Oswald Mosley: The Rise and Fall of English Fascism Between 1918-1945

WHILST evaluations of the Hitlerian and Mussolinian regimes run into many thousands, Fascism in England is a subject which has received far less coverage in the political and historical mainstream. But in order to analyse the mixed fortunes of its adherents between 1918 and 1945, one should never overlook the seemingly irrelevant – albeit crucial – ingredients which contribute to the overall flavour of this rather unlikely phenomenon.

The story of English Fascism concerns far more than the deeds of the Blackshirts themselves. Throughout the brief period of comparative military quietude between the British Establishment and its apparently ‘traditional’ German adversaries, Fascism in England did not splutter erratically like a dilapidated exhaust-pipe, on the contrary, its uncomplicated development can be traced from its humble origins right through to its short-lived climax, and from there to its penultimate and ignoble demise. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the article with which this booklet is concerned inevitably adheres to a somewhat bell-curved format. According to Eugen Weber, Fascism in England “seems almost a contradiction because Great Britain – and especially England – is known as a law-abiding and constitution minded country, where violence is out of place, existing institutions are respected, and gradual reform is the rule”[1].

But in the wake of the First World War, however, Fascism was poised to find much in the way of support from the English people. During the formulative years of the twentieth century the British Brothers’ League appeared, and, slightly later in 1919, Henry Hamilton Beamish founded The Britons, a London society committed to the exposure of the Jewish “secret conspiracy”[2]. The group republished and distributed copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document which, although still unproven, accords with the main events in modern world history. Many of the group’s leaders were associated with similar organisations like the Eugenics Society, Loyalty League, Navy League and Vigilantes Society. But the first truly organised appearance of Fascism in England came in the shape of the British Fascisti, which, partly because it had been modelled on the Italian system, found very little support. Ironically, perhaps, the group owed its emergence to a woman. In 1923, Miss Rotha Lintorn-Orman, a Field-Marshall’s daughter, had become “gravely alarmed at the rise of Socialism and Communism and decided to insert a series of six advertisements in the Duke of Northumberland’s paper, The Patriot. The advertisements asked for recruits for a ‘British Fascisti’ to act as an organised force to combat Red Revolution.”[3] Lintorn-Orman had served in the Women’s Reserve Ambulance during the First World War and pledged her support for the Monarchy, the Constitution and the imperialist British Empire. One prominent member of the group was William Joyce [see below], a man later known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ and hanged for collaborating with Hitler’s Government during the Second World War. This capricious launching-pad soon split into various warring factions – “extremist little groups, dissatisfied with the Movement’s staid activities”[4] – such as the British Empire Fascists, the Fascist League and the Fascist Movement, all of whom were joined in 1925 by the black-shirted National Fascisti. Other, smaller groups came into existence, like the British National Fascists and the United Empire Fascists, each of them imitating their Italian contemporaries and “enjoying brief lives under pocket Mussolinis”[5].

