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Passive and Active Anti-Fascism: The State and National Security, 1923–45

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Abstract

This chapter will argue that although there were significant divisions within the state on how British fascism should be managed, the preferred formal and informal methods of control can basically be described as a passive form of anti-fascism. While the threatened invasion and imagined ‘fifth column’ crisis of 1940 marks a significant turning point between passive (political surveillance and tinkering with common law) and active (internment and proscription) state anti-fascism, the reversion to less draconian methods after the emergency suggests that the authorities were concerned, as with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CP or CPGB), not to drive alleged political extremism underground.1 While the sledgehammer response was understandable in the context of 1940, and although some plausible evidence was later discovered about actual or potential treasonable behaviour by a miniscule minority of British fascists (e.g. William Joyce), the British Union of Fascists (BUF) maintained its opposition to the war within the law. Although Mosley’s refusal to play the rules of the political game eventually led him to go beyond the pale, thus making his political behaviour unacceptable to most Conservative and Labour politicians in the inter-war period, there was a more complex response to international fascism.

Keywords

  • National Security
  • Civil Liberty
  • Public Order
  • Special Branch
  • Agent Provocateur

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  1. David S. Lewis, Illusions of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987); Gerald D. Anderson, Fascists, Communists and the National Government. Civil Liberties in Great Britain, 1931–37 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983).

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  2. Richard Thurlow, The Secret State: British Internal Security in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 107–72.

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  3. Thomas Jones, Whitehall Diary Volume 2 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 195.

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  4. Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: From Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts to the National Front, revised and updated edition (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998), pp. 188–9.

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  5. Thurlow, The Secret State, pp. 182–203; Paul Cohen, ‘The Police, the Home Office and the Surveillance of the British Union of Fascists’, Intelligence and National Security 1, 3 (1986), 416–39.

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  6. Richard Thurlow ‘Blaming the Blackshirts: The Authorities and the Anti-Semitic Disturbances in the 1930s’, in Panikos Panayi (ed.), Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1996), pp. 112–30.

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  20. Anthony Masters, The Man who was M: The Life of Maxwell Knight (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984) is a useful biography, but needs to be handled with care as some of the details of Knight’s intelligence career need revision.

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© 2010 Richard Thurlow

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Thurlow, R. (2010). Passive and Active Anti-Fascism: The State and National Security, 1923–45. In: Copsey, N., Olechnowicz, A. (eds) Varieties of Anti-Fascism. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230282674_8

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230282674_8

  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, London

  • Print ISBN: 978-1-349-28231-9

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