Britain has never had a fascist tradition. There was Mosley and his Blackshirts, of course (as above). But they entered the political fray only fleetingly and were eventually run out of town in the few places where they had attracted support. We Britons are too attached to the ideals of liberty and pluralism to indulge such a philosophy for long.
Yet, to listen to the histrionic fulminations of a section of society, you would be forgiven for thinking modern-day Britain was over-run with fascists.
That’s because the word ‘fascist’ itself has, like ‘racist’, been utterly debased – corrupted and devalued through careless overuse and calculated misuse.
People in these islands once knew what fascism meant. How could it be otherwise when so many had spent six years of their lives fighting against it? What a slight to their memory that we now toss the charge of ‘fascist’ around so casually, aiming it at anyone or anything we find objectionable.
‘Fascism’ as understood by previous generations – a set of ideas built around the supremacy of leader and nation (and sometimes race), with the ruthless suppression of opposition or dissent – has lost all meaning. Nowadays, Brexit is fascist. Trump is fascist. Jacob Rees-Mogg is fascist. The Daily Express is fascist. Ukip is fascist. I, a socialist and trade unionist, hold no candle for Ukip, by the way. But the suggestion that its libertarian ideology of small government and economic liberalism amounts to fascism, when in many ways it represents the polar opposite, is risible.
This all hit home to me recently when I came across a tweet from an anti-Brexit protestor. She was travelling back to Britain from her home in Spain to take part in a ‘Stop Brexit’ march. When asked by a Spanish friend why she was attending, she said it was…
“To fight against the fascist actions of the British government… And that’s when it sank in what #stopbrexit really is.”
So there we are. Once upon a time, people travelled from Britain to Spain to fight real fascists. Now they are coming home to fight imaginary ones.
She isn’t alone. There are thousands like her. Predominantly Left-wing and liberal, often young, middle-class and university-educated, always offended when confronted with alternative ideas beyond their echo chambers and safe spaces. They are real-life incarnations of the character Rick from TV’s The Young Ones, screaming ‘Fascist!’ in response to any sort of prohibitive authority (trust me, I know some of them). It was Rick’s juvenile anarchist outbursts, of course, that made him the biggest loser of the pack.
The currency of words matters. When they are debauched so mindlessly, it is usually for a reason. In this case, it’s an insidious attempt to shut down debate on topics which unite ‘enlightened’ liberals, but on which views are much less settled out there in the poor, oh-so-benighted provinces of the nation where many still hold true to old-fashioned socially conservative values.
Voted for Brexit? Racist!
In favour of immigration controls? Fascist!
Against abortion or same-sex marriage? Bigot!
That’s the script. But here’s the rub: unsurprisingly, people don’t like being branded as these things. And if you’re one of those doing the branding, you’re unlikely to win hearts and minds. On the contrary, this kind of abuse does nothing to foster unity or build a common good in communities which are already alienated and atomised – the kind of communities which voted Leave in such huge numbers because they were sick and tired of being held in contempt by a tin-eared establishment that did so little to gainsay the pernicious notion that their attitudes were in some way repugnant.
The unintended coalition, spawned by Brexit, that now exists between these working-class communities, once the bedrock of Labour support, and the Tory shires will not easily be put asunder. And the deepening estrangement between these millions and the rest of the country – including the army of well-heeled, hectoring liberals and their allies among the political class – will not be overcome without an end to the deployment of extreme and hysterical language which has the sole purpose of suffocating debate and snuffing out unfashionable opinions.