UKIP Tactics, Populism and British Fascism

by A.L. Shaw

Current UKIP discourse should be viewed as a continuation of the strategies of fascist groups in UK history

First published: 28 April, 2015 | Category: Migration, Science

Why has an ostensibly anti-EU party won such support despite barely one-eighth of Britons endorsing such a platform? Despite some ideological innovations, UKIP’s two-tier strategy – the ‘rank and file’ appeal (selective immigration) and the ‘officer class’ anti-elitist platform (anti-European Unionism) – unmistakeably follows that of the British Union of Fascists and the National Front, among several other populist movements. The case repeatedly presented by these movements is of immigration as one of several symptoms of an anti-British elitist conspiracy. The ‘rank and file’ issue-based view, periodically adapted to address new concerns and to conform to current prejudices and conceptions of acceptability, appeals to new members and sustains the movement when the ‘officer class’ anti-elitist platform alone fails to attract durable mass support. UKIP’s success is due to its depiction of a tangible rather than a fantastical elite (unlike its predecessors) and its selective immigration stance supported by, as previously argued, a new media-generated appearance of Establishment candidacy.

The relatively sudden recent rise of UKIP is an intriguing phenomenon – even if general elections fail to produce for the party a palpable parliamentary presence. In the context of post-1920s British political history UKIP may appear remarkably untypical among British right-wing populists.[1] At least in terms of a distinct (i.e. non-allied) non-mainstream anti-elitist party, British right-wing populism has been dominated by unpopular (neo-) fascists and neo-Nazis, whose various factions have a tumultuous intertwined history of comically conspiratorial anti-elitist platforms sustained by showy paramilitarism.

This article seeks to place UKIP in the context of previous right-wing anti-elitist parties and to contrast their electoral strategies and (mis)fortunes. As well as perpetuating it themselves, it is proposed that the ‘officer class’ of these groups permits and justifies as a battle spoil the rank-and-file’s unleashing of dehumanising and threatening bigotry at vulnerable social groups. The provision of this thuggish leisure helps to attract new soldiers and sustain cohort morale in between fruitless electoral skirmishes (which would normally demotivate such movements). This is an essential sustaining mechanism for movements, as the leap of faith otherwise required to embrace their madly ostentatious worldviews (such as the Jewish conspiracy narratives in the National Front and the British Union of Fascists) would be far too great to generate durable group coherence – at least in British political culture. While UKIP’s “people’s army” certainly has not taken to quite such menacing measures, it is nonetheless easily possible to identify a fundamental strategic kinship between Farage and his populist predecessors: the utterly uncompromising campaign against non-selective immigration is just one flank in the people’s war against a traitorous elite conspiring to surrender the British to defenceless usury. [2]

Defining populism

Populism lacks a uniformly accepted definition, and the two of the leading contenders are not easily mutually compatible. One reasonably concise definition may be the oppositional ‘anti-elitism’ – prioritising and fulfilling the wishes of the populus and minimising the influence of or, in its very radical forms, either the local presence or even the sheer existence of a socioeconomically privileged bloc. [3] The other – seeking sheer mass popularity – is often used pejoratively by a party’s critics to describe temporarily pandering to capricious popular opinion for quick and politically cheap electoral gain over more responsible, mature governance.

Accordingly, from the outset, a point of caution should be urged as the term is often used to criticise. British right-wing populists have ostensibly sought to eliminate the allegedly powerful “money power” – Jews, Bolsheviks, socialists or communists in control of Westminster or, in UKIP’s case, supranational forces such as the European Union (EU) empowered by liberal metropolitans. They have invariably done so through promoting neo-fascism – social conservatism, militarism, ‘blood and soil’ nationalism, and a combination of corporatism and protectionism – premised upon the anti-elitist rallying cries of its charismatic leaders. This anti-elitist ‘officer class’ platform legitimises the issue-based ‘rank and file’ street campaigning and outright agitation, such as against immigration, without which the movement would not gain any popular traction.

