For all the left’s talk of German-style Nazis, fascism has very British roots. In a shortened version of an article he wrote while in the Republican Workers’ Tendency, Chris Ford shows the link between loyalism and fascism
In an exercise in deception, British Left and Right historians have placed an Italian label on this movement. It better deserves a British one. The first movement of 20th century fascism emerged in 1910 to enforce the unity of the United Kingdom. It was a time of militant workers’ struggles and resurgent Irish nationalism. The crisis over the national question split the British ruling class. The liberal wing advocated devolution within the Union, then called Home Rule. The most reactionary wing, without a parliamentary majority, set its frontline on the Irish question. The Tory Unionist Sir Edward Carson raised the 80,000 strong UVF in defence of empire and against unpatriotic socialists and papist nationalists. Two decades before German generals moved behind National Socialism, British generals were backing the British nationalist UVF as a rallying force for counter-revolution in the UK. Orange reaction set about the sectarian division of the working class. It was the shape of things to come in Europe as a whole.
International revolution and counter-revolution
The Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, followed a year later by the Bolshevik led October Uprising, heralded the International Revolutionary Wave, which lasted until 1921. Amidst the slaughter of the First World War, millions of workers and peasants rose up to challenge social and national oppression. The uprooting of capitalism and construction of a communist society was no longer a distant utopia but a living possibility. It was no coincidence that at this moment in history a movement as barbaric as fascism should emerge. World capitalism unleashed everything from its arsenal to prevent communism and to maintain its own rule. The ‘democratic’ League of Nations launched an Anti-Bolshevik Crusade. Communists at the time saw fascism as inseparable from the overall offensive of capital. Through the state, the capitalist class sponsored the fascists in a variety of ways in different countries to meet its own ends. In Italy the parliamentary Right placed Mussolini at the helm of the state; in Hungary they were the only force available to crush the Hungarian Soviet Republic. However it was in Germany that fascism played such a key role in the decisive battles of the revolution in Europe.
The UK did not escape the revolutionary wave and the working class did not escape from this fascist backlash. Whilst fascism is an independent movement, the decisive factor determining the extent of its power and influence stems from the state. In the UK the myriad fascist forces which emerged in this period were almost in their entirety initiated by the state security forces. Organisations like the BEU were engaged in activities against the workers’ movement from organising strike breaking, goon squads and intelligence work. In 1918 the far Right stood under the populist cloak of the National Democratic Labour Party, backed by the BEU. They gained 10 MPs. When the Duke of Northumberland founded the British Fascists in 1923 they received MI5 assistance. Through direct state support the early fascists formed a rightist prop to the Anti-Bolshevik Crusade.
The director of the Economic League, James White, admired the British Fascists for having achieved an end for which it has never been credited. It forced the Communist Party to abandon much of its militant activity.
The Six Counties – fascism in action
It was the Irish revolution, however, which provided the main focus for British Fascism. The same directors of the state security services which had coordinated activities in England, Scotland and Wales throughout the International Revolutionary Wave, saw their actions as closely linked to the continuation of the counterrevolution in Ireland. In 1921, having forced a Partition Agreement upon the now split forces of Irish Republicanism, they set about the task of imposing it in the Six Counties. The traditional British Left view completely fails to see any connection between fascism and this tragic episode. Field Marshall Wilson set up the Specials, a force of 48,000 drawn from the old UVF and Cromwell Clubs. Lloyd George described them as analogous to the fascisti in Italy. In the years 1920 to 1922 these British fascists forced 23,000 people from their homes and killed 400 in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Having imposed partition, Wilson and Co looked beyond Irish horizons to the rest of the UK and the possibility of forming a real conservative party. The implementation of the reaction plotted by the Real Conservatives (a name which could well be applied to the far Right of today’s conservatives, with their allies in the security services, amongst the Ulster Unionists and the British National Party!) never spread beyond the Six Counties.
Although Wilson was finished off by an IRA bullet there are wider reasons for the failure of the first wave of British fascism and important lessons for today. Ireland was the only place in the UK that the British ruling class was challenged by insurgent masses demanding social and national liberation. The Easter Rising had demolished the liberal agenda of Home Rule under the Crown and proclaimed a Republic.
In the rest of the UK the post-war upheaval took another direction opening the way to a different solution for the British ruling class. Of the Communists, only John MacLean posed the question of a serious revolutionary challenge to the state. With the developing break up of the British Empire and the UK state he united the demand for a Scottish Workers’ Republic with slogans of Up Ireland!, Up India! and began drawing up plans for an insurrection.
However, the majority of the workers’ movement remained tied to Labourism and the majority of communists to a syndicalist struggle. The capitalist state was not challenged for political power. The class collaboration of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy provided the British ruling class with a solution within the framework of parliamentary democracy. The Crown Powers still provided the state security forces with the means to sponsor fascism, varying from military force to strike-breaking depending on what was required. The history of pre-war fascism shows that bourgeois liberal democracy and fascism are not absolute opposites. His Majesty’s government instituted fascist terror in Ireland to preserve the UK state and the façade of parliamentary democracy was allowed to remain intact.
British nationalism – reinforcing the UK state
In the past the super profits of the British Empire held together the constituent nations of the United Kingdom and united a ruling class in their British nation. With the loss of empire and facing increasingly stiff competition, the UK may appear a great power but it is in a state of terminal decline. The twentieth century saw the break up of the multinational states – most importantly the USSR and Yugoslavia. Here the once united ruling classes have retreated into Great Russian and Greater Serbian nationalism. Such nationalism, although often ignored by the Brit Left, has been ever present in the UK. British nationalism is changing and in many ways to a more dangerous beast, for the only possibility of a Britain great again is retrogression into the worst chauvinism, racism and authoritarian control. It is not the nationalism of empire building and the great white mission but of a social system in decay and for the preservation of the UK state itself. This national chauvinism has justified the attacks on Irish republicans and black communities, laying the groundwork for attacks on the working class as a whole.
Loyalism and Fascism
In the 1990’s the BNP manifesto declared that, “We are dedicated to maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We oppose any devolution schemes which threaten to loosen ties between the component parts of the United Kingdom”. They are standing in the tradition of British fascism which has always reflected the Britishness of the ruling classes setting its frontline on the unity of the Union.
Just as at the birth of fascism, the most reactionary forces of British nationalism focus on the Irish question. The republican communities of resistance, which formed in the 1970’s established political, social and military institutions within the territory of the UK state but in defiance of this state. In doing so they have faced the ferocity of the British ruling class and, as in the past, British fascism.
This Loyalist wing of British Fascism is not restricted to the Six Counties. Loyalism has been active for years in Scotland and England also. The Independent Orange Order in Scotland is currently the largest fascist group in Scotland openly in alliance with the UDA. It has worked closely with the largely English based BNP, most notably against republicans. In England the Loyalist activity has ranged from mobilising against the Manchester Martyrs March, the London Bloody Sunday March to engaging in covert strike breaking, eg Laings Lockout.
Whilst the traditional Left has been looking for a fascism of swastikas it has failed to see that these were Nazi symbols built out of a German nationalism. Groups like the SWP’s Anti-Nazi League like to emphasise the essentially foreign nature of fascism, painting a picture of 1930’s German Nazis. They miss the reality of British fascism feeding off British nationalism. So nationalism itself remains compatible with antifascism, the heritage of the Guns of Navarone, D-Day and We won the war. What then are symbols of British nationalism? The Union Jack, the Orange sash and the Lambeg drum. These are also the symbols which indigenous British fascism is attempting to utilise. We ignore this at our peril.