Just a couple of years ago, Fascist in the Family might have been greeted as no more than an interesting addition to the ever-expanding genre of family memoir: a child’s unflinching account of a wrong-headed, right-wing father set against the panoramic backdrop of the divided domestic politics and international conflagrations of the first half of the 20th century.
Francis Beckett couldn’t have known it – these 396 densely packed pages must have been years in the making – but this publication comes at a political moment that subtly changes our reading of the particular history he describes. Today, in our world dominated by the hard men (and women) of the new right, the book reads more as a chill warning. British fascism of the pre-war period grew out of similar soil to Brexit, Bannon and Banks, including the cruel slashing of state benefits, a paralysing crisis in the labour movement, the false lure of nationalism, the rise of the extreme right on the Continent and the vile scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities.
John Beckett entered the Commons in 1924 as the youngest MP on the Labour benches. Within a few years, he had “become the most extreme, most newsworthy left-wing Labour rebel of his day”, known for his provocative speeches and outrageous tactics. He was a talented speaker, offering “fireworks and crudity” to working-class audiences across the country, an ingenious and indefatigable organiser and an energetic and successful womaniser. His impatience with the Labour and trades union establishment, combined with an irrational and uncontrollable anti-Semitism and reflexive nationalism, led him to Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF), where he became the head of propaganda.
At first worshipping the charismatic Mosley, a man with whom he shared the ability to stir up a crowd, Beckett soon came to distrust the high-handed, aristocratic BUF leader as a vindictive narcissist. He broke away to form the anti-Semitic National Socialist League with figures such as William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and A K Chesterton (a distant cousin of the better-known G K), and later the British People’s Party (BPP).
In the words of his only son, Beckett’s political career ended in “the squalid wastelands of neo-Nazi politics”, earning him four years’ internment during the Second World War and a bleak form of social exile in the postwar period. Francis, an impressively dispassionate biographer, is also well placed to unearth the twisted roots of his father’s anti-Semitism: he reports that John’s adored mother, Eva, was almost certainly Jewish, a fact he kept hidden all his life.
Fascist in the Family is a salutary reminder that the British far right failed in part thanks to the catastrophic misjudgements of its leaders. Compare the political trajectories of Oswald Mosley and John Beckett to those of Clement Attlee and Hugh Dalton, who were roughly contemporaries but in the labour movement. Attlee and Dalton survived the years of Labour wipeout after Ramsay MacDonald’s national government of 1931-35, the Depression of the 1930s and the politics of appeasement without caving in to unprincipled populism, and went on to pilot the greatest Labour government of the 20th century as prime minister and chancellor of the Exchequer, respectively. By that time, John Beckett was a social outcast because of his fascist activities, and Mosley a hardened has-been who failed to win any significant electoral support.
No wonder that Francis Beckett exhibits a certain wistfulness about “what might have been” for his father, politically speaking, especially given his early close association with the quiet young Clement Attlee. Beckett helped Attlee to win his first seat in parliament, and the two men shared lodgings and long talks. Having left school at 14, he admired Attlee’s “erudition and wit”, and retained an affection and respect for the future prime minister all his life, an admiration he clearly passed on to the young Francis, later Attlee’s biographer.
John Beckett’s story is also a reminder of the ties that existed between the anti-Semitic, extreme right and some English aristocrats. Struggling to find paid work and regain a modicum of respectability after the war, and desperate for his only son to have the public-school education denied him, Beckett relied on the protection of eccentric upper-class allies such as the Duke of Bedford, who bankrolled the BPP.
At one level, this is the story of a human being with great talents and charm but alarmingly poor judgement in just about everything from politics and people to class and money. The author’s mother, Anne, was driven to a nervous breakdown by her common-law husband’s fascist buccaneering, misconceived financial schemes and the near-constant house and school moves inflicted on her and the children.
Just 19 when his father died, Francis reserves perhaps his most savage verdict for the secret service, and one operative in particular, Graham Mitchell of MI5, who was responsible for watching his father’s every move. Mitchell’s secret memos, only recently released, are as “revolting as anything I have ever read”. The author notes, with satisfaction, that Mitchell’s own career ended in disgrace when he came under investigation as a Russian spy in the mid-1960s.
This is a gripping account of a singularly tragic political life: a tale of parliamentary elections won and reputations lost, of passionate oratory and violence at public meetings, of intense love affairs and ruptured friendships, of family tenderness and the dreary, unending shame of living as a social outcast in perpetual penury.
It is also a skilled high-wire act, keeping an uneasy faith with a loving parent, right down to the last, heartbreaking paragraph.
“He was not reliable or truthful or sensible, but he was talented and lovable and passionate . . . with a sort of honesty at his core, and though he is identified with hate, he was capable of more love than he knew how to handle.”
This can’t have been an easy book to research or write. Thanks to Beckett’s intellectual and emotional honesty, however, it offers a fascinating insight into the complex personal origins of the politics of hatred, as well as a timely reminder that some of our most dangerous public figures possess uncommon human appeal.
Melissa Benn is the author of “What Should We Tell Our Daughters?” (Hodder)
Fascist in the Family: the Tragedy of John Beckett MP
Routledge, 396pp, £75/£16.99
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special