6.2.1 Starting the party
At the very beginning the organisation had only 32 members. Mosley realised that a fascist movement might be seen as alien, not to mention that it gained some bad reputation owing to the early movements, and therefore decided to distinguish the British Union of Fascists from the other fascist organisations. In doing so, Mosley decided to appeal to people’s patriotism, as can be seen from a speech he gave on the occasion of launching the BUF:
We ask those who join us to be prepared to sacrifice all, but to do so for no small or unworthy ends. We ask them to dedicate their lives to building in their country a movement of a modern age. In return we can only offer them the deep belief that they are fighting that a great land may live. (Pugh, 128)
‘The Greater Britain’ was the backbone, as well as the political programme, of the organisation. It was very attractive to most people, because it explained how Britain got in her economic uneasiness, and also proposed a solution. According to Mosley the main problem consisted in the fact that Britain was not able to keep up with the technological progress, as well as scientific changes, which was reflected in the high prices of British goods, and therefore the market was flooded with foreign products. His plans for protectionism seemed very reasonable to those who worked in those crucial industries, but also to many disillusioned young politicians, mainly from the Conservative Party. It goes without saying that he also blamed the politicians and political system, which was, in his opinion, suitable for the 19th century. Mosley believed, like many other fascist leaders that the monarch ought to have bigger power. He also planned to reorganise the whole political system. The new system basically meant that the people would give certain powers to leaders, who would carry out their will. Local authorities would be replaced with more efficient executives, who would be fascist MPs, and the government departments would consult important matters with a National Counsel of Corporations, which would represent workers, employers and consumers.
However, his social reform programme probably held the biggest appeal. As a war veteran, Mosley had been greatly disgusted by the treatment of the ex-soldiers. Although many of them were unemployed, they were denied the grant of free unemployment insurance which was granted to other workers. Mosley also aimed to challenge the unemployment by the means already explained in the ‘Mosley Memorandum’.
6.2.2 The structure and people of the party
It is no wonder that many people felt attracted by such proposals and soon the headquarters of the British Union of Fascists were full of new members either form other political parties, early fascist movements or just people without any former political experience. Many new members came from the British Fascists, one of the most important was Neil Francis-Hawkins1, who became the Director General of the BUF in 1936. Francis-Hawkins planned to fill the BUF with young, virile and unmarried men, because he believed they would have more time to dedicate themselves to the movement. The young people were as well the most loyal and most committed members, because the BUF wanted to raise the standard of youth and challenge the old establish politics, the 'Old Gang' as Mosley called them. According to Stephenson and Cook (235) "the overwhelming majority of the leadership were middle class, but their youth was perhaps the most striking thing they had in common. A sample of 103 of the BUF's leaders reveals that almost two thirds were under forty in 1935. The leadership was also relatively well educated and there was a strong military and ex-military influence."
The other important turncoat member was William Joyce, a former member of the Imperial Fascist League, who joined the BUF in 1933. He was the only one who could measure himself as good a speaker as Mosley. Joyce became the Director of Propaganda with the responsibility of training new speakers in 1934.
However, Mosley still played the most important part in the organisation as he tirelessly travelled and made speeches all over the country, which could number up to two hundred a year. Later he concentrated on areas with local problems such as the Jewish community in Manchester and Leeds, but also market towns in agricultural areas. He also often visited Italy, where he and Cimmie often took part in various celebrations and enjoyed a relatively close relationship with Mussolini. Mosley’s fascism ran along the lines of Italian fascism, with laid-back view on race. The British Union of Fascists enjoyed financial contributions from Mussolini (Stevenson and Cook, 226). However, his visits to Germany were less frequent as he did not really agree with Nazi Fascism and many times made the effort of pointing out the difference between his and Hitler’s movements.
The structure of the BUF was paramilitary and hierarchical. They also, like other fascist organisations, wore a uniform. Officers wore a black shirt and trousers, while unit leaders and men had a black shirt and grey trousers accompanied with bandages and stripes to show their rank. From 1936 onwards they also wore an armband with the symbol of lightning in circle, which was represented as an action in the circle of unity. It is not very surprising that among leaders could be found several military persons, for example Eric Piercy2 who was in charge of Fascist Defence Force, which consisted of about 300 men living in paramilitary conditions in the headquarters.
