Hope not Hate has just published a book on the 100-year history of anti-fascism in the UK. With the National Conservatism conference this week, it is becoming more and more evident that this group of Conservatives are heading further and further to the right. But is it fascism?
When fascism started in Britain
The first fascist organisation in Britain, the ‘British Fascisti’, was formed by former Girl Scout leader and ex-servicewoman Miss Rotha Lintorn-Orman (1895–1935) in 1923. The group modelled themselves on Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, which gained power in Italy the previous year. This marked the birth of British fascism.
Alive to the danger, people began to oppose fascism immediately, starting a British anti-fascist tradition that continues to this day.
To read more details of fascism’s path in Britain, and to see footage of meetings and speeches, see the British Library: Fascism in Inter-War Britain.
Oswald Mosley and the ‘Blackshirts’
The next official emergence of fascism, also heavily under the influence of Italian fascism, was led by Sir Oswald Mosley (1896–1980). His British Union of Fascists (BUF) was founded in October 1932 in a world of economic crisis and was accompanied by a manifesto. In 1934, BUF had an estimated 40–50,000 members.
It was then supported by press baron Lord Rothermere (1868–1940) who in January of 1934 had declared “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” on the front page of his Daily Mail. Astonishingly, women represented a remarkable 25% of BUF membership. They had their own Women’s Section, where women were trained in public speaking, political canvassing, and self-defence.
Mosley was already known in the 1920s for being a brilliant orator. His charisma and sex appeal enabled his transition from Labour to becoming a fascist revolutionary. Like many far right leaders, he displayed unshakeable self confidence.
Cable Street and beyond
The major phase of the BUF was from 1938, at the time of the National Government’s policy of appeasement and the Munich Crisis. Mosley published his ‘Four Points for Peace’ which was not a pacifist position. His objection was only to a war with the fascist powers. The rally at Earl’s Court on 16 July 1939 was BUF’s largest indoor meeting with 20,000 in attendance.
In October 1936, there had been the infamous confrontation between the fascists and their many opponents, the so-called ‘Battle of Cable Street’. To mark the party’s fourth birthday, Mosley showed up in East London in the movement’s new ‘Action Press Uniform’, including jackboots and other design features that paid direct homage to German Nazi uniforms.
On top of barricades and holding banners proclaiming ‘They Shall Not Pass’, like the Spanish anti Nationalist slogan ‘no pasarán’, the East End repelled the Blackshirt march through this working-class district of London. This victory came at a poignant moment in history, just months after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It is a day that has been memorialised as a people’s victory.
With the new look, the movement also renamed itself the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists – thereafter abbreviated to the British Union (BU). While there was antisemitism in the BUF from its inception, in the late 1930s Jew baiting and fascist verbal and physical violence became a more regular feature.
Jewish influence was supposed to be behind communism as well as capitalism, and ‘international finance’. Jews were also deemed to be responsible for denying fascists their ‘freedom of speech’, a clear case of victim-blaming. This victimhood is one of the aspects of far right propaganda which Timothy Snyder describes in his book ‘On Tyranny’ (link to our book review).
Mosley was banned from the BBC from 1935, when the BBC cancelled a programme featuring a debate between Mosley and Communist Party of Great Britain leader Harry Pollitt. He appeared, however, in 1968, when he was interviewed about his autobiography ‘My Life’.
However, there are numerous recordings to be found in the archives made by his party during the 1930s. BUF recorded its own albums of ‘the Leader’s’ speeches and filmed rallies and events. After Mosley’s death, old members reunited to form the Friends of Oswald Mosley and recorded some oral histories.
This year is the 100th anniversary of these events, and an opportunity to tell the story of British fascism and anti-fascism together. Sadly, despite a century of opposition and the revelation of the Holocaust, fascism has survived in this country and continues to pose a very real danger.
Central Bylines’ article by Mark Cunliffe examines the recent National Conservative Conference where the participants’ speeches should start alarm bells ringing.
In his article entitled ‘On the wrong side of Britain’s history‘, journalist, writer and filmmaker Paul Mason whose latest book is How To Stop Fascism writes:
“Dirk Campbell, a 72-year-old composer and climate activist, was dragged off the podium of the ‘National Conservatism’ conference in London last week, for trying to warn the delegates about fascism. He was right, because that is where the new grouping – instantly dubbed the ‘Nat-Cs’ – are headed.”
In Matt Carr’s Blog ‘Infernal Machine’, he describes one of the examples of victim blaming similar to the messaging found in BUF propaganda.
“According to Kruger, the UK set out in 2016 to ‘renew the basis of our politics’, only to be thwarted by the EU, which refused to ‘make Brexit work for both sides’. Instead ‘we were pushed about like a child in the playground encircled by bullies, unable to break out’, until Boris Johnson finally had the courage to stand up to ‘Parliament, the judiciary, and the civil service’ and forced the EU to ‘take notice’ of us. As a result, ‘we broke free. We crashed through the ring of bullies and made it to the people and forced an election.’”
The Hope not Hate report is, in my view, essential reading. It includes profiles of the major fascist individuals and groups over the past century and those who most successfully opposed them. It tells stories of dangerous times, heart-breaking loss, fear, hatred and violence. Yet it also celebrates remarkable acts of resistance, bravery, sacrifice and progress.
The 100th anniversary is, above all, an opportunity to celebrate the tireless and brave work of so many who stood up and said: “No pasarán!” Lest we forget.