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Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers

2,954 words

Graham Macklin
Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right
London & New York: Routledge, 2020
(Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right)

The comic highpoint of Failed Führers comes about halfway through the book, when Colin Jordan marries the tall, blonde, stunning Françoise Dior — niece of the designer.

The year is 1963. The groom is the founder of the National Socialist Movement in Britain, while the bride is a wealthy heiress, socialite, and — until her recent divorce — a countess.

Françoise is also the head of the French chapter of the World Union of National Socialists and, not surprisingly, a close friend of the French-Greek mystic Savitri Devi. Colin, as it happens, is the “Führer” of the World Union of National Socialists, which he recently founded, with George Lincoln Rockwell as his deputy.

Françoise and Colin hold a “National Socialist wedding” at the NSM headquarters in London one weekend, preceded by a quick and legal marriage at the registry office in Coventry (where Colin lives). It’s a wet day in early October, but the press and newsreel [1] people are on hand, along with a few hundred rubberneckers, some of them armed with rotten eggs.

English newsmen, always proud of their nation’s eccentrics, are much amused by it all. Writes a whimsical columnist in the Daily Sketch:

Hip and Square. Erotic leather and tweedy tweeds. Like two strangers sheltering from the rain. The elegant top model and the balding scout master. She with a little English. He with less French. She with a bold taste for whisky. He with a taste for a little shandy. She a chain smoker. He a non-smoker. Improbably unpromising — an unblessed marriage under the crooked cross. (p. 288)

The event seems to have faded out quickly in public memory, perhaps because there was so much other news happening. The following week, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan would resign in the wake of the Profumo Scandal.

The Jordan-Dior marriage was not to last. Françoise was mortified by the discovery that Colin expected them both to live like Mr. and Mrs. Bloggs in “an isolated house in the countryside,” with Françoise playing housewife, something that was “contrary to my aspirations, my education, and the social class [to which] I belong.”

But there was another complication with the Jordan-Dior match, and that was young John Tyndall, Jordan’s second-in-command in the National Socialist Movement. Tyndall had been romancing Françoise back in May, and they were about to be married. Colin Jordan was then in prison, and they went to meet him at the prison gates when he was released. Colin and Françoise flew to Paris to meet her French Nazi confreres, and he proposed to her on the plane.

It all led, naturally enough, to a long-running feud between the two men, and soon the jilted John Tyndall went off to found his own “movement.” Eventually, Françoise divorced Colin, and later married yet another count.

I wish I could tell you that Failed Führers is chock-full of delights like this. But alas, it is not. Much of it is dense and dreary. This is partly because not everything can happen in 1963 (the year when “sexual intercourse began,” per Philip Larkin). But it’s also because author Graham Macklin fails to infuse the narrative with pop-history style and fizz. Instead, Macklin drones on doggedly, giving us a data-dump of every pamphlet, “groupuscule,” public quarrel, and legal action that his research turned up.

Mercifully, Macklin does not demonize his subjects, as some books in the Routledge Fascism and Far Right series have been known to do. But he doesn’t galvanize them either; their stories remain limp and shapeless. Minor feuds within the groups are given the same space as salient political shifts in the outside world — and here I’m thinking of such things as the formation of the Conservatives’ Monday Club in the early 1960s, the sudden incandescence of Enoch Powell a few years later, and the anti-immigration pose of Margaret Thatcher just before her premiership. These all affected the fortunes of such groups as the National Front, mainly by poaching their rhetoric and appearing to provide an attractive and viable alternative.

This social and political backdrop could have made for a very appetizing narrative, but Macklin makes little use of it. He does not weave the modern history of far-Right movements into that of Britain at large, possibly because he considers them too ineffectual and beyond the Pale. And so our main characters and their cadres appear to move within cloistered enclaves, largely disconnected from the rest of the world, except for the occasional street march, or Trafalgar Square rally, or prosecution for “hateful speech” under the latest Race Relations Act. The prose is flat, affectless, and repetitive; and there is just too much of it. It all needs to be cut down by a manuscript editor’s firm hand (doesn’t Routledge have editors?) and maybe punched up by a skilled copywriter. An adman like the late David Ogilvy, or Commander Rockwell, maybe, could whip it into shape.

