Mosley’s “Fascist Britishness” in Interwar Britain: Patriotism, Nationalism, and Imperialism



As an apprentice historian, I constantly try to find hidden histories to integrate into broader, more mainstream narratives. I believe that every time you feel you have acquired sufficient knowledge about a given topic, there is always a way to enrich it by seeking new scopes to view it. Particularly interested in ideologies and nationalist movements of the twentieth century, my enquiries have led me to discover many surprising historical figures and events, such as Adrien Arcand, the “Canadian Führer,” and the Nazi-style political party he founded in Montreal.[1] During my research, I remember learning about all of these other Fascist- and Nazi-inspired movements that had developed around the globe. And I remember reading about the infamous Oswald Mosley, the face of British Fascism. Two years later, his name came back to me and I thought: what a great way to understand how a complex nationalism such as the British one—which can be found in any other state where there are multiple national identities—can evolve into so many shapes and forms. Let us turn then, to the not-so-hidden subject matter of this article: British Fascism.

Inspired by Mussolini’s Italian Fascism and Hitler’s National Socialism, British Fascism was born in Great Britain during the interwar years. As the unwanted child of British nationalism and British unionism[2], this homegrown movement promoted the need for greater cultural, political, and economic unity of the United Kingdom, in the name of the nation’s “revival.”[3] Although there were multiple fascist organizations in Britain, I will focus on the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and its leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, in order to answer three questions: What was the link between British nationalisms and the emergence (and failure) of Fascism in the United Kingdom? Were Mosley’s ideas and proposed policies really British in nature? In what ways did they resonate in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? With these questions in mind, the article posits that Mosleyite Fascism was in fact a fusion of English-oriented patriotism and nationalism, coupled with imperialism. In other words, the BUF claimed to be working for the benefit of the United Kingdom as a whole, when in reality it was aiming to strengthen the political power of England over the whole of Britain and its Empire.

The first part of the article will analyze the ideological core of the BUF in relation to George Orwell’s definitions of “patriotism” and “nationalism”[4] and will argue that the movement’s raison d’être was based on a combination of patriotism and nationalism, both in their extreme form. The second part will review some interpretations of “Britishness” and compare them with one of Mosley’s speeches in an attempt to determine what a British national identity truly meant to him. It will conclude that his vision of the nation might have been more focused on an “Englishness” (i.e. an Anglocentric version of British national identity). The third part will explain the importance of Empire for Mosley in upholding the nation’s “greatness,” which also reveals some contradictions in the British nationalism they claimed to be representing.

The final part will integrate the notions discussed in the previous sections—patriotism, nationalism, Britishness, Englishness, and Empire—in an attempt to determine why “Fascist Britishness” failed as a uniting and empowering tool in the United Kingdom. The argument will be threefold. Firstly, that the party’s ideology was rejected in England because of its foreign character and its system of values’ incompatibility with democratic traditions. Secondly, that it failed to gain traction in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland precisely because it was an extreme nationalist movement with an English core, which threatened the competing nationalist movements in each country. And thirdly, that perhaps using imperialist language might not have been to the BUF’s advantage, since Empire was the embodiment of all the powers which the three other states had surrendered to England throughout the history of the union.

Before starting the analysis, a brief overview of Mosley and his fascist party is necessary. In 1931, Mosley resigned from his Labour MP position because he had grown disillusioned with the “Old Gangs” of the parliamentary system, who constantly rejected his radical reform proposals. Then, following a trip to Italy in 1932, he fell in love with fascism and founded the British Union of Fascists (1932-1940)[5], going as far as adopting Mussolini’s “black shirt” and Roman salute.[6] To solve the nation’s problems, Mosley envisioned drastic changes in the country’s economic, political and social life: a new type of corporate state. Basically, he believed that a centralized fascist government with wide-ranging powers would create a “self-sufficient Britain within a self-sufficient Empire,”[7] which would lead to the desired “national revival/restoration of British greatness.”[8] And for this to work, the BUF needed to capitalize on the idea that Britain was “on the verge of collapse.”[9] Surprisingly, it was to become “the largest and most successful fascist party” in the history of Britain.[10] In fact, in 1934, the BUF had reached its peak, with the endorsement of Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail, and with a membership of around 50 000. However, episodes of violence and an increasingly radical ideology (e.g. anti-Semitism and the adoption of a “nationalistic stance against ‘alien’ threats to British identity”[11]) led to a decline in popularity,[12] until Mosley was imprisoned with other traitors of the state in 1940.[13] With this in mind, we can now assess the somewhat a-typical nature of the movement’s nationalism.

