British Union of Fascists

The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was a fascist political party in the United Kingdom formed in 1932 by Oswald Mosley. It changed its name to the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists in 1936 and, in 1937, to British Union. It was disbanded in 1940, after it was proscribed by the British government following the start of the Second World War.

British Union of Fascists
LeaderOswald Mosley
Founded1 October 1932
Dissolved23 May 1940
Merger of
Succeeded byUnion Movement
HeadquartersKing's Road, Chelsea, S.W. London, England
Paramilitary wing
Grassroots wingJanuary Club
Membership (1939)20,000
IdeologyBritish Fascism
Political positionFar-right
Colours     Red,      white, and      blue
Anthem"Comrades the voices"
Party flag

The BUF emerged in 1932 from the British far-right, following the electoral defeat of its antecedent, the New Party, in the 1931 general election. The BUF's foundation was initially met with popular support, and it attracted a sizeable following. The press baron Lord Rothermere was a notable early supporter. As the party became increasingly radical, however, support declined. The Olympia Rally of 1934, in which a number of anti-Fascist protestors were attacked by the paramilitary wing of the BUF, the Fascist Defence Force, isolated the party from much of its following. The party's embrace of Nazi-style anti-semitism in 1936 led to increasingly violent clashes with opponents, notably the 1936 Battle of Cable Street in London's East End. The Public Order Act 1936, which banned political uniforms and responded to increasing political violence, had a particularly strong effect on the BUF whose supporters were known as "Blackshirts" after the uniforms they wore.

Growing British hostility towards Nazi Germany, with which the British press persistently associated the BUF, further contributed to the decline of the movement's membership. It was finally banned by the British government in 1940 after the start of the Second World War, amid suspicion that its remaining supporters might form a pro-Nazi "fifth column". A number of prominent BUF members were arrested and interned under Defence Regulation 18B.



Oswald Mosley was the youngest elected Conservative MP before crossing the floor in 1922, joining first Labour and, shortly afterwards, the Independent Labour Party. He became a minister in Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government, advising on rising unemployment.

In 1930, Mosley issued his Mosley Memorandum, which fused protectionism with a proto-Keynesian programme of policies designed to tackle the problem of unemployment, and he resigned from the Labour party soon after, in early 1931, when the plans were rejected. He immediately formed the New Party, with policies based on his memorandum. Despite winning 16% of the vote at a by-election in Ashton-under-Lyne in early 1931, however, the party failed to achieve any other electoral success.

During 1931, the New Party became increasingly influenced by Fascism.[2] The next year, after a January 1932 visit to Benito Mussolini in Italy, Mosley's own conversion to fascism was confirmed. He wound up the New Party in April, but preserved its youth movement, which would form the core of the BUF, intact. He spent the summer that year writing a fascist programme, The Greater Britain, and this formed the basis of policy of the BUF, which was launched on 1 October 1932.[2]

Early success and growth

The BUF claimed 50,000 members at one point,[3] and the Daily Mail, running the headline "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!", was an early supporter.[4] The first Director of Propaganda, appointed in February 1933, was Wilfred Risdon, who was responsible for organising all of Mosley's public meetings. Despite strong resistance from anti-fascists, including the local Jewish community, the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, the BUF found a following in the East End of London, where in the London County Council elections of March 1937, it obtained reasonably successful results in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, and Limehouse, polling almost 8,000 votes, although none of its candidates was elected.[5] The BUF did elect a few councillors at local government level during the 1930s (including Charles Bentinck Budd, Worthing, Sussex 1934, Ronald Creasy, Eye, Suffolk 1938) but did not win any parliamentary seats.[6][7][8][9] Two former members of the BUF; Major Sir Jocelyn Lucas and Harold Soref were later elected as Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) in the United Kingdom.[10][11]

Having lost the funding of newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere that it had previously enjoyed, at the 1935 General Election the party urged voters to abstain, calling for "Fascism Next Time".[12] There never was a "next time" as the next General Election was not held until July 1945, five years after the dissolution of the BUF.

