Too near the surface

The Fascists in Britain Colin Cross (Barrie & Rockliff, 21s.)

"ANTI-FASCISM is simply not the fashion any rnore," said a letter I received while I was reading this book.

And it is true enough that in the 'thirties sense of organised resistance to blackshirted thugs, so vividly described by Colin Cross, anti-fascism has not seemed a political necessity in Britain for many years.

But there is more to antifascism than physical resistance to hooligans who throw Jews through plate-glass windows or engage in provocative fancydress parades; just as there are fascists in boiled shirts as well as in black shirts.

Fascist movements combine - and express in the most open and virulent form -- all the reactionary attitudes that come to the surface whenever a ruling class feels that its rule is seriously threatened..

Not that these attitudes are ever far below the surface here in Britain. And this is proved both by the distinguished poet who writes that only an elite minority can appreciate culture, and by the undistinguished policewoman who shouts "Kick him harder!" while her male colleague is savaging an anti H-bomb squatter.

Jingoism; racialism; the idea that one must be brutal towards opponents, and towards dissenters within one's own ranks (e.g. "Blackshirt Justice", which, Cross suggests, may have included castor oil, truncheons and locked cellars); the notion that some are born to rule, others to obey -- that ordinary people must accept their ideas from "authorities", their orders from "Authority": these are the basic fascist ideas; and to oppose them, wherever and in whatever form they appear, is to be an anti-fascist.

These were the basic motives of those who fashioned and led.the fascist movement in Britain, as well as of those who financed it; although, as Cross makes clear, the movement did attract a number of sincere men and women who were seeking a way out of the great depression and who thought that Mosley's halfbaked Corporate State would bring work and prosperity to Britain.

The time is ripe for a history of British fascism; it is 15 years since one appeared. And Colin Cross has filled the gap admirably, if not definitively.

He displays a good knowledge of the written sources; he has interviewed a great many people (this must have been hard work, and somewhat distasteful work at times); he writes lucidly and agreeably; and he is scrupulously fair.

Some might think he has been too fair. Thus he names some of the familiar supporters of British fascism -- Lord Rothermere ("Hurrah for the Blackshirts!") and Co. - but refrains from listing the "probable contributors" among big business men and minor landed gentry, because such a list would be based on rumours only.

Again, he has left out the names of ex-fascists who since the second world war have achieved prominence in public life, because this would in his view, be a form of McCarthyism.

Cross sets certain fairly rigid limits to his inquiry. Thus he deals only with groups that actually used the word "fascist" in their campaigns. The British Fascisti Ltd. and the Imperial Fascist League get much less attention than the Mosleyites.

Mosley's own background before he became "the Leader" is recounted very fully; the account of his passage through the Labour Party makes particularly fascinating reading.

The detailed story ends in 1940, when Regulation 18B netted Britain's 1,000 or so potential fifth-columnists, and neo-fascist activities since the end of the war are sketched in a brief final chapter.

All this is appropriate in a popular book - though the activities of the British Fascisti and the National Fascisti were at once somewhat more sinister and far funnier than Cross's necessarily brief account makes them appear.

I wish he had had room for their kidnapping of Harry Pollitt, on the one hand, and, on the other, for their "fascist jam", "Fascisti hearthrugs" and "Fascisti jumpers", not to mention the Bolshie doggie Comrade Youvanitch and his "secret society of dare-devil doggies financed from Moscow".

In short, an excellent book that I would recommend in particular to the under-30 opponents of the H-bomb, to whom the Spanish Civil War and the battles of Olympia and Cable Street have ceased to be remote, uninteresting topics.

The recent police brutality in Trafalgar Square is a valuable reminder of the odious methods that our rulers are capable of using. The Fascists in Britain is a valuable reminder of how capitalism's shock troops were mustered and trained and sent out skirmishing, three decades ago. Let us be warned.


Tribune 20th October 1961