), Harold Nicholson, the England Rugby captain Peter Howard and John Strachey; Oliver Baldwin joined and left it after one day. Tellingly, all the above fell away as Mosley turned to Fascism. Fasicism and Nazism also drew from both right and left. Two prominent supporters of the BUF were former Labour MPs, Robert Forgan and John Beckett: Beckett went on to become a Nazi in all but name. Fascism had its roots in a veterans’ movement, Nazism was similar: Mussolini, Hitler and Mosley were all war veterans. The BUF, likewise, proved attractive to many veterans.

NPG x26625; Unity Mitford by Bassano

The BUF also won support from then ranks of the former suffragette movement, notably Mary Richardson. Indeed, women played a significant role in the BUF; in 1934 the Conservative Primrose League saw many women defect to the BUF. Like the Primrose League, most of the better-known fascists were, like Rothermere, from the further reaches of the right. Those who had associations with the BUF included a Curzon and Unity Mitford (Above; her sister, Diana, married Mosley). Some remained loyal, others (like Rothermere) fell away. The racing motorist Sir Malcolm Campbell was a BUF sympathiser, but also stood for Tories in 1935 general election. William Joyce left to form a more extreme party. The BUF were part of wider and more diffuse right, which was often impatient of Baldwin, but were never able to lead or cohere that feeling, or form part of a wider alliance.

NPG x74733; Ivy Muriel (nÈe Dundas), Lady Chamberlain by Bassano

Mosley himself hoped to emulate Mussolini. It was his visit to Italy in 1931 that converted him to Fascism. Admiration for Mussolini was a staple of the European right, many of whom saw him as the saviour of Italy from socialism. In 1927, Churchill declared that if he were Italian, he would don a blackshirt for precisely that reason. Mussolini was seen as a strongman and inspirational leader who could unite a nation, in contrast to the party politicking and petty divisions of Baldwinite Conservatism. In return, Mussolini gave him money. It is also worth noting that to see democracy as a failure, as something of the past, was hardly uncommon in a Europe dominated by right-wing authoritarianism. And then there was Nazism. In many ways Nazism was more problematic, though there was plenty of sympathy for Germany in 1930s Britain. As such, neither were necessarily a hindrance to the BUF, This was especially so given the sympathies there were among a British elite that included the Chancellor’s widowed sister-in-law, Ivy Chamberlain (above), and by 1936 a king who had even made a passing remark to a German diplomat expressing a measure of admiration for Nazism and even hinting that Britain might need a dictatorship someday. Some looked to the example of Italy again: the king had given Mussolini power. In different political circumstances, Mosley might have had considerably more political traction.

That he did not owed much to the recovery Britain made from the Great Depression, and the relative political stability of Britain. The only European far right party to gain the electoral support required to put it on the road to government were the Nazis, and the Great Depression was far worse in Germany than in Britain. Fascism’s rapid rise from 1932 coincided with the depths of the depression. Their decline coincided with recovery. Mussolini’s Fascists made their splash as the party that stood up to the radical socialism of the Bienno Rosso (radical left wing movements i n Italy in 1919/20). The British left was dominated by the moderate Labour movement. Some may have still feared the reds at the gates, but in truth the most notable reds at the gates had been the men in frock coats going through the gates of the palace or attending the royal wedding of 1923. Whilst Fascism did appeal to some war veterans, British war veterans were not like their Italian or German counterparts. They were not cut off from their erstwhile commanders of the post-war settlement. Britain’s veterans association, Haig’s Royal British Legion, was studiedly apolitical. Here too, the monarchy mattered, as did the ceremonial of remembrance, both binding veterans to the state as established. Thus, the economic, social and political stability of Britain did not offer a very fertile seed bed for Fascism, but that stability was no accident: it was a political creation and, in the 1930s, extremism had less chance to grow.

The lack of political room owed most to Stanley Baldwin. As Williamson argues, Baldwin’s aim was not just to safeguard democracy, but to make democracy safe, not a threat to the established economic and social order. In the eyes of the right, he had seen off radical trade unionism in the General Strike. Baldwin wanted to do much more than that. His one nation brand of Conservatism was aimed firmly at the centre, and at ex-Liberals. His greatest triumph was surely the crisis of 1931, leading to a national government and two landslide victories ensuring a stable government with an overwhelming mandate. The centre-right of British politics was dominated by a Conservative party which left no place for the BUF or their like.

In achieving this, Baldwin had alienated many, but he had also crushed them. Rothermere was one of the two newspaper proprietors seen off by Baldwin in 1930-31. Churchill was left fulminating over India on the backbenches; Beaverbrook just fuming. No less importantly, Baldwin saw the potential threat of Edward VIII, and saw him off in the abdication crisis. If Mosley was never going to win electorally, his most likely way into power or some kind of say in power was through extra-parliamentary politics, involving not just the wilder fringes of the British right, but those more closely connected to what we might call the establishment. That is not to say that Baldwin had never been vulnerable to insurgency from the right. His long running cold war with Rothermere and Beaverbrook had become open war in 1930 with the launch of the Empire Crusade. However, their stated aim of tariff reform was in part a cover story for the aim of replacing Baldwin with Neville Chamberlain. There were many political fluidities in these years, in part the inheritance of Tory frustrations before the war, but also of the frustrations of old coalitionists like Churchill and Beaverbrook. The fact that they were not a real threat was simply thanks to the fact they had, in John Charmley’s words, been ‘scalped by Baldwin’. Baldwin’s hegemony left no room on the right.

The failure of the Fascism in Britain was not inevitable, though we night feel the odds were always stacked against it. There was a fundamental stability to the British state, but that stability was not in itself God given. Instead, key elements of that state worked to achieve it. The moderation of British politics in ten form of Baldwinite Conservatism and the Labour movement of MacDonald and Henderson, or Attlee and Bevin, were the creation of men. In particular, Baldwin’s Conservatives and the National Governments they led left little room on the right, and when the right rose, Baldwin squashed it. Mosley was in many ways brilliant, and radical, but alienated more support than it attracted in an age that preferred Baldwin or Attlee to Lloyd George. As Mosley’s movement turned violent, and more anti-Semitic, it retreated to the fringes. In truth, Baldwin left it nowhere else to go.

Mosley did not go away. he was interned by Churchill’s government, but became something of a  fixture of national life thereafter. This interview is very revealing:


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