Australia & the Fascist Idea of Greater Britain

Oswald Mosley at a BUF parade, 1936.
Oswald Mosley at a BUF parade, 1936.

Evan Smith
Flinders University
Follow on Twitter @Hatfulofhistory

‘Our world mission is the maintenance and development of the heritage of Empire,’ the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), Sir Oswald Mosley, declared in the BUF’s journal, Fascist Quarterly, in 1936.[1] Although often overlooked by scholars of British fascism, this pro-imperial sentiment was central to the ideology of the BUF. For the BUF, the maintenance of the British Empire was imperative – key to keeping Britain’s place within the world and ensuring living standards in the domestic sphere.

Britain formed the metropole of the Empire, but the settler colonies (achieving Dominion status just prior to the inception of the BUF) were also seen as integral to the preservation of the Empire. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa were viewed by the BUF as bastions of the imperial spirit that would help revive Britain at the core of the Empire and create what Mosley described as a ‘Greater Britain’, resurrecting a term that had first appeared in the late Victorian period.[2]

According to Mosley, Greater Britain would be achieved through trade and economic co-operation, as well as a closely integrated armed forces and support for traditional British institutions such as the monarchy (although expressly not parliamentary democracy or the ‘rule of law’). All of the Dominions perpetrated large-scale racial discrimination informed by these colonialist ideals, but in some places, such as South Africa and Australia, racism and racial divisions had became central to the function of the state apparatus.

The ‘White Australia Policy’ particularly endeared the BUF to Australia as a resilient defender of the British ‘race’ (in contrast with the ‘decaying’ metropole of London) and greatly informed the BUF’s attitude towards the antipodal dominion. Australia’s ability to provide Britain with raw materials and food stuffs, as well as a market for British goods, provided the other major factor that informed the BUF’s view of Australia’s place within Greater Britain.

The Dominions, including Australia, could provide Britain with what it needed to maintain domestic living standards and would mean that Britain would no longer have to rely on ‘foreign’ countries, such as Argentina and China, which the BUF felt was not in the national interest. Australia was seen as the epitome of this fascist imperial project with its overwhelmingly white population, its perceived lack of a ‘native problem’ and its natural geographical barriers against invasion from Asia.

Australian Trade and the BUF’s Idea of Imperial Self-Reliance

Australia as a resource for raw materials and as a market for British goods was important for the BUF’s ideal of imperial self-reliance and this was reiterated in the BUF press from the earliest days of the organisation. In November 1934, The Blackshirt featured an article on the ‘unheeded appeal’ of Australia as a resource for Britain to reap the material benefits, with Henry J. Gibbs, a BUF convert from the Independent Labour Party, writing:

England is primarily an industrial nation – Australia, agricultural… and if developed by Britain would prove an increasingly fruitful market for reciprocal trade of a rising quantity and quality.[3]

Gibbs argued that Australia, along with Canada, were both valuable to supporting the living standards of the British population, purporting that Australia ‘certainly would be a most important member of this [reciprocal] scheme, for it is definitely a land of To-morrow’.[4] Gibbs encouraged a ‘closer economic and spiritual union between Australia and the Motherland’, viewing it as ‘a vital and paramount necessity’ to maintaining the balance between the industrial (Britain) and agricultural (the Dominions) outputting nations.[5] In another article, Gibbs reminded readers that Australia, along with New Zealand, ‘purchases more English commodities than do all the 150,000,000 inhabitants of North and Central America.’[6]

Despite a sharp increase in the development of heavy industries in Australia in the early twentieth century, the BUF emphasised Australia as an agricultural producer that would be able to provide for Britain—and the rest of the Empire. A 1935 article in The Blackshirt talked of transforming the ‘arid plains of Australia’ into ‘fertile pasturelands’,[7] while a letter to Action in December 1937 urged Britain to buy Australian fruit, writing:

