[Paleopsych] Sunday Times (UK) 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts!' by Martin Pugh

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'Hurrah for the Blackshirts!' by Martin Pugh

    'Hurrah for the Blackshirts!' by Martin Pugh
    'HURRAH FOR THE BLACKSHIRTS!': Fascists and Fascism in Britain between
    the Wars by Martin Pugh
    Cape £20 pp400

    Why did Britain not become fascist between the wars? The obvious
    answer is that the British temperament is inhospitable to fascism.
    Fascism calls for ardour and common purpose, whereas the British are
    by nature disgruntled, unhopeful, individualistic and suspicious of
    ideas. They do not like being organised, and they have a keen sense of
    the ridiculous, which is lethal to fascism. One-man rule has never
    attracted them. As early as 1649 they were obliged to chop Charles I's
    head off to bring this point to his attention. Their main interest in
    human grandeur is watching it come an almighty cropper, as
    Shakespeare's tragedies testify.

    None of these answers would satisfy Martin Pugh. That interwar Britain
    did not become fascist was, he suggests, merely a matter of chance. If
    the economic depression had bitten deeper, or if the 1926 general
    strike had not petered out, or if Edward VIII had stuck to his guns
    instead of abdicating, the consequent political crisis might easily
    have swept a fascist dictator to supreme power in the person of Sir
    Oswald Mosley. Far from being alien to British political culture,
    fascism was, Pugh argues, a home-grown product. In 1923, only four
    years after Mussolini launched his Italian fascisti in Milan, the
    first British fascist party came into existence. It aimed to emulate
    the "lofty ideals" of the Boy Scout movement, and its founder, Rotha
    Lintorn-Orman, was herself a Girl Scout leader. A more militant
    breakaway group, the Imperial Fascist League, adopted full Nazi
    black-and-gold regalia, with an armband depicting the swastika
    superimposed on the Union Jack. Arnold Spenser Leese, its founder, was
    an expert on the diseases of camels and something of a recluse, his
    closest relationship, according to Pugh, being with his bull terrier.
    Other splinter groups developed throughout the 1920s, among them the
    National Fascisti, whose most renowned member was Valerie
    Arkell-Smith, a transvestite who spent years successfully passing
    herself off as Sir Victor Barker. The appeal of rural life, the Middle
    Ages and the feudal system drew other fascists to the English Mistery,
    later renamed the English Array. Its founder, Viscount Lymington,
    organised "musters" or camps where fascists built compost heaps, drank
    unpasteurised milk, and lamented the effects of tinned food on the
    British character.

    It comes as a surprise, after reading Pugh's account of these
    organisations, to find him claiming there was "nothing very eccentric
    about the British fascists". They seem, on the contrary, to be a bunch
    of inveterate British oddities of a kind that any genuine fascist
    regime would have speedily wiped out. Their total membership was small
    and their political influence negligible. Mosley's British Union of
    Fascists (BUF), founded in 1932, was, of course, more serious, and
    Pugh ably lists Mosley's attractions. He had a fine war record, having
    served in the Royal Flying Corps. He was a spellbinding orator and an
    immense success with women, who would squeal "Oh Valentino" as he
    twirled his moustaches at BUF rallies. His Blackshirts are usually
    remembered as urban and right-wing, dedicated to Jew-baiting in the
    East End. But, in fact, Pugh points out, the BUF was popular in
    farming communities, where it campaigned for trade tariffs to stop the
    home market being swamped by cheap foreign food. Mosley had been
    converted to socialism in the 1920s and had served in Ramsay
    MacDonald's second Labour government. He cared deeply about poverty
    and unemployment, and it was the failure of successive governments to
    remedy these ills that led him to denounce parliamentary democracy as
    temporising and impotent. The genuineness of his concern was
    recognised in the industrial towns, where BUF membership had a
    sizeable working-class component.

    Where he went wrong was quite simply in becoming a fascist, for this
    inevitably linked him with Hitler and the Nazis, and as the monstrous
    nature of their aims became apparent during the 1930s so his following
    among decent people fell away. The high point for the BUF came in the
    early months of 1934 when Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail took up the
    fascist cause with the headline "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!", and a
    mass rally in London's Olympia gave the public its first view of
    Mosley's shock-troops. It was not a pretty sight. Hecklers were picked
    out by spotlights, efficiently beaten up and ejected. Mosley stopped
    speaking while this was going on so that the audience could
    concentrate on the bloodshed. The brutality alienated educated opinion
    and when, only weeks later, Hitler eliminated his opponents and
    massacred the brownshirts in the Night of the Long Knives, the
    similarity between the two movements seemed blatant. Rothermere
    withdrew his support after the Olympia rally, and BUF membership
    dropped from 50,000 in 1934 to 5,000 in 1935.

    Fatally, Mosley did nothing to distance himself from his Nazi
    counterparts. He married his second wife, Lady Diana, in the
    Goebbelses' drawing room, and the Führer sent a silver-framed
    photograph of himself as a wedding gift. His rallies were plainly a
    cut-price version of Hitler's vast theatrical parades. At the last of
    them, in July 1939 at Earl's Court, he entered to a trumpet fanfare
    and harangued the crowd from atop an enormous plinth like a
    beleaguered steeplejack. Although the BUF was not markedly anti-
    semitic in its early days, it became increasingly obsessed with
    Nazi-style theories about a worldwide Jewish conspiracy of capitalists
    and Bolsheviks that aimed to destroy western civilisation. Jews, in
    BUF rhetoric, were responsible for all the world's evils, whereas each
    new instance of aggression by the fascist dictators -- Mussolini's
    invasion of Abyssinia, Hitler's occupation of the Rhineland and
    Czechoslovakia -- was portrayed by Mosley as utterly innocent. It is
    hardly surprising that when the BUF eventually fielded three
    candidates in by-elections in early 1940 they were humiliatingly
    defeated, and Mosley came close to being lynched. Shortly after, he
    was arrested and imprisoned, along with 747 of his followers, which
    may well have saved his life. In Nazi Germany he would of course have
    been shot long before for preaching defeatism and appeasement.

    Pugh's book is not an easy read. It is maddeningly repetitive and
    recycles its stage army of cranks and fanatics in chapter after
    chapter. However, it incorporates new research, especially about BUF
    membership, and puts the English fascist movements into their wider
    political and economic contexts. Tellingly, he lists Conservative MPs
    and cabinet ministers who were unashamedly fascist throughout the
    1930s. Some of the instances are almost incredible. During the phoney
    war the chief of the imperial general staff wanted to appoint
    Major-General "Boney" Fuller, a BUF candidate, as his deputy, and had
    to be overruled by the war cabinet. When the BUF was eventually
    rounded up, virtually all the leading aristocratic fascists remained
    at large. Pugh leaves us in little doubt that had Hitler invaded in
    1940 he would have found several figures on the right of the
    Conservative party ready to welcome him.

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