The Postwar Radical Right, British decline and Conspiracy Theory

A.K. Chesterton (b.1899-1973)

Themes of conspiracism, betrayal and national decline have become a central feature of British politics and were crucial to the anti-establishment sentiment which contributed to the Brexit vote in 2016. Since then, Brexiteers, such as Jacob Rees Mogg, have accused the Government of being complicit in the ‘management of decline’ whilst others, have recently argued that Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson are being subjected to attack by a nebulous ‘establishment’. By looking at the history of more extreme variants of the post-war radical right in Britain, we can see that this is not new phenomenon but one that is growing increasingly mainstream.

The radical right in Britain have long been obsessed with anxiety over Britain’s status in the world as well as national decadence and decline. Thomas Linehan, in his seminal work on fascism in Britain, British Fascism 1918-1939: Parties, Ideology and Culture (2000), argued that: ‘the British fascist imagination during the interwar period was racked by a morbid dread of impending national dissolution’.[1] Whilst the majority of active fascists were interned in May 1940 by the British state, following the ending of hostilities, many interwar fascists would return to the fore and continue to argue that British national and imperial decline required extreme solutions.

Following the Second World War, the financial cost of war and growing strength of colonial nationalist movements meant Britain was faced with numerous challenges at home and in the Empire, particularly in the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ – India, which achieved independence in 1947. The extra parliamentary radical right, primarily consisting of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement and A.K. Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists, sought to address this period of ‘emergency’ with two unique and extreme visions designed to prevent British decline. Whilst not comparable to Brexit in terms of their scale, they too demonstrate similarities in terms of grandiose thinking.

Unlike Mosley, who was unapologetic about his extremist past, Chesterton’s LEL explicitly repudiated the fascist past and provide the most interesting basis for comparison with the modern day. Having been one of the few fascists not to be interned and fight in the war, Chesterton was horrified by what Nazism had wrought on Europe, arguing: ‘The regimes which espoused [fascist ideas], turning criminally insane in their final amok-run, left as their memorials the foulness of Ravensbruck, the gas-ovens, and the vile doing to death of gallant British airmen’.[2] The LEL effectively acted as a conservative ‘ginger group’ protesting against Britain’s retreat from Empire – similar to the role UKIP has played since their founding in the 1990s. Much of the LEL’s venom was directed towards Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill. Churchill was something of a bête noir for the LEL and was attacked for his alleged hasting of British decline. Chesterton criticised Churchill for reneging upon his now famous claim that he had “not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”.[3] In response, Chesterton stated “the nation unquestionably accepted his assurance. Its trust was misplaced. That is precisely what he is doing.”[4]

The LEL’s analysis of British decline put it down to an international conspiracy against the British Empire. This was a ubiquitous feature of interwar fascist discourse as well as the post-war radical right. Chesterton formulated a grand conspiracy theory which argued that powerful Jews in the elite ranks of the Soviet Union and United States had colluded after the Second World War and were plotting Britain’s imperial destruction. This theory would form the basis of the LEL’s house journal Candour (which is, as of 2016, still in print) and his 1965 book The New Unhappy Lords: An Exposure of Power Politics. Graham Macklin has aptly described the book as: “an eloquently written anti-Semitic tirade on the subversive and occult conspiracy against the British Empire, and Western Civilisation in general, that he [Chesterton] believed was striving behind the scenes to create a ‘One World’ Jewish state”.[5]

So, what was the role of conspiracy theory within the post-war radical right? Well, conspiracy theory reflected both an ideological conviction and frame through which the radical right could analyse world politics. It provided the radical right with a simplistic means of understanding a complex and changing world during the Cold War and decolonisation as well as a rationale for extreme solutions. Today, it would be easy to dismiss conspiracism as evidence of insanity – placing the blame for British imperial decline at the foot of ‘subversive’ movements directed by Jews and Communists. However, it reflected a genuine attempt to conceptualise British imperial decline. Conspiracy also allowed the radical right to justify broader ideological positions, such as anti-Communism, anti-Semitism, as well as criticisms of free-market capitalism and liberalism – which were all presented as mere tools through which global power brokers exerted their control.

Understanding the relationship between conspiracism and political ideology is also particularly important when considering so-called ‘anti-establishment’ movements on the right today. Conspiracism provides a useful means of populist radical right actors portraying themselves as an embattled group who ‘understand’ how the world works in contrast to a corrupt elite working hand in glove with powerful world forces seeking to erode national sovereignty and decline. Thus, conspiracy theory can also be viewed as a ‘rhetorical manoeuvre’ which pits ‘us’ (patriots who know the truth) against ‘them’ (the conspirators and their stooges in government). It can therefore also be envisaged as an ideological narrative. Given the rise of right-wing populist movements – most notably the election of Donald Trump as US President – who seek to define themselves against a corrupt ‘establishment’ and often use conspiratorial language, the importance in comprehending the role of conspiracy theory in politics is indeed prescient.

Dr Paul Stocker is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Teacher of History at Chelsea Independent College. See his profile here.

©️ Paul Stocker. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] T. Linehan, British Fascism 1918-1939: Parties, Ideology and Culture (Manchester, 2000), p.222.

[2] A. K. Chesterton, ‘Laying the Fascist Ghost’, Candour, 26 November 1954, pp.6-7.

[3] W. Churchill, ‘The End of the Beginning’ (Speech at The Lord Mayor’s Luncheon, Mansion House), November 10 1942.

[4] ‘Cavalcade Towards the Abyss’, Candour, 25 June 1954, p.2.

[5] Macklin, ‘Transatlantic Connections and Conspiracies’, p.273.