Thursday, 25 March 2010

The New Party and British Proto-Fascism

Oswald Mosley formed the New Party (not to be confused with the tiny, right-populist groupuscule of the same name) after he split from Labour in 1931. In its brief existence the New Party was a transitional formation that went on to provide the core for Mosley's British Union of Fascists, and has since become nothing more than a footnote in Britain's political history. In a paper given at Keele yesterday, Matt Worley sought to redress the balance by looking at the kinds of people the New Party attracted, while locating it in the context of a crisis in the British party system.

As a party drawing sustenance from all political traditions, the five personality archetypes Matt drew on to illustrate the New Party's history demonstrates the party's fluid and unstable character.

The first of these is the 'disillusioned socialist', exemplified by Herbert Hodge, a London taxi driver. He had been disappointed with Labour's performance and was put off by what he saw as the dogmatism of the Communist Party. He longed for a political movement that was "new and clean, neither capitalist or communist". He stood for the party in Stepney Limehouse in the 1931 election and polled 307 votes (1.4%). Hodge experienced Mosley as distant and insincere, and this disappointment was compounded by the resignation of the leading socialist intellectual, John Strachey. Once militarism became an established feature of the party's youth wing Hodge too departed.

The second was the 'progressive intellectual', exemplified by the then well known (but now largely forgotten) writer and broadcaster,
C.E.M. Joad. Joad came from a prosperous background, had got himself expelled from the Fabians for sexual misadventure and was part of Mosley's social circle. When the New Party formed it initially provided Joad a vehicle to exert his influence - Mosley's modernist statism chimed with Joad's Fabianism. But again it was Mosley's drift to fascism and the increasing willingness of the youth group to use violence against its political opponents that cut short Joad's New Party career.

The third type of personality is the 'family friend', illustrated here by
James Lees-Milne. Lees-Milne was a distant Mosley relative and like Joad was from a well-heeled background. Unlike Joad he had imbibed the anti-communism common among his class and saw the New Party as a way of keeping the working class in its place. His affinity with the project, however, was always tenuous. He described its general election campaign as a "small and grotesque band of candidates". Like the others he departed when the party's fascist direction became apparent.

Important for the formation of the New Party's youth group was the fourth archetype - the Oxford undergraduate. Here Matt used the example of
Peter Howard, a student sport star who captained the England Rugby team while he was associated with Mosley. Touring the country as a party activist Howard was genuinely moved by the poverty he saw and he "began to see myself as a latter day Lenin". As a paid official he was tasked with organising the youth wing - the way his fellow Oxford students stewarded New Party meetings became the blueprint for its later militarisation. By the end of the year he had drifted out because of a love affair, and that his standing in the party had been undermined by staunch anti-communists (ironically his later conservative journalism was associated with that movement).

Lastly there is the 'radical reactionary'. Peter Chanie was cut from this cloth. As an extreme reactionary, he had been variously involved in anti-socialist and patriotic groupings in the 1920s, and volunteered for the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies during the General Strike. He immediately started organising stewarding and militarising the youth group and was generally recognised as having a "pernicious influence". Still he imparted an interest in martial sports on the organisation but, somewhat surprisingly, left politics before the founding of the BUF.

Overall the New Party was mostly male, youthful, and drew recruits mainly from the middle and upper class. Many of the initial personnel were from the left, which was unsurprising as Mosley had spent time cultivating influence in the Parliamentary Labour Party. The New Party was marketed explicitly as a home for disgruntled socialists, and those from Labour and CPGB backgrounds who signed on saw the move as a continuation of rather than a rejection of socialism. And when Strachey resigned, much of this milieu drifted back to Labour.

The New Party also had a propensity to attract those whose association with the centre ground of politics was tenuous. Those from Labour backgrounds mostly had a history with the Independent Labour Party (in 1932 the ILP disaffiliated from Labour), were not from the working class and had very little understanding of class politics - their socialism was of the technocratic and ethical variety. This isn't to say working class members were entirely absent, but again there was a tendency of them to have moved into journalism and other non-manual occupations. Also there was personnel from Labour and the Tories who had felt frustrated in trying to reorganise their parties and so gave up to try their hand elsewhere.

