Far-right groups like the English Defence League are targeting Newcastle, the region’s capital, to stir up racial hatred and social unrest. MI5 and top police chiefs believe that the threat posed by the extreme right in the North of England and elsewhere is greater now than at any other time since the ‘thirties’.
Recommended by the Government’s Commission for Counter-Extremism £500,00k has been allocated to Newcastle City Council and the north east based charity Show Racism the Red Card to challenge extremist beliefs amongst vulnerable young people. But this isn’t first time that extremists have tried to gain a foot hold in the political culture of the North and Midlands.
Fascism which gained prominence in inter-war Europe with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, has resurfaced. A doctrine of extreme-nationalism, based on race hatred, it’s a twentieth century phenomenon. One variant of fascism appeared on British soil in 1932 against a backcloth of mass unemployment and social dislocation. This was the British Union of Fascists headed up by Sir Oswald Mosley.
Mosley, a former Conservative and Labour MP, put forward a plan for economic regeneration – ‘Britain First’ which combined the idea of the ‘corporate state’ with government protection of heavy industry. Mosley, was essentially fascist in his attacks on parliamentary democracy, the tired old men of the ‘establishment’ and communism. He was committed to crushing the trade union and labour movement. Mosley’s BUF blamed the Jews for the country’s economic woes.
Between 1932 and 1934 the BUF recruited thousands of members especially amongst young people. By 1934 Mosley’s Blackshirts numbered 34,000. Blackshirts organised rallies, marches and street violence in towns across the North east including South Shields. Mosley’s appeal lay in his charismatic ability to persuade people that his party would restore jobs in the depressed North. He not only gained support from the industrial working-class, but attracted active members from both the aristocracy namely Alan Percy, the 8th Duke of Northumberland and middle class Conservatives. They shared his idea of white supremacy, patriotism, commitment to law and order, free speech and ‘’English methods’’.
According to Newcastle University historian Martin Pugh the ‘’fascist appeal’’ varied from one part of the country to another. In the depressed region of Lancashire Mosley claimed that the cotton industry could be saved by crushing Indian manufacturing and imposing import controls.
For local historian and west end Labour councillor Nigel Todd – Mosley’s Blackshirts targeted the inactive munitions factories and silent shipyards on Tyne and Wear during the best part of the period. Unemployment was widespread and grinding poverty was endemic in Sunderland, Jarrow and North Shields.
Yet, the BUF’s poisonous ideology owed something to the impact of the better-established fascist movements in Germany, Italy and Spain. Mosley got financial support from Mussolini and married into the Mitfords who were on warm terms with Hitler. By 1936 the BUF emulated the Nazi’s in attacking the Jewish community in the east end of London, which it treated as a scapegoat for the economic problems of the country.
Despite its rapid growth, the BUF lost momentum by 1937. This has been attributed to public reaction towards the street violence of the Blackshirts which alienated the respectable middle classes. For some writers fascism never posed a real threat to parliamentary democracy after 1934. Britain’s political culture was durable and moderate. Respect for constitutionalism and the rule of law was key. For the academic Bill Coxall fascism was alien to our democratic values and traditions.
Yet Pugh argues that this is too complacent a viewpoint. The recruitment of thousands of working class young men into the BUF, marked by its quasi-military style, was solid evidence that violence continued to be part of Britain’s political tradition. Mosley’s ambitions were prevented less by political culture than by economic factors.
Although the North, parts of Scotland and Wales were hit hard by the recession the unemployment crisis was worse in Germany and America in the inter-war period. Unlike in Nazi Germany where inflation destroyed the savings of the middle-class, incomes for ‘black coated’ office workers remained stable. Fascism held little appeal. From 1937 much of Britain was recovering economically which confined the BUF to the margins of society. The drift towards war with Germany made Mosley appear a traitor in the eyes of many.
But one factor has been overlooked. According to Henry Henning in his 2017 book ‘M’, the MI5 spymaster Maxwell Knight was able to finally crush fascism by 1940. 3,000 lead members of Mosley’s Blackshirts were interned till 1945.
Knight’s contribution to the decline of fascism is made all the more relevant by the role he played in the rise of the movement during the 1920s. Knight ran secret service agents deep inside both the BUP and the soviet-funded far-left domestic organisation the Communist Part of Great Britain. Under the shadowy, but necessary practice of espionage, MI5 was able to compile detailed reports on British Fascism during the inter-war period. He persuaded Churchill to have its leader detained. Only one, William Joyce, known to older readers as Lord Haw Haw, escaped to Nazi Germany. He was caught and executed in 1946 for high treason.
It’s been clear for some time that the violent element within the twentieth first century far right identifies very closely with the European fascism of the ‘thirties’. The neo-Nazi EDL and its cousin Britain First repeat the slogans and copy their beliefs. They are ultra-nationalists, anti-immigrant, antisemitic, Islamophobic and racist.
The old BNP has been eclipsed by UKIP, now racialised, which is in serious danger of morphing into a post-modern National Socialist party.
For the best part of the last century fascism has faded away. It comes and goes – witness the rise of the National Front in the seventies and the BNP in the noughties. It hasn’t died. That’s why the decision of the Government to ban the neo-Nazi group National Action last December was the right one.
Today far-right and fundamentalist Islamic extremist ideologies pose a real threat both to our democratic traditions and internal security. That’s why the setting up of the Commission for Counter Extremism should be welcomed by the Labour and trade union movement. The British values of democracy, the rule of law, equality, liberty, respect and tolerance of other faiths are in the main Labour values.
Labour’s national call to end austerity and challenge embedded societal inequalities in income, wealth and material condition is a one way to prevent the seeds of proto-fascism taking root in Britain’s dispossessed and ‘left-behind’ communities.