Until the early 2000s, right-populist parties repeatedly failed to sustain electoral traction. Why has British right-populism, unlike its European or North American counterparts, been neither particularly nor consistently popular until now? A brief historical account should demonstrate the problems it faced.

British right-wing populism: the long march of the people’s armies

Since the 1930s, British right-wing populists have consistently presented unemployment, working class disenfranchisement and wealth inequality as evidence of an anti-British elitist conspiracy rather than due to capitalist commodification and exploitation.

One of the most infamous, and possibly the most influential, populist leaders in comparable British political history was Sir Oswald Mosley. He appealed to his followers to support the quasi-democratic overthrow of a corrupt alliance between sclerotic parliamentarians and the media and the party machines owned by rapacious international financiers. In words that foreshadow something of modern criticism of relationships between neoliberal governments, multinational corporations and media conglomerates, [4] Mosley wrote in 1938:

The will of the people shall prevail. […] When the Government elected by the people is incapable of rapid and effective action[,] private and vested interests assume the real power of Government, not by vote or permission of the people, but by power of money dubiously acquired. […] So the money power again in the name of a Free Press can serve the people not only the opinions but also the “news” which serves the interests of the money power. […] For power and propaganda alike are in the hands of a force whose interests conflict with the interests of the people and is careful that they should not even learn the truth. […] In simple fact the power of international finance is absolute over all the old parties, because the operation of the system which they support gives finance at any time the power to break them. [5]

Mosley, himself of elite aristocratic provenance, had served in the House of Commons as a Conservative and independent MP. He became a Labour Minister and was charged with solving unemployment after the Wall Street Crash. The resulting Mosley Memorandum, a broadly Keynesian proposal of public works together with protectionist tariffs and nationalisation was rejected as too radical by the Labour Cabinet in May 1930, prompting his resignation. He founded the New Party in 1931.While unsuccessful in returning candidates, Mosley succeeded in winning support from mainstream party politicians, including future Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Mosley subsequently founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932 on fervent anti-Communist, protectionist and nationalist principles, with which the New Party merged.

Mosley’s populism proposed countering the elitist money power of international finance, which kept British employment and wages low by exploiting lower-waged workers based overseas equipped with better modern technology to obtain a higher rate of usury. He argued for an economic system of corporatism that utilised the full resources of the British Empire to benefit the British people in place of a form of capitalism moulded to suit the “money power”. In contrast to his depiction of the Westminster talking-shop, Mosley organised public rallies through the BUF’s paramilitary wing, the Stewards (popularly known as the Blackshirts) – a public symbolic demonstration of might and willingness to reclaim power. Mosley’s movement became increasingly anti-Semitic during the mid-1930s – reaching a zenith in October 1936 in the Battle of Cable St in London’s East End, in which a planned march through predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods ended in violence. This lost the party some middle-class support, but it returned to more mainstream politics and support in the years following as the threat of war loomed. Despite repeated protestations against anti-Semitism, Mosley consistently argued against certain important British Jews whom he believed were agitating for British intervention in Germany in what he considered a “Jews’ quarrel.” [6] He sought to portray the international financial elite as a disloyal predominantly Jewish faction profiting from investing in Britain’s competitors, thus pushing Britain ever farther into penury:

They have lent British money all over the world in order to draw a high rate of usury by the equipment of our competitors. They draw the interest on their foreign loans in the import of sweated goods. British Union challenges that corrupt interest of Jewish Finance [7]

 In an interview several years later, David Frost suggested the once potential Prime Minister had misjudged egregiously by forming his New Party in the hope of carrying his supporters with him. Having failed to win any parliamentary victories, he subsequently led a purposefully provocative paramilitary street gang sustained only by racial hatred and anti-Semitism. [8]

Mosley’s eldest son, Nicholas, in his critical memoirs records that:

It was sometimes suggested […] that my father came to embrace anti-semitism openly for wholly cynical reasons – to maintain impetus in a party which for all the success of its first two years was by the end of 1934 running down […] But there was more at the back of BUF anti-Semitism than simply a need to find a spurious crisis as a substitute for the expected real one to deal with which the BUF had come into existence […] The state of mind of people such as fascists who believe that they can and should set the world to rights requires scapegoats so that things may seem bearable when plans and hopes go wrong: this is a necessity if dynamism is to continue. [9]

This was to be a recurring point of comparison with future populist groups.

