Spies at Work, Chapter 5: Fellow Travellers of Fascism
For most people today British fascism before the Second World War only means one thing - Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists (BUF). People are genuinely surprised to discover that there was a powerful and active fascist movement in Britain for the best part of a decade before the BUF was established. Even amongst some academics there is a stubborn resistance to the idea that the first British fascist groupings were anything more than fascist in name alone.
Certainly the British Fascists - the first of the groupings to adopt the word fascism in its title - do not look like an authentic fascist movement: they had no obvious, charismatic leader and they operated at first exclusively within the Conservative Party. But if fascism was developing and growing in Britain at the same time as it was growing in Italy and Germany then this poses a serious challenge to the commonly held belief the fascism was an inevitable consequence to the punitive post-War peace settlement exacted by the allies, particularly from Germany. When Mussolini seized power in Italy in 1923, fascism was less an ideology or movement, and more a right-wing Italian political party. The 1920s saw its transformation into an ideology, with implications for countries throughout the World. This translation from nationalist party to supra-nationalist ideology was not accomplished by German and Italian intellectuals and political activists alone and discussions by British sympathisers played a part in this transformation.
But this trade in ideas occured prior to Moseley's transformation from maverick Labour Minister to fascist and the British Union of Fascists in reality contributed nothing to the development of fascism as an ideology. Moseley was an imitator, he took fascism as he found it and as it had already developed. If the fascist ideas propagated by him were significantly different from those of his continental mentors it was that they were less coherent than those of Mussolini and Hitler. While the superficial trappings - the language, the uniforms, the brutality and anti-semitism - were the same, Moseley failed to imbue the BUF with any particularly "British" identity and this was of course an odd omission for a nationalist movement. Not only was the unmistakable "foreignness" of the BUF a barrier to its expansion and acceptance by some key figures in the establishment, it strengthened the position of its opponents and aroused the opposition of many of those who for the previous decade had been arguing the case for a form of fascism which was appropriate in the context of British political and economic life.
Although there is little evidence to connect the development of the Economic League during the inter-war period with the British Union of Fascists, there is evidence to link it with the older, and in some ways more authentic, fascist tradition. Just how deeply ingrained this older tradition was within radical right-wing Conservative thinking is demonstrated by a press release issued in Rome by Winston Churchill on a visit to Mussolini in 1927:
- "If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been wholeheartedly with you [Mussolini] from start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism. But in England we have not had to fight this danger in the same deadly form. We have our way of doing things."
Fascism, Corporatism and Conservatism
Churchill, who was by this stage at least a semi-detached Diehard, was not only talking about the niceties of the ballot box. Within the Conservative Party there was an organised, militantly anti-communist lobby preaching the sort of economic and political gospel which had by 1927 become the byword of Italian fascism. At the heart of this gospel was the concept of the Corporate State.
After the Second World War it became expedient to redefine the fascist economic ideology of "corporatism" so that it seemed to embrace both the totalitarianism of Stalin, and eventually the social democratic policies of the Labour Party. This profoundly misrepresents the pre-war concept of the corporate state, yet the "revisionism" has been so successful that "Thatcherism" has been able to adopt the policies advocated by pre-war supporters of the Corporate State while at the same time proclaiming to be its deadliest enemy.
Fifty Fighting Years takes just two pages to describe the Economic League's activities during the 1930s. One of the pages is devoted to its anti-Nazi work. Even by the normally unreliable standards of autobiography this makes it a lop-sided work. For the major part of the decade a number of the League's top officials and members seem to have been on good terms with the Italian and German fascist states. In this they did not differ from many others in the political and industrial circles in which the League operated. This attitude seems to have changed in 1938 when, according to Fifty Fighting Years, The Economic League
- "...conducted a searching enquiry into the Nazi fifth Column in Britain and the "cover" organisations connected with it such as The Link, the Anglo-German Fellowship and the Nordic League."
However, 1938 was the year in which British opinion spectacularly turned against Nazi Germany and in which Hitler's foreign policy was almost universally recognised as a serious threat to British interests. The Economic League does not deserve its self-congratulations for becoming anti-Nazi then. Indeed its ability to conduct a "searching enquiry" into the pro-Nazi "covers" was considerably helped by its already well established connections with them. Fifty Fighting Years boasts that when the League published its "documented exposure" in 1939, "The German Embassy crossed the Economic League's Director of its guest list." There were a number of good reasons why the Director, John Baker White, had been on that guest list in the first place.
