Fascism’s Warning Signs

Edwardian Britain harbored many of the preconditions for fascism—including rampant anti-Semitism—before war broke out and united a divided nation.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by National Portrait Gallery, Russell & Sons, German Federal Archives and The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899).
Houston Stewart Chamberlain, writer of The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, and Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by National Portrait Gallery, Russell & Sons, German Federal Archives and The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899).

This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Fascism.

Excerpted from Hurrah for the Blackshirts!: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh. Published by Penguin Random House UK.

The late-Victorian and Edwardian period in Britain is usually appraised for its progressive political developments: the extension of the vote to some working men, the emergence of an organized labor movement, the campaigns for female emancipation, the creation of state-funded social welfare. But this ought not to prevent us from recognizing a different history. During the 40 years before the First World War, the ideas that prepared the ground for fascism were abundantly evident in British politics and society. Like other European countries, Britain had a pre-fascist tradition, and consequently there is no reason, other than hindsight, for regarding Britain as inherently less likely to generate a fascist movement after 1918.

Although the Victorians prided themselves on giving the world a model of parliamentary government, British confidence in parliamentary democracy has been greatly exaggerated. In the pre-1914 period, Britain still fell a considerable way short of being a democracy and in some respects lagged behind the United States and France, for example. Before 1918, 4 out of every 10 men, and all women, still failed to qualify as voters. Historically, voting in Britain was largely linked to property rights as manifested in land ownership and payment of rates and taxes; from this it followed that those who depended on the Poor Law, a 1834 parliamentary act that commissioned workhouses where the poor were provided clothes and food, were automatically barred from voting.

The notion of people as citizens who possessed individual rights was regarded as abstract and alien; rather, the vote was extended to people who had a stake in the country and did their duty to the state. In some ways, this remains true today. For example, homeless people are largely denied the vote; and prior to the election of 1992, the names of 1 million people who had not paid their poll tax disappeared from the electoral registers.

Moreover, in the absence of a formal constitution, British people enjoyed few of the rights and liberties of citizens. Contemporary claims by A. V. Dicey, the eminent Victorian jurist, that civil liberties were protected by the common law, were simply wrong.1 In effect, whatever rights people enjoyed had to be specifically conferred on them by parliament. But by the same token, they could be withdrawn or curtailed. After the 1914–18 war, for example, Parliament deprived conscientious objectors of their vote for a five-year period, and it suspended general elections from 1915 until the end of 1918.

During the Edwardian period, the government took advantage of the preoccupation with spies and subversion to launch a serious attack on political freedom in the 1911 Official Secrets Act. Passed with scarcely an hour’s discussion on a quiet Friday afternoon in an empty House of Commons, the legislation allowed the authorities to arrest and prosecute anyone on mere suspicion of harboring an intention “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state.” Despite assurances that “in no case would the powers be used to infringe any of the liberties of His Majesty’s subjects,” for the next century the act enabled governments to stifle legitimate criticism on the plea of protecting the security of the state.2

Thus, despite its reputation for liberalism, British politics was also notably authoritarian in some respects. Many politicians were less impressed by the parliamentary tradition and more attracted by the alternative, autocratic mode of government adopted in the empire. Ireland enjoyed a hybrid form of government involving an essentially imperial rule mitigated by Irish representation in both houses of parliament. But above all it was India that commanded the frank admiration of large numbers of influential politicians who enjoyed experience as viceroys, governors, or as secretaries of state. In India, as one viceroy put it, “we are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race.”

There, so the argument ran, government was neutral and focused on the national interest; governments could proceed to implement their policy unhindered by the sectional demands, party pressures, elections, and assemblies that enfeebled representative systems. Inevitably, imperialists contrasted this favorably with domestic British politics. For Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Lord Curzon, who regarded the growing trend towards popular participation in politics with contempt, India appeared an enviable field for promoting efficient administration, autocratic rule, and feudal values.

These pre-1914 sentiments remained lively during the interwar period amongst pro-fascist MPs such as Viscount Lymington and Alan Lennox-Boyd, who fought against concessions to Indian nationalism and were deeply moved by the deferential pre-industrial societies of Asia and Africa, which they believed were being ruined by Western education and the ideas of liberal democracy.

This anti-democratic tradition enabled interwar fascists to present their case within a British historical context rather than simply in terms of Continental states. In fact, they based their analysis on the claim that Britain had taken a false turn during the 18th century, under the influence of liberal and egalitarian notions imported from France, by diminishing royal authority, promoting commercial interests, and setting a course towards parliamentary reform. They argued that the original British system took no cognizance of votes for individuals; rather, the state granted representation to interests and corporations by allotting two MPs to specified parliamentary boroughs.