The main activities on the local level were focused on selling BUF’s journals called The Blackshirt, The Action and Fascist Quarterly, the street-fighting with communists and causing disturbance on public meeting in order to stir up unwanted questions and provoke controversy in the press.
The BUF was also open to women, which was contradictory not only to the early movements, but also to the fascism in Italy or Germany. The British Fascism recognised the need for more women in professions such as medicine, nursing, law, architecture, domestic science and wanted to help the women to be properly trained, properly recognized and awarded. The Women’s Section was established in 1933 and their uniform consisted of a black blouse, black beret and grey skirt. The women were, however, forbidden to wear any make-up, not even a lipstick. They played a very significant role in BUF, as it was the sign that the movement did not try to force them to their 19th century role, but gave them the opportunity to achieve something. "By the inter-war period many conventional upper-class ladies had become accustomed to participation in political and electoral activity" (Pugh, 142). They were also essential to the electoral programme, which was Mosley’s main tool in gaining a real power. According to Pugh: "As doorstep canvassers the women presented a more reassuring image of fascism than that created by street violence and mass demonstrations." (142-143) The BUF did not view feminism as an alien movement; on the contrary it welcomed it as a means of progress. Example of view of fascist towards women in Britain is found in this newspaper article about women coming back to work after having children from Blackshirt 10 October 1936:
I've the word of several of them that it is almost the last thing they like to do. If the husband was earning enough, they say, it would be goodbye to the time clock and the supervisor, and the grudged few shillings a week. The Blackshirts offer you this - security for the jobs of your menfolk, so that you can live at home if you wish; equal pay for equal work, so that if you prefer to work, you are employed on your own merits and not because you are cheaper, giving you complete equality in the labour market; and the organisation of the Corporate State to protect your interests both as workers and as married woman. (Durham, 37)
Mosley established ‘The January Club’ to attract people from the upper-class, which worked on the basis of dinners at expensive hotels, where the visitors heard lecturers on fascism. The effort started to fructify and soon the January Club worked as the front line of the BUF, showing intellect and manners instead of violence. Some of the members of The January Club were even Conservative MPs such as Viscount Lymington (Basingstoke), Hugh Molson (Doncaster) or Lord Erskine (Weston-supper-Mare); but also writers such as Francis Yeast-Brown, Harold Goad or Sir Charles Pertie, and aristocratic men including Lord Middleton, the Marques of Tavistock or Lord Londonderry and other important figures of that time. One of his big supporters was Lord Rothermore, the owner of many newspapers, such as Daily Mail, The Evening News, The Sunday Dispatch and The Sunday Pictorial. His support was shown through the newspapers, which openly commented on the rightness of anti-communist and anti-Semitic actions, the Daily Mail printed an article 'Hurrah for the Black-shirts' on the 15 January 1934 (Stevenson and Cook, 225).
6.2.3 The actions of the party
One of the turn-points in Mosley's and BUF's fortunes discussed by many historians is the Olympian meeting on the 7th June 1934. It was one of the famous Mosley propaganda speeches that was addressed to a great audience. It was promoted in the newspapers and reached an audience of 12 000, from which not a few were politicians and aristocrats. As written by Pugh: "Mosley was keen to make the most of his opportunity to get his message across to the influential people whom he had deliberately invited to the meeting. On this basis he would not have wanted Olympia to turn into violent and disorderly affair." (159) The meeting was closed to the police. The meeting was interrupted by much hazing from the communist and anti-fascist hecklers who were threatened and then beaten by the Blackshirts' stewards. The speech was interrupted many times and at the end the police took over and arrested not only the hacklers but some of the most brutal Blackshirts too.
The violence in total was not as overwhelming as the affair, which the meeting predeceased. Most of the newspapers wrote negative comments concerning the Olympia meeting, exaggerating the violence, deaths and mayhem. Lord Rothermore withdrew his good graces towards the BUF and the popularity of the fascists in Britain slumped. The Morning Post wrote after the meeting at Olympia: "At this stage in our political evolution we certainly have no need of private armies marching about in exotic costumes and under exotic names" (Pugh, 161), and The Morning Post was till the meeting considered one of the most pro-fascist newspapers. The BBC let Mosley defend his actions at Olympia, however, after that banned him for next thirty-four years.
