A Greater Britain
Sea Lion Press
Whenever the subject of home-grown fascism in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s is discussed, at least in the mass media, there appears to be a very limited public perception of how popular far-right organisations were during that period, the public support that they often gained, and how pervasive they were throughout the country. If the Blackshirts and their leader, Oswald Mosley, are thought of at all, then it is simply as the collective butt of a joke, hardly worth rating; in his work on fascism in this period, “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars, the author Martin Pugh sums up this attitude as follows:
“Fascism in Inter-War Britain was not just a failure, it was an inevitable failure[…]the British simply failed to see its relevance to them. In fact, Fascism seemed fundamentally alien to British political culture and traditions; the British people were too deeply committed to their long-standing parliament, to democracy and the rule of law to be attracted by the corporate state[…] Such assumptions reflect a comforting and widely held British view that fascism is simply not part of our national story. Yet, although these beliefs are not wholly wrong, they are, without exception, misleading and are based as much on prejudice as on the evidence.”
As Pugh’s work is at pains to show, inter-war Britain was actually far more receptive to fascist ideas and goals than is commonly believed currently, and Oswald Mosley and the politics of the corporate state could, under certain circumstances, have perhaps entered mainstream politics. That notion, going back to the beginnings of Mosley’s career in the Labour Party, is at the core of Ed Thomas’ A Greater Britain – a seminal piece of counter-factual history that doesn’t hesitate to take an fascinating look at how the Labour Party, Britain, and eventually the entire world might have been affected if, for the want of some votes, Mosley had not become disaffected with Labour and forged his own, independent path in British politics.
Given the benefit of hindsight, and the actions and deeds now associated with Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, such as the Battle of Cable Street and the violence at the Olympia Rally, I think it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that for a significant period of time, Mosley was a rising star of the left, and a member of the Independent Labour Party. By 1929 he was a Minister in the Labour government, albeit not in a Cabinet position, and had responsibility for attempting to resolve the unemployment situation. It was only after being stymied in these efforts by his superior, and a failed attempt to get the 1930 Labour Party Conference to accept his “Mosley Memorandum” scheme of high tariffs, state nationalisation of industries and public work programmes, that he left the party and founded the New Party, and then the British Union of Fascists.
It’s important to bear this history in mind when delving into Thomas’ A Greater Britain, for I believe it is what makes this novel such an important work – highlighting that, if only Mosley had obtained a slightly stronger platform in the Labour Party, his policies and brand of politics could easily have made it into mainstream Labour policy, and then onwards into No. 10 Downing Street. In A Greater Britain, the Point of Departure (PoD) is the 1924 general election; whereas in reality Mosley narrowly lost the election to Neville Chamberlain, here he narrowly wins. An earlier election win than in reality means that Mosley can gain a slightly more important government post, and greater backing for his Memorandum; by 1931, Mosley has parlayed this support into successfully running as leader of the Labour Party. From there, Thomas shows how Mosley is able to enact Labour policies which are very different from those that were followed in reality, including elements of the corporate state, and how he fares on the international scene; particularly interesting is his take on the relationships Mosley has with various politicians, both British and foreign, during his tenure as Prime Minister.
Mosley’s dealings with Benito Mussolini fare very well, due to their similar political views, and lead to a very different Second World War in which Britain support’s Italy over the ramifications of Nazi Germany’s attempted annexation, and then invasion, of Austria in 1938. Just as interesting, and perhaps even more skilfully written, is Mosley’s intense but slow-burning relationship with Hugh Dalton, his Chancellor of the Exchequer; Thomas paints a vivid picture of two incredibly strong personalities repeatedly clashing with each other – usually able to reconcile their feelings and rivalries for the greater good, but inevitably leading to a political showdown that cripples both of their careers.
The story in A Greater Britain is told via a series of excerpts – from historical texts, speeches, passages from Mosley’s memoirs and other similar titles. It is, admittedly, initially disconcerting to read the title this way, as it jumps from text to text. Fortunately, the text includes a copious number of footnotes that can be accessed by the reader – an excellent use of the Kindle technology. These footnotes are highly interesting to read, and are comprised of a mixture of the author’s notes on why and how he changed the historical reality to fit the new narrative, and notes on lesser-known historical personages that appear in the text. While it might disrupt the flow of the story at times, it really is well worth jumping back and forth to each of these footnotes as they appear.
This is by now the longest review I have ever written for this blog, and possibly the longest review I have ever written about a book, period. I think this is a fair reflection of how much I enjoyed A Greater Britain, and how well-written and composed it is. The author has obviously poured a huge amount of historical research into this book, which became a project of passion, and I think this shows. Almost every page, and every footnote, has an Easter egg or off-hand reference to another historical or ahistorical event that makes me want to run to my nearest library and dive into the history of Mosley, Labour, the BUF and inter-war Fascist politics. I could easily write another thousand words in this review, diving into how Thomas plays out the Austrian War of 1938-1939, so very different from our Second World War; the different outcome of the Spanish Civil War due to British intervention; and the ominous epilogue that highlights a world where Hitler and his cronies fell from power, but the Third Reich itself was not comprehensively defeated and dissembled.
To conclude, I firmly believe that this book is a fantastic piece of fiction and alternate-history writing, is a credit to both its author and publisher, and should definitely be considered as a flagship titles for Sea Lion Press.