What a chance for Australia if only the blundering Free Traders of both countries would only awaken to facts. Why should it be that England finds it necessary to import Greek currants, sultanas, etc, Palestine oranges and frozen meat from the Argentina.[8]

Foreign trade was seen as ‘betraying’ British industry and the rest of the Empire, as nearly all the products bought from Europe could, the BUF argued, be bought from within their envisaged Greater Britain. As the anonymous author of the article claimed:

Every bushel of wheat we buy in Roumania is a bushel of wheat lost to Canadian farmers; every shoe we order in Czechoslovakia is a shoe lost to Northampton.[9]

The BUF held that it made more economic (and political) sense to shore up the existing colonies and Dominions of British Empire and within this new British Empire envisaged by the BUF, Australia would hold a special place. Alexander Raven Thomson, the BUF’s philosopher and rabid anti-semite, declared, ‘Under the British Union, Australia will become the firm southern pivot of a Greater Empire.’[10] The BUF’s ‘planned Empire trading’, Thomson proposed, would ‘guarantee the Australian producer of raw products his fair trade of the increased home market in Britain’ and also win for Australia new markets in Europe for wool and other raw materials, thus ‘enabling Australia to break loose from the dangerous trade relations with Japan’.[11]

Australia as British Colonial Settlement

Part of this view of Australia as an integral part of Greater Britain’s trading relations was the country’s perceived promise as a destination for British migrants to take opportunity of the vast space offered and its potential for agricultural and industrial development. This was a widely held view since the early days of the Australian colonies and the BUF reinforced the idea of the British colonial settler as imperial pioneer.

BUF newspaper Action on 'Empire Day'.
BUF newspaper Action on ‘Empire Day’, May 28, 1937.

In Action, Robert Gordon-Canning, the BUF’s ‘expert’ on foreign affairs, celebrated the pioneering British colonist, unfettered by the ‘unintelligent interference… of the expert’ and direct rule from Westminster.[12] Taking a ‘blood and soil’ approach, Gordon-Canning applauded this form of settler colonialism, writing:

There must be a large body of settlers, who look upon it as their home. If these men are to be properly self-reliant it is essential that the bulk of them live on the land, deriving from it that subtle spirit which is the life of local patriotism.[13]

Gordon-Canning believed that these colonial settlers from Britain would be able to make good use of the land, instead of the Indigenous population, who he deemed to have ‘neither the skill nor the ability to cultivate’.[14]

This idea of terra nullius, a popular concept for justifying the colonisation of Australia in the late 1800s and the early 1900s,[15] fits easily into the BUF view of the Dominions, especially Australia, which was seen as a landscape waiting to be tamed and developed. Australia, the BUF stated, was a ‘vast continent of a little under 8,000,000 square miles in area with a population of 6,623, 754’[16] and was supposedly waiting for the British to cultivate it. To not develop this land, Raven Thomson proposed, would create a ‘land vacuum’ that was ‘in much too close proximity to the overcrowded Asiatic continent for safety’.[17] To fill this vacuum, he suggested that steps needed to be taken ‘to fill the empty continent with men and women of British stock’ and only with this flow of British migration would ‘the threat of external Asiatic pressure… finally be raised.’[18]

With proposed assistance by the British government, it was assumed that the British ‘race’ would be able to flourish in the Dominions and utilise the land to help build the autarkic British Empire envisioned by the BUF. Australia, the BUF believed, was the ideal environment to cultivate the British ‘race’ at the periphery of the Empire.

Australia and the BUF’s Concept of ‘Race’

In a 1937 article in Action, Raven Thomson declared that the reason that Australia was such a perfect place for the settlement and cultivation of British settlers was its ‘complete freedom from any racial problems’, unlike South Africa, New Zealand and Canada.[19] With Australia, the British had ‘an entire sub-continent completely controlled by one race of people speaking one language’, which he argued was ‘a factor which cannot be paralleled elsewhere in the Empire except in the Home country’.[20] While acknowledging that ‘even New Zealand has her Maoris’, the Aboriginal population was dismissed as ‘entirely insignificant in numbers and culture’.[21]

For Raven Thomson, Australia was the ‘second British homeland’ and it was paramount that the British and Australians together fought to ‘preserve the racial integrity of the Australian continent.’[22] If this could be achieved, the article stated that ‘Australia must inevitably form one of the two pivots of Empire, for it is about the two great blocks of pure British race that the Empire must revolve.’[23]

Australian Million Farms Campaign Committee, c. 1921.
Australian Million Farms Campaign Committee, c. 1921.