Fascists also commended the medieval guilds for sustaining an economic and social system based on communities. The fall of feudalism and the guilds (which controlled output, prices, and wages) had opened the way for rapid economic development, but it had also promoted the damaging cult of the individual and accelerated competition leading to the destruction of stable communities.3 In short, with the aim of restoring a sense of community, nationhood, kingship, and hereditary leadership, fascism presented itself as a return to English traditions, not as an alien innovation.

Of course, for much of the Victorian period, British liberals had taken comfort from the belief that anti-parliamentary values were anachronistic, part of a world that was steadily giving way to economic progress, international understanding, and political enlightenment. However, toward the end of the century, liberalism was forced onto the defensive by the growing obsession with external rivals, aggressive nationalism, and xenophobia. Under the threat of a huge, efficient Germany army capable of mobilizing rapidly, even Britain, despite the protection offered by the Channel and the Royal Navy, felt increasingly vulnerable to the emergence of the German High Seas Fleet in the late 1890s. Germany’s dramatic victory over France in 1870 inspired an influential article in Blackwood’s Magazine entitled “The Battle of Dorking.”

This inaugurated a tradition of writing about fictional invasions of the British Isles in which a negligent government and a complacent people were taken by surprise. A generation grew up fearful that one dark and misty night, a Continental enemy would slip his fleet across the Channel, land his troops on the south coast, and march up through the pinewoods of Surrey by breakfast, en route for London. The press magnate, Alfred Harmsworth, invited readers of the Daily Mail to report sightings of suspicious foreigners, and he advertised the likely invasion routes which invariably passed through towns where the Mail’s circulation required a boost. The climax came in the form of baseless scare stories around 1908 to the effect that the Germans were building the new dreadnought-type battleships at a faster rate than Britain. In this way, the British fell victim to insecurity, anti-alienism, and disillusionment with their political leaders.

Moreover, Britain’s unpreparedness to meet an invasion was seen as symptomatic of a wider deterioration afflicting all aspects of society and politics. The 1870s triggered a protracted debate about whether Britain had entered a period of economic decline. After decades of industrial supremacy, she experienced falling prices, narrower profit margins, and stiff competition from German and American manufacturers. The prevalence of free trade led Britain to buy food and raw materials from foreigners, and during the 1870s, the large-scale imports of cheap grain from North America triggered a long-term decline in agriculture, marked by falling rents and land values, which left a generation of country gentlemen and aristocratic landowners disillusioned with conventional conservatism; this eventually made them susceptible to extremist politics.

Protectionists and imperialists also complained about unfair competition by foreigners; they vented their anger on British financial interests for supporting these rivals and undermining the British economy to promote their own profits. Hence arose the thesis that policy was dictated by “cosmopolitan” financiers, “radical plutocrats,” and wealthy Jews who showed no loyalty toward the country that sheltered them.

This long-term controversy over economic and imperial strategy had major implications for fascism in Britain because it fostered the interaction between fascists and conservatives. It is often argued that British fascism inevitably failed because it made no appeal to conventional right-wing forces. In fact, the problem lay more in the extent to which conventional conservatism managed to satisfy the concerns that animated fascists or offered a vehicle for their aims. It proved relatively easy for Tory MPs to operate in both fascist and conservative organizations simultaneously during the interwar period.

Some of them frankly characterized fascism as a more virile expression of their party’s creed. All the elements of protectionism—the protection of British jobs, the development of the empire, the exclusion of foreign products, and the attack on the influence of Jews and financiers—carried conviction on the right because they spoke to long-standing grievances.

Beneath these concerns over industry, agriculture, and the empire lay a wider unease about the moral condition of British society during the last 20 years of the 19th century. And one byproduct of this thinking was the interest in genetic engineering. Many late-Victorian and Edwardian intellectuals believed that a liberal society encouraged the procreation of the least fit members, which was a certain recipe for industrial, military, and imperial decline. They saw eugenics as an appealing remedy.4 Perhaps the most influential member of this school was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, author of The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899), who believed the race was threatened by racial impurity or mixing, the worst agents of which were the Jews; as he put it: “a mongrel is frequently very clever, but never reliable; morally he is always a weed.”5 From this, it followed that the state had a clear duty to encourage selection with a view to maximizing the proportion of pure Teutonic blood in the population; the logical conclusion was the elimination of the “degenerate” elements in the national stock.6

