British fascism: the leader’s eye view


During the lockdown, although bookshops have been closed and the likes of Penguin have deferred the publication of their bestsellers till the autumn, books continue to appear on the subject of the far right. Through this week I’ll be reviewing three of them: Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers; Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter’s Reactionary Democracy; and Evan Smith’s No Platform. In each case I’ll be trying to think through what they tell us about the far right.

Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right tells the story of the British far right through biographical studies of six leading British fascists – Arnold Leese, Oswald Mosley, A. K. Chesterton, Colin Jordan, John Tyndall and Nick Griffin. Each led a party: the Imperial Fascist League (Leese), the British Union of Fascists (Mosley), the National Front (Tyndall/Griffin), the British Movement (Jordan), and the British National Party (which endured its own Tyndal/Griffin succession).

The book is incredibly detailed. By my reckoning, it is about 250,000-300,000 words long making it as long as three to four PhDs, or more than twice as long as Richard Thurlow’s Fascism in Britain (1987), which has been treated, for the past thirty years, as “the” authoritative history of fascism in this country.

Almost all the references are to primary research, so that for when writing about the National Front, Macklin cites private correspondence held in the papers of such veteran fascists as Patrick Harrington and George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party; minutes of the National Front’s Directorate; papers from Conservative Central Office, FBI records, Special Branch papers in the National Archive; and materials in anti-fascist archives originally collected by the 62 Group, the Jewish Defence Committee, the Labour Research Department and Searchlight.

In recent years, I have had my own writing projects – telling the story of the NF in the 1970s, or of how Mosley depending on Italian and German cash. Where I found one or two sources, Macklin finds a dozen. It really is only when you’ve tired to write something similar that you appreciate just how much time and much care Macklin has put into his book, and how much further it goes than anything else.

After Macklin, no-one else is ever going to write a better-researched biography of Arnold Leese the anti-semitic camel doctor who jockeyed with Oswald Mosley for leadership of interwar British fascism, or of Colin Jordan, whose British Movement had a similar subordinate relationship to John Tyndall’s National Front.

If what follows seems critical, then those notes of caution should be understood as bound up with a great deal of admiration.

It is precisely because this is going to always be my generation’s “big book” on British Fascism, that it is worth asking how much it achieves?

It seems to me that the method of individual leadership biographies is limited. If you think, by comparison, of the history of British trade unionism, there was a time early in that movement when historians wrote as if we believed that the unions were institutions, which had to be founded by career General Secretaries. This “Great Leader” approach to union history was hegemonic for about half a century after the union’s modern breakthrough moment in the 1880s but eventually it was largely dropped. Historians learned to write about trade unions through their local, sometimes their factory leaderships, or their members, and in ways informed by anti-racist and feminist theory, etc.

(There have been studies of British fascism which emulate the feminist, cultural and post-colonial turns of labour history – the key names such as Julie Gottlieb, Tom Linehan, or W. F. Mandle appear in Macklin’s bibliography, their insights are crowded out though by the focus on individual leaders).

Given that people have been writing about British fascism for more than fifty years, it is a sobering thought that methodologically things haven’t moved on very much since books written by Colin Cross (The Fascists in Britain, 1961) or Robert Benewick (The Fascism Movement in Britain, 1969), or indeed – in its leader’s eye view the closest counterpart to Macklin’s book – Skidelsky’s flawed biography of Oswald Mosley (1975).

In his introduction, Macklin terms his method “prosopographical” (i.e. a method of collective biography) but that promises more than he or anyone could deliver. For that method of writing has a very specific history – it is associated with the British economic historian (and refugee from post-revolutionary Russia) Lewis Namier, who argued that it might be possible to write the collective study of the House of Commons in the eighteenth century by compiling together vast quantities of sociological data relating to local leaders’ education, economic position, experience of office, etc. This isn’t Macklin’s approach; he doesn’t look to shared experiences of the empire or the army or anything else, to draw his six biographies together, rather they feel like six separate books.