Although Mosley’s main aim was to get his movement onto the political scene, he was totally unprepared for the early election in 1935. His decision not to run any candidates could have been caused by the fear of repeating the same mistake as with the New Party. Mosley was well informed that his popularity with the middle class had suffered big loss and he was aware of the need to reorganize and rethink the movement ideas and political stances. His official reasons, however, were that the movement needed reorganisation. Nonetheless, this decision was seen as a weakness and damaged the BUF, until it came with new anti-Semitic and peace-promoting campaign.
Mosley finally adopted anti-Semitism as a response to the BUF’s decline. As a result the movement got under the surveillance of the Special Branch as well as MI5. Moreover, it caused problems in the leadership of the BUF. While some argued that anti-Semitism was damaging the portrait of human approach they were trying to make, others believed that they should follow the German example. A climax of such activities was the ‘Battle of the Cable Street’ in 1936. It began as a march of the BUF through the East End of London, where a numerous Jewish population lived. The Board of Deputies of British Jews viewed it as anti-Semitic and asked the government to ban this march. However, the government refused, despite the high risk of violence, and a large police formation was sent to prevent any anti-fascist disturbances. The anti-fascist groups, consisting of local Jews, communists and socialists erected road-blocks in attempt to prevent the march. The police tried to clear the road so that the march can take place, however after several serious clashes between the police and the anti-fascists the march changed its direction and went towards the Hyde Park instead. Although the BUF came out of this incident as a winner, it led to passing of the Public Order Act 1936 imposing a ban on wearing political uniform in public places.
6.2.4 Support for the king
In 1936 the abdication crisis came and Mosley did not hesitate to assure the King that he had the support of the BUF, which was only waiting for his call. He also hoped to re-establish the BUF’s position by supporting the King. The part of the Mosley's speech shows his defence of the King Edward VIII:
The recompense of this country for 25 years faithful service is the denial of every man's right to marry and to life in private happiness with the woman he loves. Let the man or woman who has never loved be the first to cast a stone. Certainly we will not see stones cast at him or his lady by a decadent society, large sections of which, in recent times, have condoned and even flaunted some of the vilest vices known to humanity. (Gottlieb, 191)
Mosley hoped that the BUF could get into the Parliament through the King, who was a great admirer of Hitler and therefore should feel some sympathy for his movement. This was the closest the BUF ever came to the opportunity to gain any power. However, when the King abdicated Mosley’s hopes crashed. The Prince of Wales who became the King George VI after the abdication of his brother was not an enemy to fascist ideology. On the contrary, he shared many of the attitudes commonly held in the upper-class circles: "acute fear of Communism, hostility towards the French, and enthusiasm for Anglo-German friendship." (Pugh, 242). However, Mosley continued to support the abdicated king, now the Duke of Winsdor and the BUF never gained the King George VI's sympathies.
Things got so bad that even the Chief Commissioner decided that the fascist meetings should be attended by the police and if the speaker used abusive language towards Jews he was to be arrested. However, it should be noted that in the last three pre-war years even the early fascist movements adopted more radical views on the Jewish question.
From this point on Mosley concentrated on the peace-promoting campaign, although he did not entirely abandon anti-Semitism. It was next to impossible because by that time anti-Semitism was widely spread. The BUF participated in and greatly promoted the foundation of Anglo-German Fellowship. Its role was to promote friendship between those two countries, through for example business or sport, with the aim of promoting peace. When Germany started to occupy its old colonies, the Fellowship justified it as a natural need for expansion and raw material resources. The Munich settlement was viewed by the Fellowship, as well as the BUF, as an event which finally put an end to the inter-war hostility between Germany and Britain. Moreover, it was believed to be able to avert the war.
Months prior to the war Mosley concentrated on maintaining a good relationship with leading political figures, which were openly on Germany’s side and had adopted anti-Semitism. He hoped that in this situation he would have the chance to gain an important position in the politics, due to his acquaintance with Germany. However, his hopes were once again shattered by the outbreak of war, and even then he argued for Germany’s innocence. At this time pro-Nazi sympathy of many people was overrun by their patriotic feeling as noted by Pearce "Nazi aggression was a menace to the peace of Europe. In the public eye, therefore, the British fascists were potentially dangerous fifth column: to be a British fascist was to appear inherently disloyal." (128) The British Union of Fascist lost a considerable amount of members and supporters.
The BUF ceased to exist in the early 1940’s, when all fascist movements were banned and many leading members, including Mosley, were arrested on the suspicion of high treason. The evidence was provided by Special Branch and MI5 who monitored the BUF since 1935.