Saturday, 12 September 2015

Bruce and the Fascists

     I cannot escape adventure. If I touch a bath-heater, it blows up. If I go swimming, I am carried away by the tide. If I go to a restaurant which has had a blameless reputation for 100 years, someone chooses that day to shoot himself at the tables. If I go on a yacht, it sinks. If there is a street fight, it is timed to suit my convenience. If there is a fire, I am never more than a hundred yards away. I am a sensational newspaper reporter who has missed his vocation.
     That was a comment by Sir Michael Bruce (1894 - 1957) in his 1954 autobiography, Tramp Royal. Sir Michael gained his title by inheritance; he was a baronet, the eleventh in the series, and a descendant of the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce. He lived the sort of adventurous life most of us only dream of - if we are not concerned about suffering terrible injuries: being a policeman in South Africa and Rhodesia while still a teenager, fighting at both Gallipoli and the Western Front, and then heading for Brazil, where he became a cowboy, a revolutionary, and the sole survivor of a gold-prospecting expedition up the Amazon.
     Then, in 1925, he returned to an England which was strange to him. So disgusted was he at the way things were running, that for a short period he joined the Fascist Party. As he explained in the above mentioned autobiography:
It is difficult to realise nowadays that when it was first formed it was a loyal, decent British cause backed by Jew and Gentile alike. Unfortunately, it soon began to recruit an element which gradually permeated the movement with anti-Semitism. When it was suggested as part of the party's programme in Dorset, all the leading members, including myself, resigned.
     Later, in 1938, he was employed smuggling Jews out of Austria, a job finally curtailed by his arrest by the Gestapo.
     I have to admit, though, his statement about the British Fascists was news to me. But perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. We tend to label all our European enemies in the Second World War "Fascists"  (I believe it was Stalin who started the trend), but it wasn't so. The Germans were Nazis; Fascism was an Italian movement. And although Mussolini was, in the words of one historian, "a thug in emperor's clothing", anti-Semitism and crackpot racial theories were foreign to him, though he later introduced some aspects of both to satisfy his ally, Hitler. But Hitler was only a shadow on the horizon in 1925. Also, as Jonah Goldberg has recounted in Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2007), a lot of people who called themselves liberal were attracted to Mussolini's program in the early days, despite his visible contempt for democracy. And if you check the Wikipedia entry on British Fascism you will see that it really did start off as Sir Michael described, and then went downhill.
     This leaves me thinking: there exist a lot of fringe groups about which most people know little, except that they are regularly described as "right wing" or, less often, "left wing". How accurate are these labels? Have the commentators who use them actually checked the groups' platforms, or are they simply parroting off what other people have said? I ask this for two reasons. The first is, as I explained elsewhere, "right" and "left" are pigeon holes too narrow to accommodate everything. Some movements defy simple categorization.
     Secondly, on the rare occasions when the literature of such groups has fallen into my hands, I have noted that, although they normally have at least one policy I object to, they are nowhere near as bad as they have made out. Thus, when the press reported on the Cronulla riots, a photo was printed of a woman described as a "neo-Nazi" holding up a placard. Neo-Nazi? Had the journalist actually delved into the organization in detail? Its name was on the placard, so I immediately went to its website. Surprise! I could find no reference to a Jewish conspiracy, white supremacy, or any lament for their late, misunderstood hero, Adolf Hitler. As far as I could see, its sole platform was opposition to Third World immigration - to which the journalist is well within her rights to object, but it is not enough to justify the slur of "neo-Nazi".
     It only goes to show that it is always best to do your own research, and judge organizations by their own words and actions, rather than what other people say about them. Be careful about joining new groups, but don't be quick to judge either.

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