IN APRIL 1933, the Union Debating Society of St Andrews University invited a German government language tutor, Otto Wagner, to propose the motion: “This House approves of the Nazi Party, and congratulates it on its splendid work in the reformation of Germany.”
According to the society’s annual report, “Herr Wagner overcame the language difficulties with such skill.” He was notably supported by the undergraduate George K Young, future spy chief and president of the anti-immigrant Monday Club. The minutes of the debate recorded that “the 75 members on the floor with a further 50 in the gallery” passed the motion with a clear majority. Wagner told his masters in London that the debate was widely reported in the Scottish press, and that the success of the motion contrasted with “anti-German” ones proposed elsewhere in Great Britain.
It was not only the gilded youth of St Andrews that was attracted by Fascism. Fear and hatred of the “Judeo-Bolshevik” threat were rife in the Scottish elite, from landed gentry to business tycoons and military officers. In the 1920s, the Earl of Glasgow, inspired by Mussolini’s march on Rome, was prominent in the creation of the British Fascisti. The Earl of Erroll proudly sported a Fascist insignia on his sporran. The Duke of Buccleuch was an outspoken supporter of appeasement, while, as late as 1939, the Duke of Hamilton argued in The Times for Nazi Germany’s right to Lebensraum. It was therefore not as a victim of “tragic hallucinations” (according to Josef Goebbels) that on 10 May, 1941, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess made an ill-fated flight to Eaglesham to discuss peace terms with the duke.
Fascism in Britain is normally associated with England, and especially the East End of London – and even then dismissed as a marginal political phenomenon. The dark side of nationalism in Scotland has rarely been the object of academic research, and has been largely ignored by a political class that seems convinced that it “couldn’t happen here”. The “best small country in the world”, it appears, invariably extends a welcoming hand to strangers while sending out fresh-faced volunteers to Malawi or International Brigades to Spain.
It was in order to challenge such complacency, and recount a fascinating and appalling story, that I chose to write Fascist Scotland. The furore that surrounded the appointment last week of former Celtic star Paolo di Canio as the new manager of premiership football club Sunderland over his disputed support for fascism – accompanied by copious use of an old image of him performing a straight-armed “Roman” salute – revealed that the undercurrents of distaste for this particular political idea are never far from the surface even now.
Scottish Fascism did find its own cohort of traitors, idealists and fanatics for extreme racist, nationalist and authoritarian politics. From Dumfries to Alness, one of the main ideologies of the 20th century had its standard-bearers. But when Fascism crossed the Cheviots, it found itself in a restless part of a multi-nation state riven by sectarian hatreds. Rudolf Hess felt the natives looked at him “in a compassionate way”, but Scottish Fascism had to carve out a niche in a crowded market for bigotry.
Sir Oswald Mosley’s legion of blackshirts never made great headway in Scotland. Certainly, they could attract a crowd, if not always a sympathetic one. On 6 April, 1934, around 3,000 people crammed into the Drill Hall at Dumfries for the British Union of Fascists’ (BUF) first rally on Scottish soil. Dumfriesshire would briefly become a Fascist success story, with the blackshirts going so far as to create a life-saving team on the Solway and their own football league. In June of that year, thousands more descended on the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, for a meeting that ended in a bloody fracas. In Aberdeen, local laird W K Chambers-Hunter may have lost his right arm during the Great War, but this did not discourage his intense blackshirt activity. The arrival of the “Fascist Van” at the Market Stance or on The Links in the city invariably provoked a riot.
But Mosley’s legion was small, dispersed and harassed. Its weakness is perhaps explained by this blackshirt announcement: “An interesting innovation in uniform, peculiar to Scotland, is being introduced. This is the kilt, to be worn with the blackshirt. The colour will be a neutral grey, tartan being impossible, as the Fascist policy is to embrace all clans and classes”. The BUF may have been in favour of limited devolution, but opposed home rule. What’s more, it believed that Catholics, and not only Protestants, could be good Britons. These fatefully tolerant positions meant it could not profit from the running sores in Scottish society.
Firstly, Mosley’s overt association with the “Papist” Mussolini meant he attracted the ire of Alexander Ratcliffe’s Scottish Protestant League and John Cormack’s Protestant Action, whose muscular Christianity attracted significant support in Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively. In 1935, Protestant Action obtained 24 per cent of the vote in local elections, and this rose to 32 per cent in 1936. The “squadrist” tactics of Cormack’s “Kaledonian Klan” were worthy of the Fascists. Indeed, its running battles through the impoverished Catholic areas of Cowgate, Grassmarket and Canongate strongly resembled the BUF’s anti-Jewish campaigns in the East End of London.
If Mosley missed out on sectarianism, he also came up against a burgeoning home rule movement. The Scottish nationalists’ attitude towards continental fascism was ambivalent, to say the least. As early as 1923, poet Hugh MacDiarmid was calling for a “native species” of Fascism and dreamed of a “neofascistic” paramilitary organisation, Clann Albain, that would fight for Scotland’s freedom.
