British Union of Fascists

In 1931 Oswald Mosley founded the New Party. Early supporters included John Strachey, John Becket, Harold Nicholson, Cyril Joad, William Joyce, Mary Richardson, William Allen, Robert Forgan and A. K. Chesterton, but in the 1931 General Election none of the New Party's candidates were elected. In January 1932 Mosley met Benito Mussolini in Italy. Mosley was impressed by Mussolini's achievements and when he returned to England he disbanded the New Party and replaced it with the British Union of Fascists.

The British Union of Fascists was strongly anti-communist and argued for a programme of economic revival based on government spending and protectionism. Mary Richardson later commented: "I was first attracted to the Blackshirts because I saw in them the courage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service, and the ability to serve which I had known in the suffrage movement". In October, 1932, Mosley published The Greater Britain, his manifesto for a Fascist state.

Mosley attracted members from other right-wing groups such as the British Fascisti, National Fascists and the Imperial Fascist League. By 1934 the BUF was able to establish its own drinking clubs and football teams. The BUF also gained the support of Lord Rothermere and the Daily Mail. Rothermere wrote an article, Hurrah for the Blackshirts, on 22nd January, 1934, in which he praised Mosley for his "sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine". Rothermere added: "Timid alarmists all this week have been whimpering that the rapid growth in numbers of the British Blackshirts is preparing the way for a system of rulership by means of steel whips and concentration camps. Very few of these panic-mongers have any personal knowledge of the countries that are already under Blackshirt government. The notion that a permanent reign of terror exists there has been evolved entirely from their own morbid imaginations, fed by sensational propaganda from opponents of the party now in power. As a purely British organization, the Blackshirts will respect those principles of tolerance which are traditional in British politics. They have no prejudice either of class or race. Their recruits are drawn from all social grades and every political party. Young men may join the British Union of Fascists by writing to the Headquarters, King's Road, Chelsea, London, S.W."

According to a MI5 report in 1934 the BUF had between 35,000 and 40,000 active members. It also said that senior service officers and prominent businessmen had joined the party. The Conservative Party became concerned about losing members to the BUF. One of their MPs, Colonel Thomas Moore, wrote in the Daily Mail on 25th April 1934: "Surely there cannot be any fundamental difference of outlook between the Blackshirts and their parents, the Conservatives?" Michael Beaumont, the MP for Aylesbury said the fascists "were respectable, reasonable and intelligent people". Harold Hayles, MP for Hanley, said the BUF contained "some of the most cultured members of our society".

The London Evening News, another newspaper owned by Lord Rothermere, found a more popular and subtle way of supporting the Blackshirts. It obtained 500 seats for a BUF rally at the Royal Albert Hall and offered them as prizes to readers who sent in the most convincing reasons why they liked the Blackshirts. Another title owned by Rothermere, The Sunday Dispatch, even sponsored a Blackshirt beauty competition to find the most attractive BUF supporter. Not enough attractive women entered and the contest was declared void.

Mosley appointed William Joyce as the party full-time Propaganda Director. Joyce, along with Mosley and Mick Clarke, were the organisations three main public speakers. On 7th June, 1934, the British Union of Fascists held a large rally at Olympia. About 500 anti-fascists including Vera Brittain, Richard Sheppard and Aldous Huxley, managed to get inside the hall. When they began heckling Oswald Mosley they were attacked by 1,000 black-shirted stewards. Several of the protesters were badly beaten by the fascists.

Margaret Storm Jameson pointed out in The Daily Telegraph: "A young woman carried past me by five Blackshirts, her clothes half torn off and her mouth and nose closed by the large hand of one; her head was forced back by the pressure and she must have been in considerable pain. I mention her especially since I have seen a reference to the delicacy with which women interrupters were left to women Blackshirts. This is merely untrue... Why train decent young men to indulge in such peculiarly nasty brutality?"

The Daily Mail continued to give its support to the fascists. George Ward Price wrote about anti-fascist demonstrators at a meeting of the National Union of Fascists on 8th June, 1934: "If the Blackshirts movement had any need of justification, the Red Hooligans who savagely and systematically tried to wreck Sir Oswald Mosley's huge and magnificently successful meeting at Olympia last night would have supplied it. They got what they deserved. Olympia has been the scene of many assemblies and many great fights, but never had it offered the spectacle of so many fights mixed up with a meeting."

