Fascism in Scotland got off to an inauspicious start in the mid 1920s, when a member of the emergent British Fascisti – on scabbing duties during the 1926 General Strike – stuck his head out the window of a moving train and was swiftly decapitated. It would become a fitting metaphor for the success of the far-right in Scotland over the ninety years which followed.
Through a mixture of sheer incompetence, narcissism and infighting – not to mention the fierce opposition it has always faced on the streets – there’s been many lows in the history of Scotland’s bumbling far-right. Yet the British ruling class – as across Europe – were sympathetic to fascism, as the footage which recently emerged of the Royal Family sieg-heiling at Balmoral in 1933 starkly illustrates.
The Earl of Glasgow
Founded by the 8th Earl of Glasgow and head-quartered in the city, the British Fascisti (BF) enjoyed powerful links, having been set up in homage to Mussolini, whose crushing of the left in Italy had many admirers among the British establishment. Yet their British imitators were so hopeless that even the “King and country” they had been set up to support didn’t have any use for them.
In 1925, The Scotsman reported an Edinburgh Tory MP as saying that the BF were “to his mind… not much use, because they always seemed to clash with the communists and had to call in the police… on the other hand he did not see why Fascists should not be enrolled as Special Constables if they were, as they seemed to be, men of good character”. Attitudes like this were far from uncommon, with the far-right generally viewed as a useful counterweight to communists and the labour movement.
In the finest tradition of the British far-right, the BF soon splintered into different factions, among them one called the Scottish Loyalists. Along with the Earl of Glasgow, Billy Fullerton of razor rang the “Brigton Billy Boys” was a leading member. Sound familiar? You’ve probably heard songs about him – indeed one particularly cheerful ditty, celebrating the misdeeds of strike-breaking fascist Fullerton, is still a favourite amongst the Ibrox loyal. Scottish fascism has always enjoyed a complex relationship with loyalism – although not necessarily to its benefit, with London-based far-right groups consistently finding themselves unable to grasp, or exploit, the sectarian and religious dynamic of bigotry in Scotland.
“The Edinburgh KKK”
So while fascist groups were struggling to get off the ground north of the border in the 1920s and 1930s, militant personality cults embodying many of the same principles, but instead dedicated to radical anti-Catholicism, were flourishing, winning local elections and causing chaos in the streets. One Edinburgh based paramilitary faction ominously chose the name “Kormack’s Kaledonian Klan” and made international headlines after attacking a Catholic conference in the city in 1935, threatening local police that they would not stand for “popish dictation”.
Street violence was a common occurrence in cities across Europe in the tumultuous decades of the inter-war period, as the far-right and communists battled for control of the streets. By comparison, Britain – and Scotland – got off relatively lightly, with the fascist movement peaking in 1934 when Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) claimed 40,000 members. Mosley was an aristocratic figure and a distant relation of the Queen Mother – who, as we now know, was also not adverse to bit of Nazi saluting herself. Obsessed by Mussolini’s success, he formed the BUF and set about courting the British establishment, winning support from Daily Mail owner Viscount Rothermere, who penned the paper’s infamous “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” article, and sections of the Conservatives. The Blackshirts were a physical defence force that Mosley formed at the inception of the BUF, a response to the sometimes violent opposition that his previous party, called “The New Party”, faced. The experience of a Glasgow rally in 1931, where Mosley had “sticks and stones” rained down on him, was – according to a friend’s diary entry – pivotal in this decision.
The key flash point for the BUF came in 1936, when 300,000 workers faced down the police to halt a BUF march through a Jewish area in London’s east end. The Battle of Cable Street, as it became known, is still celebrated to this day, but was far from the only serious clash between the BUF and their opponents. In Scotland’s cities, the fascists were fiercely opposed wherever and whenever they tried to organise, although they did make some inroads in the south of Scotland.