The BUF was not only interested in Australia for its potential as a fascist outpost in the British Empire, but also because of what Australia represented in its present condition – a loyal and white dominated settler colony with an abundance of land for ‘development’. Australia did not need to be a fascist dictatorship for it to be deemed useful by Mosley and the other imperial theorists within the BUF, it was enough that it was an advanced liberal democracy with strict racially exclusionist policies and a keen sense of imperial patriotism, as evidenced, they believed, by the number of Australians who volunteered to fight for the British Empire in the First World War.[24]

In many ways, the conditions that could be seen as ‘proto-fascist’ in Australia could also be seen as why Australia did not witness a mass mobilised fascist movement. As Aurelien Mondon has written, ‘the extremely hostile treatment of Australia’s indigenous population [and] the White Australia policy prevented a typical extreme right the likes of those in Europe from emerging’ as the far right in Australia was ‘unable to present itself as an alternative in the way its European counterpart had so successfully done’.[25] While Australia was not fascist, its liberal democracy was based on racial exploitation and brutal colonisation and this meant that there was little appetite for fascism within the settler colony.

Conclusion

Alongside its importance as an environment where the British ‘race’ could prosper, Australia was also seen as vitally important, alongside the other Dominions, for the development of a self-sufficient empire. Mosley was long wedded to the idea of an autarkic British Empire that was able to provide for itself through trade with the colonies and Dominions, exchanging raw materials and foodstuffs for consumer goods, and thus ending Britain’s reliance on foreign trade and ‘international finance’.

Australia, as well as Canada, was referred to constantly in the BUF press as agricultural reservoirs that were fundamental to fulfilling the idea of a self-sufficient empire, with Britain at its centre. Australia was seen as a loyal Dominion, ready to provide resources and manpower for the maintenance of the BUF’s envisaged Greater Britain.

——–

[1] Oswald Mosley, ‘The World Alternative’, Fascist Quarterly, 2/3 (1936), 384.

[2] See: Duncan Bell, The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[3] The Blackshirt, 30 November, 1934.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Blackshirt, 21 December, 1934.

[7] The Blackshirt, 6 December, 1935.

[8] Action, 6 December 1937.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Action, 15 May, 1937.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Action, 15 May, 1937.

[13] Action, 15 May, 1937.

[14] Ibid.

[15] See: Andrew Fitzmaurice, ‘The Genealogy of Terra Nullius’, Australian Historical Studies, 38/129 (2007) 1-15.

[16] The Blackshirt, 30 November, 1934.

[17] Action, 15 May, 1937.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Action, 15 May, 1937.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] The Blackshirt, August 1938, 6.

[25] Aurelien Mondon, ‘An Australian Immunisation to the Extreme Right?’, Social Identities, 18/3 (2012) 361.

8 thoughts on “Australia & the Fascist Idea of Greater Britain

  1. When I was taught be Neville Masterman (son of C.F. G and still alive at 100+ I think) in the 1960s he remarked that Enoch Powell was Richard Cobden gone sour. here is Charles Dilke gone sour.

  2. So this is where the Australian Liberal Party got their manifesto for Tony Abbott and the neocons. Britains must shudder when they realise that Asia is exporting food into Australia to maximise profits of multinational corporations. The Liberal COALition government is destroying the car & general manufacturing sector so that more finished products may be imported from overseas while pursuing policies designed to create Mosley’s dream “Australia as a great big 19th century farm” worked by grazier serfs.

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