Collin Brooks, was a journalist who worked for Lord Rothermere at the The Sunday Dispatch. He also attended the the rally at Olympia. Brooks wrote in his diary: "He mounted to the high platform and gave the salute - a figure so high and so remote in that huge place that he looked like a doll from Marks and Spencer's penny bazaar. He then began - and alas the speakers hadn't properly tuned in and every word was mangled. Not that it mattered - for then began the Roman circus. The first interrupter raised his voice to shout some interjection.The mob of storm troopers hurled itself at him. He was battered and biffed and hashed and dragged out - while the tentative sympathisers all about him, many of whom were rolled down and trodden on, grew sick and began to think of escape. From that moment it was a shambles. Free fights all over the show. The Fascist technique is really the most brutal thing I have ever seen, which is saving something. There is no pause to hear what the interrupter is saying: there is no tap on the shoulder and a request to leave quietly: there is only the mass assault. Once a man's arms are pinioned his face is common property to all adjacent punchers." Brooks also commented that one of his "party had gone there very sympathetic to the fascists and very anti-Red". As they left the meeting he said "My God, if ifs to be a choice between the Reds and these toughs, I'm all for the Reds".

MI5 also reported to the Home Office that the rally would have a negative impact on the future of the National Union of Fascists: "It is becoming increasingly clear that at Olympia Mosley suffered a check which is likely to prove decisive. He suffered it, not at the hands of the Communists who staged the provocations and now claim the victory; but at the hands of Conservative MPs, the Conservative press and all those organs of public opinion which made him abandon the policy of using his Defence Force to overwhelm interrupters."

In July, 1934 Lord Rothermere suddenly withdrew his support for Oswald Mosley. The historian, James Pool, the author of Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler's Rise to Power (1979), argues: "The rumor on Fleet Street was that the Daily Mail's Jewish advertisers had threatened to place their adds in a different paper if Rothermere continued the profascist campaign." Pool points out that sometime after this, Rothermere met with Hitler at the Berghof and told how the "Jews cut off his complete revenue from advertising" and compelled him to "toe the line." Hitler later recalled Rothermere telling him that it was "quite impossible at short notice to take any effective countermeasures."

Norah Elam joined the British Union of Fascist (BUF) in 1934. Later that year she became the BUF County Women's Officer for West Sussex. It was not long before Elam became very close to Oswald Mosley. The author of Femine Fascism: Women in Britain's Fascist Movement (2003) has pointed out: "Elam's status in the BUF and the sensitive tasks with which she was entrusted offer some substance to the BUF's claim to respect sexual equality. While, in principle, the movement was segregated by gender and women in positions of leadership were meant to have authority only over other women. Elam was quite evidently admitted to Mosley's inner circle."

In November 1936 Norah Elam was one of ten women the British Union of Fascists announced would be candidates in the next general election. Elam was selected to fight the Northampton constituency. Mosley used Norah's past as one of the leaders of the Women's Social and Political Union to counter the criticism that the BUF was anti-feminist. In one speech Norah Elam argued that her prospective candidacy for the House of Commons "killed for all time the suggestion that National Socialism proposed putting British women back in the home".

Under the influence of William Joyce the BUP became increasingly anti-Semitic. In December, 1934 it became official policy. The verbal attacks on the Jewish community led to violence at meetings and demonstrations. In November 1936 a serious riot took place when left-wing organisations successfully stopped Mosley marching through the Jewish areas of London.

The activities of the BUF was checked by the the passing of the 1936 Public Order Act. This gave the Home Secretary the power to ban marches in the London area and police chief constables could apply to him for bans elsewhere. This legislation also made it an offence to wear political uniforms and to use threatening and abusive words.

Oswald Mosley with members of the British Union of Fascists
Oswald Mosley with members of the British Union of Fascists

The BUP anti-Semitic policy was popular in certain inner-city areas and in 1937 Joyce came close to defeating the Labour Party candidate in the London County Council election in Shoreditch.

Joyce argued that the BUP should take a more extreme position on racial issues. Mosley disagreed and began to feel that Joyce posed a threat to his leadership. He therefore decided to sack Joyce as Propaganda Director. In an attempt to save money another 142 staff members also lost their jobs.

In 1938 several members of the BUF left the organization and founded the National Socialist League. This included John Becket, William Joyce, William Allen, Robert Forgan and A. K. Chesterton.

