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The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was a fascist political party in the United Kingdom formed in 1932 by Oswald Mosley. It changed its name to the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists in 1936 and, in 1937, to British Union. It was disbanded in 1940, after it was proscribed by the British government following the start of the Second World War.
The BUF emerged in 1932 from the British far-right, following the electoral defeat of its antecedent, the New Party, in the 1931 general election. The BUF's foundation was initially met with popular support, and it attracted a sizeable following. The press baron Lord Rothermere was a notable early supporter. As the party became increasingly radical, however, support declined. The Olympia Rally of 1934, in which a number of anti-Fascist protestors were attacked by the paramilitary wing of the BUF, the Fascist Defence Force, isolated the party from much of its following. The party's embrace of Nazi-style anti-semitism in 1936 led to increasingly violent clashes with opponents, notably the 1936 Battle of Cable Street in London's East End. The Public Order Act 1936, which banned political uniforms and responded to increasing political violence, had a particularly strong effect on the BUF whose supporters were known as "Blackshirts" after the uniforms they wore.
Growing British hostility towards Nazi Germany, with which the British press persistently associated the BUF, further contributed to the decline of the movement's membership. It was finally banned by the British government in 1940 after the start of the Second World War, amid suspicion that its remaining supporters might form a pro-Nazi "fifth column". A number of prominent BUF members were arrested and interned under Defence Regulation 18B.
Flowchart showing the history of the early British fascist movement.
In 1930, Mosley issued his Mosley Memorandum, which fused protectionism with a proto-Keynesian programme of policies designed to tackle the problem of unemployment, and he resigned from the Labour party soon after, in early 1931, when the plans were rejected. He immediately formed the New Party, with policies based on his memorandum. Despite winning 16% of the vote at a by-election in Ashton-under-Lyne in early 1931, however, the party failed to achieve any other electoral success.
During 1931, the New Party became increasingly influenced by Fascism. The next year, after a January 1932 visit to Benito Mussolini in Italy, Mosley's own conversion to fascism was confirmed. He wound up the New Party in April, but preserved its youth movement, which would form the core of the BUF, intact. He spent the summer that year writing a fascist programme, The Greater Britain, and this formed the basis of policy of the BUF, which was launched on 1 October 1932.
Having lost the funding of newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere that it had previously enjoyed, at the 1935 General Election the party urged voters to abstain, calling for "Fascism Next Time". There never was a "next time" as the next General Election was not held until July 1945, five years after the dissolution of the BUF.
Towards the middle of the 1930s, the BUF's violent clashes with opponents began to alienate some middle-class supporters, and membership decreased. At the Olympia rally in London, in 1934, BUF stewards violently ejected anti-fascist disrupters, and this led the Daily Mail to withdraw its support for the movement. The level of violence shown at the rally shocked many, with the effect of turning neutral parties against the BUF and contributing to anti-fascist support. One observer claimed: "I came to the conclusion that Mosley was a political maniac, and that all decent English people must combine to kill his movement."
The BUF drew towards antisemitism over 1934-35 owing to the growing influence of Nazi sympathisers within the party, such as William Joyce and John Beckett, which provoked the resignation of members such as Dr. Robert Forgan. This anti-semitic emphasis and these high-profile resignations resulted in a significant decline in membership, dropping to below 8,000 by the end of 1935, and, ultimately, Mosley shifted the party's focus back to mainstream politics. There were frequent and continuous violent clashes between BUF party members and anti-fascist protesters, most famously at the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, when organised anti-fascists prevented the BUF from marching through Cable Street. However, the party later staged other marches through the East End without incident, albeit not on Cable Street itself.
BUF support for Edward VIII and the peace campaign to prevent a second World War saw membership and public support rise once more. The government was sufficiently concerned by the party's growing prominence to pass the Public Order Act 1936, which banned political uniforms and required police consent for political marches.
In 1937, William Joyce and other Nazi sympathisers split from the party to form the National Socialist League, which quickly folded, with most of its members interned. Mosley later denounced Joyce as a traitor and condemned him for his extreme anti-semitism. The historian Stephen Dorril revealed in his book Blackshirts that secret envoys from the Nazis had donated about £50,000 to the BUF.
By 1939, total BUF membership had declined to just 20,000.  On 23 May 1940, the BUF was banned outright by the government and Mosley, along with 740 other fascists, was interned for much of the Second World War. After the war, Mosley made several unsuccessful attempts to return to politics, notably in the Union Movement.