Not only were many of the recruits politically marginal, relatively speaking, they were restless, marginal people. Each of the examples above had already led or went onto multiple careers, and many of these careers involved wide-ranging travel.

Lastly, the New Party expressed generational conflict. On a personal level many leading members had complicated and fraught relationships with parents and uncles - not least the Mosleys themselves. This was expressed culturally in the party as a reaction against the sins of the father, such as alcoholism and Victorian morality, and the embrace of political modernism. There was also an element of political patricide in the New Party mix. The front benches and government were, in the main, the same men that had led Britain into the slaughter of 1914-18. The generation that risked life and limb in the trenches found itself stymied by the parliamentary old guard. The New Party's propaganda played on this by projecting a youthful image. Mosley himself cut an athletic figure, which complimented his reputation as a man of action. The party's youthfulness was mixed with the glamour of pseudo-military discipline, and drew in the undergraduates and sports figures. The New Party provided a brief home for those seeking discipline and order,
and confrontation.

As the New Party developed over the course of 1931 the left, which had played a prominent role in getting it off the ground, gradually fell away and return to Labour. The socialist element of the New Party was expunged by Mosley after Strachey's departure, allowing it to be increasingly anti-communist in character and further feeding its evolution toward fascism. Later recruits - especially the young - unsurprisingly followed Mosley into the BUF.

In the subsequent discussion, Matt was asked about the near invisibility of women in the New Party's history. He replied that was because women were almost entirely absent. Very few women joined, the youth movement was defined explicitly as male-only and Mosley himself discouraged women from joining. Later on he was to admit this was a mistake and women were admitted to BUF membership (women were organised by Mary Raleigh Richardson, a former leading suffragette).

What is interesting about the New Party is how it is emblematic of a certain form of political formation that is thrown up by British politics from time to time. The New Party then espoused a particular anti-politics in much the same way UKIP, Veritas, BNP, Libertarian Party have done. The difference being today's attacks on politicians is about corruption, whereas the sentiment the New Party fed off was a sense politicians of the day were intellectually deficient and not up to the problems facing modern Britain. Secondly the New Party was extremely unstable - within a year it had gone. UKIP and the BNP are certainly longer lived, but they are unstable as the never ending stream of fallings out, expulsions and resignations attest.

So the New Party may be a historical footnote, but its trajectory and the character of its personnel means its has plenty of lessons for today.


andy newman said...

really interested.

I have always been fascinated by Mosley, mainly because my mum was named after his first wife.

The significance of Mosley as a key formative figure in the Labour Party is also (very understandably) overlooked; it was Mosley perhaps more than anyone else who won the party to Keynesianism, and to the idea of having a distinctive social democratic agenda for government, rather than the previous tradition of combining utopian socialism ( for the future) with day to day pragmatic liberalism (for the here and now)

Phil said...

Definitely. Fascists are made, not born. People close to Mosley have testified to his always being conceited and authoritarian, but his going over to fascism was by no mean inevitable. Things could have played out differently and had he stayed in the Labour party Mosley could have become an important Labour intellectual. And there lies the tragedy of Mosley - he once had much to offer the labour movement, but instead pissed his gifts up the wall.

Tim F said...

At a tangent, still love the story about Joad's career collapsing because of his habitual fare-dodging. These days he'd just go to rehab for it.

Chris said...

Not much said about race?

Phil said...

No - the racism and outright imperial chauvinism came with the BUF later on, and we know Mosley did not convert to anti-semitism until after they were established. So no, race was not part of the New Party mix.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

The black polo needs to brought back as the jumper of choice for neo-Nazis, instead of the polo shirt or England shirt, it is a far smoother look.

Phil said...

Ah, but Mosley can carry it off because he was a dashing and physically impressive figure. The same cannot be said of Nazi Nick.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

True, a tight roll neck will cling to Nick's folds of indigenous fat.

Chris said...

"No - the racism and outright imperial chauvinism came with the BUF later on"

But if you are comparing then with now, race is a vital component.

Phil said...

Race is not a vital component for the likes of Veritas, the Libertarian Party and UKIP. They are al very much in the New Party mould. The BNP obviously differs on this score, but they too possess some of the features that marked the New Party out.