Fascist Organisation in Britain Between the Wars
The first fascist organisation in Britain, or at least the first to use "fascist" in its name, was formed in 1923. Reflecting its Italian influences it was called the "British Fascisti" but the following year, anglicised itself as "British Fascists Ltd." They functioned entirely within the Conservative Party, one of their activities being to steward Conservative Party meetings. Arnold Leese, a fanatical anti-semite who would later lead his own fascist troop, the "Imperial Fascist League", was a member for some time. But later he left them in disgust. It was not, he later wrote, "Fascism as I understood it," but, "Conservatism with knobs on."
What seems to have really inspired the British Fascists was their anti-socialism, and fear of a socialist-inspired civil emergency. Their enrolment form committed the British Fascist to "render every service in my power to the British Fascisti in their struggle against all treacherous and revolutionary movements now working for the destruction of Throne and Empire." The British Fascists continued to exist (alongside the British Union of Fascists and Imperial Fascist League) until the late thirties. The high spot of their chequered history was the General Strike. They offered their help to the government who refused it "unless they gave up calling themselves Fascists and dismantled their military organisation." There was a disagreement about how they should respond to this and some formed "The Loyalists" which joined the government approved "Organisation For the Maintenance of Supplies". Those who did not accept the government's terms were not prevented from playing a significant strike-breaking role as "British Fascists". By the time of the General Strike the British Fascists were claiming a membership of one million and although this is an exaggeration even a cautious estimate would have to number them in tens of, or perhaps a couple of hundred, thousands. The Economic League's connections with the British Fascists were more than coincidental. Birmingham MP Patrick Hannon was director of the British Commonwealth Union (BCU) from 1918-1925, and involved in setting up the Economic Study Clubs. In 1925/6 he was also President of the Birmingham Branch of the British Fascists. Other leading British Fascists, from groups coordinated by the Central Council of the Economic Leagues included Major Pilcher (from the BCU), Sir J R Prettyman and Sir Burton Chadwick (from the National Citizens Union) and Basil Peto and the Reverend Gough (from the National Party which if not actually coordinated by the League was a very close ally). These links between the League and the British Fascists were not confined to London - in Leeds for example a leading light of the League there shared a platform with the head of the British Fascists, Major Blakeney. They spoke against a backdrop of a portrait of Mussolini. In Liverpool the maverick secretary of the British Empire Union there, James McGuirk Hughes, almost certainly had links with the British Fascists and he himself, under the pseudonym P G Taylor, was later to become head of intelligence for the British Union of Fascists' "Department Z". 
John Baker White was, and remained, sympathetic to these early British fascists. Nesta Webster, his mother's friend and collaborator, who had inspired his own personal anti-socialist crusade, was a member of the Council of the British Fascists. Maxwell Knight, who was recruited to MI5 from White's "Section D" in April 1925 and by the early thirties was head of its section B5b and thus its leading "agent runner", was also remarkably the British Fascists' Director of Intelligence from 1924 until 1927.  Another leading light of the British Fascists was Rotha Linton-Orman who was a dedicated campaigner against the "communist" Sunday schools and must thus have been working closely with the League. Indeed White, writing in 1942 while he was a member of the Political Warfare Executive, recalled her and the British Fascists affectionately:
- "The "BFs" as their opponents naturally styled them, were formed to meet the Communists on their own ground and fight them with their own methods. It was essentially a fighting organisation, and fight it did, in many bloody and sometimes considerable battles at street corners and in public halls. Before it split on questions of internal policy and finally disintegrated it had achieved an end for which it has never been given credit. It forced the Communist Party to abandon much of its militant activity, such as breaking up constitutional meetings by force, denying its opponents free speech and intimidating trade unionists. Miss Linton Orman was one of the bravest people I have ever met in my life, and here bravery was by no means purely physical. Had she been gifted with greater political judgment, with the backing of funds, and had she been able to formulate a constructive policy, the movement might have become an important factor in the political life of Britain."
If Rotha was not he same person as "Rose" whom White identifies as the dedicated and hard working member of Section D who was an expert on the Communists Sunday Schools and who also died naturally in the 1930s then one can only conclude that "Rose" and Rotha must have been extraordinarily close collaborators.
