British Union of Fascists

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The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was the most significant fascist movement in the United Kingdom in the 1930s. That is not saying much, however. At its peak in 1934 it probably had fifty thousand members. For a movement whose ostensible aim was to restructure British society through the "fascist revolution," after two successive general election victories, it was an abject failure. Indeed, it did not have candidates at the 1935 general election, claiming its supporters should wait for "fascism, next time." The three fascists who stood in by elections in 1940 achieved an average vote of 1 percent against the candidate of the party who had won the seat in the 1935 election.

The mystery about the BUF is why has such a marginal movement excited such interest? There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the personality of its leader, Sir Oswald Mosley (1896–1980), provides an alternative version of the drab politics and economic restructuring of British society in the interwar period. His ignoring the "rules of the game" and going "beyond the pale," and the associated connection of the BUF with political violence, anti-Semitism, and Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in the 1930s, has stimulated interest. Why should a politician who was talented enough to become a potential leader of a mainstream parliamentary party shunt himself into the sidings of British politics? In a sense Mosley was both unlucky and showed poor political judgment. Unfortunately for him, the slow recovery of the British economy in the 1930s, beginning in October 1932 when he formed the BUF, blunted whatever potential appeal the movement may have had.

Although the early dynamism of the new movement attracted the support of Lord Rothermere and the Daily Mail in the first six months of 1934, the violence associated with fascist stewards at the Olympia rally on 7 June 1934, and the murder of the Sturmabteilung (SA) leadership and some conservative political opponents on the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934, led Rothermere to withdraw his support. The movement collapsed to about five thousand members, although it slowly recovered in the later 1930s to half of its 1934 membership. Mosley revived it somewhat as a result of local campaigns emphasizing regional grievances—the cotton campaign in Lancashire in 1935 and the use of political anti-Semitism in the East End of London between 1935 and 1938 being the most conspicuous. The latter was the most successful of these, and the East End probably accounted for half the national membership in the later 1930s.

Second, the relationship with German Nazis and Italian Fascists has stimulated research. While the BUF was influenced by several domestic political traditions, particularly the Edwardian radical Right and political anti-Semitism, there was also inspiration from successful continental fascisms. The similarity between the BUF Blackshirt uniform, symbols, and organization and Italian Fascist regalia, and the development of the theory of the corporate state, owe much to Benito Mussolini (1883–1945). Similarly, the alleged role played by anti-Semitism in the rise of the Nazis in Germany encouraged its development in the East End of London. The British Special Branch police and MI5 have uncovered proof that the BUF received substantial funding from Mussolini, and possibly the Nazis, between 1933 and 1937; at no stage did Mosley ever criticize the foreign policies of the fascist dictators in the 1930s. But these perceived influences were also major reasons for the failure of the BUF. British public opinion associated the threat of political violence, anti-Semitism, dictatorship, and paramilitary squads with continental fascism, and these proved alien to British political culture.

Third, new sources have provided important information and perspectives on the BUF. The opening of Home Office and MI5 files, between 1983 and 1986 and after 1997 respectively, on the BUF at the National Archives illuminated state management of public order and the BUF between 1932 and 1940. In particular it has shown the background to the internment of 750 British fascists and the proscription of the BUF in the summer of 1940. Similarly, the deposits of Diana and Nicholas Mosley at the University of Birmingham and the Robert Saunders papers and associated collections at the University of Sheffield have provided the BUF perspective on the controversial history of the BUF.

Fourth, Mosley and his propagandists Alexander Raven Thomson, William Joyce (called Lord Haw-Haw), and A. K. Chesterton were among both the most interesting, sophisticated, and talented and the most obnoxious articulators of fascist political, economic, and cultural ideas in Europe during the 1930s.

See alsoFascism; Joyce, William (Lord Haw-Haw); Nazism; World War II.


Gottlieb, Julie V., and Thomas P. Linehan, eds. The Culture of Fascism: Visions of the Far Right in Britain. London, 2004. Essays on British fascist views on contemporary artistic expression and the media in the 1930s.

Linehan, Thomas P. East London for Mosley. London, 1996. An excellent study of the impact of Mosley and the BUF on London.

——. British Fascism, 1918–1939: Parties, Ideologies and Culture. Manchester, U.K., 2000. The most recent general history of the BUF, which is particularly interesting in its discussion of the cultural ideas of the movement.

Pugh, Martin. Hurrah for the Blackshirts: Fascists and Fascism in Britain between the Wars. London, 2005. An excellent synthesis of recent research, particularly illuminating on the links with the Conservative Party.

Thurlow, Richard. Fascism in Britain: A History, 1918–1985. Oxford, U.K., 1987. New paperback edition, London, 1998. The history of British fascism in its national and international context.

Richard C. Thurlow

British Union of Fascists

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British Union of Fascists. The BUF was founded in 1932 between Sir Oswald Mosley's New Party and various small British fascist groups. The BUF was partly funded by Mussolini and given valuable publicity in the papers of Lord Rothermere (Harmsworth). The fascist salute was adopted and Black House established in Chelsea as an organizational and social centre. The Blackshirts, a paramilitary organization, were formed in self-defence against attacks from militant Jewish youths and communists.

However, the crisis in British society, which Mosley expected to capitalize on, failed to materialize in the 1930s. The factors which fed fascism on the continent—chronic unemployment, the threat of communism, and national grievances—were not as extreme in Britain. The BUF failed to create a nation-wide, mass movement. It suffered a set-back after the Olympia meeting in June 1934 when unnecessarily strong action was taken by the Blackshirts to silence hecklers. Its link with political violence and its increasingly anti-Semitic stance alienated moderate opinion, including Rothermere.

When on 4 October 1936 1,900 fascist marchers were turned back by 100,000 opponents at the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the East End of London, the government feared for public order and decided to take action. The Public Order Act (1936) prohibited political uniforms and gave the police powers to ban marches.

Many BUF members were interned in 1940 but in reality the movement had always been marginal and was never a threat to the stability of government.

Richard A. Smith

Fascists, British Union of

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Fascists, British Union of. See British Union of Fascists.

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