While Failed Führers deserves to be presented to students as the new standard study of British fascism, the first book to read in place of Thurlow’s dated text, there are some omissions. The most important of them is that although 87 pages of his book are devoted to Oswald Mosley, who was the best-known leader of British fascism in the decade when it came closest to mass support (1930-9), Macklin splits his Mosley material into two halves, with six-sevenths of his material devoted to Mosley’s post-1945 politics. That was maybe the right choice from the point of view of the originality of Macklin’s material and the possibility of finishing the book. Otherwise Macklin would be covering the same ground as Stephen Dorrill’s biography of Mosley: Blackshirt (2006), about the only other study published in the past 20 years which in the depth of its reading comes close to Macklin’s book. But, from the point of view of the general reader, the absence is striking. In 1934 the British Union of Fascists had between 40,000 and 50,000 members; more than twice the support of any party since. It was constantly in the news. Writing a history of British fascism with eleven pages on the BUF is like writing a study of Rosencratz and Guildenstern without mentioning Hamlet.

Connected to this, the book suffers with a problem of scale. One way of understanding this is to think of Robert O. Paxton’s “Five Stages of Fascism”. Written following a close study of the histories of German, Italian and Spanish (etc) fascism, Paxton argues that fascism evolves through separate and distinct stages: at first, a period of movements rather than parties, and of intellectual exploration; second, a stage when fascism assisted by the lethargy of its opponents was able to become a player on the national stage, then arrival to power, exercise of power, and finally radicalisation or entropy.

British fascism, on this model, has been stuck continuously in the first stage save for four brief breakthrough moments: in 1934-9 (under the influence of the success of Mussolini and Hitler), in 1974-9 (the National Front), in about 2005-10 (the BNP), and a new period of growth (thanks to Brexit and Trump) since 2016.

Macklin skims over the first of these; the fourth is too recent for his book. What’s left, in terms of Britain fascism’s development into anything like a mass party is about 25 pages of Macklin’s book: Tyndall and the 1970s (pages 372-86 give or take), Griffin up to 2010 (pages 495-508 or thereabouts).

To really explain the success of first the National Front and then the British National Party, any historian would need to explain where the NF fitted within a certain moment of British imperial decline, the legacy of WWII and a fascination with fascism (expressed in music, books and clothes, etc), the reasons for media interest in it, and the way in which long-term historical processes both encouraged and limited its growth. The story of the BNP requires a similar treatment, although on a different scale, reflecting the much lesser success that party had in sinking deep social roots.

Macklin’s approach is different – whether writing about Tyndall’s career in 1965 or 1975, his focus is really on Tyndall’s interactions with his principal lieutenants, his correspondence with them, etc. As a reader, it is never really explained that Tyndall was now working with much more talented organisers, was a much more consistent presence in national life. You never really have the feeling that much more was at stake.

Macklin’s treatment of the BNP between about 2005 and 2010 is stronger – lively and vivid – the Conservatives become an important part of the story, as does Tony Blair, and the mass media has to come in, as a result of Question Time.

No single factor is given for the BNP’s eclipse, although both events and competence are alluded to. A space has been left for other writers to debate this further. How important was anti-fascism , especially in 2010? How much of the BNP’s decline was down to other parties electoral appeal – especially given the way in which the BNP was, to a much greater extent than the NF had been, a purely electoral phenomenon, prospering as a result of a rightward shift by significant voters which the Conservatives were unable to hegemonise prior to 2010?

In conclusion this is a superbly-researched book and an important one. No-one is going to surpass Macklin’s treatment of these six leaders. But there remains a space, especially now that the far right has mutated in a more populist direction, for accounts which are capable of explaining why the right breaks through – and how it might be stopped.

[For anyone who has enjoyed this review; on Friday at 6pm BST, I’ll be speaking at an event on the New Authoritarians and Covid with Sita Balani. Details here:].

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