“a mob of 600 Reds, led by a Jew”
The BUF’s propaganda rag, The Blackshirt offered a frequent rundown of whatever tragic mishap had befallen their Scottish membership that week, with highlights from Glasgow including the time “a mob of 600 Reds led by a Jew” attacked them as they were leaving their office, to the 200 communists who descended on them while paper-selling at Charing Cross, the time they were hounded out of the restaurant in which they were “having supper”, or when Jewish workers smashed up Nazi propagandist Lord Haw Haw‘s platform in Queens Park. “There has been serious trouble in the Scotland area,” remarked a Special Branch report on the BUF in 1935 and indeed, even the most hardened believer in Mosley’s corporatist vision would have struggled to find the motivation for public activity in the face of this kind of opposition.
In Aberdeen, a minor aristocrat called William Chambers-Hunter, who had previously worked on plantations in Africa, spent several years trying in vain to kickstart a fascist movement locally, alongside – in a historical quirk – the daughter-in-law of the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Under police protection, the Aberdeen branch were able to ramp up activity in the city, eventually leading to an official outcry after anti-fascists were “batoned down” to prepare the way for a BUF rally in 1937. The following year, the tables were turned as 6,000 anti-fascists stormed an impromptu BUF rally in Torry and, on this occasion, the police stood aside and watched. In later correspondence, the local police chief conceded that while this “may appear like submitting to mob law”, his force had little option, effectively vindicating the anti-fascists and their strategy of “no-platforming”. The BUF’s experiment in the city had died as soon as state protection was withdrawn; ultimately, it was easier for the police – primarily concerned with maintaining the peace – to come down on the small number of fascists than the mass of anti-fascists, a lesson which remains true to this day.
The BUF’s ruling class links began to falter as early as June 1934, with Hitler’s pogrom of Nazi party opponents in the Night of the Long Knives, alongside violent scenes at a huge BUF rally at the Olympia in London, upsetting the sensibilities of well-to-do fascists. In effect, squads of brawling Blackshirts were proving to be more trouble than they were worth, although as Hitler consolidated and spread his power in central Europe, his acolytes among the British establishment remained.
The Duke of Buccleuch
The 8th Duke of Buccleuch – whose grandson, the 10th Duke, is presently the largest private landowner in Scotland – was a fervent admirer of Nazism and a frequent visitor to the regime. Despite holding a senior position at Buckingham Palace, as the Lord Steward of the Royal Household, in May 1939 – just a few months before Britain declared war – he attended Hitler’s 50th birthday celebrations with Lord Brocket, a Tory MP and fellow landowning aristocrat (who once hosted Nazi minister von Ribbentrop at his Knoydart estate). This was apparently a source of personal delight for Hitler. The Duke remained largely unrepentant over the years that followed, fearing that the alternative to Hitler would be communism and that the British government had been taken in by “sinister forces” including “Jews”.
This is to barely scrape the surface of ruling class empathy, and at times active support, for the fascist cause in the Spanish Civil War and Nazi Germany. That the Queen’s uncle, Prince Edward, seen giving a fascist salute in the footage which was revealed recently, was a Nazi-sympathiser is not disputed. Having resigned his position as King, he toured Germany in 1937, met Hitler and was eventually forced into exile during the war.
Many have been quick to say that in 1933 or 1934, the horror of the Nazis was not yet known – up until then, the regime had merely engaged in perfectly reasonable activities like banning trade unions, locking up social democrats, overriding the constitution and acceding total power to Hitler. Reasonable, at least, to the same ruling class that had already spent five years fawning over Mussolini doing much the same in Italy. Quite what’s meant to be surprising about the British Royal Family, the rulers of the British Dominions and Emperors of India, rollicking about in the grounds of their Highland estate (purchased by Queen Victoria as a fashion accessory while the region’s population was forcibly cleared to turn it into a playground for the elites) being supporters of the Nazis is unclear. What’s more surprising is that the photo was able to leak out, and it begs the question of what else they’re hiding.
It does, however, reinforce an analysis that the establishment in Britain was just as susceptible and amenable to fascism as anywhere else, but ultimately found more effective, and less visibly reprehensible, ways of subjugating working class power. It was the actions of anti-fascist workers who made Britain’s emergent fascist street movements inoperable and undesirable.
The anecdote at the start of this article is from Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years of Resistance, an excellent new book which offers a concise overview of anti-fascist resistance in Europe, both before and after WWII, out now on AK Press.
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