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British Union of Fascists

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British Union of Fascists
President Oswald Mosley
Founded 1932
Dissolved 1940
Merger of New Party
Larger part of the British Fascists
Succeeded by Union Movement
Headquarters London, England, UK
Newspaper Action
The Blackshirt
Paramilitary wing Stewards
Grassroots wing January Club
Ideology British Fascism
Political position Far-right
Colours              Red, White, Blue
Party flag
Flag of the British Union of Fascists.svg

The British Union of Fascists, or 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 finally 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 developed 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, 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.

Oswald Mosley was the youngest elected Conservative MP before crossing the floor in 1922, joining first Labour and, shortly afterwards, the Independent Labour Party. He became a minister in Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government, advising on rising unemployment.[citation needed]

In 1930, Mosley issued his 'Mosley Memorandum', which fused protectionism with a proto-Keynesian programme of policies designed to tackle the unemployment problem, 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.[citation needed]

During 1931, the New Party became increasingly influenced by Fascism.[1] 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 in October 1932.[1]

Early success and growth[edit]

The Olympia Exhibition Centre in London, site of the party's 1934 rally sometimes cited as the beginning of the movement's decline.
Italy's Duce Benito Mussolini (left) with Leader Oswald Mosley (right) during Mosley's visit to Italy in 1936.

The BUF claimed 50,000 members at one point,[2] and the Daily Mail, running the headline "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!", was an early supporter.[3] The first Director of Propaganda, appointed in February 1933, was Wilfred Risdon, who was responsible for organising all of Mosley's public meetings. Despite strong resistance from anti-fascists, including the local Jewish community, the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, the BUF found a following in the East End of London, where in the London County Council elections of March 1937, it obtained reasonably successful results in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, and Limehouse, polling almost 8,000 votes, although none of its candidates was elected.[4] The BUF never stood in a General Election.[citation needed]

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".[5] 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.[citation needed]

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, with one protester claiming to have lost an eye, 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."[6]

Decline and legacy[edit]

Modern depiction of the Battle of Cable Street The event is frequently invoked in contemporary British politics

The BUF briefly drew away from mainstream politics and 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 membership dropping to below 8,000 by the end of 1935 and, ultimately, Mosley shifted the party's focus back to mainstream politics. The party continued to clash with anti-fascists, 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.[7] 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.[8]

By 1939, total BUF membership was probably approaching 20,000.[7] In 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.


See also: British Fascism
The Flash and Circle flag of the British Union of Fascists.

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, including an imitation of the Italian Fascists' black uniforms for members, earning them the nickname "Blackshirts". The BUF was anti-communist and protectionist, 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. Unlike the Italian system, British fascist corporatism planned to replace the House of Lords with elected executives drawn from major industries, the clergy, and colonies. The House of Commons was to be reduced to allow for a faster, "less factionist" democracy.[9]

The BUF's programme and ideology were outlined in Mosley's Great Britain (1932) and A. Raven Thompson'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."[9]

Relationship with the Suffragettes[edit]

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 again 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.

The 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.[10]

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."[11]

Prominent members and supporters[edit]

Despite the short period of operation the BUF attracted prominent members and supporters. These included:

In popular culture[edit]

  • 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.[25]
  • 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.
Emblem of P.G. Wodehouse's fictional Black Shorts movement that appeared in the television series Jeeves and Wooster.
  • Harry Turtledove's alternative history novel, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, is set in 2010 in a world where the Nazis were triumphant, the BUF governs Britain – and the first stirrings of the reform movement come from there. 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.
  • 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"[26] (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.
  • In the 1992 Acorn Media production of Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe with David Suchet and Philip Jackson, one of the supporting characters (played by Christopher Eccleston) secures a paid position as a rank-and-file member of the BUF.
  • The BUF and Oswald Mosley are also alluded to in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day.
  • The BUF and Mosley are featured heavily in the 2010 BBC version of Upstairs, Downstairs where two of the characters are BUF supporters.
  • The Pogues' song "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn," from their 1985 album Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, references the BUF in its second verse with the line "And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids".
  • Ned Beauman's 2010 debut novel Boxer, Beetle portrays the Battle of Cable Street.
  • 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 series one, episode two ("The White Feather") of Foyle's War, detective Paul Milner attends a fascist group meeting which is obviously based on the BUF and Mosley. References are made to the BUF and Mosley elsewhere in the episode.
  • 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. [27]

Election results[edit]

