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Fascist Movement

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Fascist movements in Britain existed since 1923 when The British Fascisti were formed. Oswald Moseley set-up the British Union of Fascists in 1932 and this was the first Fascist movement that had a possibility of challenging the existing political system. However, the failure of Oswald Mosley’s fascist revolution cannot be entirely associated with the flaws of the BUF or its leader, though this did play a part. External factors also played a role ensuring that British Fascism was never really a threat to the government.

When Mosley found the BUF he announced that it was a genuine ‘British’ response to national problems, Mosley’s movement though was clearly influenced by Fascism from abroad. The marches, rallies, speeches and even uniforms mimicked those of Mussolini and Hitler. Mistakenly the Blackshirts were seen as the encompassment of extreme conservatism attracting well respected members, including Lord Rothermere. However, the political system in Britain was strong and would not be undermined by a Fascist movement.

Existing political parties catered for many peoples and they denied room for proper political space in which the BUF could become a respectable and creditable party. Labour catered for working classes who were not radicalized enough to be withdrawn from their trade unions and Conservatives appealed to the upper classes. In contrast to this the BUF were a new type of party far from normal political culture with an anti-democratic ideology and authoritarianism alienating potential support. Fascisms inability to challenge the government was because essentially it was ‘foreign’, as historian Benewick put it.

Britain also had ‘two safety valves’, firstly the peoples absolute worship was towards the monarchy rather than potentially corrupted politicians, secondly those with extreme views had been distanced from Britain itself and towards its empire where they could control ‘lesser breeds’ without restriction. BUF propaganda showed them to be a lively and organised movement behind a leader who was incapable of failure or error. In cases this was true, Mosley for example was an extremely powerful and skilful orator and ‘certainly the best speaker in politics’1, he could hold a speech without notes for hours.

However, he had a well exposed private life, he was married twice and had a number of affairs, hence being judged untrustworthy by some. As a party there were endless and inconclusive debates, a lack of courage and decision. A number of events in the party highlighted these weaknesses – for example, the basic division existing in the leadership of the BUF. Mosley only attempted to deal with this when the lack of funding forced him to make cuts, illustrating his inefficiency.

In the party there were those who favoured a ‘military’ approach which they believed should consist of order, discipline and marches to demonstrate power. The other half were a political faction who were dedicated in the spreading of Fascist propaganda. Despite the message Olympia had given about the public’s hate of violence Mosley concluded in 1937 that he was in favour of the militarists. He believed the ‘militarists’ would attract more members and he slashed funding to the ‘politicals’. Consequently Mosley lost some of the higher and more experienced political members of the movement.

Mosley would be ill-judged by the more extremist members of his party and would often be overruled by their ideas, despite this he did nothing about these members. Within the first few years of the party being set-up barely any financial regulation existed under deputy leader Forgan. There was theft from Fascist funds which caused a lack of resources. Members paid to be part of the movement and funding drastically decreased as support lessened from the years 1935 onwards as the BUF became recognised for their violence and Racism.

High profile members began to withdraw support and funding, the most influential being Lord Rothermere after the events of Olympia. Mosley was also receiving financial aid from abroad. Mussolini gave generous donations to the BUF in attempt to support ‘global fascism’ but this funding could not be justified with the lack of progress the Fascists seemed to be making. One reason why the BUF failed to become a significant force is due to their tactics and use of excessive violence. Violence was clearly the most notable attribute of British Fascism and it was received by the British people with an alienating effect.

In the earlier years of the movement it had created a radical image for a new movement keen to gain power and although the violence had given Fascism initial success it also contributed to the downfall of Fascism in the late 30s. In the early days of the Movement, major Blackshirt meetings directed by Mosley were held at various locations across Britain. These meetings helped to increase membership and were assisted by support given to BUF by the Daily Mail newspaper. After Mosley’s successful Albert Hall speech in 1934 membership numbers rose to some 50,000, the highest point yet.

Because of the Daily Mails support some members who joined as a result of the paper-led campaigns were Conservatives and were not entirely in favor of the revolutionary nature of the BUF. The BUF though were not able to sustain the success of their meetings for long. There were two main events that lead to Mosley’s dream of a Fascist revolution being shattered and both were due to his own fault in leadership. The first was Olympia, on the 7th of June 1934 and was the most famous act of Fascist brutality it would also be the last meeting Mosley would hold.

At Olympia Mosley intended to make a speech to a crowd of fascists, he arrived late and when he started to speak his words were meet with ‘boos’ from anti-fascists in the crowd. These anti-fascists contained left-wingers and communists who had seen that fascism in Italy had destroyed freedoms and labour organisations and they were determined not to witness the same effects in Britain. Mosley’s Blackshirt stewards were not prepared to allow Mosley’s speech to be ruined and proceeded to evict the hecklers out with use of force and violence in front of over 10,000.

Several anti-fascists were severely injured and it was reported that Mosley directed the expulsion from the rostrum. The event was devastating for the Fascists damaging the BUF’s reputation by symbolising Fascist violence. It also increased a growing discomfort among middle class supporters at the BUF’s alignment with the German Nazi party as shortly after Olympia was likened to Hitler’s ‘Night of the long knives’. The most damaging blow though came when Lord Rothermere withdrew the support of the Daily Mail in rejection to the event.