In 1924, Arnold Spencer Leese became a member of the British Fascisti and soon rose through the ranks to become the main organiser of its Stamford branch. Leese, born in 1877, was a veterinary surgeon and specialist in camel diseases; unlikely credentials, perhaps, for an emerging Fascist leader. However, Leese had a genuine fondness for animals and many attributed his ‘anti-Semitism’ to an inherent “distaste for the Kosher method of slaughtering animals.”[6] Due to an uncompromising attitude towards those around him, Leese eventually made the Stamford branch of the British Fascisti a totally independent organisation after he and Henry Simpson had deliberately broken the rules of the group’s constitution by standing in a 1927 municipal election. By 1929 Leese had formed the Imperial Fascist League (IFL), a group which attracted a “working class and youth element”[7] and for its emblem combined the Union Flag with the Swastika. The IFL soon began to publish its own newspaper, The Fascist, which declared itself an “organ of racial fascism”[8]. But apart from the various factional disputes which took place in and around the Far Right during this early period, their importance was only apparent to those involved and groups like the IFL remained fairly small. Indeed, by 1933, just four years after its inception, the IFL was only able to assemble sixteen uniformed members at a major meeting of Leslie H. Sherrard’s ‘Fascist Legions’. The numerical weakness of the IFL did not seem to worry Leese, however, and despite the fact that nine out of ten recruits lapsed soon after joining, “his aim, he said, was quality rather than quantity.”[9] But whilst he and his most loyal followers were subsequently accused of languishing “in obscurity for nearly half a century without any increase in the handful of members with which they began”[10], a new player emerged from the wings. Sir Oswald Mosley, who had trained at the Sandhurst military academy, was set to become the most well known Fascist leader this country has ever seen. When an influential figure decides to embrace an existing political ideology, it is often the case that he or she acts as a catalyst. Just as George Bernard Shaw had misguidedly returned from his beloved Russia and pointed his true colours to the Bolshevik mast for all to see, thus increasingly the credibility of his new-found comrades overseas, so Mosley’s decision to embrace Fascism provided the denizens of the English Far Right with a fresh air of respectability. After being wounded during the First World War, Mosley came to appreciate what he regarded as the efficiency of the interventionist State. In 1918 Mosley became the Conservative Party MP for Harrow, although he was first and foremost a staunch Unionist and “rarely, if ever, described himself as a Conservative.”[11] Indeed, by 1920 he had left the Party with many people speculating that he was gravitating towards Labour. Even Beatrice Webb described him as “the perfect politician who is also the perfect gentleman.”[12] High praise indeed! But whilst Mosley’s ‘defection’ across the floor of the Commons seemed imminent, he initially stood at Harrow in 1922 as an independent, only joining the Labour Party two years later after declining an offer to join forces with Stanley Baldwin.

As he was later to reflect, after a war in which so many people from these isles perished during a struggle for what they hoped would be a brighter future, between 1924-9 Baldwin’s government had plunged the country into a sterile climate of comparative ‘normality’. Meanwhile, Mosley’s campaign in the 1924 election proved disastrous and he failed to get himself elected. By 1926, however, Mosley had been elected in Birmingham. As a specialist on unemployment, Mosley advocated a ‘homes for heroes’ policy and sympathised with John Maynard Keynes prior to the General Theory of 1936. In 1925 Mosley produced an allegedly contentious pamphlet, entitled Revolution by Reason, and, by 1929, had been made an advisor on unemployment for the incoming Labour government led headed by J. Ramsey Macdonald. He was also regarded as being next in line for the Prime Minister’s job. But Mosley’s increasing unhappiness with the centre parties saw him establish a group within the Parliamentary Labour Party, and, in a January 1930 memorandum – known as the Mosley Manifesto – he declared that his main aims were expanded credit, the exclusion of foreign goods, the raising of the school leaving age and the accentuation of the British Empire. For those who were misguided enough to place their faith in the corrupt Zionist system, this programme was regarded as both simple and pragmatic. But, predictably, it was rejected by the Cabinet because of its supposedly ‘radical’ nature. In May 1930, Mosley resigned from his government post and tried to promote his objectives at the Party’s October conference instead. But although it has been stated that by this time he had “reached his highest point in conventional English politics”[13] and “become a major political personality in his own right, with a wide, and unique, range of support and goodwill across the political spectrum”[14], as a result of his continued and persistent dissidence and the fact that he had inadvertently portrayed the Labour Party as ‘quasi-fascist’ in a press interview, by March 1931 Mosley had been expelled and forced to search for an alternative outlet for his political engines.

Whereas Mosley’s political acrobatics may seem a far cry from the relatively marginalised fringes of English Fascism, there is little doubt that his statist credentials became the spark which ignited the deluded hearts and minds of the masses and, despite the fact that it had basically burnt itself out in less than a decade, the Fascist prototype was taken out of storage, dusted off, revitalised and hurriedly shoved out into the stagnant arena of party politics. In March 1931 Mosley formed the New Party and was joined in this new venture by six from seventeen of those Labour Party officials who has signed the Mosley Manifesto. In October 1931 the New Party put up twenty-four candidates and all were defeated. The true significance of this defeat soon became apparent in 1935, when no candidates were put up whatsoever. But the New Party was never a truly Fascist entity in its own right and, according to Colin Cross, it was only when Mosley realised the extent to which his policies were opposed by angry mobs of Labour supporters baying for his blood that he decided to embrace Fascism as a means of protecting both himself and his supporters from physical attack[15]. But whilst Cross carefully attributes this belief to John Strachey, there remains little truth in the assertion. Although Mosley was renowned for his flirtation with several of the existing Establishment parties, when he initially entered the domain of Fascist politics he was in possession of one or two very strong ideological principles (although policy-making decisions were gradually left to others as time wore on).

