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The Strange Life and Death of British Fascism

The Strange Life and Death of British Fascism

On June 7th, 1934, 15,000 people packed into the Olympia exhibition hall in West Kensington to hear Oswald Mosley speak about the coming fascist revolution.

As the self-styled ‘Leader’ strode confidently onto the brightly lit stage, theatrically late and dressed all in black, he could have perhaps been forgiven for believing his own hyperbole.

After all, despite winning an overwhelming majority in the 1931 election, the National Government was in crisis, seemingly incapable of dealing with the collapse in the value of sterling and persistently high unemployment.

Indeed, there was a widespread perception that the one-time home of Nelson and Disraeli was suffering from a tragic dearth of competent politicians. The prime minster, Ramsay MacDonald, was considered to be a placeholder by those with charitable inclinations and senile by those with none. His deputy, Stanley Baldwin, struggled to inspire his fellow Conservatives, let alone the rest of the country. Winston Churchill, meanwhile, was still seen by many as an unreliable cad, unfit for the responsibilities of high office.

This air of paralysis proved to be a major boon for Mosley and his newly formed British Union of Fascists (BUF). But it was Lord Rothermere’s intervention that really catapulted Blighty’s home-grown autocrats into the public consciousness.

A wealthy press baron and virulent critic of the National Government, Rothermere used a January 1934 op-ed in the Daily Mail to declare his support for the BUF. The article was accompanied by the now infamous headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” and two photographs of Mosley and company in said attire. From then on, Rothermere put his newspapers, which also included The Sunday Dispatch, the Sunday Protocol, and the Evening News, in the service of the movement.

As a consequence of this newfound legitimacy, the BUF’s ranks soon swelled to 50,000. Their support came from across the political and social spectrum. In crude terms, many working class voters were attracted to Mosley’s programme of protectionism and economic interventionism, while the middle classes were enticed by the party’s staunch anti-communism and promotion of traditional imperial values. Still others were excited by the prospect of being involved in a transgressive, even violent, crusade.

On the eve of the Olympia rally, the BUF was thus poised to become a major player in British politics.

So, what happened? Why did they fail to replicate the successes of their brethren on the continent?

I

According to orthodox historians, the Olympia event itself is the prime culprit.

As a journalist from the Manchester Guardian observed:

“With the arc-lamps swung round on him, Sir Oswald began his speech. Almost at once a chorus of interrupters began chanting in one of the galleries. Blackshirts began stumbling and leaping over chairs to get at the source of the noise. There was a wild scrummage, women screamed, black-shirted arms rose and fell, blows were dealt, and then above the noise came the chorus chanted by rough voices, ‘We want Mosley.’”

The meeting continued like this for nigh on two hours:

“Now and again a woman would shrill at the top of her voice, a crowd of Blackshirts would hustle round her and, knotting her arms behind her back, bundle her out. The arena was soon full of hooting and whistling and chairs and boots and shoes were flying in the air.”

Received wisdom suggests that these ugly scenes were enough to turn polite opinion decisively against the BUF. Troubled by such open violence, Rothermere dropped his support, while potentially sympathetic right-wingers in parliament scrambled to distance themselves from Mosley’s distinctly un-British rabble-rousing. This shunted the BUF firmly outside the boundaries of mainstream political discourse, leaving them starved of publicity, members, and funds.

But is there any truth to this characterisation?

II

Well, yes and no.

The fallout from Olympia undoubtedly had a negative impact on the BUF’s reputation, particularly amongst those with more bourgeois sensibilities.

It does not appear, however, to have been the pivotal factor in the party’s decline. As Martin Pugh points out, “the parliamentary reaction to Olympia was more mixed than has been recognised” and “the response of the press was more complicated.”

There was a debate in the House of Commons, but it was dominated by Conservative MPs who cast doubt on reports of Blackshirt brutality, instead blaming communist and socialist agitators for provoking an understandable backlash. The likes of H.K. Hales and T.F. Howard even went so far as to praise the BUF.

The Rothermere press adopted a similar line. Pugh points out that “Olympia brought about no immediate change” in its coverage:

“In early July the Mail was still reporting in some detail on the content of Mosley’s speeches at Worcester, Swansea, and Ipswich. According to the reports these were enthusiastic meetings which passed off without disorder or violence.”

III

What, then, explains the increasing marginalisation of British fascism from 1934 onwards?

To begin with, Rothermere did withdraw his backing for the BUF, but not because of Olympia. The old Etonian was primarily concerned with convincing the Tories to adopt a protectionist trade policy. For a while, he saw Mosley as a useful pawn in this endeavour, not to mention a foil to Baldwin.

Mosley’s intention to stand candidates in the next election therefore spooked Rothermere, who feared that the BUF would split the conservative vote to the benefit of Labour. Pugh wryly notes that, in the end, it was Mosely’s parliamentary strategy, rather than his militarism, that proved his undoing.

To be sure, losing the patronage of such an influential figure was a major blow. Without the cover of the establishment, members left in their droves, taking their hard earned pounds and pennies with them.

This had two consequences. First, the BUF lacked the funds and infrastructure to contest the 1935 General Election. Second, freed from the constraints of respectable politics, the party became a platform for Hitler-worshipers and anti-Semites such as William Joyce (later known as Lord Haw-Haw) and John Beckett.

The latter development was catastrophic for the party’s mass appeal because it allowed the powers that be to paint fascism as a foreign importation and fascists as a would-be fifth column. It also made it much easier for the left to form a broad based anti-fascist coalition and mobilise effective counter-demonstrations. The Battle of Cable Street is the most obvious example of this strategy in action, but it worked all across the country, limiting the party’s support amongst working class voters.

The revanchist foreign policy of Germany and Italy also played a role in the BUF’s deteriorating fortunes. And, of course, the outbreak of war put an end to its activities altogether. On 23rd May, 1940, just one day after the imposition of Defence Regulation 18B, Mosley and 740 of his followers were arrested and imprisoned without trial. A week later, the BUF and its publications were banned.

IV

The lesson to take from all this is very simple.

Public institutions and figures have a great deal of power to influence popular opinion. This power comes with immense responsibility, especially with regards to extremist organisations that threaten the foundations of liberal democracy. There is, unfortunately, a very fine line between addressing legitimate grievances and legitimising bigotry. Even with the best intentions, openly engaging with these groups will only embolden them. Best, then, to tackle the problem at its source by depriving them of the oxygen they crave.


Authored by James Chisem

James Chisem

James Chisem is an editor at British Online Archives. He has previously written for the BBC, The Times, and Reuters. He has also appeared on the Sunday Politics, Sky Sports, and BBC Radio 5 Live.


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