Blood and soil: the Greens’ fascist roots

Today’s environmental movement owes much to the ideology of Britain’s pre-war Right


This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Mention Henry Williamson and it brings to mind the cool waters of the Devonshire Taw and Torridge, of deep wooded combes, a dog otter named Tarka and its canine nemesis Deadlock. Tarka The Otter has remained in print since it was first published in 1927 and is still considered by many as the benchmark by which nature writers are judged.

Despite being an author who Ted Hughes said “made me feel the pathos of actuality in the natural world” through his animal series and discourses on English agrarian social history, Williamson was something of a townie. Born in 1885 in Lewisham it was not until his family moved to then “leafy” Ladywell that the boy enjoyed grass under his feet and muck in his nails.

On family holidays to Devon he immersed himself utterly in nature, vowing to live in the county as soon as he was able. He cycled up from Kent to the North Norfolk coast, encountering his first otter on the way. There he honed the hopeless and complete love of a convert for the wildlife-rich pastoral he discovered. Later, he mentally escaped to this bucolic Arcadia from his dugout on the Western Front.

Williamson’s name as a writer is synonymous with nature, yet his literary triumphs also include largely forgotten dissections of human life and death in the trenches. His martial memoir The Wet Flanders Plain (1929) and the semi-autobiographical novel, The Patriot’s Progress (1930), stand up today, chronicling his own war initially as a Tommy witnessing the 1914 Christmas Truce to trench foot and a dose of gas as a commissioned officer in the Machine Gun Corps. The mud, brutality and misplaced patriotic zeal that he witnessed in France doubtless sharpened Williamson’s longing for the honest purity of countryside and nature. It was also the catalyst that made him a lifelong fascist.

I found myself drawn to re-read Williamson

Over the past 18 months, with a nagging sense of déjà vu, I have found myself drawn to re-read Williamson. The politics he espoused, with its near-religious linking of nature, farming and landscape, sometimes obliquely, often overtly, finds more than common cause with the ideology of the modern green movement.

Policies advanced by the Green Party today — support for small family farms, organicism and soil health, state restrictions on chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, food security and a top-down advocacy for a meat-free diet — were previously devised and championed by Richard Walther Darré, the Reich’s minister of food and agriculture. This should come as no surprise.

Whilst we naturally think of national socialism primarily in terms of racism, repression and brutality, its roots lay in campaigning against faceless financiers and industrialists. It was these fat cats, the fascists claimed, who had orchestrated and profited from the Great War’s destruction and would do so again in a heartbeat. George Monbiot, the high priest of today’s British environmentalists, echoes the refrain, proclaiming, “trashing the planet and hiding the money isn’t a perversion of capitalism. It is capitalism.”

The antidote prescribed by environmentalists, whether of the 1930s or the 2020s, to capitalism’s destruction of the planet is a re-focusing of attention on farming and the soil. In 1936, Williamson turned his back on Devon, the “two rivers” and its wildlife, saying he had “outgrown the place”. He headed east, to Norfolk, buying the near-derelict Old Hall Farm at Stiffkey with the proceeds of the 20 books he had by then published.

There he put the theories of “blood and soil” into practice, becoming, in effect, a demonstration farm for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). Williamson, by then 42 years old, threw himself into the role of farmer with the same compulsion he exhibited when morphing from suburban youth into adult countryman.

In The Story of a Norfolk Farm (1941) he recounts the physical and philosophical journey he took in turning the farm’s worn-out soil back into fertile land. This tome is more politically overt than his nature writing. A complete novice, he learns how to farm on the job, blaming early crop failures on historic over-use and abuse of the land.

He rails against the agricultural policies of the political establishment that hamper his efforts and blends modern farming technology with the traditional — repeatedly waxing on the delights of ploughing with his new-fangled “little grey Fergie” tractor, whilst idolising Bob and Jimmy Sutton, the “hearty yeomen” who work for him with their team of heavy horses.

Photographs that accompany a series of articles he wrote on farming for the Eastern Daily Press portray Bob and Jimmy, as the very beau ideal of fascist manhood. At the same time, Williamson becomes frustrated at his neighbouring farmer’s reluctance or inability to change from soil-sapping ways and adopt his combination of organicism and modernity.

His leader is clearly Mosley

Throughout the book, Williamson makes references to the regular meetings he holds with his “Leader” and a group of like-minded agrarian thinkers. His leader is clearly Mosley, a man who wouldn’t know a plough from a post box, yet the other members of the group were markedly more authentic agrarians. They included Lucilla Reeve, a water-divining feminist, Breckland mixed farmer and country diarist; Rolf Gardiner, a Dorset farmer, naturist and folklorist; and Jorian Jenks, a Sussex farmer, politician and author of The Land and the People (1937), the BUF’s official agricultural policy.