Perhaps the most obvious of the preconditions for interwar fascism was the anti-Semitism that was rife throughout British society and across the political spectrum. Its best-known advocates were the writer and MP Hilaire Belloc and his friends Cecil Chesterton and G. K. Chesterton, who used their journals the Eye Witness and My Weekly as vehicles for anti-Semitic propaganda. They fostered the stereotyped view of Jews as “a non-Christian culture, embedded for ages in what has always been a Christian culture, [which] acts as an irritant and to some extent as a parasite, because it trades and schemes but does not plough or produce.”7 They blamed Jews for virtually all historic and recent disasters, including the Boer War and the revolutionary movements in Russia, and condemned them as basically disloyal. Some of the anti-Semites and eugenicists of Edwardian Britain advocated Zionism and even approved the use of the “lethal chamber” to eliminate undesirable elements from society.8

These debates in the 1890s about moral degeneracy, racial rejuvenation, national unity, and the Jews remind us that Britain played her part in laying the foundations for interwar racist and fascist thinking. Indeed, Hitler is known to have drawn on Chamberlain’s anti-Semitic writing for his own race theory.9

If long-term trends were unfavorable to liberalism, this did not prevent British Liberals winning a landslide victory at the general election of 1906. The Asquith governments remained firmly in control, winning three general elections and achieving major policy goals. However, popular perceptions of the Edwardian period during the interwar period were dominated by The Strange Death of Liberal England, a book published by George Dangerfield in 1935. This offered a vivid account of an elected government wilting under attack by a succession of violent or unlawful movements: a wave of strikes, suffragette militancy, and the peers’ rejection of Lloyd George’s 1909 “People’s Budget” that introduced welfare programs and unprecedented taxes on the wealthy. Written from the perspective of a Europe in which democracy had succumbed to totalitarian regimes of left and right, the book saw the Edwardian controversies as the first symptoms of the current malaise.

In fact, however, the defining characteristic of the Edwardian era was a crisis of conservatism. Alarmed by the pace of social change and the rise of the labor movement, and frustrated by its own impotence, sections of the Edwardian right began to display a dangerous disillusionment with conventional politics. Not only did Conservatives lose three elections in 1906 and 1910, but the Liberals’ electoral pact with the Labour Party and the Irish Nationalists appeared capable of excluding the Tories from power indefinitely. Quite suddenly, the political agenda had changed. The Liberals engineered a stream of innovations including graduated taxation of incomes, old-age pensions, minimum wages for miners, health insurance, and labor exchanges; and by 1914, they threatened to introduce land taxation and minimum wages for agricultural laborers. Many Conservatives attacked this program as tantamount to socialism, but privately they feared they had lost the ideological battle. This left Britain’s new radical right perpetually suspicious of betrayal and very susceptible to conspiracy theories to explain their setbacks.

Consequently, though its members operated within the parliamentary system, they became distinctly ambivalent toward it. Sir George Lloyd, an extreme right-winger who entered the Commons in 1910, quickly fell into despair over what he saw as the failure to introduce tariff reform and to respond to the challenge of Germany: “60 years of Cecils in a cosmopolitan system have killed much patriotism and national feeling.”10 Lloyd was typical of the radical right in his unsophisticated approach to politics; anxious to find simple, immediate solutions, they yearned for a patriotic, virile leader. Baffled by the complexities of urban, industrial Britain, they sought to recreate a deferential rural past, which is why, like Lloyd himself, they found an imperial role more congenial than domestic politics. For them, the outbreak of war in 1914 came as an enormous relief because it united the nation and created one simple, overriding cause—indeed, it could not have come at a more crucial moment.

Excerpted from Hurrah for the Blackshirts!: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh. Published by Penguin Random House UK.

1. K. D. Ewing and C. A. Gearty, The Struggle for Civil Liberties (2000), 6–8. 

2. Ibid., 40–1.

3. E. D. Hart, “The Decline of Feudalism,” Fascist Quarterly, April 1935; A. L. Glasfurd, “Fascism and the English Tradition,” Fascist Quarterly, July 1935; A. K. Chesterton, ‘Fascist Principles in the Middle Ages – Why England Flourished Under the Guilds’, Action, 13 August 1936; ‘English Array’, memorandum, n.d., Lymington Papers F178. 

4. See the discussion in Paul Hayes, “The Contribution of British 
Intellectuals to Fascism,” in K. Lunn and R. C. Thurlow (eds.), British Fascism (1980); Dan Stone, Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race and Eugenics in Edwardian and Inter-mar Britain (2002). 

5. Houston Stewart Chamberlain, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899), 261. 

6. Stone, Breeding Superman, 125–6. 

7. Quoted in Michael Ffinch, G. K. Chesterton (1986), 335. 

8. Ffinch, Chesterton, 155; Stone, Breeding Superman, 125–6. 

9. Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889–1936 (1999), 135, 151. 

10. John Charmley, Lord Lloyd and the Decline of the British Empire (1987), 
31, 37.