Mosley, known to his followers as The Leader, modelled his leadership style on Benito Mussolini and the BUF on Mussolini's National Fascist Party in Italy, the uniform chosen for members was a black fencing jacket, its colour in honour of the Italian Fascists' uniforms and its cut a nod to Mosley's proficiency at the sport. The uniform earned them the nickname "Blackshirts", which they readily accepted for themselves. The BUF was anti-communist, protectionist, technocratic, and proposed replacing parliamentary democracy with executives elected to represent specific industries, trades or other professional interest groups--a system similar to the corporatism of the Italian fascists. Britain was to remain a democracy, although the House of Lords was to be replaced with a Senate consisting of "notables" from all spheres of public life appointed by the King on the advice of the fascist Prime Minister and the House of Commons was to be renamed the "Chamber of Corporations" and would consist of occupationally elected MPs who would be free to vote as they saw fit.
The BUF's programme and ideology were outlined in Mosley's The Greater Britain (1932), Tomorrow We Live (1938) and A. Raven Thomson's The Coming Corporate State (1938). Many BUF policies were built on isolationism, prohibiting trade outside an insulated British Empire. Mosley's system aimed to protect the British economy from the fluctuations of the world market, especially during the Great Depression, and prevent "cheap slave competition from abroad."
Relationship with the Suffragettes
In a January 2010 BBC documentary, Mother Was A Blackshirt, James Maw reported that in 1914 Norah Elam was placed in a Holloway Prison cell with Emmeline Pankhurst for her involvement with the Suffragette movement, and, in 1940, was returned to the same prison with Diana Mosley, this time for her involvement with the fascist movement. Another leading suffragette, Mary Richardson, became head of the women's section of the BUF.
Mary Sophia Allen OBE was a former branch leader of the West of England Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). At the outbreak of the First World War, she joined the Women Police Volunteers, becoming the WPV Commandant in 1920. She met Mosley at the January Club in April 1932, going on to speak at the club following her visit to Germany, "to learn the truth about of the position of German womanhood".
The BBC report described how Elam's fascist philosophy grew from her suffragette experiences, how the British fascist movement became largely driven by women, how they targeted young women from an early age, how the first British fascist movement was founded by a woman, and how the leading lights of the Suffragettes had, with Oswald Mosley, founded the BUF.
Mosley's electoral strategy had been to prepare for the election after 1935, and in 1936 he announced a list of BUF candidates for that election, with Elam nominated to stand for Northampton. Mosley accompanied Elam to Northampton to introduce her to her electorate at a meeting in the Town Hall. At that meeting Mosley announced that "he was glad indeed to have the opportunity of introducing the first candidate, and ... [thereby] killed for all time the suggestion that National Socialism proposed putting British women back into the home; this is simply not true. Mrs Elam [he went on] had fought in the past for women's suffrage ... and was a great example of the emancipation of women in Britain."
Former suffragettes were drawn to the BUF for a variety of reasons. Many felt the movement's energy reminded them of the suffragettes, while others felt the BUF's economic policies would offer them true equality - unlike its continental counterparts, the movement insisted it would not require women to return to domesticity and that the corporatist state would ensure adequate representation for housewives, while it would also guarantee equal wages for women and remove the marriage bar that restricted the employment of married women. The BUF also offered support for new mothers (due to concerns of falling birth rates), while also offering effective birth control, as Mosley believed it was not in the national interest to have a populace ignorant of modern scientific knowledge. While these policies were motivated more out of making the best use of women's skills in state interest than any kind of feminism, it was still a draw for many suffragettes.
Prominent members and supporters
Despite the short period of operation the BUF attracted prominent members and supporters. These included:
The Channel 4 television serial Mosley (1998) portrayed the career of Oswald Mosley during his years with the BUF. The four-part series was based on the books Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale, written by Mosley's son, Nicholas Mosley.
In the film It Happened Here, the BUF appears to be the ruling party of German-occupied Britain. A Mosley speech is heard on the radio in the scene before everyone goes to the movies.
The first depiction of Mosley and the BUF in fiction occurred in Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, Point Counter Point, where Mosley is depicted as Everard Webley, the murderous leader of the "BFF", the Brotherhood of Free Fascists, and comes to a nasty end.