Towards the middle of the 1930s, the BUF's violent clashes with opponents began to alienate some middle-class supporters, and membership decreased. At the Olympia rally in London, in 1934, BUF stewards violently ejected anti-fascist disrupters, and this led the Daily Mail to withdraw its support for the movement. The level of violence shown at the rally shocked many, with the effect of turning neutral parties against the BUF and contributing to anti-fascist support. One observer claimed: "I came to the conclusion that Mosley was a political maniac, and that all decent English people must combine to kill his movement."[13]

In Belfast, April 1934 an autonomous wing of the party in Northern Ireland called the "Ulster Fascists" was founded. The branch was a failure and became virtually extinct after less than a year in existence.[14] It had ties with the Blueshirts and voiced support for a United Ireland calling the partition of Ireland "an insurmountable barrier to peace, and prosperity in Ireland".[15] Its logo was a fasces on a Red Hand of Ulster.

Decline and legacy

The BUF drew towards antisemitism over 1934–35 owing to the growing influence of Nazi sympathisers within the party, such as William Joyce and John Beckett, which provoked the resignation of members such as Dr. Robert Forgan. This anti-semitic emphasis and these high-profile resignations resulted in membership dropping to below 8,000 by the end of 1935 and, ultimately, Mosley shifted the party's focus back to mainstream politics. The party continued to clash with anti-fascists, most famously at the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, when organised anti-fascists prevented the BUF from marching through Cable Street. However, the party later staged other marches through the East End without incident, albeit not on Cable Street itself.

BUF support for Edward VIII and the peace campaign to prevent a second World War saw membership and public support rise once more.[16] The government was sufficiently concerned by the party's growing prominence to pass the Public Order Act 1936, which banned political uniforms and required police consent for political marches.

In 1937, William Joyce and other Nazi sympathisers split from the party to form the National Socialist League, which quickly folded, with most of its members interned. Mosley later denounced Joyce as a traitor and condemned him for his extreme anti-semitism. The historian Stephen Dorril revealed in his book Blackshirts that secret envoys from the Nazis had donated about £50,000 to the BUF.[17]

By 1939, total BUF membership was probably approaching 20,000.[16] On 23 May 1940, the BUF was banned outright by the government and Mosley, along with 740 other fascists, was interned for much of the Second World War. After the war, Mosley made several unsuccessful attempts to return to politics, notably in the Union Movement.


Mosley, known to his followers as The Leader, modelled his leadership style on Benito Mussolini and the BUF on Mussolini's National Fascist Party in Italy, the uniform chosen for members was a black fencing jacket, its colour in honour of the Italian Fascists' uniforms and its cut a nod to Mosley's proficiency at the sport. The uniform earned them the nickname "Blackshirts", which they readily accepted for themselves. The BUF was anti-communist, protectionist, technocratic, and proposed replacing parliamentary democracy with executives elected to represent specific industries, trades or other professional interest groups—a system similar to the corporatism of the Italian fascists. Britain was to remain a democracy, although the House of Lords was to be replaced with a Senate consisting of "notables" from all spheres of public life appointed by the King on the advice of the fascist Prime Minister and the House of Commons was to be renamed the "Chamber of Corporations" and would consist of occupationally elected MPs who would be free to vote as they saw fit.[18]

The BUF's programme and ideology were outlined in Mosley's The Greater Britain (1932), Tomorrow We Live (1938) and A. Raven Thomson's The Coming Corporate State (1938). Many BUF policies were built on isolationism, prohibiting trade outside an insulated British Empire. Mosley's system aimed to protect the British economy from the fluctuations of the world market, especially during the Great Depression, and prevent "cheap slave competition from abroad."[18]

Relationship with the Suffragettes

In a January 2010 BBC documentary, Mother Was A Blackshirt, James Maw reported that in 1914 Norah Elam was placed in a Holloway Prison cell with Emmeline Pankhurst for her involvement with the Suffragette movement, and, in 1940, was returned to the same prison with Diana Mosley, this time for her involvement with the fascist movement. Another leading suffragette, Mary Richardson, became head of the women's section of the BUF.

