There’s a warning for the Brexit age from the British fascism of the 1930s

Part of a mural commemorating the 1936 Battle of Cable Street. mattbuck4950/flickr, CC BY-SA

In an office in London a maverick politician and a journalist discuss the challenges facing Britain. The politician’s views are unorthodox, and many establishment figures dislike him, but his popularity with the public cannot be ignored. At a time when there are so many questions facing the country, the journalist advises his readers that a nation beset by economic decline, a loss of social cohesion, a fraught relationship with Europe, and a growing distrust of “established” power cannot afford to ignore him.

As contemporary as this situation sounds it actually took place in 1937, when the writer Beverley Nichols met Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists and recorded their conversation in the penultimate chapter of News of England, under the title “Unknown Quantity”. The interview provides a reader today with a timely reminder of how much the issues of the present can echo those of the 1930s.

News of England was a study of a nation in crisis, or as its subtitle attested, “a country without a hero”. Before meeting Mosley, Nichols led his reader around a land dangerously divided along regional, economic, and social faultlines, where industrial communities had declined into poverty while students in the Oxford Union debated points of principle. Its title suggested a work dispatched by a correspondent from another country, but its content was much closer to home. He wrote:

Let us walk through this country that we love so much, and even before we have listened to the chatter of our companions, the very stones in the streets will tell us that there is something wrong.

We may imagine readers asking themselves whether England’s potential saviour was actually Mosley, a fascist politician, described in the book as: “The only man […] who has in him the qualities of that hero for whom the country has waited so long and waited in vain.”

Oswald Mosley, speaking in 1936. PA Archive

Uneasy as he was with the British Union of Fascists’ racial and anti-semitic policies, Nichols could not overlook the party’s potential to be a reviving force in the nation’s life in the late 1930s. Although the party was largely dismissed by the nation’s political class, Nichols saw its membership as possessing an almost religious faith in their cause: a faith that could, he argued, be what the country needed if it were to be made whole again.

Mosley, however, was soon to be interned by the British government, which in 1940 found its strength and purpose in fighting fascism rather than seeking national regeneration through it. Although Mosley tried to re-enter political life after World War II ended in 1945, he would never again be invoked by anyone but his most partisan supporters as the “hero” that Nichols saw him to be. Once known, the “unknown quantity” ceased to be appealing.

The nostalgia business

Today, much of Britain’s 1930s and 40s past has been recycled and used in ways often at odds with its original ethos. Rather than focus on the social divisions that Nichols saw in his travels in 1937 it is easier to celebrate a more palatable narrative of wartime survival through shared endurance. This was surely the nation’s “finest hour”, made possible by those who obeyed the advice to “Keep Calm and Carry On”. That the famous slogan, now seen on everything from coffee mugs to phone cases, belonged to a poster that was printed but never actually used, is a reminder of how this process is more complex than the simple nostalgia it appears to be.

Looking back in anger. Brett Jordan/flickr, CC BY

It is easier, of course, to appeal to the certainties of a simplified past: the nation’s lost but still-recoverable “greatness”. Much of the rhetoric of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, for example, appeals to a vision of a Britain that could be revived if its post-war absorption into Europe could only be reversed. There have been repeated calls for greater national “control” and encouragement for the view that a “better” Britain still existed under the layers of European legislation that had smothered it.

Pro-Brexit rhetoric in 2016 called upon voters to reverse the nation’s perceived “loss” of control to “Brussels” – by which the Leave camp meant the European Union as a whole – and the political elite that had presided over it. The British people were urged, instead, to trust their own common sense and put their faith in those who defined themselves by their political marginality.

Looking back at News from England reminds us that anxiety over national malaise is nothing new. But the 1937 interview with Mosley also highlights the dangers of seeing the “charismatic” figure as the potential solution to the crisis. Nichols stressed that his thoughts on Mosley were informed by a deep love of the blighted country that his book surveyed. However, the meeting should remind us that the “hero” of one year can prove to be the villain of later ones. It is a point worthy of consideration in a country in which another self-styled political outsider, who has ostensibly stood down as leader of his party, continues to feature so frequently on the political stage.