It would be a mistake to suggest that the economic, political and social policy of Fascism was only attractive to those who joined the British Fascists or later the British Union of Fascists. Mussolini had seized power in Italy in 1922 and quickly adopted an economic ideology which is, along with a strong centralised state, a characteristic of fascism. This ideology was called "corporatism". It was, according to one of its leading British exponents, Francis Yeats-Brown, "a practical way of adjusting the interests of capital and labour so that both may benefit" (Yates-Brown, Everyman 6/10/33). In a corporate state, industry was to be run by an oligarchy of representatives of owners and workers working to produce as much as possible, as profitably as possible. There was no suggestion these "representatives" should be elected and its clear anti-socialist line meant that trade unions could in no way be a part of the oligarchy. Corporatism was also, and this might come as a surprise to those who only know the term in its revised form, rigidly anti-interventionist. Government could have no role in regulating industry. The Economic League was enthusiastically corporatist although they preferred to use the expression "simple economics" of the corporatism being preached by their employees. Hence they advocated non-intervention and supported worker participation, but as an alternative to, not an extension of, trade unionism. Interestingly they clearly remain faithful to corporatism which makes the Economic League, rather than the consensus politicians of the 1950s and 1960s, latter-day corporatists. In Britain the Corporate State had a number of intellectual advocates, of which the most important were Francis Yates-Brown, Harold E Goad and Muriel Currey.
For them Corporatism was not just good for Italy, but was a political and economic philosophy to be adopted in Britain. In 1932 Goad published The Making of the Corporate State and in the following year produced, with Muriel Currey, The Working of the Corporate State. In September of 1933 Yates-Brown assumed, for less than two months, the editorship of the weekly magazine Everyman and his notes clearly show his intentions:
- "We believe in a revision of our constitution on the lines of the Corporate State. Italian Fascism would not work in England but we must be governed by a small group of men or one man with dictatorial power, for a period of years. Our parliamentary System is out of date. It neither guards our liberties or protects our purse."
This was more than ambitious tub-thumping. Yates-Brown's editorship of Everyman was a key part of a manoeuvre to bring about a corporatist coup d'etat in Britain. This plot centred upon a group of writers and politicians associated with both Everyman and its sister weekly, the English Review. This coup was organised by Douglas Jerrold and had as its figurehead Lord Lloyd. Its immediate objective was to oust the Baldwin-Ramsay MacDonald coalition. According to Maurice Cowling, Lord Lloyd had attracted the interest of between 50 and 60 MPs.  The coup reached its climax at an English Review dinner at the Savoy on the 21st of November 1933 which was chaired by Lord Carson. The dinner was a failure. Lloyd was a poor speaker and while willing to round up support for corporatism he was unwilling to put himself forward as a contender to replace Baldwin.
The support that Lloyd had attracted was defiantly anti-coalition and anti-Baldwin but little more than merely sympathetic to the "corporate state". Jerrold had gathered together an exclusively male audience of 350 to hear Lloyd launch what was intended to have been the first salvo in "a public campaign; there was even talk of a 'programme'. "There was enough anti-political dynamite in that room to have unseated half a dozen leaders" Jerrold later recalled in his 1937 autobiography.  But although "It was a potentially partisan audience", Lord Lloyd "with characteristic courage chose to talk national politics". Unfortunately the diners, claimed Jerrold, were the sort of devoted subscribers to the English Review who never read it. The explanation for this was, he argued (giving us a clear picture of the make up of the audience): "Conservative politicians never read. Businessmen never read. Writers never read."
Lloyd's speech was not effective, but nor had it been received completely disastrously. "After dinner," Jerrold recalls, "I had a drink with three friends, none of them active politicians. Two had decided to become Fascists; the third was, by ten o'clock, a convinced Communist."
"The audience had certainly been charged with potential dynamite," he went on, "but it had only succeeded in disintegrating itself." Since April at least the ground had been prepared, but it had not been prepared thoroughly enough. On April 8th Sir Henry Fairfax-Lucy, a conservative county councillor and parliamentary candidate had set the tone in the Saturday Review. He argued for "a dramatic reform in parliamentary government ... [which had been] killed by universal suffrage" and called for support for an system that "eliminated the evils of universal suffrage ... whether we call this system fascist or corporative." In June, Douglas Jerrold, as the editor of the English Review, wrote:
- "The Conservative Party must turn its back on the present parliamentary system in favour of a system which will restore the reality of self government in the appropriate spheres and enable a strong central government to speak for the nation, and not merely for a class, on national issues. This means the adoption of functional and not regional representation. Thus alone can Labour be given a proper political status and a true equality. Industry must regain its liberty with the added dignity of an autonomous responsibility. For the problem of capital and labour there is no other honourable solution. A resolution in favour of the corporate state has already been passed by the Conservative Party. The time has come for a serious effort to give effect in the party programme to what is to-day only a pious demand. Public opinion demands swift and vigorous movement towards new objectives. It sees the task of the state as the creation of conditions for independence, the secure ownership of property, and the corporate direction of industry by those engaged in it."