Despite the opportunistic nature of the man himself, it is quite ridiculous to assume that Mosley adopted Fascism simply for its ability to provide its leading figures with a ready-made army of street-fighters. After all, what good are bodyguards if you have to change or water-down your original principles in order to be accepted by a few hardened combatants? Whilst Mosley was often an indecisive man, he was never a careerist and his willingness to make a stand for what he considered to be right was, to some extent, emulated by Enoch Powell some years later. This does not, however, mean that reactionaries like Mosley and Powell should be worthy of our respect. We revolutionaries have our own ideological mentors. But why did Mosley embrace Fascism? Well, despite the fact that the New Party itself was not Fascist, it certainly served as a kind of Fascist antechamber.

Towards the end of 1931, Mosley was beginning to study the Fascist and National-Socialist regimes in Italy and Germany respectively and, as a result, by January 1932 he had visited both Hitler and Mussolini personally, events which undoubtedly “strengthened his faith in Fascist politics.”[16] Several years on, Mosley even married his second wife in Berlin and held the reception in Hitler’s very own house. From that moment on, the full title of his new movement became the British Union of Fascists and National-Socialists. But if Mosley had found his ideological niche, then Fascism in England had gained a temporary reprieve from political obscurity.

On October 1st, 1932, the New Party had been dissolved and the British Union of Fascists (BUF) formerly launched. Among the BUF’s leading members were Arthur Kenneth Chesterton, second cousin to G. K. Chesterton and later to become the first Chairman of the National Front; Alexander Raven Thomson, an expert on Corporatist economics who “possessed a mind of appreciable intellectual power”[17]; Neil Francis-Hawkins; and the aforementioned William Joyce. Whilst the leadership of the BUF was overwhelmingly middle-class, the movement also managed to attract a mixture of university graduates, ex-soldiers and the  unemployed. The early success of the BUF was partly due to Mosley’s ability to court the English aristocracy, a strategy which, by 1934, had secured the financial support of Lord Rothermere, a wealthy accountant who viewed the BUF as being little more than something with which to scare the Conservative Party into more decisive economic action. Whilst the link with Rothermere opened up a fringe dialogue with the more reactionary members of the Conservative Party, the BUF found itself inundated with enquiries for membership after Daily Mail headlines had announced ‘The Blackshirts Have Arrived!’ and ‘Hurrah For The Blackshirts!’, plunging Fascism into the political mainstream. At the now famous indoor meeting held at London’s Olympia in June 1934, the BUF entertained an audience of over 30,000 people. For many of those who had been cruelly demoralised by the Great Depression, the attraction of Fascism could be found in its ability to infuse its members with pride and self-respect. Unemployed men and women felt part of an emerging historical phenomenon, rather than part of the scrapheap created by the economic disaster sweeping the country at the time. In addition, despite the fact that BUF membership was originally open to those of Jewish (Khazar) extraction, when Mosley suddenly realised that the thorny issue surrounding Jewish control of shops and businesses in the East End of London could increase his support, he used it to “boost membership”[18].

Consequently, at a meeting in the Albert Hall during October 1934 Mosley used the opportunity of a mass gathering to denounce “the power of organised Jewry, which is today mobilised against Fascism”[19]. Whilst the escalation of violence will be discussed in due course, 1934 was a year in which the fortunes of Fascism reached an all-time high. In the same year, Lintorn-Orman’s British Fascisti was facing imminent bankruptcy and the IFL was attracting the attention of the Home Office after a complaint that two of its speakers had declared that “they would clear all the Jews out of the country”[20]. But whilst the BUF and IFL’s fiery denunciations of Jewish power differed only in terms of rhetoric, Leese accused Mosley of being a ‘Kosher Fascist’ due to the latter’s defence of Freemasonry and an allegation that William Joyce had employed the services of a lawyer “whose daughter recently married a Rothschild”[21]. Indeed, according to Leese – who seemed by far the most genuine and honest character amongst those of the early Fascist generation – “Mosley was muscling in to the Fascist field of politics.”[22] Furthermore, it seems, “He had the money and we had not, and he was a well-known figure in democratic politics and did not attempt to face the Jewish issue (how could he with his first with the grand-daughter of Levi Leiter, the flour-cornerer of Chicago?) he took what little wind there was out of our sails for a time.”[23] By September 1933 many people thought Mosley was following some kind of secret agenda, especially when the President of the Oxford Union’s Jewish Society correctly stated that “Our greatest supporters in the fight against the Imperial Fascists are the Mosley Fascists themselves.”[24]

