They shall not pass… or shall they?

Ah, another election’s been and gone, and it seems that no one has won. Usual disclaimer: Don’t blame me, I voted for the other guy. Well, at least that way he might get his deposit back.

I was amused to see that the BNP lost Barking and Dagenham. As has previously been discussed here, racist-type political parties have a long history in East London. I have already discussed the Battle of Cable Street, but to recap, this was an event in 1936 when the British Union of Fascists held a march through the East End and ran into 300,000 protestors. While it’s fair to say that a lot of organisation was carried out by the Communists and the gangster Jack “Spot” Comer claimed to have played a major part (he was probably lying), it did at least go to show that fascism would never have worked in London.

Or would it? These days, having seen Hitler in action, we find the concept of fascism utterly bewildering – why would people voluntarily allow some racist nutjob into power? It’s just not British.

Actually, fascism was more popular between the wars than you might think, and not for the reasons you might think.

The first point to remember is that democracy in its modern form was still a fairly new thing. A lot of people didn’t have the vote and women had only just been granted it after a long struggle (and there was no shortage of opposition to the methods of the Suffragette movement). So a fascist government dismantling the democratic system wasn’t the total violation of the rights we hold dear that it would be now. In fact, a lot of the more conservative-small-C elements of the Conservative-big-C party thought it would be a jolly good thing.

Then there was their leader, Oswald Mosley himself, seen above. He was a charismatic politician, it must be said, who was headhunted by both the Conservative and Labour parties before he founded his own organisation. Apparently he was rather popular with the ladies, too. There is even a strong argument for suggesting that he was not anti-Semitic in the early days, or at least not openly so – he referred disparagingly to some other right-wingers as being “obsessed with the Jews.” Of course, this changed as the party expanded and as the Jews became a handy scapegoat in a time of economic depression.

Then you need to look at the people who supported the British Union of Fascists. They came from many different social classes, and, surprisingly, many different parts of the political spectrum. Of course you had those who thought all of Britain’s problems could be blamed on those awful, awful immigrants. But then you also had those who felt the current Conservative government was a bit wishy-washy, because the Fascists were definitely right wing. And then you had those who felt that Labour wasn’t really socialist any more (some things never change) and that the Communists were a little too socialist. Fascism was definitely anti-Capitalist, but also anti-Communist. Anecdotal evidence states that a number of Fascist recruits were former Communists who first encountered the BUF while trying to start a ruck with them.

Mosley also targeted groups who felt neglected by mainstream politics. 20% of the BUF were female, because they felt that Mosley was the only politician who offered true equality. There was strong support from the youth, who thought the BUF dynamic and forward-thinking in a way that none of the mainstream parties were. And there were quite a few regular Joes who felt let down by the government, what with the Depression and all, particularly in rural areas.

Towards the end of the 1930s, Mosley even seemed to be aiming for a more mainstream political party – although this might partly have been due to public reaction at the Blackshirts’ thuggery and that whole Hitler thing.

In East London, contrary to what you might think from the Battle of Cable Street, Mosley was surprisingly popular. In the 1937 London County Council elections, a few months after the Battle of Cable Street, the BUF pulled in 8000 votes.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that one should never make assumptions about the popularity of extremists. Fortunately, while the BNP undoubtedly does appeal to some voters other than the white-power contingent, it appears once again to be in decline. Partly if not largely because these days, we know what happens if you let the racists get too much power. And now we’re safely in the hands of, er, whoever.

Is it too late to elect a deranged warlord who hears voices from God?

Further Reading

Hurrah for the Blackshirts!: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh is a superb history of the movement, from which I have swiped much of the information in this entry.

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Filed under 20th Century, Current events, East End and Docklands, History, London, Notable Londoners, Only loosely about London, Politics, Rambling on and on

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