Speaking of which, the title and cover are a kind of false advertising. The bulk of the book comprises six monograph-length biographies of prominent Rightists of the postwar era. But the only quasi-Führer among those six figures, failed or otherwise, is our Mr. Jordan. We see some of his cadre in the cover photo, with perhaps Jordan himself. (Getty Images claim to own this “candid” photo, captioning it as the NSM headquarters in London in 1962.)

The other five Rightists reviewed in the book were more along the lines of gentleman-scholars and controversialists. Their points of view were often divergent and sometimes obscure.

Leese, Mosley, Chesterton

The first three in the list are mainly remembered for their pre-1940 activities, but they all lived well past the war, with varying degrees of influence on the postwar generations. We begin with Arnold Leese (1878-1956), former camel veterinarian-turned-fascist-pamphleteer, with a keen interest in Jewish Ritual Murder. Little more than a one-man-band for most of his post-camel career, he sneered at other British Fascist groups of the 1920s, dismissing their movements as mere “Conservatism with knobs on.” He founded, and ran, and was, the Imperial Fascist League. Later Leese stoked feuds with Sir Oswald Mosley, A. K. Chesterton, and others. His significance in this book is mainly due to a young acolyte and Cambridge student — Colin Jordan again — who copied both Leese’s polemical style and the name of Leese’s newsletter, Gothic Ripples.

Next, we look at Sir Oswald “Tom” Mosley (1896-1980), the baronet, fencer, and onetime MP whose postwar political efforts through his Union Movement were forever hobbled by his 1930s leadership of the British Union of Fascists. Author Macklin wrote a study of Mosley some years ago. [1] [2] But now he tells us that altogether too much attention has been paid to Sir Oswald, giving a distorted picture of his significance in the postwar nationalist scene. (p. 1)

So, we move on to a much more influential elder, A.K. Chesterton (1899-1973), another figure who has been a particular interest of Macklin’s. [2] [3] A onetime Mosleyite, Chesterton founded the League of Empire Loyalists, was a postwar associate of the civic-nationalist British People’s Party, and in 1967, became the original leader of the National Front. He nowadays might be regarded as a “trad fascist,” someone whose political philosophy was rooted in a rather mystical veneration of nation and history. While this may sound hardly unusual for a far-Rightist, it was actually one of two areas where Chesterton strongly disagreed with Mosley, who after 1945 was pressing for “European Socialism.”

The other dispute was over Mosley’s postwar refusal to touch the Jewish question, a demurral that revolted Chesterton. Here Macklin quotes him, snorting with contempt in 1947, after Mosley proposes his “Europe-a-Nation” idea:

How thoroughly in keeping with the hapless Mosley temperament it is that he should seek to return to political life without the least hope of ever being able to escape the odium, whether deserved or undeserved, of his Fascist past, and yet having divested his political stock in trade of the one part of the Fascist argument which was demonstrably true! (p. 180)

Unlike Mosley and many of the 1930s Blackshirts, Chesterton escaped internment during the Second World War. After leaving Mosley, he joined the army in 1939. (He had already been an officer in the First War.) Chesterton is unique among his contemporary far-Rightists in that he had a real-world, non-political career as a working journalist and newspaper editor, in both South Africa and England. And he was prolific, too. In the early 1950s, Max Beaverbrook hired him to write for the Daily Express, Sunday Express, and Evening Standard. (p. 198) Exactly how A. K. and the press tycoon maintained such cordial relations is a question worth exploring, but it may have been just the affinity of old Fleet Street hands. And of course, there was his eye-catching byline. Arthur Kenneth Chesterton’s first-cousin-once-removed was G. K. Chesterton. [3] [4]

Toward the end of his long career, he wrote a book called The New Unhappy Lords [4] [5], which was the first long-form study to describe and denounce the various parties behind World Government — the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, etc., etc. Whatever the merits of these theories, the book is of interest to American political historians and conspiratologists because its basic thesis was soon picked up by such Rightist organizations as the John Birch Society — which rejected Chesterton’s discussion about Jews in the Conspiracy — and Liberty Lobby, which did not.

