Guest post by Spencer Sunshine
Graham Macklin, Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right (Routledge, 2020).
Review by Spencer Sunshine
Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers is a major new study of the British fascist movement, and will likely be the central reference point for scholars of that movement for the foreseeable future.
Before I review this text, however, readers should be warned that this is a tome. Weighing in at over 550 oversized pages and containing thousands of endnotes, it covers the careers of six British fascist leaders over a span of a hundred years. The second thing is that, full disclosure, Macklin is a friend. And not just over the internet—we once even met in person and had a curry and a couple beers. But long before we were acquainted, I developed a deep appreciation for his attention to the intricacies of the post-war fascist milieu’s ideological shifts. And he actually gets how these movements work, unlike many academics who, even when they have important things to say, are painfully tone-deaf.
Failed Führers is structured using “prosopography.” (After all, what’s a proper academic text without some words you have to look up.) In this case, it is a collective biography of six British fascist leaders of both the pre- and post-war periods. While this seems like an odd, if not downright antiquated, approach, it actually works quite well in helping Macklin cover a large amount of ground. The narrative arc doesn’t get turgid as it is frequently moving from one figure to the other. This structure also helps avoid a degeneration into a sectology illustrating how This Group begat That Group which splintered into Those Groups—although there is still plenty of that for the discerning sectologist!
Like many American scholars of the Far Right, my knowledge is exceedingly focused on domestic currents; it is super spotty even of other Anglophone countries. So while I only had scattered bits of knowledge about the British fascist tradition when I started the book, it was very useful in helping me tie them together.
The first figure featured in Failed Führers is Arnold Leese, who was active starting in the 1920s and became more and more focused on antisemitism as he pivoted his allegiances from Mussolini to Hitler. He continued his fascism career postwar, as did Oswald Mosley, the most famous of the six outside of Britain. The outline of Mosley’s prewar career is generally known, including his wartime detention, but I was fascinated to learn how extensive his work was postwar and how he was somehow rehabilitated into the mainstream, appearing, for example, on William Buckley’s Firing Line. The third figure, A.K. Chesterton (not to be confused with his relation G.K. Chesterton) also straddled the war. But he was best known for founding the League of Empire Loyalists—who, as the British empire crumbled, did what it said on the tin, albeit with a fascist core. The League wound up by fusing with other groups to become the National Front, the best known of the British fascist parties—at least to fans of 1970s punk rock and two-tone ska, as well as to watchers of the National-Anarchists. Fourth is Colin Jordan, who was mentored by Leese. Jordon was an openly neo-Nazi ideologue and organizer who was a cross between his contemporaries George Lincoln Rockwell and William Pierce. Fifth and sixth are John Tyndall and Nick Griffin; both of them overlapped in both the National Front and British National Party (BNP), which each led before being deposed (Tyndall from the BNP by Griffin, no less). Today, Griffin is the only living figure of the bunch.
I won’t summarize what the book says about the organizational and ideological history of these figures and their parties—after all, that’s why we all write these things down in books. But I will point out some of its more interesting angles, as well as the things that popped out to me personally.
Macklin shows in detail how attention to the ideological twists and turns of even small groups of radical activists is important in understanding these movements. Their ideas are often carried through in lean years by small sects, but these groups can expand very rapidly and take the national stage, as the National Front in the 1970s and BNP in the ’00s did. Macklin shows how internal debates among fascists over many decades produced a winning formula, even if it was quickly stolen by more mainstream conservatives who lacked their historical baggage.
Today, the polished product is on display across the globe by right-wing populist parties: bellicose nationalism, opposition to immigration, Islamophobia, conspiracy theories, and a socially conservative worldview—including of sexuality and national history. Right-wing nationalism trumps imperial racial visions, while anti-Zionism and open antisemitism are out.
“Britain’s Hitler”: Oswald Mosley
Macklin’s long view of this development is very illuminating. The central internal fascist debate he focuses on is how their racial vision plays out geographically. (Those who follow U.S. fascists will be familiar with the differences between the Pacific Northwest Territorial Imperative, Southern segregation, and pan-Aryanism. But historians of U.S. fascism almost always dismiss these as unimportant window dressing.) Failed Führers shows how divergent stances on this issue were crucial to the different fascist parties and activists, as well as to their successes and failures. Racial nationalism was popular (BNP, National Front), but at one point the National Front turned to a smaller ethno-regionalist approach. Internationally, there was imperial nostalgia (Chesterton), pan-Nordicism (Leese), pan-Europeanism (Mosley), and calls for a pan-Aryan Imperium (Jordan).
These differences were key to the splits between Mosley’s postwar “Europe-as-a-Nation” position versus Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists. It also pitted Jordan’s international and Tyndall’s national perspectives against each other. And Griffin had to overcome resistance in his party—and his own past views—to move the BNP from a British racial nationalism to something that looked, even if it was almost entirely on paper, like a right-wing populism (equivalent to what the Alt Right calls “civic nationalism”).
Just like fascists today, these positions also changed the groups’ relationship to the British state—which itself was morphing as its empire crumbled. Both Leese and Mosley were deeply unhappy when World War Two broke out, and both were interned but released before the war was over. Jordan, as a revolutionary neo-Nazi sect leader, espoused terrorism and constantly ran afoul of the law. Tyndall built up a public party that—despite containing illegal elements such as its skinhead base—championed positions that were ultimately mainstream enough to be absorbed by the Tory party. And Griffin’s ideological phases included being in the revolutionary, anti-system wing of the 1980s National Front, as well as later positioning the BNP as a legal, right-wing populist party.