Mary Sophia Allen OBE was a former branch leader of the West of England Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). At the outbreak of the First World War, she joined the Women Police Volunteers, becoming the WPV Commandant in 1920. She met Mosley at the January Club in April 1932, going on to speak at the club following her visit to Germany, "to learn the truth about of the position of German womanhood".[19]

The BBC report described how Elam's fascist philosophy grew from her suffragette experiences, how the British fascist movement became largely driven by women, how they targeted young women from an early age, how the first British fascist movement was founded by a woman, and how the leading lights of the Suffragettes had, with Oswald Mosley, founded the BUF.[20]

Mosley's electoral strategy had been to prepare for the election after 1935, and in 1936 he announced a list of BUF candidates for that election, with Elam nominated to stand for Northampton. Mosley accompanied Elam to Northampton to introduce her to her electorate at a meeting in the Town Hall. At that meeting Mosley announced that "he was glad indeed to have the opportunity of introducing the first candidate, and ... [thereby] killed for all time the suggestion that National Socialism proposed putting British women back into the home; this is simply not true. Mrs Elam [he went on] had fought in the past for women's suffrage ... and was a great example of the emancipation of women in Britain."[21]

Former suffragettes were drawn to the BUF for a variety of reasons. Many felt the movement's energy reminded them of the suffragettes, while others felt the BUF's economic policies would offer them true equality – unlike its continental counterparts, the movement insisted it would not require women to return to domesticity and that the corporatist state would ensure adequate representation for housewives, while it would also guarantee equal wages for women and remove the marriage bar that restricted the employment of married women. The BUF also offered support for new mothers (due to concerns of falling birth rates), while also offering effective birth control, as Mosley believed it was not in the national interest to have a populace ignorant of modern scientific knowledge. While these policies were motivated more out of making the best use of women's skills in state interest than any kind of feminism, it was still a draw for many suffragettes.[22]

Prominent members and supporters

Despite the short period of operation the BUF attracted prominent members and supporters. These included:

  • The Channel 4 television serial Mosley (1998) portrayed the career of Oswald Mosley during his years with the BUF. The four-part series was based on the books Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale, written by Mosley's son, Nicholas Mosley.[37]
  • In the film It Happened Here, the BUF appears to be the ruling party of German-occupied Britain. A Mosley speech is heard on the radio in the scene before everyone goes to the movies.
  • The first depiction of Mosley and the BUF in fiction occurred in Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, Point Counter Point, where Mosley is depicted as Everard Webley, the murderous leader of the "BFF", the Brotherhood of Free Fascists, and comes to a nasty end.
  • The BUF have featured in several books written by Harry Turtledove.
  • Pink Floyd's 1979 album "The Wall" features BUF black shirts, particularly in the song "Waiting for the Worms" in which the protagonist of the conceptual album has a drug induced delusion that he is the leader of the resurgences of the BUF black shirts.
  • James Herbert's 1996 novel '48 features a protagonist who is hunted by BUF Blackshirts in a devastated London after a biological weapon release in the Second World War. The history of the BUF and Mosley is recapitulated.
  • In Ken Follett's novel Night Over Water, several of the main characters are BUF members. In his book Winter of the World, the Battle of Cable Street plays a role and some of the characters are involved in the BUF or in the anti-BUF organisations.
  • The BUF is also in Guy Walters' book The Leader (2003), where Mosley is the dictator of Britain in the 1930s.
  • The British humorous writer P. G. Wodehouse satirized the BUF in books and short stories. The BUF was satirized as "The Black Shorts".[38] (shorts being worn as all the best shirt colours were already taken) and their leader was Roderick Spode, owner of a ladies' underwear shop.
  • The British novelist Nancy Mitford satirized the BUF and Mosley in Wigs on the Green, initially published in 1935 and republished in 2010. Diana Mitford, the author's sister, had been romantically involved with Mosley since 1932.
  • In the 1992 Acorn Media production of Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe with David Suchet and Philip Jackson, one of the supporting characters (played by Christopher Eccleston) secures a paid position as a rank-and-file member of the BUF.
  • The BUF and Oswald Mosley are also alluded to in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day.
  • The BUF and Mosley are shown in the 2010 BBC version of Upstairs, Downstairs where two of the characters are BUF supporters.
  • The Pogues' song "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn", from their 1985 album Rum Sodomy & the Lash, refers to the BUF in its second verse with the line "And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids".
  • Ned Beauman's 2010 first novel, Boxer, Beetle, portrays the Battle of Cable Street.
  • C.J. Samson's 2012 novel, Dominion, has Sir Oswald Mosley as Home Secretary in a "post-Dunkirk peace with Germany alternate history thriller" set in 1952. Lord Beaverbrook is Prime Minister of an authoritarian coalition government. Blackshirts tend to be auxiliary policemen.
  • In the film, The King's Speech, a brief shot shows a brick wall in London plastered with posters, some reading "Fascism is Practical Patriotism" and others, "Stand by the King". Both sets of posters were put up by British Blackshirts, who supported King Edward VIII. Some historians believe Edward had fascist leanings.[39]
  • In the 2016 war strategy video game Hearts of Iron IV, certain options can be used to increase fascist leaning in the United Kingdom. Doing so can eventually lead to the British Union of Fascists becoming the ruling party, with Oswald Mosley as the nation's leader.[40] The country's name will change to the British Empire and its flag will be replaced with a cross between the Union Flag and the Flash and Circle. Further events can lead to Edward VIII being reinstated as monarch and being placed as the direct ruler of the British Empire.
  • Sarah Phelps used the British Union of Fascists' insignia as a theme in her 2018 BBC One adaptation of Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders.[41]
  • Amanda K. Hale's 2019 novel Mad Hatter features her father James Larratt Battersby as a member of the BUF.
  • Mosley was portrayed by Sam Claflin in season 5 of the BBC show Peaky Blinders as the founder of the BUF.[42]