Instantly membership decreased from some 50,000 to just 5,000 and an already desperate funding situation deteriorated. The second event was the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ on the 4th October 1936 when Mosley attempted to lead a march through East London, an area of high Jewish population. Under Mosley’s new anti-Semitic campaign the two factions converged and there was fierce street fighting between police and the anti-fascists totaling over 100,000, which included aggravated Jewish opposition who were ‘roused and angry’2.

The march was cancelled and the Fascists dispersed peacefully, however, the fighting that occurred led to the introduction of the Public Order Act of 1936 by the government in attempt to stem the violent tide. The act severely hampered further progress for the BUF. It banned political marches, use of incriminating words in meetings and more essentially banned the emotive Blackshirt uniform. The restrictions left the BUF with no effective or unique way of publicizing themselves and therefore competition against opposition parties was weakened.

There were also events Mosley had no control over and these considerably weakened the Fascist effort to challenge the British political system. One of the major events was the depression and if Mosley had launched his party at the right time it may well have seen him in power. Instead the BUF was set-up in October 1932 too late to take advantage of the economic depression. Britain’s parliamentary institutions were quick at returning back to normal and proved remarkably strong, unlike those in Italy or Germany.

The National government were also strengthened and had the main policy of ‘national recovery’ to tackle the depression, they abolished the Golden Standard and lowered interest rates which won over extra public support as the situation improved. Although there were still over 3 million without work, unemployment had considerably improved, by 1937 unemployment fell from 28. 8% to 9. 5%. Increasing wealth and better employment diminished the opportunity for the BUF to exploit the situation and turn it into Fascist support.

In addition to this at no time did a communist revolution seem a possibility so for the Fascists there was no benefit from such a fear. This is supported by Stevenson who said ‘the ages of mass unemployment had failed to register a decisive impact upon the political structure of the country in terms of allegiance to extremist parties’. The National government was a well liked and respected party between 1931-1940 and despite the way it came into being it was popular at the polls and gained over 2/3’s of the total vote, Fascism was up against an extremely strong government both in terms of support and its cabinet.

A major benefit was the lack of competition in the Commons, there were no real competitors after the 1931 Labour split. Despite the unemployment after the depression there was never a sustained threat to public order and therefore Fascism did not really have anywhere to draw a large base of support from. Baldwin’s calm leadership and unwillingness to seek revenge enabled Britain’s extreme parties to be avoided, even in the Abdication crisis. After Olympia Mosley decided to concentrate on electoral politics because the diminution of the depression made the prospect of securing power through a crisis impossible.

He launched two new campaigns to counter the current political situation, these included ‘Mind Britain’s Business’, 1935-1939, and ‘Stand by the King’ during the abdication crisis late 1936 which managed to rally some support. Had Mosley seized opportunities during the crisis he could have found himself in some power. In 1936 Mosley changed the name of his party to the ‘British Union of Fascists and National Socialists’ he also reviewed the parties strategy and believed an anti-Semitic campaign would be key to a Fascist revival.

Anti-Semitism was always a feature of the movement but would now be more conspicuous and used to attract membership through anti-prejudice. Towards the middle of the 1930s, a growing discomfort grew among middle class supporters at the BUF’s alignment with the German Nazi party, in East London the BUF blamed conditions on Jewish settlement, people began to worry about the movements intentions and as a result membership decreased. Blackshirt attacks on Jews lead to Cable Street and this can be seen as a fault in Mosley’s strategy as the ‘battle’ limited the progression of his movement.

Fascist membership changed vastly. The initial movement began with a collection of middle classes from mainly the outskirts of London and after Olympia shifted to the national working class. Mosley never really accumulated a wide and consistent support base he could concentrate on. A women’s district leader commented, ‘For every good member, we got several who are cranks – with waste paper basket ideas’ suggesting many members were low in calibre and not overly committed. With only partially dedicated support the fascist movement was disadvantageous over the national government.

The growing tensions between Britain and Germany allowed Mosley the opportunity to release a series of initiatives appealing to those who opposed the war such as the ‘Stop the War’ campaign raising membership to 16,500. However, the outbreak of WWII in 1939 would prove to be an additional challenge for the BUF despite Mosley’s assurance that the ‘BUF will do nothing to impede the war effort’. The anti-Semitism campaign found it excitingly difficult to win over support when Britain was fighting a war against Nazism, a similar thing the BUF was promoting and membership collapsed as the country became united against its opposition.

Members felt their patriotism was corrupted by an enemy who was actively supporting and communicating with their party’s leader. Fascism became a national enemy and there was no way it could compete with the existing political parties. The government even feared the British Union was a possible Nazi 5th column. In May 1940 over Mosley and 700 Blackshirts were imprisoned Combinations of factors were to blame for Fascisms inability to challenge the political system. Firstly, Fascist ideology was clearly un-British, ‘the word fascismo had no meaning beyond Italy’3. Use of violence was a radical feature and seemed to dissuade potential support.

A significant reason was that the existing National government was strong and its ability to deal with the depression prevented Mosley exploiting the situation to gain power. Mosley himself was an indecisive leader severely weakening his authoritarian program. The adoption of anti-Semitism by Mosley was a poor strategy for a party looking to achieve power through constitutional means with universal support. Finally, WWII spelt final defeat for a Fascist revolution. With a country united against Fascism, patriotism, one of Mosley’s key forces worked against him and there became no room for an extreme right in British politics.

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