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Fascism Fictionalised: Inter-war British Fascism in Popular Culture, 1932 to Present

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Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF)[1] never won an election or parliamentary seat and, from its foundation in 1932 to its proscription in 1940, struggled to break into the political mainstream. Though in the mid-1930s it had around 50,000 members and enjoyed the support of Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere, it remained a vocal but politically isolated organisation. And yet, over the last few years, the stage and the small screen have played host to a series of new depictions of interwar British fascism. What lies behind the renewed interest in this abhorrent political failure? And, moreover, what does the return to British fascism’s past say about the present?

In answering these questions, it’s necessary to first look back over the history of depictions of British fascism on the page, stage and screen. The earliest fictional depictions of British fascism occurred in interwar literature. In the work of a number of liberal and left-leaning novelists, characters based on Mosley and his followers appeared as figures of fun or dire warnings of the shape of things to come. Classic comic depictions include Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green (1935) and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters (1938). Alongside these, Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935), Margaret Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936), and H. G. Wells’ The Holy Terror (1939) took the threat of fascism more seriously. However, these authors were less concerned with Mosleyite fascism as an immediate threat and more concerned with visions of a British fascist dystopia or Wellsian utopia situated in the near future.

The war changed the way fascism was depicted. It was reimagined solely as an exterior threat, perhaps aided domestically by traitorous collaborators, as in the 1942 Ealing Studios’ film Went the Day Well? This depiction of fascism as an invading foreign force continued in post-war alternate history films and novels such as It Happened Here (1964), Guy Walters’ The Leader (2003), and C. J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012). Works in this genre are conservative in their anti-fascism. They dismissed fascism on the basis of its un-Britishness, characterising it largely as a German import (or, rather, imposition).

The more recent depictions of Mosleyite fascism differ from earlier examples in the sense that they regard fascism as an urgent and indigenous threat rather than a foreign import or a subject for dystopian or utopian speculation. In BBC’s 2018 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders and the most recent series of Peaky Blinders (now available via Netflix), fascism appears as a danger on Britain’s streets.

The recent adaptation of The ABC Murders diverges from Christie’s 1936 novel. In this version, we find an older Hercule Poirot, a faded relic of murder mystery parties, haunted by memories of his experiences as a Belgian refugee during the First World War. As he investigates a series of grisly murders, Poirot wanders through a rain-swept and racist Britain, increasingly becoming a hostile environment for foreigners. As if to underline this point, on almost every street corner, Poirot passes posters bearing the BUF’s flash-and-circle insignia.

While actual BUF members never make an appearance in The ABC Murders, Peaky Blinders depicts an alternate history of the movement’s formation. The fifth series begins with the protagonist, Thomas Shelby, newly installed as the Labour MP for Birmingham South – the constituency neighbouring Mosley’s. In an attempt to undermine Mosley (played brilliantly by Sam Claflin), Shelby becomes his right-hand man.

The series’ creators have moved events around a little. They erase Mosley’s pre-fascist New Party entirely, depicting his jump straight from Labour minister to British fascist three years early in late 1929 immediately after the Wall Street Crash. These liberties are easy to forgive as Claflin and the series’ writers capture Mosley’s personality and ideas with chilling accuracy. The series takes place in a turbulent Britain, wracked by gang warfare and economic unrest. Mosley appears here as a populist, complaining about ‘false news’ and promising to put ‘Britain first’. In the series’ finale, with the backing of Winston Churchill and in cooperation with a gang of Jewish bakers, Shelby mounts an assassination attempt on Mosley.[2]

In addition to these, Brigid Larmour’s recently announced touring production of The Merchant of Venice plans to shift the setting of Shakespeare’s most problematic play from Renaissance Venice to the inter-war East End of London. Due to begin touring in September 2020, this version is set to sympathetically reimagine Shylock – long considered an antisemitic stereotype – as a Jewish shopkeeper and war widow. Set in the weeks leading up to the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, the play’s original protagonists are to be recast as wealthy Mosleyites.

These modern depictions are darkly introspective. Their creators manipulate the historical record and over-inflate the popularity of the BUF. But in doing so, they are really inviting audiences to ruminate on the state of present-day, post-Brexit Britain. In looking to examples of political authoritarianism, anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism (especially in the contemporary context of rising antisemitism) from Britain’s past, they are attempting to think through the present.

However, in an eagerness to make historical analogies, we might miss the specifics of the present. In Britain and throughout the world, the radical right in 2020 does not resemble the radical right of the mid-1930s. Fascists were not, as the creators of The ABC Murders imagined, present on every street corner in inter-war Britain. While this is still not the case in terms of their physical presence, radical right ideas and rhetoric are being mainstreamed now as never before. Through their journalistic fellow travellers and social media, the modern radical right have achieved a reach that far surpasses Lord Rothermere’s brief endorsement of Oswald Mosely in the mid-1930s. Recent fictional depictions of British fascism suggest we are reliving the 1930s; in fact, we are living through something altogether different and potentially worse.

Liam Liburd currently works as a Teaching Associate in Modern International History at the University of Sheffield. He completed his PhD entitled “The Eternal Imperialists: Empire, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918-1968” in February 2020. His broader research interests are in British political and cultural history, and the history and afterlives of the British Empire. You can find him on Twitter @DocLiburd

Cover image: Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, 1936. https://www.flickr.com/photos/150300783@N07/35638188926 [accessed 4 May 2020].

[1] The BUF was renamed the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists or just ‘British Union’/BU in 1936.

[2] Churchill’s appearance in the fifth series of Peaky Blinders as some kind of parliamentary anti-fascist waging a secret war against Mosley is perhaps the show’s most disappointing misstep. Before his time as the grand anti-appeaser, the real-life Churchill was an aristocratic apologist for Mussolini.   

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