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29 June 2021

From the NS archive: Mosley emerges

9 November 1946: The defeat of Hitler did not also mean the defeat of British fascism.

By norman mackenzie

In the interwar years, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF) rose to prominence just as National Socialism took hold in Germany. Mosley, once the youngest member of parliament, had served as a Conservative, an independent and a Labour member but fascism was his forte. For all their thuggery, Mosley and his followers gained considerable support, which tailed off only in the mid-1930s. In 1940 Mosley was imprisoned and the BUF was banned. He was released in 1943, however, and as Norman Mackenzie wrote in the NS in 1946, did not see Germany’s defeat as the end of his own – or British fascism’s – hopes. In his piece, Mackenzie warned against not taking Mosley seriously and assuming that British anti-Semitism no longer existed. “Millions of people were shocked by the disclosures at Buchenwald and Majdanek into understanding where Fascism and racial persecution ultimately lead,” he wrote. “But some still do not understand.”

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It is easy to be complacent about the prospects of the fascist movement in Britain. During the war it was disrupted and discredited; Sir Oswald Mosley and thousands of his supporters were interned; some former members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) were convicted of assisting the King’s enemies. Millions of people were shocked by the disclosures at Buchenwald and Majdanek into understanding where fascism and racial persecution ultimately lead. But some still do not understand. The British People’s Party, led by John Beckett and the Duke of Bedford, has just published Failure at Nuremberg, an elaborate attack on the wisdom and justice of trying the Nazi war leaders. Allied politicians, it is said, are as guilty as the Germans. Though the Nazis committed “the final abomination” of slaughtering the Jews, this happened only after patient efforts to neutralise them had failed and because “there is a Slav component in the Teuton”. On one page of this book, Goebbels’ story of the Katyn massacres is dug up as a reason for trying the Russian leaders – which, in the absence of another successful war by the Western Powers, could be done in their absence – the attack at Pearl Harbour is blamed on American provocation of Japan, and the United States accused of acts of war against Germany while still neutral. Finally, the Nuremberg trial, “a regression into barbarism and night”, has not brought nearer the day which “…will come when man will discover how to attain the benefits of National Socialism without reproducing its harsh authoritarianism, its ruthless fanaticism and intolerance”.

The British People’s Party is not the only group which sponsors that sort of propaganda. Throughout the war, there was also an undercurrent of organised anti-Semitism, some of it stimulated by groups which remained legal after 1940, some of it by fascists who had escaped internment. After Mosley and the other detainees were released, they could cash in on this wartime activity, though it was clear that the wisest course was to rebuild the movement with as little publicity as possible and to wait until the times were more favourable for open political activity. This decision, of course, did not appeal to many ex-members of the BUF who were anxious to get back to renewed public activity. For them, a place has been found in a number of small organisations, run in some cases by men who, like William Joyce, quarrelled with Mosley in the past and started several rival parties, in others by die-hard anti-Semites and religious fanatics with little understanding of political tactics. But there is little doubt that the core of the BUF has remained loyal to the leader: many of them, indeed, are working in the splinter parties in order to keep contact with sympathisers until the moment comes again for the formation of a mass movement. A number of the old stalwarts, such as Alf Flockhart, are still closely associated with Mosley at his Wiltshire headquarters and, with the aid of the BUF records, are slowly piecing the machine together once more.

Though the total membership of the wildcat groups runs into thousands, they are too divided among themselves, and their methods and propaganda are too crude to make a wide appeal. They hold occasional public meetings, which are usually a fiasco, and distribute a wide range of fascist and anti-Semitic literature. The new Mosley organisation is in a different class. The leader has no intention of wasting his resources in a premature conflict with a hostile public. The movement, in its present phase, is based on a network of cells formed ostensibly to discuss and sell Mosley’s new book, My Answer, which is shortly to be followed by a more elaborate statement of policy, My Alternative. A monthly newsletter is to appear in November, and as soon as production difficulties can be overcome, a newspaper and a journal of comment. Although these discussion circles meet in private, a number of reports have appeared in the press which show that Mosley has spent the last few months travelling the country, rallying former members of the BUF and new sympathisers with a series of speeches in which he affirms that “prison has only served to strengthen the idea in me.” He has also held special meetings to instruct group organisers in the movement’s present tactics. In this way, he has established a personal contact with several thousand active supporters, none of whom has been compelled to take the risk of open association with the man who remains the leading figure of fascism in Britain.

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My Answer is a tedious book. Most of it is a mere reprint of the BUF textbook, Tomorrow We Live, first published in 1938. The remainder is a long-winded and disingenuous defence of Mosley’s attitude to the war and an attack on all political parties for denying the British Union the elementary right of free speech and association. It is also a very cautious book, though at one point, discussing the outbreak of war, Mosley writes: “Then it was a question, at most, whether Germany should be permitted to bring leadership and order to regions in which no British interest was involved, but from which backward and anarchic populations had constantly threatened European peace… a higher civilisation should guide a lower.” Bolshevism, be adds, was the only victor in the late conflict, and now the Moujik is dancing on the culture of Europe.

Today, this theme is by no means as unpopular as it was when Mosley was writing, only a few months ago. It can be allied to the exploitation of other postwar problems and grievances. Moreover, anti-Semitism continues to spread in Britain. Mosley is in no hurry. He wants to build up a disciplined nucleus without public or official interference. The Home Secretary’s recent statement shows that no action to limit Mosley’s activity is now contemplated. Fascism, though an object of distaste and derision today, remains a serious potential danger in Britain. We should have learnt enough of its insidious technique to understand that it thrives on the advance of socialist movements and on toleration. Frederic Mullally, in a timely book (Fascism Inside England), rightly points out that the defeat of the Conservative Party last year, and its subsequent inability to offer any effective opposition to the steady passage of the Labour programme, may give extremist groups a real chance of rallying disgruntled anti-socialists and exploiting the inevitable shortages and dislocations that follow in the wake of war. It is as yet too soon to say what part Mosley will be able to play here. There are other influential and less-discredited figures who could be used as stalking-horses, but who could rely on a new Mosley movement to provide the necessary backing and organisation. It is therefore proper for Mr Mullally to remind us of the record of British Fascism, especially when Mosley himself now claims that the notorious brutality of the BUF was merely “preserving order and protecting our audiences from violence at our own meetings”.

The grimmer spectacle of war has, perhaps, dimmed the memory of that Olympia meeting in 1934 where, without police interference, men and women were beaten into unconsciousness, thrown from the balconies and staircases, to make a Blackshirt holiday. Perhaps the provocative marches through the East End and the campaign of terror against the Jewish population are also forgotten. It was only public opposition that checked Mosley then; for, as Mr Mullally shows, both police and magistrates dealt more harshly with Mosley’s opponents than with the “patriotic” fascists who had to be interned at the threat of invasion. This organised violence, which only ten years ago counted its supporters in tens of thousands, should not be forgotten in assessing the potential challenge that a fascist revival can make. Even in today’s changed political climate, much of the evidence assembled by Mr Mullally is still shocking. It would be stupid to exaggerate the importance of fascism in Britain at the moment: it is equally dangerous to dismiss it as a disease which can be cured by ridicule and disregard.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)