A Brief Background to British Fascism
This is the first a short series of essays looking at the role fascist movements could potentially play in a fictional alternative history of Thatcherite Britain, 1979.
Fascism did not suddenly appear in Britain in the 1930's in immitation to Mussolini or Hitler's Germany. Back at the turn of the century extremists within the Conservative Party demonstrated anti-socialist and ultra-imperialist views, believing that the traditional elites were the means to protect the property of the rich from the threat of disorder.
The first self-declared fascist organisation in Britain was the British Fascists (BF) set up in 1923 by Rotha Lintorn Orman. Prominent members of the BF included Brigadier-General Robert Blakeney, the Earl of Glasgow, Viscountess Downe, Baroness Zouche of Haryngworth, Lady Menzies of Menzies, and Brigadier-General T. Erskine Tulloch. In 1926 BF members would aid the government during the General Strike.
In 1925 a number of aggressive anti-semitic members of the BF split to form the British National Fascists. The nearest approximation to a Fascist organisation in 1920s Britain was the Imperial Fascist League.
Enter Sir Oswald Moseley centre stage. In October 1932 Moseley, a charismatic figure, who had been Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Ramsay MacDonald Labour government of 1929 to 1931, formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF) with strong connections to European fascist parties. The BUF wore the blackshirt uniform, inherited the Horst Wessel song, and the Italian symbol of the fasces.
Military thinker Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, joined Moseley in 1934. Together they reorganised the BUF along military lines. They reorientated the party to take up local issues in local areas, and the most successful and famous of these local drives was the anti-semitic campaign in the East End, which from then on increasingly dominated the politics of the BUF.
World War 2 saw Moseley being imprisoned and the BUF scattered. The fight against Nazism and the horrors of the concentration camps should have seen an end to fascism but by 1945 there were a number of competing fascist groups within the UK. Moselely now free, formed the Union Movement in post-war years in imitation of the BUF, but it was no more than shadow of it's former self.
By 1954 only two ultra-rightist groups existed, A. K. Chesterton's League of Empire Loyalists and Oswald Mosley's Union Movement. In 1967, these groups merged to form the National Front (NF), with Chesterton as Chairman. Post colonial world politics played straight into the NFs hands. In 1968 Kenyan Asians were forced out of Kenya by an 'Africanisation' movement. The arrival of the Kenyan Asians into the UK the same year was greeted by Enoch Powell's infamous 'Rivers of Blood' speech and a number of far right Tory activists joined the NF.
In 1972 the Ugandan Asians were expelled by President Idi Amin and the NF were handed another golden envelope. National Front membership reached 14,000 in 1973 and went on to win won 44,000 votes in elections in Leicester in 1976. Combined with the National Party, a splinter group which broke away from the NF abd composed of more 'moderate' former Conservatives, the fascist vote reached 38 per cent in local elections in Blackburn. In March 1977, the Front beat the Liberal Party in a by-election at Stechford in Birmingham, and pundits warned that the NF could displace the Liberals as Britain's third main political party. The NF received 119,000 votes in the May 1977 Greater London Council elections, and almost quarter of a million votes across the country in that year's local elections. During this period, the National Front claimed to have up to 20,000 members. The National Front appeared to be a rising force in British politics.
1978-79 saw the rise and fall of the National Front. In 1976 about 1,000 NF supporters marched through the immigrant centre of Bradford, leading to a riot by left-wingers and black youths, who attacked and stoned the police who were protecting the NF's march, overthrew two police cars, and fought a running battle with mounted police. The most violent confrontation occurred in Lewisham in 1977, when over 1,000 NF supporters marched through a multi-racial area where they had gained strong support in the Greater London Council election. Thousands of militant anti-NF demonstrators charged at the NF column, broke through the police lines and fought with members of the NF in what has been described as "the bloodiest street battle Britain had experienced since the 1930s". The NF touted it as the “Cable Street of the 1970s”.
The left-wing dominated anti-fascist movments claimed that their initiation of violence against the Front was justified because the NF’s activities and propaganda had led to racial assaults and murders. As a result of this repeated violence at NF organised events, chief police officers increasingly used their powers under the Public Order Act (1936), originally brought in as a response to violence in the wake of Moseley's BUF and banned NF marches.
In 1977, the communist dominated National Union of Journalists instructed it's members not to report on NF events or policies, except in the context of violence, and not to allow any statements by NF spokesmen to be quoted in the press or on television. leading to an almost news blackout on the NF and their activities. The Anti-Nazi League was formed in the same year and though an intense campaign that included rock carnivals, and cleverly uses sub-culture related groups such as Gays Against Fascism and Vegetarians Against the Nazis to build a movement that would see 100,000 people marching against the National Front.
In 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then Leader of the Opposition, stated in a television interview that many white Britons felt that they were being “swamped” by immigrants, and that this was leading to growing support for the NF. She promised that the Conservative Party, if elected, would address these issues. Overnight, Natioanl Front support amongst right-wing Tories, and middle of the road voters dissipated.
In the 1979 election campaign out of 623 parliamentary constituenciesthe the NF put forward 303 candidates. They received little media coverage until Southall, Middlesex, Blair Peach, a New Zealand teacher and member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, was killed by the police while leading a large crowd of Asians in an attack on an NF election meeting in Southall, West London. Public opinon waned. Appalled by the violence that appeared to accompany the NF, and the fact it had attracted anti-establishment youth sub-cultures such as Skinheads and Punks, adorned with Nazi symbology, The NF were only awarded 1.3 per cent of votes cast in the parliamentary seats contested. The National Front was as it stood, a spent force, claiming that the Conservative Party had "stolen our clothes"
Does the collapse of the National Front in the 1979 elections mean that fascist movements play no part in Winter of '79. Not at all! It's an alternative history remember. I'll look at some of the potentialities in the second installment.