In On The Imminent Destruction Of London, June 1940, the bard of Langholm wrote: “Now when London is threatened/With destruction from the air/I realise, horror atrophying me,/That I hardly care”. If John MacCormick was staunchly opposed to Fascist aggression, the highest ranks of the nationalist leadership were in favour of appeasement or even more. Andrew Dewar Gibb opposed Scottish participation in an “English” war against Adolf Hitler, and, until the outbreak of hostilities, was in touch with Celtic scholar and Nazi secret agent Gerhard von Tevenar. In January 1939, Douglas Young, future leader of the SNP, wrote to his fellow poet George Campbell Hay: “If Hitler could neatly remove our imperial breeks somehow and thus dissipate the mirage of imperial partnership with England he would do a great service to Scottish Nationalism.” Scottish nationalists’ hostility to conscription and the war effort raised fears among the authorities of a pro-Nazi “Fifth Column” as had been found, for example, among Breton and Flemish nationalists. There were a series of raids on nationalists’ homes and two potential Caledonian Quislings, Matthew Hamilton and Arthur Donaldson, were imprisoned. It was a sign of the times that Graham Seton Hutchison, a distinguished soldier and novelist, switched allegiances from Nazism to the SNP.
However, “tartan treachery” was not limited to nationalist circles. Already in 1938, Dundee hairdresser Jessie Jordan became a media sensation when found guilty of spying for the Third Reich.
She served as a “postbox” for a spy network that extended as far as Prague and Havana, and sketched coastal defences from Montrose to Kirkcaldy. However, she aroused suspicions by bringing back from Germany the finest pomades and leaving heavily annotated maps scattered around her salon. The outbreak of war stranded in Germany one Derrick Grant, a Fascist travelling salesman from Alness. He was subsequently recruited as the voice of Radio Caledonia, which broadcast defeatist messages from Berlin. Eventually condemned to a light prison sentence, he returned to his mother’s grocer shop in 1947. The angry villagers chased him out with a hail of stones. Grant had been joined on the Nazi airwaves by Norman Baillie-Stewart, a former Seaforth Highlander who had already spent time in the Tower of London for spying for Germany. Tracked down to South Tyrol, Baillie-Stewart was saved by his adopted nationality from suffering the fate of colleague William “Lord Haw Haw” Joyce. This list of tartan traitors would be incomplete without Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, MP for Peebles. Rabidly anti-semitic, Ramsay created the conspiratorial Right Club and was allegedly offered the role of “Scottish Gauleiter” in the event of a Nazi invasion.
He would be the only MP interned during the war. Prison evidently did not work for him: on release, his last act in the House of Commons was to move, unsuccessfully, the re-enactment of the Statute of Jewry (repealed in 1846).
Following the Second World War, it was a hard time to be a Fascist. Hitler never found the consolation he sought in his bunker bedtime book, Thomas Carlyle’s Frederick The Great. Hitler had always been attracted to the Scottish writer’s theory of “exceptional personalities”, individuals who not only left their mark on history but also provided inspiration for future leaders. One such example was Frederick (1712-86), who appealed to both Carlyle’s great leader theory and his hatred of representative government. Now, in the twilight of the thousand-year Reich, Carlyle’s biography held out a glimmer of hope: as Frederick’s empire was on the verge of ruin at the end of 1761, with the great forces of continental Europe assembled against him, news came from St Petersburg that his sworn enemy, the Tsarina Elizabeth, had died. On 12 April, 1945, jubilation therefore swept the bunker when it was learned that President Roosevelt had died. And yet, within a month, the Führer, his mistress and his propaganda chief had taken their own lives, and the Third Reich was no more.
British Fascists were now cast beyond the pale. Anti-fascism had become a deeply ingrained part of British character and the national culture. The last Fascists were most likely to be found in pubs like the Jolly Butcher in Brick Row or the Blade Bone in Bethnal Green in London. But Scotland’s association with Fascism did not end in 1945. It would, for example, provide a refuge for former SS men and other war criminals from the Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States. What’s more, just as sympathy for Fascism was much wider than Mosley’s lost legion might suggest, so the “neo-fascist” can be found in post-war Scotland. The National Front never reached the peaks of popularity achieved in England, which is partly down to the weak presence of Asian immigrants. But another explanation for the Far Right’s failure was the rise of a competing nationalism, which has often taken on an ethnic rather than civic hue, with its paramilitary Seed of the Gael, Settler Watch and anti-English Braveheart hysteria.
Today, the ruling party of Scotland has nationalism as its creed and is suspiciously coy about its own history. Elsewhere in the nationalist family, the BNP, before it plunged into fratricidal warfare, trounced the Far Left in recent Scottish elections and, in 2010, received a respectable 1,000 votes in Alex Salmond’s stamping ground of Banff and Buchan. To this should be added growing sympathy for the agenda of Ukip. The Scottish electorate now appears more receptive to radical nationalism than Mosley’s blackshirts could ever dream of. With fears of globalisation and mass immigration on the rise, and the political “old gang” unpopular, there might still be living space in Scotland for the “Brown Beast”. In this way, we would be very much in line with our European cousins. Wha’s like us? Quite a few.
Gavin Bowd adds: In response to comments on this web site, I think it necessary to point out what my book Fascist Scotland is not. It is not a polemical pamphlet directed at any particular individual or organisation, nor is it an intervention in the referendum campaign. The book is an investigation into Scotland’s various entanglements with the ultra-nationalist, racist, authoritarian and militaristic ideology that is fascism. Nationalism in Scotland has been of the overwhelmingly ‘civic’ kind, a country mile from fascism. However, there have been moments in history when Scottish nationalists have had to be vigilant about contamination by a less inclusive and progressive idea of the Nation. Long may such vigilance continue.
Fascist Scotland by Gavin Bowd is priced £12.99, and published by Birlinn Ltd