Election results

By-electionCandidateVotes% share
1940 Silvertown by-electionTommy Moran1511.0
1940 Leeds North East by-electionSydney Allen7222.9
1940 Middleton and Prestwich by-electionFrederick Haslam4181.3

See also


  1. W F Mandle, Anti-Semitism and the British Union of Fascists
    Robert Benewick The Fascist Movement in Britain, pp 132-134
    Alan S Millward, "Fascism and the Economy", in Walter Laquer (ed) Fascism: A reader's Guide, p 450
    Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p 38 and pp 40-41
  2. Thorpe, Andrew. (1995) Britain In The 1930s, Blackwell Publishers, ISBN 0-631-17411-7
  3. Andrzej Olechnowicz, "Liberal Anti-Fascism in the 1930s: The Case of Sir Ernest Barker" in Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, (Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter, 2004), p. 643.
  4. "The Voice of the Turtle". 20 December 2002.
  5. R. Benewick, Political Violence and Public Order, London: Allan Lane, 1969, pp. 279-282
  6. Bartlett, Roger Comrade Newsletter of the Friends of Oswald Mosley, When Mosley Men Won Elections (November 2014)
  7. Blackshirts on-Sea: A Pictorial History of the Mosley Summer Camps 1933-1939 J.A. Booker (Brockingday Publications 1999)
  8. Storm Tide - Worthing: Prelude to War 1933-1939 Michael Payne (Verite CM Ltd 2008)
  10. Comrade Newsletter of the Friends of Oswald Mosley When Mosley Men Won Elections (November 2014)
  12. 1932-1938 Fascism rises—March of the Blackshirts Archived 3 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  13. Lloyd, G., Yorkshire Post, 9 June 1934.
  14. Douglas, R. M. (1997). "The Swastika and the Shamrock: British Fascism and the Irish Question, 1918-1940". Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies. 29 (1): 57–75. doi:10.2307/4051595. JSTOR 4051595.
  16. Richard C. Thurlow. Fascism in Britain: from Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts to the National Front. 2nd edition. New York, New York, USA: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2006. p. 94.
  17. Fenton, Ben. "Oswald Mosley 'was a financial crook bankrolled by Nazis'". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 16 July 2014.
  18. Oswald Mosley, Tomorrow We Live (1938),
  19. Caldicott, Rosemary (2017). Lady Blackshirts. The Perils of Perception - suffragettes who became fascists. Bristol Radical Pamphleteer #39. ISBN 978-1911522393.
  20. "BBC Radio 4 - Mother Was A Blackshirt". BBC. 4 January 2010. Retrieved 21 April 2013.
  21. McPherson, Angela; McPherson, Susan (2011). Mosley's Old Suffragette - A Biography of Norah Elam. ISBN 978-1-4466-9967-6. Archived from the original on 13 January 2012.
  22. Martin Pugh, "Why the Former Suffragettes Flocked to British Fascism", Slate, 14 April 2017. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  23. Arthur Green, "Allen, William Edward David (1901–1973)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  24. Linehan, Thomas. British Fascism, 1918-39: Parties, Ideology and Culture. p. 139. while Beckett was a one-time Labour MP for Gateshead (1924-29) and Peckham (1929-31)
  25. "Soviet spy who had his eye on Belfast", Belfast Telegraph, 24 May 2003
    Eric Waugh, With Wings as Eagles
