21 FEBRUARY 1987, Page 28


Uniformed and uninformed

Colin Welch

FASCISM IN BRITAIN: A HISTORY, 1918-1985 by Richard Thurlow

Blackwell, £16.00

Plodding through the turgid compila- tions of young red-brick and concrete university lecturers, we laymen must some- times wonder what these books are for? Well, to get something published, of course, for a start. This Mr Thurlow, a lecturer in social and economic history at Sheffield, has triumphantly succeeded in doing. The result is dedicated to Hazel, Kevin and Sally, a pleasing and reassuring touch. I hope the dedicatees will be proud of all the worthy qualities displayed in it by their father (?): patience, good temper, balance, a prodigious capacity for digesting tedious documents, files, old newspapers, propaganda sheets and laborious mono- graphs, many alas unpublished, by other lecturers. Infested with footnotes (at the bottom of each page: good), it will in its turn supply many footnotes for lecturers yet to lecture.

Something more than a desire to see his name on a dust-jacket must have spurred Mr Thurlow on. Was it love or hatred of fascism? Does he have some profound sympathy perhaps, hidden away, or anti- pathy for it? I could detect little trace of any of these emotions. You may ask, what's wrong with that? What is wrong with impartial history? Sine ira et studio: is not that an honoured maxim among his- torians? May not love and hatred blind those in their grip? They may indeed distort the vision and, like an incipient cataract, blot out parts of it. On the other hand they can inspire an unwavering atten- tion to what is loved or hated, an insatiable curiosity. They may also fire the imagina- tion, and reveal truths not readily available to those who just pore impartially over documents. Taine hated the French Re- volution. What but this hatred gave wings to his pen, electrified his prose, formed his mordant similes, forced him to peer into the darkest recesses, shaped his unforgett- able masterpiece?

Is Mr Thurlow aware of the sinister glamour of fascism, often perfectly appa- rent to people who abhor it and all its works? Aware of it I'm sure he is, but objectively, so to speak, from outside. He does not seem to have experienced it. In his introduction he rightly suggests that fasc- ism cannot be adequately explained in terms of ideology. Action-orientated, it is moved more by instinct than by rationality. As D. H. Lawrence bade us all to do, it thinks with its blood. All the more impor- tant in its chroniclers is some sort of sympathetic insight.

Mr Thurlow's matter-of-fact approach may be illustrated by his treatment of uniforms, an important and revealing aspect of fascism. He considers the com- pulsory wearing of uniforms 'no doubt' a good idea. Why? To instil discipline and to help 'to create a classless organisation based on merit'. These are perhaps the respectable reasons. There are others. Sir Oswald Mosley's choice of dress, on the other hand, Mr Thurlow finds 'less than inspired'. What, because it was not attrac- tive enough, too dull and frowsy, in a way, perhaps, not Nazi enough? All these are possibilities. Mr Thurlow, however, con- demns it quite conventionally as reminding people too much of Hitler and Mussolini, which is also a possibility, I agree. The uniform should perhaps then have been more British? Ah, but we British haven't recently been much good at uniforms. Who would go courting or haranguing rallies dressed as an air-raid or traffic warden?

In the absence of love and hatred, as of other affinities darker and more occult, a strong sense of the ridiculous could help. Does Mr Thurlow find the fascists absurd? I think he does, at times, though he normally keeps it dark. Mirth is permitted rather than encouraged. The ideological movements, contortions and aberrations, of obscure groupuscules of squalid fanatics in the Sixties and Seventies are chronicled in a chapter called The Grand Synthesis'. A smile may be in order: Mr Thurlow appears to concede that the chapter head- ing 'exhibits more than a little of the conscious irony inherent in several others'.

On the whole, however, Mr Thurlow surveys his subject with a straight face. It cannot have been easy to do, confronted by such phenomena as fascist tea-parties in Birmingham and anti-Semitic magazines called Gothic Ripples, or contemplating such a mob not only of 'talented idealists and political mavericks', to quote Mr Thurlow, but also of 'cranks, anti-Semites, petty criminals, opportunists, thugs and literal social fascists who recognised an easy ride when they saw it' — does he mean social climbers? Lacking the swift diagnostic percipience of Sir Roderick Glossop, Mr Thurlow also has understand- able difficulties in judging who in the fascist world was mad and who was not. William Joyce is characterised as 'unfortu- nately . . . mentally unbalanced about the Jews'. Arnold Leese's genocidal ravings supply evidence of a 'prejudiced personal- ity' and of a 'progressive form of abnormal- ity'. Such mild strictures cannot offend, but why pick on Joyce and Leese? They were not unique. Also present in British fascism were bossy women, trumpeting ex- suffragettes, a surprising number of drunks, many failures, people who fcouldn't settle down', not a few homo- sexuals and other perverts. On the other hand, did Mr Thurlow find it easier to keep a straight face than we would have done? Does he take his sub- jects over-seriously? If so, does he un- wittingly mislead us? A sense of humour, after all, is a sense of proportion. Is it disproportionate to pay so much attention to evanescent groups and sub-groups of lunatics, sometimes numbered in tens, hundreds or low thousands? Mr Thurlow conscientiously supplies these figures where they are known: but they always come as a surprise.