It is widely accepted that fascism is ultimately “a revolutionary form of extreme nationalism.”[14] However, it can be argued that Mosley’s ultra-nationalism also integrated some elements of patriotism. For instance, Orwell distinguishes patriotism from the related concept of nationalism. By “patriotism” he means “a devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.” As for “nationalism,” he describes it as being “inseparable from the desire for power and prestige” and as “recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”[15] Although this may be true, interwar Britain already possessed a vast empire as well as a “Commonwealth of Nations.”[16] So, Mosley’s mission was “the maintenance and development of the heritage of Empire,”[17] not to obtain more colonies.

Thus, precisely because the BUF did not seek to gain more territory but was instead advocating for a more cohesive United Kingdom as a basis for its preservation, it can be assumed that it was more of a “defensive” movement than an “aggressive” one. Therefore, if we follow Orwell’s definition, it was not “pure” nationalism. Rather, as Cullen argues, patriotism and “love of country” were also among the hallmarks of the BUF.[18] Nevertheless, like previously mentioned, the only way for Britain to retain (or regain) its prestige in the eyes of Mosley, was if he and his party gained almost limitless powers over Britain and its Empire. In his autobiography in 1968, Mosley wrote, “My duty was to awaken the will and to live greatly, to dedicate myself to a national renaissance.”[19] In this sense then, Mosleyite fascism was ideologically driven as much by nationalism as by patriotism—and as will be shown later on, by imperialism. But before discussing the importance of Empire to the Blackshirts’ ideology, we have to determine what “being British” meant to the party.

The Great War had aroused a deeper sense of “Britishness” among many citizens of the United Kingdom, although to different degrees in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.[20] Indeed, for Colley, the glue for Britishness had always been war (along with Empire and religion), in that it brought people together against a common enemy: the Other.[21] Yet, for the BUF in times of peace, Britain’s enemies now lay “within her own shores” (the ‘old gang’ parties, the communists, the Jews, and other “aliens”).[22] Correspondingly, if the party succeeded in taking power, Jews were to be deported and “non-British races living in Britain were to be classified as ‘foreigners’, with even those naturalized under existing laws to be deported.”[23] In general, British fascists hold the view that “British” means “white.” And Mosley is usually cited as an exception to this rule because the BUF held that “culture created national and racial difference” while racial nationalists believed that “race determined culture.” But in reality, for Mosley, “British” also meant white and excluded Jews. [24] This is the first instance in which we can see that the BUF’s interpretation of Britishness was a very narrow one from the onset, and that perhaps he had an Anglocentric perception (or ethnic vision) of British national identity. So, while he claimed to be seeking to bring the United Kingdom further together, he was in fact dividing it further.

The second clue lies in one of Mosley’s speeches. The words “Britain” and “British” were always central in the BUF’s symbolism.[25] However, the BUF’s understandings of Britishness seems even narrower when he speaks almost exclusively about the “English” and “England” when addressing “the British nation”: Our principles are summarised in the words, “Britain First” because we believe that we can solve every single problem of the British people in Britain or in the Empire (…) In holy dedication to England that she shall not perish, but shall live in greatness. We are going, if the power lies within us and it lies within us because within us is the spirit of the English to say that our generation and our children shall not die like rats in Polish holes. They shall not die but they shall live to breathe the good English air, to love the fair English countryside, to see above them the English sky, to feel beneath their feet the English soil (…) To the dead heroes of Britain, in sacred union, we say: Like you we give ourselves to England—across the ages that divide us—across the glories of Britain that unite us—we gaze into your eyes and we give to you this holy vow—we will be true—To-day—to-morrow —and forever—England lives. [26]. The fact that even in the shortened version of the speech he mentions “English” or “England” that many times compared to “British” or “Britain” (which is equally disproportional in the unabridged version) says something about his views of British national identity as an Englishman, an ultra-nationalist, a patriot, and a fascist—not that those terms should be equated!