As far as the warring components of English Fascism were concerned, from that point on it was downhill all the way and we must now turn our attention to their gradual demise. After Rothermere had withdrawn his short-lived financial support for the BUF after the violent events at Olympia in 1934, it inevitably “became more alienated from the British political culture.”[25] Internal problems also took their toll, and whilst the BUF was portrayed as “a thriving, organised movement, united behind an infallible leader”[26], the reality was quite different. Mosley had always been a very poor judge of character and when BUF funds fell victim to widespread petty theft inspired by the worsening Depression, the blame lay with the fact that his “delegation of administrative and organisational functions tended to leave mediocrities and incompetents in charge.”[27] It has since been noted that Mosley was too honest for his own good, and that he lacked cynicism. Similarly, the BUF was also challenged internally by those who continually encouraged the movement to take a more paramilitary stance, and an opposing clique which sought to repackage Fascism and make it somewhat more palatable to the average man and woman in the street. When Mosley saw that the BUF could not realistically tolerate both factions within the same camp. he was eventually forced to concede that direct action was far more effective in the battle for recruits than the piecemeal efforts of his more ideological associates. Needless to say, the more astute members of the BUF – among them Chesterton, Joyce and Beckett – resigned in order to pursue their own objectives. But Mosley’s fascination with paramilitary organisation was something of a contradiction for a man who had developed his policies within the existing parties of the political Establishment. Further, Mosley was never an antiparliamentarian anyway.

The failure of the BUF has much to do with the strong parliamentary system which, this far, has always been very characteristic of politics in the British Isles. John Weiss has noted that “Conservatives in England remained true to their own grand tradition in the end, as a wave of revulsion against Mosley’s street toughs and storm troopers swept through all groups.”[28] In addition, the lower middle-class was thought to be “too well off and too liberal”[29] to support Fascism and whilst similar movements in Germany and Italy were able to thrive in their respective atmospheres of socio-economic despair, disillusionment and the threat of Bolshevik insurrection, English folk were far too reserved to take such claims seriously. In short, although the parliamentary system appeared to be immersed within a puddle of economic stagnation, the situation was seemingly not so desperate as to require the measures being advocated in Central Europe. Predictably, from 1931 onwards the Conservative-dominated National Government “provided a safe haven for the propertied classes and thus denied the BUF political space on the Right in which to develop as a credible alternative.”[30] In addition, the fact that the BUF was simple unable to capitalise upon the prevailing air of economic discontent suggests that the likes of Mosley and Leese “are unable to succeed in societies where there are too many vestiges of the feudal past.”[31] But more importantly, Mosley always remained part of the existing System and never attempted to transcend or undermine the Establishment by creating any visible socio-economic structures on the periphery. In 1931 the government abandoned the Gold Standard, a move which was closely followed by low interest rates, falling unemployment and increasing prosperity. Mosley – that self-professed economic ‘radical’ – had squandered his only chance.

According to many historians, one of the main reasons why the BUF was unable to make a breakthrough can be directly attributed to its tendency to adopt ‘foreign’ methods of promulgation. The flag-waving pageantry of the East End street party has been compared by the more ridiculous and hysterical academics to the torchlight rallies at Nuremberg, and the BUF was shown in an equally ‘foreign’ light by a hostile media completely opposed to such concepts as nationhood and patriotism. Despite his lack of imagination, Mosley was hardly the first man to stage a procession of Union flags on English soil, but his stage-managed adoption of the black-shirted uniform, neo-runic insignia and organisational authoritarianism replete with Roman salute, inextricably connected him with significant events happening elsewhere in Europe. On the other hand, it could be argued that England had far more in common with her cousins in Germany and Italy than with the seeping liberalism which emanated from Westminster, but the controlled media was having none of it. The British Establishment had already chosen to side against the future Axis powers, and Mosley was fast becoming an irritant who had to be dealt with once and for all. The Fascist leader suddenly found himself in a dilemma; on the one hand he was keen to appear patriotic and pro-Empire, but, on the other, he was incessantly portrayed as ‘the enemy within’.