If not primarily motivated by love or hate or laughter, Mr Thurlow is left with at least one honourable motive — to tell the whole truth and nothing but. Not easy, in prose like his, which is sometimes hardly intelligible not so much workman-like as lecturer-like. By the second page, we have learned that 'the use of intelligence mate- rial as a new source for contemporary historians was about to be proclaimed [sic] by Christopher Andrew' and that ,Ivios- leygate" comprised of [sic] more than Mussolini's significant funding of the BUF'. Some of his sentences are so long and involved as to make notorious word- sprayers like Alastair Forbes and myself seem as terse as Calvin Coolidge. Colin Cross, Robert Skidelsky and Richard Grif- fiths among others have covered much of Mr Thurlow's ground and, alas, more readably.

Not easy to tell the whole truth, either, while so much of the pre-1945 intelligence material about the British fascists is still kept under lock and key. Mr Thurlow has seen more of it than anyone else, not all very exciting; but much is withheld. Why? Because sources or prominent sympathis- ers still have to be protected? Because dirty tricks still have to be concealed? Because some of the material has been `compromised' (whatever that means) by Anthony Blunt when he was at MI5 in 1940? Was it he perhaps who estimated that 25 or 30 per cent of BUF members were security risks, a figure disputed by Mosley, who preferred about five per cent. Obviously anything from such a source as Blunt is suspect, anything from Mosley too, though Mr Thurlow supports him on the lower figure.

Some of Mr Thurlow's virtues may be seen as faults. His anxiety to be fair, balanced, uncensorious and factually truth- ful leads him into what strike me as weird misjudgments. Like the judge in the rape case, his sentences may appear perversely lenient. For instance, public opinion in 1940, he says, 'quite wrongly [sic], per- ceived Mosley as a potential Quisling'. Mosley argued that his was 'a patriotic policy': there can be little doubt for Mr Thurlow that he was 'sincere'. Mosley said later that he would 'rather die fighting for his country against invaders than be a Quisling'. He 'was only interested in pow- er', Mr Thurlow claims, 'after a negotiated peace which left the British Empire intact'. That eventuality was, for Mr Thurlow, rendered unlikely by Hitler's attitude to defeated nations and fascist movements in Western Europe. Was it? Did not Hitler rather approve of the British Empire? Would not he have approved of it even more if it were rid by Mosley of its Jews?

Furthermore, 'the committal [sic] of illegal behaviour by fascist groups in the war was . . . negligible'. Internment was one of the darkest pages in Britain's liberal tradition'. 'The vast majority of interned fascists were British patriots, not engaged in subversive . . . activities'. 'No doubt' they were 'unjustly incarcerated'. Only 'uninformed' people could assume that British fascists had affinities with the Nazis 'which would compromise their pat- riotism'. The fascist Fifth Column was a `figment of the imagination — a ludicrous fantasy'. The anger . . . of the fascists (about internment) was fully justified.'

Was it? Mr Thurlow rows back a bit. To be fair to him, he tries to be fair to us. He points out that these fascists would in power have silenced all opposition at once and expelled, not interned, all Jews deemed unpatriotic by fascist courts. He warns us against 'too many crocodile tears for them'. Why, if they were nearly all patriots?

What does patriotism mean? Surely it signifies love for our country as it is, or as it might be modestly improved by reforms in accordance with our liberal traditions. Surely it means too love of its institutions and of our fellow-citizens as they are, Including British Jews as they are, not as decimated by fascism or as transformed by it into 'new men'. Am I suggesting that no fascist or communist can be a British patriot? Yes, I think I am.

The Britain loved by the fascists was a Britain which did not exist, which precious few of us wanted, which could perhaps therefore never exist without intervention by force from outside. Who would have been our Quisling we shall never know. But if the Mephistophelian Hitler had in victory taken Mosley up a mountain and offered him power, if he had met his conditions, which were not impossible or even distasteful to him, well, does one have to be hopelessly 'uninformed' to doubt whether Mosley could have resisted the temptation? Might not the alluring prospect even have affected his attitude and conduct during a war which he de- plored anyway? Might it not even have tempted him into 'illegal behaviour'? Could we have trusted him? To say yes requires more hindsight than we actually have. A photo of Mosley in this book is not reassuring — look at those staring eyes, and tremble. If Mosley had been a horse, would anyone have bought him? Baldwin called him a cad and a wrong-un. Was he far off the mark?

It will be surprising, at least to the `uninformed', how often the wrong-un's economic views foreshadow cant now, indeed always, current in the Labour Party. A 'war' against unemployment; firm governmental direction; attacks on the City and Wall Street, as representing `finance' rather than productive enterprise; national investment boards and planning mechanisms to equate production with consumption; the abolition of class and privilege, and of hereditary wealth by massive redistribution; a complex bureaucratic prices and incomes policy. Save for the last item, all this is part of Labour's baggage today, though it is cus- tomary to assert that it was Tawney rather than Mosley who put it there. Labour shrinks not only from the prices and incomes policy but also of course from the dictatorship which Mosley, at least in his earlier days, thought necessary to achieve his aims. Were Mosley, Hayek and Chur- chill right to declare, from their very different points of view, that socialism, in order to work efficiently needed a Ges- tapo? Pray God we never find out!

'Psst. Safe sex?'