Chesterton had the most pro-system approach, tho. He actually joined the British Army during the war and after it sought to stop decolonization. Of the six, his positions were the most like an ultra-conservatism as opposed to revolutionary fascism. This is quite different from neo-Nazis like James Mason and Tom Metzger, who for decades took pains to emphasize the difference between their own revolutionary National Socialism and what they called “right-wingism.”
A second, related question that Macklin shows is how a classic strategic question was dealt with: reform or revolution? Should fascists run for office? (It is far easier for radicals, of all stripes, to win office as a local “councillor” in Britain than it is to get elected to almost anything in the United States.) Alternately, should parties keep a National Socialist core while publicly portraying themselves as right-wing populists who are vehemently opposed to immigration? This latter tactic, particularly used by Griffin’s BNP, produced real returns.
In fact, many of these parties were wildly successful by U.S. standards, even when just looking at raw numbers and not accounting for the population disparity between the two countries. For example, Mosley’s party had 50,000 members in 1934, when fascism was still acceptable to the mainstream. But even postwar, the League of Empire Loyalists had 3,000 members in 1958. While Jordan’s National Socialist Movement was a classic tiny neo-Nazi sect, Tyndall’s National Front had up to 15,000 in 1979. Last, Griffin-era BNP, albeit a supposedly non-racialist organization by then, had 56 council seats in 2006. In 2009 it had over 12,000 members and elected two European Union MPs, including Griffin, and the next year received a half-million votes in the national elections.
Obviously, Macklin explores many other angles as well. One, common to the United States too, is the shifting role of antisemitism—including questions on the Far Right about whether Jews should be allowed in the parties, confined to Israel, or if Israel should be destroyed. The various attempts at fascist alliances with Arab, Muslim, and Islamist actors, including the infamous trip by National Front leaders to Libya in the 1980s, are highlighted. And the twist from pro-Islamist anti-Zionism to a pro-Israel Islamophobia, made in particular by Griffin, is clearly illustrated.
The relationship between the parties and subcultures gets some eyes on it. In particular is the National Front and the skinhead movement, although I learned that Mosley recruited Teddy Boys after their role in the 1958 Notting Hill riots. Antifascists also get their due in the story.
And Macklin has a special interest in the links between U.S. and British fascists. While WUNS (the World Union of National Socialists)—whose founders included Jordan and Rockwell—is well known, the extent of the international travel was eye-opening. Not just did the British fascists make links to U.S. segregationists, but the National States Rights Party (NSRP) had extended links to British fascists. While this is curious on the face, as the NSRP was a Klan-aligned group, it makes sense because they, like some of the British groups, had an obscured National Socialist core and a more populist exterior. Tyndall and Griffin’s U.S. tours have also received comparatively little attention.
Last, for me personally, I was happy to finally get a detailed account of how the Third Positionist tendency developed inside the National Front. This anti-capitalist, racial separatist, regionalist, and environmentalist trend was later exported to the United States and adopted by Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance and Matthew Heimbach’s Traditionalist Worker Party.
The influence was copied more directly by Troy Southgate, a former National Front organizer who became the guru of the National-Anarchist Movement. (Macklin wrote a very important study of their predecessor group, “Co-opting the counter culture: Troy Southgate and the National Revolutionary Faction.”) Southgate likes to present (or at least imply) that many of the ideas he promotes are his own—and claim that they symbolize his disconnection from the fascist movement. But almost all of his positions are derived from his previous party’s Political Soldier tendency. These range from regionalism to the praise of racial “villages” to Distributionism to his retroactive opposition to colonialism (for making global connections which ultimately made Britain less white). Fair warning, though, that I found the National Front twists and splits so complicated that I will need to read that section at least a couple more times before getting it all straight in my head.
In terms of its lessons for today’s activists who are organizing against the Far Right, Failed Führers does a good job outlining the different approaches that fascists have used. Familiarity with this should make it easier to see which of a limited set of approaches are available to fascists. The book also shows why small groups and splinter factions shouldn’t be ignored, as they have the possibilities to fuse into larger, more powerful organizations or expand rapidly in popularity. And just as the fascists organize transnationally, so should antifascists. We have seen how the U.S. Alt Right was influenced heavily by European trends, like Identitarianism, and have worked closely with their counterparts in Canada and elsewhere. The opposite should also be true.
I’ll stick a couple obligatory criticisms here at the end. Even though as an American I like to think of myself as familiar with British political dialogues, in number of places I had to look up terms. For example, I learned that a “ginger-group” is a faction that tries to influence a larger organization that it is part of. And in a number of places, the time of events were not clear and I had a hard time figuring out what year in the story I was.
Failed Führers was a good read that, for me, telescoped my understanding of the British fascist movement through the turn of the century, putting together a number of scattered puzzle pieces. Macklin is a nice stylist, but it is still a long and detailed history that requires a commitment to finish. But I think you will find it worth the investment.
Spencer Sunshine (www.spencersunshine.com) has researched, written about, and counter-organized against the U.S. Far Right for over fifteen years.