The popularity of the BUP declined even further after the outbreak of the Second World War. On 22nd May 1940 the British government announced the imposition of Defence Regulation 18B. This legislation gave the Home Secretary the right to imprison without trial anybody he believed likely to "endanger the safety of the realm". The following day, Oswald Mosley was arrested. Over the next few days other prominent figures in the BUF were imprisoned. On the 30th May the BUF was dissolved and its publications were banned.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) David Low, Autobiography (1956)

Mosley was young, energetic, capable and an excellent speaker. Since I had met him in 1925 he had graduated from close friendship with MacDonald to a job in the second Labour Government; but he had become disgusted with the evasions over unemployment and had resigned to start a party of his own.

Unfortunately at the succeeding general election he fell ill with influenza and his party-in-embryo, deprived of his brilliant talents, was wiped out. Mosley was too ambitious to retire into obscurity. Looking around for a 'vehicle' he united himself to the British Fascists, rechristened 'the Blackshirts', and acquired almost automatically the encouragement of Britain's then biggest newspaper, the Daily Mail, which was more than willing to extend its admiration for the Italian original to the local imitation. That was a fateful influenza germ.

(2) Lord Rothermere, the Daily Mirror (22nd January, 1934)

Timid alarmists all this week have been whimpering that the rapid growth in numbers of the British Blackshirts is preparing the way for a system of rulership by means of steel whips and concentration camps.

Very few of these panic-mongers have any personal knowledge of the countries that are already under Blackshirt government. The notion that a permanent reign of terror exists there has been evolved entirely from their own morbid imaginations, fed by sensational propaganda from opponents of the party now in power.

As a purely British organization, the Blackshirts will respect those principles of tolerance which are traditional in British politics. They have no prejudice either of class or race. Their recruits are drawn from all social grades and every political party.

Young men may join the British Union of Fascists by writing to the Headquarters, King's Road, Chelsea, London, S.W.

(3) David Low attended one of the public meetings held by the British Union of Fascists in 1936.

Mosley spoke effectively at great length. Delivery excellent, matter reckless. Interruptions began, but no dissenting voice got beyond half a dozen sentences before three or four bullies almost literally jumped on him, bashed him and lugged him out. Two such incidents happened near me. An honest looking blue-eyed student type rose and shouted indignantly "Hitler means war!" whereupon he was given the complete treatment.

(4) George Ward Price described how the Black Shirts dealt with anti-fascist demonstrators in The Daily Mail (8th June 1934)

If the Blackshirts movement had any need of justification, the Red Hooligans who savagely and systematically tried to wreck Sir Oswald Mosley's huge and magnificently successful meeting at Olympia last night would have supplied it.

They got what they deserved. Olympia has been the scene of many assemblies and many great fights, but never had it offered the spectacle of so many fights mixed up with a meeting.

(5) Collin Brooks, diary entry (6th June, 1934)

The advertised time of the great oration was eight o'clock. At 8.45 the searchlights were directed to the far end, the Blackshirts lined the centre corridor - and trumpets braved as a great mass of Union Jacks surmounted by Roman plates passed towards the platform. Everybody thought this was Mosley and stood and cheered and saluted. Only it wasn't Mosley. He came some few minutes later at the head of his chiefs of craft. In consequence the second greeting was an anti-climax. He mounted to the high platform and gave the salute - a figure so high and so remote in that huge place that he looked like a doll from Marks and Spencer's penny bazaar. He then began - and alas the speakers hadn't properly tuned in and every word was mangled. Not that it mattered - for then began the Roman circus. The first interrupter raised his voice to shout some interjection.The mob of storm troopers hurled itself at him. He was battered and biffed and hashed and dragged out - while the tentative sympathisers all about him, many of whom were rolled down and trodden on, grew sick and began to think of escape. From that moment it was a shambles. Free fights all over the show. The Fascist technique is really the most brutal thing I have ever seen, which is saving something. There is no pause to hear what the interrupter is saying: there is no tap on the shoulder and a request to leave quietly: there is only the mass assault. Once a man's arms are pinioned his face is common property to all adjacent punchers...

The breaking of glass off-stage added to the trepidation of old ladies and parsons in the audience who had come to support the 'patriots'. More free fights - more bashing and lashing and kickings - and a steady withdrawal of the ordinary audience. We left With Mosley still speaking and the loud speakers still preventing our hearing a word he said, and by that time the place was half empty. Outside, of course, were the one thousand police expecting more trouble, but I didn't wait to see the aftermath. One of our party had gone there very sympathetic to the fascists and very anti-Red. As we parted he said "My God, if ifs to be a choice between the Reds and these toughs, I'm all for the Reds".