In the latter 1930s two distinct factions within the BUF emerged. A militarist one under Neil Francis Hawkins, its Director General of Organisation (effectively second-in-command to Mosley), who had pioneered its black-shirted image was in opposition to a movement that sought to move the party to more traditional political practices under John Beckett, its Director of Publications and sometime close ally of Clement Attlee. Mosley sacked Beckett in 1937, and the government officially proscribed British Union in 1940. Mosley and his second wife, Diana, lived in internment and house arrest under Defence Regulation 18B until the conclusion of the Second World War. Beckett and Hawkins, along with over 700 British fascists were also interned. William Joyce, once a leading speaker in the BUF, escaped this by emigrating to Nazi Germany, but was hanged for high treason upon his return to Britain under arrest. Prior to his detention, Beckett formed two short-lived breakaway factions, which included two particular notable members: A. K. Chesterton (in the National Socialist League and sympathetic biographer of Mosley) and a young Colin Jordan (in the British People’s Party), who had been mentored by Arnold Leese (founder of the Imperial Fascist League; also a wartime detainee).

As anti-Semitism in the UK became increasingly unacceptable in British society in the wake of the Holocaust, populist groups found that these platforms had become liabilities rather than assets, so needed alternative appeals. In their search for a sustaining undercurrent when their professed anti-elitism faltered, post-BUF populists underwent a gradual transition, at least publicly, from anti-Semitism towards Commonwealth immigrant racism, and then hostility towards asylum seekers, Muslims and European economic migrants. Mosley’s political re-emergence was marked with the formation of the Union Movement (UM) in 1948 from the myriad fascist groups to arise following the end of the war.

The UM sought to integrate a bankrupt post-war and increasingly post-imperial Britain with the rest of Europe to counterbalance the power wielded by the USA and USSR. The British Nationality Act, which created the status of Commonwealth citizenship resulting in increased Commonwealth immigration, reinvigorated Mosley’s electoral confidence sufficiently to stand again for Parliament in the 1959 and 1966 general elections with pledges for assisted repatriation. The UM found, like the BUF, that it had little support outside the East End of London for this platform but that its stance on immigration had a buoying effect. Once again, this platform was punctuated with unsavoury rhetoric, with anti-Commonwealth racism noticeably replacing anti-Semitism as the principal appeal to the future ‘rank and file’:

In 1959 he stood as the Union Movement candidate for North Kensington in the general election. I went up to hear him speak: I stood on the edge of the crowd without his knowing I was there. […] I had expected that he at least would be putting over the aspect of his case that was reasonable; but instead – I still find it difficult to believe this but other witnesses have confirmed it – there he was roaring on about such things as black men being able to live on tins of cat food, and teenage girls being kept by gangs of blacks in attics. [10]

These latter electoral attempts also resulted in dismal failure. Following a brief revival as the Action Party in 1973, the movement dwindled having lost a significant proportion of its membership to the National Front. [11] Having written his bestselling and critically acclaimed autobiography My Life, published in 1967, Mosley died in France in 1980 following a battle with Parkinson’s disease aged 84.

Meanwhile, A. K. Chesterton had formed the League of Empire Loyalists (LEL) in 1954 as a faction within the Conservative Party campaigning against the dissolution of the British Empire. The avowed anti-Semitic Chesterton considered the anti-colonial movement an elitist Jewish-led conspiracy also comprising American capitalists and Soviet Bolsheviks. This worldview attracted future far-right leaders such as Colin Jordan, John Tyndall, Martin Webster and John Bean. Jordan, however, split from the LEL to form the White Defence League (WDL) in 1957 in protest at the LEL’s refusal to ban Jewish and non-white members.