The most important factor relating to failure of English Fascism was violence, or at least its inference. Marxist and Jewish historians alike, delight in vilifying the BUF as being solely responsible for the various street battles which took place during the 1930s. Similarly, so-called ‘antifascists’ are ordinarily depicted as honest opponents of totalitarianism, men and women who mobilised themselves to defeat a growing menace which had been imported from the Continent. But whilst the BUF undoubtedly attracted many violent young men who wished to find an outlet for their pathological frustrations, Mosley often managed to channel this aggression by imbuing such elements with a strong sense of loyalty and devotion towards the Fascist cause itself. Whenever Fascists used violence against their opponents it was in self-defence. Indeed, BUF meetings were frequently broken up and the organisation’s sympathisers were constantly attacked and beaten by those who claimed to represent the best interests of the nation at large. The reality is that Fascism often managed to unite the various sections of society and leftists knew only too well that their outdated theories of class struggle cannot in any way be reconciled with the reawakened spirit of national unity. The involvement of the British Communist Party was part of a Marxian revival which had been inspired by events between Nationalist and Republican insurgents in Spain. As these so-called ‘extremists’ of the Right and Left of the political spectrum fought out their differences on the streets, the average voter began to feel alienated and strongly abhorred the new orgy of violence which was beginning to spread to many of the cities and towns of England. Many such people began to return to the pro-Establishment fold as the centre ground regained its composure in the face of a minor civil war. As Andrew Mitchell concedes: “Militant Communist, Jewish and Labour opponents successfully saddled the BUF with the public blame for violence and disorder.”[32] Whilst the press tried to insinuate that violence directed at the BUF was merely the result of spontaneous uprisings by ‘English antifascists’, William Joyce compiled an extensive list of Jews who had been arrested and charged for such acts. In his view: “These little sub-men are a nuisance to be eliminated, but their wealthy instigators and controllers, well known to us, are, in sum, a criminal monstrosity, for which not all the gold of Jewry can pay the just compensation which we will demand and obtain.”[33] From November 1933 onwards, the State launched a campaign of intimidation and surveillance against the BUF, and the press managed to impose a mass boycott in the same way that the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is still able to do with regard to groups like the National Front (NF) and British National Party (BNP) today. So whilst “Newspaper editors and the BBC were advised not to report Fascist activities or publicise pro-Mosley views”[34], the sole image of the BUF which was projected to the general public was one of extremism and negativity.

With the approach of the Second World War, the final blow for the BUF came with the adoption of a further campaign of systematic State repression. By December 1936, the BUF found it increasingly difficult to hire council-owned venues for its meetings and the new Public Order Act had outlawed the wearing of paramilitary uniform. This measure severely affected the ability of the BUF to operate effectively and, in his memoirs, Mosley asks: “Has any other political party in Britain experienced, let alone survived, two special measures passed by Parliament for its suppression? If not, we must bear alone the burden for this dubious honour.”[35] By December 1938 BUF membership was estimated at 16,500, and this figure increased slightly as Mosley took full advantage of widespread hostility to the approaching conflict with Germany and organised a ‘Stop The War’ campaign. In July 1939, 20,000 supporters attended a peace rally at London’s Earl’s Court and, by September of the same year, the BUF had 22,500 members. It was inevitable, however, that as the allies began to close ranks against Hitler the British Establishment launched its own programme of ‘patriotic’ opposition to Fascism. As a result, this artificially-induced fervour saw the BUF once again portrayed as an internal threat to the country’s national interests and, once the masses had accepted this fabricated view, from May 1940 onwards the internment of 747 BUF supporters under Defence Regulation 18(b) became something of a formality. Two months later the BUF was officially banned and 26,000 German, Austrian and Italian immigrants also rounded up and brutally incarcerated by the British State.

