Tub-thumper: John Tyndall, leader of the National Front, in 1977

Britain’s little Hitlers

Richard Griffiths reviews Failed Führers, by Graham Macklin

Commenting on the temporary nature of his party’s occasional electoral successes, Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party (BNP), once described them as being like “a cross between the Charge of the Light Brigade and a very expensive Chinese meal — one fart and it’s gone”. The story of the British extreme right, as told in Failed Führers, is, as the title suggests, one of perpetual disappointment, only lightened by occasional, fleeting moments of comparative success.

Failed Fuhrers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right
by Graham Macklin, Routledge, £24.99 (paperback)

Just why was the British right such a failure, compared with some of its continental counterparts? This book goes a long way towards answering that question. Its author, Graham Macklin, is already known for a stimulating study, Very Deeply Dyed in Black (2007), which dealt with Sir Oswald Mosley’s attempts to resurrect British fascism after 1945. Here, he extends that field to include all the major aspects of the British extreme right from 1945 to the present day. He does so in the form of a series of biographical studies of some of the major figures involved.

The sub-title of the book, “A History of Britain’s Extreme Right”, is slightly misleading, in that, when it comes to the pre-war right, only certain aspects are examined — those which have relevance to what happened after 1945. It is thus that the whole of a major early chapter is devoted to the “anti-Jewish camel-doctor” Arnold Leese, head of the Imperial Fascist League (described by Mosley as “one of those crank little societies, mad about the Jews, a ridiculous and futile body” whose leader was “absolutely certifiable”).

When we realise, however, the extent to which Leese was admired by certain major post-1945 figures, the reason for his inclusion, as opposed to that of many apparently more deserving pre-war figures, is explained. What it also, incidentally, illustrates is the unreality, extremism and eccentricity of so much of the postwar extreme right, which could make even Mosley seem at times to be reasonable.

Mosley himself is treated with panache. Macklin rightly dismisses his postwar attempts to rewrite the historical record (whether in relation to his antisemitism or to what his attitude had been to the war) by falsifying or reinterpreting documentary evidence. He also shows the bewildering array of often contradictory policies which Mosley undertook in this period: Europeanism (with his Union Movement devoted to the idea of a “united Europe”, economically aided by a subservient Africa); British nationalism; rejection of his pre-war “extremism”; incitement of race hatred towards the black communities in Notting Hill, Brixton, Bethnal Green and elsewhere; and so on.

All this, as in the Thirties, involved him in thrashing around trying to find policies which could lead to electoral success. All in vain: Mosley’s deposits were regularly lost. By 1966, he had decided to give up. But, as Macklin says, he now turned even more purposefully towards “the task of rescuing his reputation”, declaring, for example, “I have never been an antisemite.” Macklin is never at a loss for a telling anecdote, and recounts what happened at an evening when the Mosleys were dining with their friends the Windsors in Paris. The Duke of Windsor declared to those present that the Jews were responsible for the war. When his main guest, Walter Monkton, demurred, the Duke turned to Mosley for corroboration. Mosley remained silent.

The other major pre-war figure to impinge upon the post-war scene was A.K. Chesterton (cousin of G.K.). He had started in the Thirties as an enthusiast for Mosley’s BUF but soon left, and eventually became one of Mosley’s most bitter opponents. He had a “good war”, serving in the army in Kenya and Somaliland until suffering ill-health in 1943. After the war, he continued his right-wing activities, and in 1954 founded the League of Empire Loyalists (LEL).

Chesterton was a strange mixture. He was, and remained, violently antisemitic. On the other hand, he was appalled by the Holocaust, and did not share in any of the admiration for Hitler and the Nazis which so beset many of the “new right”. Though a racist strongly opposed to “poisoning the bloodstream of the nation” through immigration, he mocked the “Nordicism” of the new right, commenting that his definition of the “Nordic man” was that he was “blond — like Hitler, tall — like Goebbels, slender— like Goering, and a great lover of women — like Roehm”.

The fissiparous nature of the far right, and the mediocrity of its leadership, do much to explain its failure

The LEL appealed to many on the traditional right who mourned the passing of the British Empire; but it also had a powerful message for those who opposed immigration. Within a few years, however, LEL was in decline, not least because of the departure of some of the most violent and tub-thumping members of the younger generation — Colin Jordan, John Bean, John Tyndall — some of them because of their impatience with Chesterton’s comparative moderation, others because Chesterton had expelled them.

The future of the extreme right was to be with people like this. They were no more successful, however. The history of the right from then on was to consist of perpetual bickerings, splits and palace revolutions, with a plethora of new groups with ever more complicated names continually being formed. When Tyndall took over the National Front in 1972, Chesterton warned him he would be surrounded by “essentially small people with hugely inflated egos”. That description could have fitted Tyndall himself, or any of the other major figures such as Jordan, Webster or Griffin.

The fissiparous nature of this right, and the mediocrity of its leadership, do much to explain its failure when compared with some of its continental counterparts. But there was a far greater reason. For most of the time, this right was concerned, not as the right had been before the war with plans for future reforms, but with a nostalgia for the past — and what a past!

They publicly expressed admiration for Hitler and the Nazi Party, and hatred of the Jews (Jordan, for example, called on his followers to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, that of “the greatest nationalist of the century”). Given the experience of the war, and the subsequent revelation of Nazi horrors, such attitudes were hardly calculated to win over a large percentage of the British population.

There were, however, rare moments when this right looked like breaking through to some kind of electoral success. This was when, underplaying their overtly “fascist” characteristics, they harnessed what was to be one of the most potent forces in British politics — the immigration question.

This had been simmering below the surface for some years. In the early 1970s, in part fostered by Enoch Powell’s 1968 “rivers of blood” speech, it rose to the surface. But, though the National Front took full advantage of this situation, it was eventually outflanked by Margaret Thatcher’s platform in the 1979 election, when she expressed sympathy with those who feared being “swamped” by people with a different culture (a speech which resulted, as one of her helpers noted, in her in-tray being “swamped by racist bilge”). As Macklin puts it, “If Powell had opened the door to the NF’s expansion in 1968, Thatcher slammed it shut in 1978.”

In the new century the BNP, under Nick Griffin, looked as though it might, on similar grounds, be achieving some kind of breakthrough. By 2009, it boasted 56 local councillors, three county councillors, and two MEPs, one of them Griffin himself. Its appeal was mainly in the East End and in other working-class areas such as the north-west. Yet within five years, all this had been lost. The two MEPs were not reelected in 2014, and only one councillor remained. What had happened? Yet again, the extreme right had been outflanked, this time by UKIP.

Macklin’s study is the product of exhaustive research. He has a light touch, however, and often gives, by a simple acerbic remark, a sign of the distance he keeps between himself and his subject. Having described Tyndall as saying that British youth faced a stark choice, either to accept the Beatles as role models or “the virile splendour of a new British and Nordic young manhood under National Socialism”, Macklin comments drily: “British youth opted for the Beatles.” And, when describing Jordan’s arrest for shoplifting “several pairs of red women’s knickers and a box of chocolates from Tesco”, his comment is: “He was unable to explain, however, why he was in a ‘Jewish-owned’ store in the first place.”

Though the leaders, the “failed Führers”, often seem comic, the movements they headed do need to be taken seriously. Underlying our apparently respectable society there are layers of intolerance. And, when these layers appear to be getting some kind of electoral support, the danger is that our mainline parties may be tempted to tap into that for their own advantage.

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

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

Critic magazine cover