To clarify, some scholars such as Smith, Wellings, and Langlands argue that British national identity has a dominant English core, and that “Britishness” is actually based on “Englishness.” In their words, nations “tend to form around pre-existing ethnic cores” which provides nations with their “myths, symbols and cultural practices.”[27] And since “Britishness” was developed after the consolidation of the British state in the 18th century “in order to legitimise the new state in the face of possible threats from social and nationalist sources,”[28] it becomes clear that “if we stripped Britishness back to its central values and institutions” we should see “predominantly English historical myths, values, and institutions at the core of Britishness.” [29] Therefore, if we follow their logic and take Mosley’s speech into consideration, it becomes hard to believe that Mosley’s ideas and proposed policies were really British in nature or meant to benefit Britain equally. Instead, all of this strongly suggests that his vision of a British nationalism/patriotism was more focused on an “Englishness” and that a stronger England might have been his priority all along. And as we will see in the next section, this is reflected in his vision of Empire as well.

Since the BUF saw Empire as “the anchor of British strength” as well as “Britain’s greatest achievement that must be maintained at all cost,”[30] we will consider it as the last core element of the BUF’s ideology. Above all, the movement believed that a unified “organic” Empire would allow Britain to remain a powerful force.[31] And as Stocker remarks, the romanticisation of “Britain’s past as a dominant imperial power are central to British ultra-nationalism.” Of course, Mosleyites saw fascism as having deep historical roots in Britain.[32] Consequently, “the historical vision of an idealized Elizabethan “Merry England” was often cited by the BUF as “the supposed high point in British history” when they spoke of a morally superior past.” [33] Furthermore Wellings argues that “imperial and national discourse are not necessarily opposed to each other, but are able to feed into each other, affecting the manner in which ideas of the nation and empire are conceived and articulated.” And with England as “the most powerful and conspicuous of all the constituent parts of the Union,” it acquired experience in governing the empire, which in turn “fed into meanings of what it meant to be English.” Hence, also with regards to Empire, “Englishness played a large part in the creation of Britishness.” [34]

As an illustration, this English imperial identity is emphasized in a significant way in one of Mosley’s articles, which highlights the paternalistic relation between Empire and its colony: The Blackshirts alone challenge the whole policy of surrender and substitute a different conception of British government. We declare that it is not only the right but the duty of Britain to remain in India. It is our right to remain there because modern India owes everything to British rule. It is our duty to remain there because the withdrawal of British authority would result in nothing less than the collapse of Indian civilisation.[35] Here, we can also see the contradictions with Mosley’s alleged desire of unity of the British nation and Empire. In theory, the BUF claims that its nationalism is an inclusive nationalism (i.e. a British nationalism based on culture instead of ethnicity). This should include the people of England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Empire (although this was always ambiguous). But in reality, it was an exclusive nationalism (i.e. linked with the concept of Otherness) because “aliens,” Jews, and anyone who was not a “Briton” by birth were seen as inferior. But more importantly this excerpt serves as a testimony that imperial unity never meant “that all nations within the Empire would be equal.”[36]

With everything that was discussed in the previous sections—patriotism, nationalism, Britishness, Englishness, and Empire—we should now be able to better understand why “Fascist Britishness” failed as a uniting and empowering tool in the United Kingdom. My preliminary answers to that question have already been laid out in their entirety in the introduction. But in order to get the full picture, we still need to review the existing literature for additional information and alternative explanations. First, I have argued that in England, the party’s ideology must have been rejected because of its foreign character and its system of values’ incompatibility with democratic traditions. This is partly true. Fascism’s reputation did deteriorate because it “bore the markings of foreign influence, with ideas and symbolism that bore little connection to British culture”[37] and its radical stance on how political and social life should be was indeed “alien to the traditions of British political life as longstanding democracy.” [38] However, another, perhaps more convincing (and more pessimist), argument would be that since the Great Depression in Britain had relatively mild effects compared to other countries, “the crisis in liberal democracy that would have allowed a fascist takeover never came.”[39] In other words, Mosley could not capitalize on a crisis in the way Hitler had in Germany. As for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, I have suggested that the BUF’s message probably failed to gain traction precisely because it was an extreme nationalist movement with an English core, which threatened the competing nationalist movements in each country. Be that as it may, there is more to the story.

In Wales, “the communists’ main strongholds were to be found in the industrial areas,” which made it hard for fascists to implant themselves. Still, there was some success in Glamorgan with the BUF being able to find common grounds with Plaid Cymru.[40] But the movement did appear to some as “a representative of English nationalism,” and the BUF never developed a specific policy for Wales, which confirmed the view that it was “a centralizing party in British terms.”[41] Similarly, the BUF failed in Scotland because of its “inability to find political space,” coupled with “the indifference of the English fascist movement to the BUF in Scotland.” But more importantly, it was because of “the failure of the BUF to understand the Scottish dimensions of politics, such as the cross-cutting appeal of Scottish nationalism, and religious tensions.” Finally, “anti-fascist opposition proved to be especially problematic for the Scottish BUF.”[42] In Northern Ireland, while “the Ulster Command appears not to have been particularly receptive to the BUF message,” local Blackshirts did emerge in 1933 (the Ulster Fascists). Although they were autonomous, they were “closely associated with the parent BUF body in England.” However, the unionist-nationalist split was “too deeply entrenched to be easily displaced” and Mosley ended up not to be trusted on either side.[43] The final conclusion was that perhaps using imperialist language and reminiscing about the Elizabethan era was a bad idea, since it reminded each of them of the tumultuous history of the union. With the information provided in this section this remains a convincing hypothesis.  

All in all, “fascism came to little in Britain,”[44] since it lost all of its attractiveness once the country was at war with the two powers who had inspired so many like-minded organizations. Nevertheless, what was important here was to answer three key questions: What was the link between British nationalisms and the emergence (and failure) of Fascism in the United Kingdom? Were Mosley’s ideas and proposed policies really British in nature? In what ways did they resonate in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Then, concentrating on specific themes which were central to the BUF’s ideology (i.e. patriotism, nationalism, national identities and imperialism) I came to the conclusion that Mosleyite Fascism was a dangerous combination of ethnic-oriented patriotism and nationalism, coupled with imperialism. Indeed, Mosley and the British Union of Fascists claimed to be working for the benefit of the United Kingdom as a whole, when in reality, all the evidence is pointing to another direction: that they were aiming to tighten the grip of England on the rest of Britain and its dominions. And even if they did not succeed in realizing their political project, the questions around which this essay revolved are still relevant today in that they give us insight into what any form of nationalism can lead to when it “departs from the ideas that presided at its birth.”[45]

[1]. Jean-François Nadeau, Adrien Arcand, Führer Canadien, (Montréal: Lux Éditeur, 2010), p. 1.
[2]. Richard C. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: from Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts to the National Front (London: I. B. Taurus, 2006) p. 133-134.
[3]. Thomas Linehan, British Fascism, 1918-39: Parties, Ideology and Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000) p. 166.
[4]. Although there are other, more complete (or scientific) definitions of “patriotism” and “nationalism,” I have chosen Orwell’s because I feel that he had a better grasp of the actual atmosphere and ideologies in interwar Europe and Britain. By extension therefore, his definitions are more suited for the analysis of Mosley and the BUF.
[5]. Luke LeCras, “The Blackshirt life: The British Union of Fascists, 1933-1938,” in A.K. Chesterton and the Evolution of Britain’s Extreme Right, 1933-1973 (Milton: Routledge, 2019), p. 31.
[6]. Ian Hernon, “Mosley and the Battle of Cable Street,” in Riot!: Civil Insurrection From Peterloo to the Present Day (London: Pluto Press, 2006) p. 163.
[7]. Stephen Cullen, “The Development of the Ideas and Policy of the British Union of Fascists, 1932-40,” Journal of Contemporary History 22, no. 1 (1987): p.119-120.
[8]. Stephen Cullen, “Political Violence: The Case of the British Union of Fascists,” Journal of Contemporary History 28 (1993): p. 245.
[9]. Gary Love, “What’s the Big Idea?: Oswald Mosley, the British Union of Fascists and Generic Fascism,” Journal of Contemporary History 42, no. 3 (2007): p. 461.
[10]. Paul Stocker, “The Imperial Spirit: British Fascism and Empire” Religion Compass 9, no. 2 (2015): p. 46.
[11]. LeCras, “The Blackshirt life: The British Union of Fascists, 1933-1938,” p. 41-42.
[12]. Stocker, “The Imperial Spirit: British Fascism and Empire,” p. 47.
[13]. Hernon, “Mosley and the Battle of Cable Street,” p. 168.
[14]. Paul Jackson, “Extremes of Faith and Nation: British Fascism and Christianity,” Religion Compass 4, no. 8 (2010): p. 508.
[15]. George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism (London: Penguin, 2018 [1945]), p. 7-8.
[16]. Love, “Oswald Mosley, the British Union of Fascists and Generic Fascism,”p. 463.
[17]. Oswald Mosley, “The World Alternative,” The Fascist Quarterly 2 no. 3 (July 1936): 384.
[18]. Cullen, “The Development of the Ideas and Policy of the British Union of Fascists, 1932-40,” p.127-128.
[19]. Oswald Mosley, My Life—Oswald Mosley (London: Black House Publishing, 2012 [1968]), p. 288.
[20]. Hugh Kearney, “Between the Wars,” in The British Isles: A History of Four Nations, 280-93 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 281.
[21]. Linda Colley, “Britishness and Otherness: An argument,” Journal of British studies 31, no. 4 (1992): p. 326.
[22]. Cullen, “The Development of the Ideas and Policy of the British Union of Fascists, 1932-40,” p.123.
[23]. LeCras, “The Blackshirt life: The British Union of Fascists, 1933-1938,” p. 48.
[24]. John Richardson, British Fascism: A Discourse-Historical Analysis (Stuttgart: Ibidem Press, 2017), p. 142-145. 
[25]. Ibid., p. 141. 
[26]. Oswald Mosley, “Britain First” (Speech, Exhibition Hall, Earls Court, London, July 16, 1939).
[27]. Anthony D. Smith, National Identity (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1991), p. 39.
[28]. Ben Wellings, “Empire-nation: national and imperial discourses in England,” Nations and Nationalism 8, no. 1 (2002): p. 96-97.
[29]. Rebecca Langlands, “Britishness or Englishness? The historical problem of national identity in Britain,” Nations and Nationalism 5, no. 1 (1999): p. 56.
[30]. Stocker, “The Imperial Spirit: British Fascism and Empire,” p. 45-50.
[31]. Stocker, “The Imperial Spirit: British Fascism and Empire,” p. 45.
[32]. Jakub Drábik, “Spreading the faith: the propaganda of the British Union of Fascists”, Journal of Contemporary European Studies 25 no. 2 (2017): p. 218.
[33]. Love, “What’s the Big Idea?: Oswald Mosley, the British Union of Fascists and Generic Fascism,” p. 461.
[34]. Wellings, “Empire-nation: national and imperial discourses in England,” p. 95-96.
[35]. Oswald Mosley, “Our Policy—Britain First!” The Saturday Review of politics, literature, science, and art (1934): p. 154.
[36]. Stocker, “The Imperial Spirit: British Fascism and Empire,” p. 51.
[37]. LeCras, “The Blackshirt life: The British Union of Fascists, 1933-1938,” p. 32.
[38]. Stocker, “The Imperial Spirit: British Fascism and Empire,” p. 47.
[39]. Ibid.
[40]. Stephen Cullen, “Another Nationalism: The British Union of Fascists in Glamorgan, 1932-40,” Welsh History Review 17, no. 1 (1994): p. 101.
[41]. Ibid., p. 114.
[42]. Stephen Cullen, “The Fasces and the Saltire: The Failure of the British Union of Fascists in Scotland, 1932-1940,” The Scottish Historical Review 86, no. 2 (2008): p. 306.
[43]. James Loughlin, “Northern Ireland and British Fascism in the Inter-War Years,” Irish Historical Studies 29, no. 116 (1995): p. 543-544.
[44]. Cullen, “Political Violence: The Case of the British Union of Fascists,” p. 245.
[45]. Trudeau, “New Treason of the Intellectuals,” p. 160.   

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