In his alternative history novel In the Presence of Mine Enemies, set in 2010 in a world where the Nazis were triumphant, the BUF led by Prime Minister Charlie Lynton governs Britain. It is here that the first stirrings of the reform movement appear.
The BUF and Mosley also appear as background influences in Turtledove's Colonization trilogy which follows the Worldwar tetralogy and is set in the 1960s.
Pink Floyd's 1979 album "The Wall" features BUF black shirts, particularly in the song "Waiting for the Worms" in which the protagonist of the conceptual album has a drug induced delusion that he is the leader of the resurgences of the BUF black shirts.
James Herbert's 1996 novel '48 features a protagonist who is hunted by BUF Blackshirts in a devastated London after a biological weapon release in the Second World War. The history of the BUF and Mosley is recapitulated.
In Ken Follett's novel Night Over Water, several of the main characters are BUF members. In his book Winter of the World, the Battle of Cable Street plays a role and some of the characters are involved in the BUF or in the anti-BUF organisations.
The BUF is also in Guy Walters' book The Leader (2003), where Mosley is the dictator of Britain in the 1930s.
The British humorous writer P. G. Wodehouse satirized the BUF in books and short stories. The BUF was satirized as "The Black Shorts". (shorts being worn as all the best shirt colours were already taken) and their leader was Roderick Spode, owner of a ladies' underwear shop.
The British novelist Nancy Mitford satirized the BUF and Mosley in Wigs on the Green, initially published in 1935 and republished in 2010. Diana Mitford, the author's sister, had been romantically involved with Mosley since 1932.
C.J. Samson's 2012 novel, Dominion, has Sir Oswald Mosley as Home Secretary in a "post-Dunkirk peace with Germany alternate history thriller" set in 1952. Lord Beaverbrook is Prime Minister of an authoritarian coalition government. Blackshirts tend to be auxiliary policemen.
In the film, The King's Speech, a brief shot shows a brick wall in London plastered with posters, some reading "Fascism is Practical Patriotism" and others, "Stand by the King". Both sets of posters were put up by British Blackshirts, who supported King Edward VIII. Some historians believe Edward had fascist leanings.
In the 2016 war strategy video game Hearts of Iron IV, certain options can be used to increase fascist leaning in the United Kingdom. Doing so can eventually lead to the British Union of Fascists becoming the ruling party, with Oswald Mosley as the nation's leader. The country's name will change to the British Empire and its flag will be replaced with a cross between the Union Flag and the Flash and Circle. Further events can lead to Edward VIII being reinstated as monarch and being placed as the direct ruler of the British Empire.
^W F Mandle, Anti-Semitism and the British Union of Fascists Robert Benewick The Fascist Movement in Britain, pp 132-134 Alan S Millward, "Fascism and the Economy", in Walter Laquer (ed) Fascism: A reader's Guide, p 450 Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p 38 and pp 40-41
^Douglas, R. M. (1997). "The Swastika and the Shamrock: British Fascism and the Irish Question, 1918-1940". Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies. 29 (1): 57-75. doi:10.2307/4051595. JSTOR4051595.
Caldicott, Rosemary (2017) Lady Blackshirts. The perils of Perception - Suffragettes who became Fascists, Bristol Radical Pamphletteer #39. ISBN978-1911522393
Dorril, Stephen (2006). Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British fascism. London: Viking. ISBN978-0670869992. This book has been criticised as tendentious and biased in its view of its subject.
Drabik, Jakub. (2016a) "British Union of Fascists", Contemporary British History30.1 (2016): 1-19.
Drábik, Jakub. (2016b) "Spreading the faith: the propaganda of the British Union of Fascists", Journal of Contemporary European Studies (2016): 1-15.
Garau, Salvatore. "The Internationalisation of Italian Fascism in the face of German National Socialism, and its Impact on the British Union of Fascists", Politics, Religion & Ideology15.1 (2014): 45-63.
Griffiths, Richard (1983). Fellow Travellers of the Right: British enthusiasts for Nazi Germany, 1933-39. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN978-0192851161.
Pugh, Martin (2006). "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!": Fascists and Fascism in Britain between the Wars (1st ed.). London: Pimlico. ISBN9781844130870.
Thurlow, Richard (2006). Fascism in Britain: From Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts to the National Front (Rev. ed.). London: Tauris. ISBN978-1860643378.