Jan 2010 Journal

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The threat from the far right

The BBC’s invitation to Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, to appear on Question Time last October understandably raised concerns among the Jewish refugees from Hitler in Britain about a potential upsurge of support for the extreme right. Might we not be going back to the 1930s, when Fascism and Nazism were on the crest of their hideous wave, the streets of European cities resounded to the tramp of marching jackboots and anti-Semitism was in full flood?

A historical comparison between the 1930s and the present decade - both times of economic crisis - may help to answer the question, or at least to put it in some perspective. An accurate historical perspective may help, for a start, to reveal some of Griffin’s statements on Question Time for the travesty of reality that they were. He claimed, for example, that Churchill, had he been alive today, would have been a member of the BNP. Rubbish! As our wartime prime minister, Churchill had no hesitation in imprisoning members of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) – Mosley was held in Holloway Prison - or detaining them on the Isle of Man, under Defence Regulation 18B, brought in under the Emergency Powers Act, 1939.

From 1940 to 1945, when Churchill was locking them up, Griffin’s predecessors had the choice between remaining idle, going to jail, or fleeing to Germany, as did the traitors John Amery and William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw), both of whom were executed by the British after the war, the latter after being captured by Jewish refugee Geoffrey Perry. Churchill recognised that the war against Hitler was not, like the First World War, a war between nations, but a war between ideological systems in which the enemy – in Britain the BUF, the approximate equivalent of yesterday’s National Front and today’s BNP – was present on both sides of the Channel and was active in virtually every country in Europe - Allied, Axis or neutral. In all cases, they were the enemies of this country, and Churchill recognised them as such.

Griffin also claimed that Churchill would have supported the BNP’s policy on immigration. Rubbish! Until 1905, Britain operated no restrictions on immigration. In that year, the Aliens Act was brought in, to limit Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. Churchill, who was a friend of the Jews throughout his career, opposed the new immigration legislation. Indeed, it was an issue that played a part in his decision to leave the Conservatives for the Liberal Party. (He returned to the Tory fold in the 1920s, famously quipping ‘Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to rerat.’

In 1904, Arthur Balfour’s tottering Conservative government – headed for electoral disaster in 1906, a landslide Liberal victory comparable to the Labour Party’s triumphs over the Conservatives in 1945 and 1997 – sought to bolster its position through the populist measure of restricting Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. Churchill, who sat for a Manchester seat with a sizable Jewish presence, opposed the immigration legislation, in the name of Britain’s liberal tradition as a refuge for the persecuted. ‘It violated that tradition of British hospitality of which this nation has been proud, and for the practice of which it has at more than one period reaped a permanent advantage,’ he declared. (Arthur Balfour subsequently became foreign secretary in Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government; in 1917, the Balfour Declaration that bears his name designated Palestine as the Jewish homeland.)

Though the recent success of the BNP in winning two seats in the European Parliament, as well as a scattering of seats on local councils across England, has alarming echoes of Mosley’s high-profile campaigns of the 1930s, the differences between 1933 and 2010 are very considerable. Mosley was dangerous because he was a skilled political operator who had already enjoyed a promising political career as a rising star of notable gifts and energy; he was also very well connected within the ruling British establishment. Elected to Parliament in 1918 as a Conservative while still in his early twenties, he established a reputation as one of the most accomplished and effective speakers in the Commons.

But in 1924 he joined the Labour Party, as a member of the radical left-wing Independent Labour Party. In the general election of 1924, he chose with characteristic bravado to challenge Neville Chamberlain in the latter’s Birmingham constituency, losing a knife-edge campaign by 77 votes. When Labour returned to power in 1929, Mosley became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a ministerial post, but one that he considered inferior to his merits, as it was not of cabinet rank. A restless radical, Mosley left the Labour government in 1931, when his proposals for combating the effects of the Great Depression were rejected. He formed his own New Party, then, after a visit to Mussolini’s Italy, the British Union of Fascists, notorious for the rabble-rousing anti-Semitism that culminated in the so-called Battle of Cable Street of October 1936, when Mosley’s attempt to lead his Fascists through the streets of London’s East End was thwarted by local resistance.

Mosley’s Fascists, for all their black-shirted bluster, never posed a serious electoral threat; they managed to win some 20 per cent of the vote in local elections in the East End at the height of Fascist agitation there, but coming a poor second in Bethnal Green was never likely to provide a springboard to power. They were unable to fight the general election of 1935. However, Mosley’s ideas found some sympathy in far more influential quarters; before the utter discrediting of Nazism by the Second World War, Mosleyite Fascism seemed to not a few people in positions of influence to represent the path of the future, a replacement for the allegedly worn-out and ineffectual model of Western parliamentary democracy.

Mosley’s first wife was Lady Cynthia Curzon, daughter of Lord Curzon, one of the great political figures of his day. Their wedding, in May 1920, was a major social event, attended by members of Europe’s royal families, including George V and Queen Mary. Mosley was distantly related to the Bowes-Lyon family, and hence to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late Queen Mother. Lady Cynthia was a convinced socialist, but after her death Mosley married Diana Mitford, a fascist and anti-Semite.

Mitford’s grandfather, the first Baron Redesdale, was an admirer of the renegade Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who went to Germany and became one of the most important proponents of racial theory; Redesdale translated his Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century) (1899), a seminal work in the ideology of ‘Aryan’ racial superiority, into English. Mitford’s father, the second Baron, has gone down to posterity as ‘Farve’, the amiably eccentric father of the Mitford girls. In fact, he was a fervent xenophobe and anti-Semite. In 1939, he joined the Right Club, whose logo consisted of an eagle swooping on a snake and the letters ‘P.J.’, for ‘Perish Juda’.

A degree of sympathy for Hitler’s regime was fairly widespread among the British social and right-wing political establishment, who saw in him a bulwark against Bolshevism, which they instinctively associated with Jews. They broadly approved of Hitler’s alleged re-establishment of ‘law and order’ and his apparent restoration of German national unity and pride. Kazuo Ishiguro memorably captured this type of thinking in his novel The Remains of the Day (1989), in the figure of the politically naïve aristocrat Lord Darlington, who attempts to broker a deal between the British government and the Nazi ambassador, von Ribbentrop. Ian Kershaw’s study of Lord Londonderry shows how a real-life aristocrat and Tory minister supported the policy of appeasing Hitler, while displaying admiration for some aspects of Nazi Germany.

However, Kershaw also shows the limits to Londonderry’s sympathy for Hitler. Having welcomed the Munich Agreement of autumn 1938 as the long hoped-for resolution of Anglo-German differences, Londonderry was brutally disillusioned when Hitler broke the terms of Munich less than six months later by invading the rump of Czechoslovakia. Thereafter, like many advocates of appeasement, he abandoned hope of a peaceful settlement between Britain and Germany, if reluctantly. By September 1939, the right-wingers who retained their sympathy for Nazism were the few hardliners grouped in organisations like the Right Club, The Link and the Anglo-German Fellowship. Such support as they had evaporated; Mosley and his post-war successors, Colin Jordan and John Tyndall, never gained any real support among the political and intellectual elites or in the broad centre ground of British politics.

Griffin, too, barely has a toehold in the politically influential world of the governing establishment and, as Question Time amply demonstrated, has little of Mosley’s oratorical skill and charisma. The BNP does have a constituency among those disadvantaged sections of the British working class that blame their plight on immigrants. But it seems unlikely that a coalition of those who have lost out in the process of modernisation and internationalisation can provide a solid platform for the party’s rise to power. ‘Today Barking and Dagenham, tomorrow the world’ is hardly a credible slogan.

Anthony Grenville

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