By-election Candidate Votes  % share Position
Silvertown by-election, 1940 Moran, TommyTommy Moran 151 1.0 3
Leeds North East by-election, 1940 Allen, SydneySydney Allen 722 2.9 2
Middleton and Prestwich by-election, 1940 Haslam, FrederickFrederick Haslam 418 1.3 2

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Thorpe, Andrew. (1995) Britain In The 1930s, Blackwell Publishers, ISBN 0-631-17411-7
  2. ^ Andrzej Olechnowicz, "Liberal Anti-Fascism in the 1930s: The Case of Sir Ernest Barker" in Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, (Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter, 2004), p. 643.
  3. ^ Hurrah for the Blackshirts
  4. ^ R. Benewick, Political Violence and Public Order, London: Allan Lane, 1969, pp. 279-282
  5. ^ 1932-1938 Fascism rises—March of the Blackshirts
  6. ^ Lloyd, G. (1934-06-09). Yorkshire Post, 9 June 1934.
  7. ^ a b Richard C. Thurlow. Fascism in Britain: from Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts to the National Front. 2nd edition. New York, New York, USA: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2006. p. 94.
  8. ^ Fenton, Ben. "Oswald Mosley 'was a financial crook bankrolled by Nazis'". Retrieved 16 July 2014.  External link in |website= (help)
  9. ^ a b Oswald Mosley, Tomorrow We Live (1938),
  10. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - Mother Was A Blackshirt". 4 January 2010. Retrieved 21 April 2013. 
  11. ^ McPherson, Angela; McPherson, Susan (2011). Mosley's Old Suffragette - A Biography of Norah Elam. ISBN 978-1-4466-9967-6. 
  12. ^ Arthur Green, "Allen, William Edward David (1901–1973)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  13. ^ Linehan, Thomas. British Fascism, 1918-39: Parties, Ideology and Culture. p. 139. while Beckett was a one-time Labour MP for Gateshead (1924-29) and Peckham (1929-31) 
  14. ^ "Soviet spy who had his eye on Belfast", Belfast Telegraph, 24 May 2003
    Eric Waugh, With Wings as Eagles
  15. ^ a b c d e f g Julie V. Gottlieb, "British Union of Fascists (act. 1932–1940)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  16. ^ David Renton, "Bennett, Donald Clifford Tyndall (1910–1986)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  17. ^ Brian Holden Reid, "Fuller, John Frederick Charles (1878–1966)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  18. ^ John Tooley, "Goodall, Sir Reginald (1901–1990)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  19. ^ a b c Resistance to fascism, Glasgow Digital Library (Accessed 6 February 2014)
  20. ^ a b c Richard Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany. London: Constable, 1980. p.52 The names are from MI5 Report. 1 August 1934. PRO HO 144/20144/110. (Cited in Thomas Norman Keeley Blackshirts Torn: inside the British Union of Fascists, 1932- 1940 p.26) (Accessed 6 February 2014)
  21. ^ D. George Boyce, "Harmsworth, Harold Sidney, first Viscount Rothermere (1868–1940)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  22. ^ Richard Davenport-Hines, "Hay, Josslyn Victor, twenty-second earl of Erroll (1901–1941)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  23. ^ Richard Griffiths, "Russell, Hastings William Sackville, twelfth duke of Bedford (1888–1953)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  24. ^ Anne Williamson, "Williamson, Henry William (1895–1977)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  25. ^ BFI Film & TV Database (2012). "Mosley". British Film Institute. Retrieved 8 November 2012. 
  26. ^ Wodehouse, Pelham Grenville (1 May 2008) [First published 1938 by Herbert Jenkins Ltd. ]. The Code of the Woosters (Reprinted ed.). Arrow Books. p. 66. ISBN 978-0099513759. 
  27. ^ Ziegler, "King Edward VIII: The official biography", p. 392

Further reading[edit]

  • Pugh, Martin (2006). "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!": Fascists and Fascism in Britain between the Wars (1st ed.). London: Pimlico. ISBN 9781844130870. 
  • Dorril, Stephen (2006). Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British fascism. London: Viking. ISBN 978-0670869992.  This book has been criticised as tendentious and biased in its view of its subject.
  • Griffiths, Richard (1983). Fellow Travellers of the Right: British enthusiasts for Nazi Germany, 1933-39. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0192851161. 
  • Thurlow, Richard (2006). Fascism in Britain: From Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts to the National Front (Rev. ed.). London: Tauris. ISBN 978-1860643378.