Jordan, Tyndall, Griffin

All three of the younger Rightists in the book — Colin Jordan, John Tyndall, and Nick Griffin — came under the spell of Chesterton, directly or indirectly. Jordan joined Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists in the mid-50s, after finishing his master’s degree at Cambridge. (He was later barred from membership in the National Front thanks to his National Socialist Movement notoriety.) Tyndall (1934-2005) also joined the League when young, before becoming Jordan’s deputy in the NSM. The NF didn’t blackball Tyndall, however, perhaps because by then he’d fiercely fallen out with Jordan and somewhat de-Nazified his image. Griffin (1959- ) managed to join the NF at 15, too late to have known Chesterton. However, Chestertonian philosophy, particularly the idea of Distributism, came to dominate his writing. [5] [6]

Parties, factions, subgroups, and “groupuscules” (a favorite word of Macklin’s) breed like rabbits in the latter sections of the book, and so do acronyms. John Tyndall, for example, was successively active in organizations abbreviated as: LEL, NLP, BNP, NSM (and WUSN), GBM, NF, NNF, and (another) BNP. I may have left some out. The eyes glaze over as we move forward!

Nevertheless, for those of us who have memories going back thirty years or more, the narrative becomes more intriguing. This is because the characters and controversies get more familiar. Tyndall, for example, was an international figure, well known throughout the English-speaking world. He did at least two tours of America (1979 and 1990), and the names that get dropped here will be familiar to most of those reading these lines: Wilmot Robertson, William Pierce, and Revilo Oliver, among others. Robertson was particularly enthralled by Tyndall, devoting many pages of Instauration to him over the years, including a lengthy interview in 1979. [6] [7] Robertson urged Tyndall on several occasions to “come on over here and set up an American National Front.” (p. 383)

The NF reached peak popularity in the late 1970s. Then the wheels came off. The Conservative Party victory in the 1979 general election was partly due to Margaret Thatcher making worried sounds about Britain becoming “swamped by people with a different culture.” (p. 382) This sapped the NF’s polling strength to a fraction of what it had been in previous elections. Tyndall soon quit the NF, though this had more to do with intramural factionalism than election results. He splintered off with a new group that eventually called itself the British National Party.

You can buy The World in Flames: The Shorter Writings of Francis Parker Yockey here. [8]

During those late-70s growth years, the NF started to go in many directions at once. Much of the new membership was coming from a concerted drive to bring in working-class youth, a cohort that in the popular imagination (and perhaps in reality) included a good many skinheads and “football hooligans.” This was the braces-and-bovver-boots era, when any pocket cartoon about the National Front invariably showed a shaven-headed tough in Doc Martens.

Actually, that would be the new Young National Front (YNF), where young Nick Griffin, age 18, soon rose to a leadership post. The YNF soon gained more attention and membership than the parent party had in ten years. Its big drawing card was a lively tabloid called Bulldog (founded 1977), which championed stadium rowdiness and offered such activist-friendly features as a “Black List” of names and addresses for teachers known to be “anti-British Reds.”