Though in essence fascist, the writers who were paving the way for the attempted coup were particularly concerned to distance themselves from the British fascist parties. Their aim was, by stealth, to turn the Conservative Party into a Corporatist Party. It was a clever strategy which would have brought about the fascist state without recourse to the militaristic boot-boy tactics associated with the BUF or the Imperial Fascist League.
On October 6th Yeats-Brown wrote:
- "... we are not fascists. Fascism is a foreign culture. We are English. Italians, Russians and Germans have solved their problems their own way. The British way will be different."
He went on to stress their independence from the BUF: "Our interpretation of the corporate state as applied to England may be different to Sir Oswald Moseley's." A week later Jerrold told Everyman readers "the corporate state has nothing necessarily to do with fascism, or the colour of men's shirts." The corporate state offered, he went on to explain, "a planned economy without the intolerable evils of constant and ill-informed political interference with trade and industry."
The failure of the English Review dinner came eleven days after the directors of Everyman had sacked Yeats-Brown. The weekly's directors had taken their decision for purely political reasons - Yates-Brown's politicking had been well received by the readership and had not had a noticeably detrimental effect on circulation. For its part the dinner's failure was put down to a number of causes, the poor quality of Lloyd's speech and the ignorance of the diners being favoured by its organisers. In retrospect their optimism and impatience was the most likely cause. They had not prepared their audience sufficiently and were simply not ready to make converts of their sympathizers. Walter Elliot, the Conservative MP, in an interview with Vienna Frei Press also reflected some of the success of the soft fascist tradition within the Conservative Party:
- "If one wants to do a new thing in this country, one must do it as an old thing. For that reason it seems to be courting failure to tell people that they first have to dress themselves in black shirts and throw their opponents downstairs in order to get the corporative state ... This new economic order, i.e. the corporative state, has already developed further in England than is generally recognised." 
The Economic League and Fascism
The Economic League was pro-fascist without being overtly so. It argued, and still argues, for a "corporatist" economic theory that is however more fundamental to fascism than the anti-semitism, jack boots and the trappings of state terrorism which were the hallmarks of fascist states. But for extremely practical reasons it avoided presenting its economic theory as a political ideology. Although leading members of the League were sympathetic to fascism they seem to have been drawn from that section of the conservative establishment which aimed to cajole the Conservative Party into fascism, rather than to set up a disturbingly revolutionary fascist movement independent of the existing right-wing network. Like the Economic League itself, this fascist conspiracy within the Party was largely a manifestation of the far right's deep-seated mistrust of parliamentary democracy. At the root of this mistrust was the fear of "Bolshevism" shared by the Conservative far right, the League and fascism. It was a fear shared by many Liberals and right-wingers within the Labour Party. For these "anti-Bolshevists" the prospect of even moderate electoral success by the Communist Party was enough to call into question the whole of the British Parliamentary democratic system.
However at no time does it seem that this section of pre-war fascist opinion would have allowed their sympathy with continental fascist movements and states to jeopardise the British Empire or "National Interest". The Anglo-German Fellowship and other pro-nazi groups were abandoned by all but the most fanatical Nazi supporters. When German foreign policy became an obvious threat to British national, commercial, industrial and imperial interests The Economic League finally prepared for War.
Notes and References
(see Bibliography for full details)
- ^ John Hope citing Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain - a History 1918-1985, Basil Blackwell 1987.
- ^ John Hope, Lobster 22, citing also W. J. West Truth Betrayed, Duckworth, 1987
- ^ Maurice Cowling, The impact of Hitler, Cambridge University Press, 1975
- ^ Douglas Jerrold, "Georgian Adventures", reprinted the following year by the Right Book Club
- ^ Quoted in Simon Haxey, Tory MP, Left Book Club, 1939, p235