A crudely racist group, [12] the WDL merged with the also short-lived National Labour Party in 1960 to form the first incarnation of the British National Party (BNP). Just as for their populist precursors, they pledged to free Britain from “the domination of the international Jewish-controlled money-lending system” [13] that planned to destroy the white British race through Commonwealth immigration. [14] The BNP called for the removal of British Jewry to Madagascar (originally a Nazi plan) or Israel, and other immigrants to their lands of origin. However, concern that Jordan’s avowed Nazism was electorally detrimental to the party led to a further split, with Jordan forming the National Socialist Movement inaugurated in 1962 on the anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birthday with slogans such as “Free Britain from Jewish control” used to garner support. [15] The leaders were all imprisoned later in the autumn after falling afoul of the Public Order Act 1936, which forbade the organisation of paramilitary groups such as Spearhead and the public use of political uniforms. Upon his release, Tyndall and Martin Webster formed the Greater Britain Movement (GBM) in 1964 extolling corporatism and racialism (a split also provoked by Jordan’s hasty marriage to the fiancée of the imprisoned Tyndall in 1963 [16]). With the Conservative Party defeat in the 1966 general election, the GBM, the BNP, and the LEL all merged to form the National Front the following year.

Part II of this piece will show how this far-right anti-elitist platform developed further as it sought to attain respectability. It did so by adapting its ‘rank and file’ appeal away from increasingly unacceptable prejudices to newer forms of bigotry while retaining but increasingly hiding its anti-elitist ‘officer class’ ideology, a bilateral electoral strategy upon which UKIP’s is clearly premised.

This is part of NLP's Immigration series

A. L. Shaw is a pseudonym. The author read politics at the University of Exeter and political philosophy at the University of York, where he held a Morrell scholarship. He is now a freelance writer based in London. He tweets @A_L_Shaw.


[1] This article focuses on British right-populism to the exclusion of its electorally more successful left-wing counterparts.

[2] This analysis focuses on immigration, which is the most established rank and file-level issue-based campaign. However, similar more recent emotive causes, such as against paedophilia, follow the same logic: the alleged cover-up of Jimmy Savile’s sexual crimes during his lifetime and lax sentencing against other child sexual offenders are taken as indicative of a broader Establishmentarian elitist conspiracy at the expense of the people.

[4] “[H]is attacks on international finance capital would strike a chord with today's anti-globalisation protesters” (Will Self, ‘Will Self walks through Britain's flag-waving heartlands’, The Guardian, 7 th March 2013 – available here). However, the comparison should be used cautiously: it must be emphasised that while modern criticisms of neoliberalism may agree an unhealthy relationship has arisen between such factions, this has resulted from powerful factions with common interests rather than a conspiracy.

[5] Oswald Mosley, Tomorrow We Live (London: Black House Publishing Ltd, 2012), pp. 3 & 43

[6] Mosley, Speech to the Britain First Rally, 16 th July 1939 (available here)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Frost on Friday, 15 th November 1967; the relevant segment cited may be found here

[9] Nicholas Mosley, Rules of the Game; Beyond the Pale: Memoirs of Sir Oswald Mosley and Family (London: Pimlico, 1998), p. 347

[10] Ibid., p. 571

[11] The League of St George, an Action Party breakaway neo-fascist faction, survives to this day but with little public presence

[12] An example of their publicity is available here; a clip from the BBC’s Panorama programme from 1959 on the WDL is available here

[13] Francis L. Carsten, The Rise of Fascism (University of California Press), p. 252

[14] A miscellany of Jordan’s speeches is available here

[15] Image available here

[16] Their wedding ceremony included the married couple cutting their ring fingers over a copy of Mein Kampf, of which a photograph was published on the cover of The Stormtrooper (image available here).

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