(6) Margaret Storm Jameson, The Daily Telegraph (9th July, 1934)

A young woman carried past me by five Blackshirts, her clothes half torn off and her mouth and nose closed by the large hand of one; her head was forced back by the pressure and she must have been in considerable pain. I mention her especially since I have seen a reference to the delicacy with which women interrupters were left to women Blackshirts. This is merely untrue.... Why train decent young men to indulge in such peculiarly nasty brutality?

(7) Oswald Mosley, Message for British Union Members and Supporters (2nd September, 1939)

We have said a hundred times that if the life of Britain were threatened we would fight again, but I am not offering to fight in the quarrel of Jewish finance in a war from which Britain could withdraw at any moment she likes, with her Empire intact and her people safe. I am now concerned with only two simple facts. This war is no quarrel of the British people, this war is a quarrel of Jewish finance, so to our people I give myself for the winning of peace.

(8) Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (1960).

On May Day the entire community turned out, men, women and children, home-made banners proclaiming slogans of the "United Front against Fascism" waving alongside the official ones. The long march to Hyde Park started early in the morning, contingents of the Labour Party, the Co-ops, the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party marching through the long day to join other thousands from all parts of London in the traditional May Day labour festival.

Everyone took lunch in a paper bag, and there was much good-natured jostling and shouting of orders, and last-minute rounding up of children who had darted away in the crowd.

We had been warned that the Blackshirts might try to disrupt the parade, and sure enough there were groups of them lying in wait at several points along the way. Armed with rubber truncheons and knuckle-dusters, they leaped out from behind buildings; there were several brief battles in which the Blackshirts were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the Bermondsey men. Once I caught sight of two familiar, tall blonde figures: Boud (Unity Mitford) and Diana (Mitford), waving Swastika flags. I shook my fist at them in the Red Front salute, and was barely dissuaded by Esmond (Romilly) and Philip (Toynbee), who reminded me of my now pregnant condition, from joining the fray.

(9) Francis Beckett, writing about his father, John Beckett, in History Today (May 1994)

There is no evidence that Beckett was anti-Semitic before joining Mosley, but he does seem to have been psychologically ready to endorse the anti-Semitism he found in the BUF. And yet all this time he guarded a secret - guarded it so well that I only discovered it years after his death, and it has never been published before. He was, strictly speaking, a Jew, because his mother was a Jew.

He denied it when there was a rumour in BUF circles. It is a surprising and rather shocking lie from a man who was, most of the time, more truthful than was good for him.

He was the most unlikely fascist you could imagine. He was irreverent, spontaneous, funny. He loathed accepting orders. He spoke and wrote with fluency, humour, logic - the weapons of a democratic politician, not a demagogue. He had no time for the trappings of fascism, which he called "heel-clicking and petty militarism". He did not have the proper reverence and admiration for The Leader. He referred to Mosley as 'the Bleeder'. Mosley, who was a textbook fascist leader resented this: Beckett was not a textbook fascist lieutenant. He was shocked by some of the people who were attracted to fascism because it enabled them to strut about self-importantly in a uniform. He does not seem to have realised that all this was an intrinsic part of the creed he had embraced.

(10) William Joyce, Germany Calling (13th June, 1941)

National Socialism condemns wealth without responsibility, privilege without merit and it works to unite all classes in the common task... Communism (for the benefit of the few) preaches the law of the jungle. Communism is based on the lowest tendencies of rapacity ... In England I have seen crowds of sub-anthropoid creatures using razor blades and pieces of lead piping against disabled ex-Servicemen who happened to belong to patriotic movements or to the Conservative Party. In almost every case, they were led from behind by Jews. It is with creatures of the same kind that Churchill has made his pact. Small wonder that the truth is not to be expected from him. Small wonder that the darkness deepens over England as Europe sees the dawn of a New Order.

(11) Railton Freeman, a member of the British Union of Fascist, worked with William Joyce and Norman Baillie-Stewart on Germany Calling. His views on fascism was quoted by Adrian Weale in his book Renegades (1994)

I have been bitterly opposed to the appalling menace of Soviet Communism for a long time. I have studied Moscow propaganda . . . and its hideous exploitation by World Jewry and I am more than dismayed by the fearful fate that awaits this country and western Europe, and eventually the whole world, when this menace overpowers them. I came to these conclusions long before I ever heard of Mosley or Hitler, therefore it is inaccurate to describe my views or actions as Nazi... National Socialism merely provided the one apparently solid barrier in the path of this Asiatic doctrine from which opposition could be made.