Thus, I have attempted to demonstrate how Fascism was retrieved from the fringes of English politics between the wars and revitalised by its greatest asset: Sir Oswald Mosley. But despite Mosley’s charismatic leadership and his ability to win recruits for the BUF by capitalising upon the issue of Jewish power and securing the short-term financial support of Lord Rothermere, English Fascism was eventually destroyed by its own ideological and strategic contradictions. Moreover, it was brought down by those external factors – strong government, Zionist and leftist violence, media hostility and State repression – over which it had little or no control.

The BUF, despite leaving Arnold Leese and the IFL floundering at the starting-post like the proverbial tortoise, eventually found itself consigned to the very same tomb of political failure. Put simply, in the words of F. L. Carsten: “The national climate and the political structure did not favour its growth, and Sir Oswald Mosley was neither a Hitler nor a Mussolini.”[36] But for those who seriously think that a policy of Nationalism can be achieved by pursuing an electoral of constitutionalist policy, the fortunes of English Fascism prior to 1945 prove just how futile it is to tread such a path. The likes of the British National Party (BNP) today, just like Mosley and the BUF before it, will continue to fail miserably because those who willingly engage in the absurdities of the existing parliamentary system are destined to be controlled and manipulated by the very system itself. The BUF was forced to learn the hard way, but the fact that contemporary organisations like the BNP still refuse to recognise or acknowledge the mistakes of the past more than fifty years on, can only be viewed with deep suspicion.


1. Eugen Weber; Varieties of Fascism (Van Nostrand & Co., 1964), p. 106.

2. Colin Cross; The Fascists in Britain (Barrie & Rockliff, 1961), p. 120.

3. Ibid., p. 57.

4. Ibid., p. 60.

5. Ibid., p. 61.

6. Ibid., p. 63.

7. Richard C. Thurlow; Fascism in Britain: A History 1918-1985 (Basil Blackwell, 1987), p. 64.

8. Imperial Fascist League; The Fascist (October 1934), #65, p. 1.

9. Cross, op. cit., p. 64.

10. Sir Oswald Mosley; My Life (Thomas Nelson, 1968), p. 445.

11. Cross, op. cit., p. 11.

12. Ibid., p. 17.

13. Robert Skidelsky; Oswald Mosley (Macmillan, 1975), p. 286.

14. Ibid.

15. Cross, op. cit., p. 47.

16. Andrew Mitchell; ‘Mosley and the BUF: British Fascism in the 1930s’ in Modern History Review (April 1993), #4, Vol. 4, p. 19.

17. Thurlow, op. cit., p. 131.

18. Michell, op. cit., p. 19.

19. W. F. Mandle; Anti-Semitism and the British Union of Fascists (Longman, Green & Co., 1968), p. 11.

20. Thurlow, op. cit., p. 74.

21. Imperial Fascist League, op. cit., p. 4.

22. Arnold S. Leese; Out of Step: Events in the Two Lives of An Anti-Jewish Camel Doctor (Imperial Fascist League, 1947), p. 52.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Richard C. Thurlow; ‘The Return of Jeremiah’ in Kenneth Lunn & Richard C. Thurlow (ed.), British Fascism: Essays on the Radical Right in Inter-War Britain (Croom Helm, 1980), p. 108.

26. Mitchell, op. cit., p. 20.

27. Ibid.

28. John Weiss; The Fascist Tradition (Harper & Row, 1966), p. 81.

29. Ibid.

30. Mitchell, op. cit., p. 20.

31. Weiss, op. cit., p. 82.

32. Mitchell, op. cit., p. 31.

33. William Joyce; Fascism and Jewry (Sons of Liberty, 1976), p. 8.

34. Mitchell, op. cit., p. 21.

35. Mosley, op. cit., p. 312.

36. F. L. Carsten; The Rise of Fascism (Methuen, 1970), p. 223.


J. Drennan; BUF: Oswald Mosley and British Fascism (Murray, 1934).

Roger Griffin; The Nature of Fascism (Routledge, 1993).

Roger Griffin (ed.); Fascism (Oxford University Press, 1995).

Roger Griffin; International Fascism (Arnold, 1998).

Richard Griffiths; Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933-39 (Oxford University Press, 1983).

H. R. Kedward; Fascism in Western Europe 1900-45 (NYU Press, 1971).

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