  26. Julie V. Gottlieb, "British Union of Fascists (act. 1932–1940)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  27. David Renton, "Bennett, Donald Clifford Tyndall (1910–1986)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  28. Brian Holden Reid, "Fuller, John Frederick Charles (1878–1966)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  29. "'Billy Boys' link to the Ku Klux Klan", The Irish News, 6 November 2015
  30. John Tooley, "Goodall, Sir Reginald (1901–1990)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  31. Resistance to fascism, Glasgow Digital Library (Accessed 6 February 2014)
  32. Richard Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany. London: Constable, 1980. p.52 The names are from MI5 Report. 1 August 1934. PRO HO 144/20144/110. (Cited in Thomas Norman Keeley Blackshirts Torn: inside the British Union of Fascists, 1932- 1940 p.26) (Accessed 6 February 2014)
  33. D. George Boyce, "Harmsworth, Harold Sidney, first Viscount Rothermere (1868–1940)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  34. Richard Davenport-Hines, "Hay, Josslyn Victor, twenty-second earl of Erroll (1901–1941)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  35. Richard Griffiths, "Russell, Hastings William Sackville, twelfth duke of Bedford (1888–1953)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  36. Anne Williamson, "Williamson, Henry William (1895–1977)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (Accessed 5 February 2014)
  37. BFI Film & TV Database (2012). "Mosley". British Film Institute. Retrieved 8 November 2012.
  38. Wodehouse, Pelham Grenville (1 May 2008) [First published 1938 by Herbert Jenkins Ltd.]. The Code of the Woosters (Reprinted ed.). Arrow Books. p. 66. ISBN 978-0099513759.
  39. Ziegler, King Edward VIII: The official biography, p. 392
  40. "United Kingdom - Hearts of Iron 4 Wiki". Retrieved 22 December 2016.
  41. Sarah Phelps. "The ABC Murders". BBC Writers' Room. Retrieved 24 January 2019.
  42. "Who was Sir Oswald Mosley?". BBC News. 26 August 2019. Retrieved 7 October 2019.

Further reading

  • Caldicott, Rosemary (2017) Lady Blackshirts. The perils of Perception - Suffragettes who became Fascists, Bristol Radical Pamphletteer #39. ISBN 978-1911522393
  • Dorril, Stephen (2006). Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British fascism. London: Viking. ISBN 978-0670869992. This book has been criticised as tendentious and biased in its view of its subject.
  • Drabik, Jakub. (2016a) "British Union of Fascists", Contemporary British History 30.1 (2016): 1-19.
  • Drábik, Jakub. (2016b) "Spreading the faith: the propaganda of the British Union of Fascists", Journal of Contemporary European Studies (2016): 1-15.
  • Garau, Salvatore. "The Internationalisation of Italian Fascism in the face of German National Socialism, and its Impact on the British Union of Fascists", Politics, Religion & Ideology 15.1 (2014): 45-63.
  • Griffiths, Richard (1983). Fellow Travellers of the Right: British enthusiasts for Nazi Germany, 1933-39. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0192851161.
  • Pugh, Martin (2006). "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!": Fascists and Fascism in Britain between the Wars (1st ed.). London: Pimlico. ISBN 9781844130870.
  • Thurlow, Richard (2006). Fascism in Britain: From Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts to the National Front (Rev. ed.). London: Tauris. ISBN 978-1860643378.
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