A History of Britain's Extreme Right
Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right
Paperback. xxi+580 pages. ISBN 978-0415627306. £25
Reviewed by David Renton
Lincoln's Inn Fields, London
Let me begin by acknowledging that I know the author. Although I have not spoken to Graham Macklin for more than a decade, we were part of a cohort of PhD students at the University of Sheffield in the late 1990s, where the senior members of the department included such distinguished historians of fascism as Ian Kershaw, Colin Holmes and Richard Thurlow. Macklin is also the co-editor of a book series ‘Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right’, in which his study appears and for which I have written. In the account that follows, I have tried to view his book objectively, while also acknowledging that it is an important and original work.
Failed Führers is a collective biography of the British far right told through studies of six leading fascists – Arnold Leese, Oswald Mosley, A.K. Chesterton, Colin Jordan, John Tyndall and Nick Griffin. They led the Imperial Fascist League, the British Union of Fascists, the National Front, the British Movement, and the British National Party, or – in effect – every significant fascist party in British history between 1930 and 2010.
The book is nearly 600 pages long, single-spaced, and on pages slightly larger than the normal Routledge house style. Undoubtedly it is the longest book to have been written on the history of the British far right. Moreover, almost all the references are not to other published books but to Macklin’s own research, to articles in little-read fascist newspaper, to unpublished correspondence and obscure memoirs.
I am sure I am not the only historian to have had, somewhere in the depths of my desk drawer, notes towards a possible manuscript telling the story of British fascism from its origin to recent times. The existence of Macklin’s book makes it pointless to think of ever publishing that work.
In the remainder of this review, I will set out some brief thoughts as to what book could still be written, after Macklin’s. If the result appears critical, those criticisms are mixed with a heady dose of admiration. Macklin has written the definitive institutional history of the British far right. More leaders will have to come and go before it would be possible to attempt a similar project.
It is worth asking if the concentration on individuals produces the quality of explanation that our normal, day to day, focus on political leadership might cause a reader to expect?
The best documented period in the history of the British far right is the story of Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists between 1932, when that party was founded, and 1940, when its members were detained by the wartime government under Defence Regulation 18B.
That story is well-known, it has been the subject of memoirs (from Mosley himself, his son Nicholas, and a number of his followers), political histories, studies in the history of ideas, and several works of fiction. There was even a 1998 television series dedicated to this period of Mosley’s life.
At one time, it seemed that the origins of the popular fascination with this moment lay in the fact that for all Mosley’s undoubted advantages, his wealth, his celebrity as an aristocrat and career politician, he failed. Historians studied Mosley to prove the essential decency and good judgment of the British people, and to show that he was always doomed to defeat. More recently, the importance of the story has seemed to reside rather in how close he came. We live in a time of monsters, and we know how easily those of 80 years ago might return.
How much do we learn about the British Union of Fascists by seeing these events at, as a novelist might put it, in the “close third person”? Macklin shows the dependence of Mosley on the style of Italian fascism and of his party on foreign donations. The BUF’s membership peaked at 50,000 in summer 1934. Macklin argues that during this period every penny in the party’s bank accounts was of Italian origin.
In Macklin’s account Mosley was arguing for an idea which had been formulated in other countries, and which he was copying. Unlike many in his party, Mosley was a fascist who became an antisemite, and not the other way around. Macklin quotes the views of the unfortunate MI5 officer who was assigned to read through the complete run of the BUF paper, Action, “It is difficult to believe when reading these back numbers … that one is reading a British newspaper and not some organ of the German press”.
For all the detail of Macklin’s account I am not persuaded that he adds any depth to our understanding of Mosley’s success. It seems to me rather that if anyone wanted to attempt that task, they could achieve it only by writing away from the BUF – by asking what needs Mosley met in the hearts of his supporters. For history groans with the names of individuals who had fantasies about their own brilliance, their own entitlement to lead. In so far as Mosley succeeded, why did he? And why then?
Part of the answer, I suspect, would need to come by drawing the connections between the likes of the Dorset members of the BUF, a group of gentleman-farmers working on soils which seemed to them exhausted, and the Nelson fascists, active in an industrial town where most people were workers, and the dominant values were those of social democracy. The leader, I conclude from Macklin’s account, had little knowledge in the complexities of his support, or interest in who was attracted to him. He combined feelings of personal entitlement with the great good fortune of a favourable moment.
While Failed Führers is a book of such enormity that it will undoubtedly be given to students as the new standard work of British fascism, and the first book to read on any fascism course, there are nevertheless still gaps in its account.
Anti-fascism is passed at blurring speed. We are told that there were clashes at Olympia and Cable Street, but not what was at stake for the BUF in preparing for them. We learn rather more about how the fascists attempted to deal with the aftermath of these clashes.
Every party has an antagonist: for most groups it is simply the indifference of the British public who insists on voting for someone else. Fascism, almost uniquely in British history, has faced the problem that its largest events were liable to infiltration, that its opponents insisted it had no legitimate right to organise. That its members fought – and were fought. In leaving that story out, I do not believe that Macklin’s is accurate even to his leader’s eye view of the past.
A second key section addresses the period between 1974 and 1979 when the National Front showed every sign of becoming a street force of the same size as their counterparts 40 years before. A membership of nearly 20,000 people did better in elections even than the BUF, with John Tyndall’s NF approaching or even overtaking the votes won by their immediate rival, Britain’s third main party, the Liberals.
Tyndall had, by this stage of his career, played a leading role in British fascist groups for more than a decade. All that had changed was the size of his audience, from a few hundred people in the early 1960s, to tens of thousands a decade on.
Macklin’s Tyndall never stops or waits, never reflects. He never tells himself to enjoy the moment. He appears to show no interest in why the Front had suddenly grown, other than to see this period of success as the necessary corollary of (what he considered was) his obvious qualities as a leader and the self-evident rightness of his ideas.
Tyndall’s leadership becomes a matter of rivalries. Macklin tells us, in detail, what Tyndall thought of those who left the Front prematurely in 1976. We are allowed no real insight into events three years later, the catastrophe of the 1979 general election results, which forced Tyndall back to the political margins.
To explain the success of the Front, a historian would need to explain where this group fitted within a certain moment of history, the decline of the British empire, the fascination with the losing side in the World War, the cultural processes which suddenly made fascism attractive to a younger generation. Macklin, stood by the leader’s side, is too close to see these dynamics clearly. And yet, at the same time, he is not close enough to acquire the advantages of his viewpoint, the immediate insight into the opinions of the leader as his project falls apart.
Macklin’s treatment of the BNP between about 2005 and 2010 is perhaps the strongest section of the book. Here, he feels entitled to place fascist success with a context of wider processes: the decay of Tony Blair’s authority, the obsession of both our main parties with immigration. Even protest comes (almost) back in, through a discussion of the Question Time broadcast which sunk Griffin’s credibility with any larger audience. Even here, we are stuck in the same space – too close to the leader to see everything, and yet not quite close enough.
This book is a superb piece of research. No-one will ever surpass the detail with which Macklin explores these figures in British history. But as for fascism, as a movement, and its opponents, there is more to be said about them.
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