If Bulldog was a News of the World for the Younger Set, Griffin’s high-minded Nationalism Today (b. 1980) aimed for more of a cross between Instauration and the Times Literary Supplement. Obscure economic and political philosophies were the stock-in-trade: Distributism, Syndicalism, Strasserism; and finally and best of all, Third Positionism, following the radically abstruse philosophy of Julius Evola. This magazine sounds like a very ambitious undergraduate enterprise, and indeed, it was initially conceived in Nick Griffin’s rooms at Downing College, Cambridge. (p. 443)

According to Macklin, Third Positionism entered the NF and Nationalism Today scene when Roberto Fiore and his Terza Posizione colleagues arrived in Brighton one day in 1980. (p. 446) They were on the lam from Italian police who sought their arrest as suspects in the bombing of the Bologna railway station on August 2nd of that year. (After managing an accommodation business in the 1980s and 90s, Fiore eventually returned to Italy, and was elected Member of the European Parliament.)

There is much more here, of a centrifugal nature: Griffin’s promotion of Ian Stuart Donaldson’s punk-metal band Skrewdriver in the early-mid 80s; a falling-out with veteran NF organizer Martin Webster, who balked at the confused directions the party and Nationalism Today seemed to be taking; demonstrations against American cruise missiles in East Anglia; difficulties in finding a coherent party position with regard to the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement; attempts to build alliances with William Pierce, Louis Farrakhan, black and Muslim groups and, for a while, even Muammar Gaddafi. Griffin eventually drifted away from the NF and briefly founded a new outfit, the International Third Position, named after Roberto Fiore’s group.

*   *   *

Failed Führers covers a lot of granular history, but fails to grapple with some core questions that ordinary people would ask. Primarily: why did these men, for the most part of considerable intellect and education, devote their careers to political groups and petty infighting that would strike most people as ineffectual? Why did they not instead “work within the system”? After all (say the know-it-alls), in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, maybe beyond, the major parties seemed to have no shortage of sympathetic ears for nationalistic voices. The Labour Party roundly condemned membership in the European Economic Community, and Conservatives had their own Empire Loyalists in the Monday Club.

Obviously, a few of these figures had blotted their copybooks too badly and too early. Leese was too cranky and too old; Mosley couldn’t get the press to forget his Blackshirt days; while Jordan, and perhaps Tyndall, too, had become enraptured in their youth with National Socialist trappings that were irredeemably exotic. A. K. Chesterton managed to keep his mainstream credentials pretty well — his journalistic career, anyway — but he just wasn’t a politician. For example, he couldn’t forgive Enoch Powell for having tolerated certain immigration policies when he was in the Macmillan government. Powell was “knight errant who arrives at the thirteenth hour, gives momentary battle only now and then,” finally “turning up at a Bilderberg Conference in Canada.” (p. 227) This leaves Nick Griffin, who might well have segued off into a quasi-mainstream faction; something like UKIP if it had been around in 1980.

An alternative question is why the growth of their movements was so ineluctably stunted. The NF at its peak in the late 1970s had about half the membership of the BUF in 1934. (p. 346) The answer is probably something simple and crude: money. You cannot flourish as a political lobby or party without an ample and sustainable flow of funds. Donations and newspaper sales can keep the lights on; but without a full-time, professional “development” staff (i.e., fundraisers) or a thriving standalone business (whether dealing in books or beer or Shaker furniture) a political organization will always be like an oak tree that you planted in a flowerpot.

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[1] [11] Graham Macklin, Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism. (London: I. B. Tauris), 2007.

[2] [11] Macklin, “Transatlantic Connections and Conspiracies: A. K. Chesterton and The New Unhappy Lords.” Journal of Contemporary History, March 2012.

[3] [11] G. K. Chesterton was no fascist, but he had wide readership in British far-Right circles, at least according to Francis Beckett in A Fascist in the Family (2017), another volume in this Routledge series. Beckett, whose father was a close friend of A.K. Chesterton, sees an ideological kinship in the two cousins.

[4] [11] A.K. Chesterton, The New Unhappy Lords: An Exposure of Power Politics (London: Candour Publishing), 1967.

[5] [11] Distributism might be called an anti-capitalist, pro-property social theory, originally propounded in England by the Catholic writers Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, from whence it flowed naturally to cousin A. K.

[6] [11] Instauration, April 1979. Link to PDF here [12].