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Britain can be as prone to fascism as any other nation

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right Graham Macklin

Routledge, pp.580, 24.99

It’s easy to dismiss the fascistic ideologues who populate Graham Macklin’s book as reactionary cranks of no significance. It’s also a mistake. Fascists have edged uncomfortably close to the mainstream of British politics ever since the British Union of Fascists was founded in 1932 by Oswald Mosley, who two years earlier had been a government minister.

In 2009, two British National Party candidates were elected to the European Parliament. The seats were lost in 2014 because the BNP votes transferred en masse to Ukip. If you doubt that the spirit of the BNP infused Ukip, you have only to look at what has happened to it since Nigel Farage decamped.

Macklin’s lucid and informative book shows that there has always been a cross-fertilisation between the fascist fringe and the mainstream. The League of Empire Loyalists, a neo-fascist group set up in the early 1950s, was close to the right wing of the Conservative party and competed for members with the Monday Club. As Conservative Central Office wrote to one of its MPs:

It is a fact that many sincere Conservatives are members of the LEL because of their belief in Empire. I am quite sure that the Conservative members of the League will not allow any disagreement between the League and our Organisation to interfere with their efforts to return Conservative Members of Parliament. We have not questioned the League’s sincerity and we believe that its members will adhere to its objects.

Neo-fascist rhetoric on Israel has uncomfortable echoes in some far left circles. The now defunct National Front repackaged anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism, and promised to ‘assist the Palestinians in their struggle’. This so muddied the waters that by the time of the 2019 general election, no one was able to distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of the Israeli government.

Anti-Semitism is alive and well. The former BNP leader Nick Griffin is still attacking ‘the absurd lie that Nazi Germany, in the midst of a wartime shortage of labour and materials, gassed or otherwise systematically exterminated six million Jews’. The word anti-Semites commonly use for the Holocaust — ‘a hoax’ — has strange and disturbing echoes in the rhetoric of President Trump, who uses the same word repeatedly for anything he does not wish to acknowledge, most recently the coronavirus.

Another phrase that has strange echoes is ‘leaderless resistance’. It comes from the prominent American white supremacist Louis Beam, who argued in the 1990s that extremist organisations such as his Ku Klux Klan were vulnerable to government disruption. The future of white supremacy lay in lone actors and small, self-organised groups that could take action on their own initiative. In Britain, the idea was adopted by Colin Jordan and the British Nazi terrorist organisation Combat 18.

But Beam acknowledged that he had poached the idea from the apparently respectable Colonel Ulius Louis Amoss of the CIA, who invented it in the 1950s to undermine communist governments in Eastern Europe. Amoss was also in close touch with British fascists. American anti-communism, meet British anti-Semitism.

Fascists claim intellectual descent from such respectable figures as G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and J.R.R. Tolkien. According to Nick Griffin: ‘The Hobbit’s shire is still, as it always was, a symbolic representation of the quintessential decency and tolerance of the folk communities of all Anglo-Celts.’ He idealises ‘middle medieval England, at a time when serfdom had given way to huge numbers of people owning their own plot of land and having access to the village commons’.

There isn’t a clear dividing line between fascist ideas which are beyond the pale and mainstream politics. That’s one of the reasons why British fascists require the sort of scrutiny that scholars such as Macklin give them. In themselves, they are insignificant; but there is nothing about the British psyche that makes us less prone to fascist ideas than other countries.

As organisations, their failure in Britain is partly the result of their own ludicrous indiscipline. British fascists, from Mosley onwards, have always fought each other with such vigour and loathing as to make even Britain’s Labour and Conservative parties look almost peaceable. Macklin gives us the texture and flavour of the vicious ideological disputes, the articles, dripping with venom, that top British fascists have always written to each other, the no-holds-barred struggles for control of tiny, ramshackle organisations.

This book recounts the lives and work of six of Britain’s most important fascists, from Arnold Leese in the 1920s to Nick Griffin, and through their lives, tells the story of fascism in Britain. Macklin is an academic, but he writes clearly and simply. His method is not to make judgments, but to report what is said and done and let the facts speak for themselves, which they do. By way of disclosure, I should probably say that he generously let me pick his brains for my own book Fascist in the Family, and that we share a publisher.

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