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The Conservative party, fascism and anti-fascism 1918-1939

Williamson, Philip

The Conservative party, fascism and anti-fascism 1918-1939 Thumbnail


Philip Williamson


Nigel Copsey

Andzrej Olechnowicz


The interwar Conservative party provides a challenge for recent historical definitions of British anti-fascism. Distinctions between ‘non-fascism’ and ‘anti-fascism’ and between ‘passive anti-fascism’ and ‘active anti-fascism’ have been valuable in stimulating debate about the character of resistance to fascism, but as Andrzej Olechnowicz has demonstrated these categories have been used to give priority to the political left – the Communist party in some accounts, the Labour party in others – while overlooking the substantial range of ‘liberal’ anti-fascism that included numerous Liberals and Conservatives as well as Labour figures. His focus is on cross-party or non-party organisations, and as Helen McCarthy has also shown such associations which promoted citizenship and other democratic causes are certainly a notable and under-studied feature of interwar British political culture. The Conservative party, however, raises a different range of definitional issues, and not only because it formed the main element in the most important cross-party body, the National government formed with the main Liberal groups and a few Labour leaders in 1931. Notoriously, a number of Conservatives admired fascism in one or more of its British or foreign forms, and some historians have taken this as indicative of wider Conservative sympathies. Yet the party as a whole was, at the very least, the largest ‘non-fascist’ political organisation. There are several reasons to go further. The Conservative party’s dominance of not just most of the political right but also large expanses of the political centre constituted a more decisive barrier to the growth of British fascism than the explicitly anti-fascist bodies of the political left. As many of its actions and statements had anti-fascist effects, the party might well be categorised as ‘passive anti-fascist’. Further, from 1933 leading Conservatives mounted an ideological and moral resistance towards dictatorship and totalitarianism, which should certainly be classified as ‘active anti-fascism’. In considering the interwar Conservative party’s attitudes towards fascism and more especially British fascists, the ‘party’ is taken here to mean its leaders, its ministers in Conservative and coalition governments, the strategists and publicists in its national organisation, Conservative MPs, those Conservative peers significant in national politics, and regional and local officials – rather than the penumbra of journalists and other publicists who expressed various Conservative opinions, but very few of whom were important for Conservative politicians. As a necessary preliminary, the first section of this essay will comment on suggestions that the Conservative party contained a significant pro-fascist element, and that decisions by the party’s leaders in the mid 1930s were affected by fears of losing support to the British fascist groups. It will then be argued that the Conservative party provided a considerable indirect resistance to fascism. While pursuing its main political concerns, the party had the largest role in preserving stable government, maintaining confidence in existing institutions, and containing challenges from the far left which might have provoked greater interest in fascism. At the same time it accommodated or emasculated various radical ‘right’ groups which might conceivably have defected to fascism. The third section will consider Conservative anti-fascism in the direct sense, the expression of arguments and values in opposition to British and international fascism.


Williamson, P. (2010). The Conservative party, fascism and anti-fascism 1918-1939. In N. Copsey, & A. Olechnowicz (Eds.), Varieties of anti-fascism: Britain in the inter-war period (73-97). Palgrave Macmillan

Publication Date Sep 1, 2010
Deposit Date Oct 29, 2010
Publicly Available Date Mar 22, 2013
Publisher Palgrave Macmillan
Pages 73-97
Book Title Varieties of anti-fascism: Britain in the inter-war period.
Publisher URL


Accepted Book Chapter (322 Kb)

Copyright Statement
Williamson, Philip (2010) 'The Conservative party, fascism and anti-fascism 1918-1939.', in Varieties of Anti-fascism. Britain in the Inter-war Period. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 73-97 reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan'. This extract is taken from the author's original manuscript and has not been edited. The definitive, published, version of record is available here: and

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