These characters, who on the surface sound worthy of Wodehouse, were not only well-educated but had a proven track record in farming and practical conservation, a trait rarely seen in postulating environmentalists today. Reeve was locally regarded as either a spy or a witch and Gardiner was something of a dreamer and middle-class hippy, as happy dancing a country reel or analysing the flora of the woodland floor as he was advocating Social Credit and the Green Shirts (a youth-led environmental direct action organisation, anticipating the modern day tactics of Extinction Rebellion).

Jenks was less spiritual than his comrades and more widely regarded in mainstream politics as a practical environmental and agrarian thinker. His farming career was a stop-start affair due to the combination of the 1930s agricultural depression and his own chronic asthma.

Williamson, Jenks and Rolf, despite their wartime arrest (and in Jenks’s case lengthy detention under the Defence Regulation 18B in 1940 as a potential threat to the defence of the realm), continued with their environmental activism. Politically, they lobbied to raise awareness of environmental issues that they believed were ignored by the 1947 Agriculture Act.

That legislation promoted highly mechanised, intensive farming systems, culminating in today’s high input/high output industrial farming, the practice widely attributed as the culprit for Britain’s biodiversity loss and environmental decline. Jenks concluded in 1945 that to counter industrialised farming he would join forces with the farmer Lady Eve Balfour, who herself had been mightily inspired by Gardiner’s experiments with organics.

Together they co-founded the Soil Association. Jenks went on to become the lead theorist in the organic movement, writing a number of books on soil health and nutrition and becoming editor of Mother Earth, the Soil Association’s in-house magazine, a role he held until his death in 1963.

The Soil Association today remains proud of Balfour and her organic farming trials at New Bells Farm in Suffolk, as well as her radicalism, sexuality and opposition to the Church tithe taxes then levied on farmers (a cause that was taken up by Mosley’s blackshirts who “protected” a number of East Anglian farms in the 1930s from the bailiffs authorised to extract payments to the Church). Jenks and Gardiner meanwhile have been posthumously cancelled by the Soil Association, their roles as the practical trailblazers, lead theorists and polemicists for organic farming expunged from the record.

Away from farming, Britain’s Green fascists heartily promoted the physical and spiritual benefits of connecting with nature. Mosley found this focus all a bit wishy washy for his masculine brand of politics. Indeed, the primary reason why Rolf Gardiner began to distance himself from the BUF was due to his belief that Mosley failed to go far enough in emphasising rural social issues.

Gardiner’s and Williamson’s belief in the power of nature to heal mankind stemmed in part from their shared interest in the philosophy of Dr Rudolf Steiner. In particular they advocated the importance of exposing the young to wildlife and rural life, both in their education and free time. The spiritual outdoorsiness of the Steiner school model is advocated by the UK Green Party today, its sometime schools spokesperson, Samantha Pancheri, stating Steiner schools are “broadly compatible” with their own education policies that shun the formality and Ofsted-assessed rigidity preferred by mainstream parties.

Williamson’s certainty about the benefits of being “in nature” were also inspired by a trip he took to Nuremberg in 1935 where he witnessed the Hitler Youth hiking. In The Story of a Norfolk Farm he notes “the former pallid leer of hopeless slum youth transformed into the suntan, the clear eye, the broad and easy rhythm of the poised young human being”, as the uniformed youngsters trekked where they liked into a countryside made open access courtesy of the policies of Hermann Goering.

The ethos of Williamson and Gardiner of actively promoting nature as a necessary balancing force to modern life is echoed by the Right to Roam organisation who campaign to extend the Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act in England in order that, so they say, “millions more people can have easy access to open space, and the physical, mental and spiritual health benefits that it brings”.

They go further, highlighting the “defining concept of nationhood” that the freedom to roam engenders. Right to Roam are no mere bit-part players; their supporters’ 2020 letter putting their case to Boris Johnson was signed by one hundred leading figures within the modern environmental movement including Monbiot, the television presenter Chris Packham, and even Stephen Fry. Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, has had the second reading of her bill to amend the CRoW tabled in the Commons for October.

Shorn of the noxious anti-Semitism and racism, the influence of pre- and post-war British fascist thinkers — Jenks’s pioneering regenerative farming; Gardiner’s organicism and Williamson’s blood and soil spiritual beliefs — on modern day environmentalism is obvious, however much Greens would, understandably, like to forget them.

It is a tragedy that the radical politicisation of environmentalism has led to the majority of those who occupy the political middle-ground recoiling from the real issues of biodiversity loss and climate change. It could be argued that until this green extremism disappears, the chances of us finding consensus on how we combat the evolving environmental crisis is, like Tarka, dead in the water.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover