Book review: Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right

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Failed Führers is the new book by scholar of British fascism, Graham Macklin, published as part of Routledge’s Fascism and the Far Right series, and is the result of years of meticulous research on the history of British fascism from the 1920s to the present. As many of the same figures dominate the various fascist groups that have emerged in Britain over the last century, Macklin has structured the book around six of these prominent figures – Arnold Leese, Oswald Mosley, A.K. Chesterton, Colin Jordan, John Tyndall and Nick Griffin. All of these figures led a fascist party at one point in time and many of these figures had overlapping political careers. The fascist notion of the strong leader meant that these political groups often reflected the personal politics of the groups that they led, which Macklin has used to chart the ebbs and flows of British fascism, both ideologically and organisationally.

The book starts with Arnold Leese, the camel doctor who founded the Imperial Fascist League in 1929. Although there were other fascist groups in Britain in the 1920s, Leese’s IFL is important because despite its tiny size, its explicit anti-Semitism was a stand-out feature and this was influential upon the next generation of fascists. As Macklin and others have noted, Colin Jordan and John Tyndall (who, between them, led a number of fascist groups between the late 1950s and early 1990s) were indebted to Leese’s political outlook, particularly when compared with Mosley’s successors.

As the most well-known of the British fascist personalities, Mosley is given significant attention in Macklin’s book. Due to the volumes dedicated to Mosley’s inter-war activities, Macklin dedicates the majority of his chapter on the leader of the British Union of Fascists to his post-war ventures. In the late 1940s, Mosley founded the Union Movement and over the next 20 years, used the party in an attempt to gain a foothold in British politics, railing against Commonwealth migration and decolonisation. Macklin shows that Mosley found little political reward for his efforts, despite his quasi-celebrity status, and thus sought stronger relations with other fascists in Europe and white supremacists in southern Africa.

The other four chapters chart how British fascism moved away from Mosley towards those influenced by Leese, but Macklin reminds the reader that one of the most successful far right parties in Britain, the National Front, also emerged from a former colleague of Mosley and a rival to Leese, A.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was the Director of Propaganda for the BUF in the 1930s but parted ways with Mosley in 1937, spending more than a decade in the wilderness before establishing the far right pressure group, the League of Empire Loyalists, in 1954. With most of the far right figures of the 1960s and 1970s moving through the LEL in the 1950s, Chesterton is rightly highlighted as the link between the inter-war and post-war fascist movements in Britain. Still obsessed with anti-Semitism, Chesterton was able to recognise, similar to Mosley, than opposition to decolonisation and Commonwealth immigration were able to tap into popular racism in Britain, which became the basis for the formation of the National Front in 1966-67. Despite the fascist past of many of its leading figures, the NF did not have the baggage of the Mosley moniker, which may help explain why it was able to make headway where Mosley had previously failed.

The next two chapters, dedicated to Colin Jordan and John Tyndall, illustrates how these former protégés of Leese and Chesterton took two divergent approaches to political activism open to the British far right. Jordan, who left the LEL in 1957, moved through several groups in the late 1950s and early 1960s before founding (with Tyndall) the National Socialist Movement in 1962. This later became the British Movement in 1968 as the harder-edged alternative to the NF. Macklin demonstrates that Jordan was always reluctant to temper his National Socialism, which gained him notoriety, as well as attention from the authorities (leading to two stints in jail), but meant that the NSM/BM did not attract a following beyond the hardcore, particularly in comparison with the National Front.

Reading the chapter on John Tyndall, who led the National Front through its most (relatively) successful periods in the 1970s, the reader is struck by how indebted to National Socialism Tyndall was, but he found it more politically expedient to couch this in terms of a British-focused racial nationalism. This gained the NF some encouraging electoral results and support for their street marches, but also let the Conservatives siphon off the right-wing vote when Margaret Thatcher became leader, most noticeably at the 1979 general election. The NF under Tyndall also faced significant anti-fascist opposition, with the Anti-Nazi League launching a massive campaign against the NF between 1977 and 1981. Macklin highlights that after the electoral defeat of the NF in 1979, Tyndall spent the next twenty years trying to regain the momentum of the NF of the 1970s, primarily through the British National Party that he founded in 1982.

The BNP briefly won a council seat in Tower Hamlets in 1993, but as the final chapter of Failed Führers notes, when the BNP found sustained electoral victories at local government level in the first decade of the 2000s, Tyndall had been removed and replaced by Nick Griffin. Griffin had originally been part of the ‘political soldier’ wing in the National Front in the fallow years of the 1980s, with links to far right terrorists from mainland Europe and eschewing electoral politics. By the late 1990s, Griffin had remodelled himself as a ‘moderniser’, partly inspired by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National in France. Macklin charts the rise of Griffin’s BNP in the 2000s, but after winning two seats in the 2009 European elections (including for Griffin himself in the North-West England constituency), the BNP went into sharp decline. Similar to the NF in 1979, the BNP faced two challenges – mounting anti-fascist opposition and an electoral contest from the right, this time by UKIP.

Although he oversaw the BNP during its most successful period, Griffin also presided over its quick demise. In the last decade, the far right in Britain has split into three different strategies. Firstly, the electoral path favoured by the BNP under Griffin has been usurped by UKIP and the Brexit Party as a populist right alternative to the Conservatives. Secondly, street movements, such as the English Defence League, have been a constant feature since 2009, but have not been harnessed by a political party to make any tangible gains. Thirdly, a renewed interest in right-wing political violence has grown in recent years, with the groupuscule National Action proscribed as a terrorist organisation. With these current developments, one is left wondering whether someone like Tommy Robinson would feature in a revised version of Macklin’s book in the future.

Macklin has produced an expansive history of fascism in Britain, which demonstrates a breadth of archival research that must have taken many years to undertake. As the book is structured around the biographies of these six fascist leaders, the narrative may be difficult to follow for a newcomer to the topic, but those who already have a knowledge of British fascism will find it a valuable resource. The extensive endnotes for each chapter will surely make other researchers envious. Failed Führers provides the most in-depth and far-reaching history of fascism in post-war Britain since Richard Thurlow’s book, which was last published 20 years ago. In a time when the far right, both in Britain and elsewhere around the world, looks to have gained ground recently, it is essential reading for those interested in the British far right and its evolution.

You can purchase a copy of Failed Führers from here (use code ‘X001’ for a 20% discount):

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