It is a terrible thing to see our lads marched off, generation after generation, to fight the battles of the English for them. But the end is upon them. When the Germans land in Scotland, the glens will be full of marching men come to greet them and the professors themselves at the universities will seize the towns.’
Thus spoke Miss Carmichael, the deranged daughter of a highland laird, to a bemused Guy Crouchback in Officers and Gentlemen, the middle novel of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy set during the Second World War. Gavin Bowd uses these lines as a prelude to Fascist Scotland though he offers no guesses as to whom she might have been based upon. His scholarly and hugely entertaining narrative does however serve to remind us that fantasists of her ilk were around in wartime Scotland. They were never numerous but had to be watched by the police and security services in the ‘invasion summer’ of 1940 and in the dark months of early 1941 when the war’s outcome still hung in the balance.
Some of their fantasies were brutal and anti-Semitic like those of Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, Etonian, former Guards officer and member of the Royal Company of Archers, who was elected to Parliament as Conservative and Unionist member for the South Midlothian and Peeblesshire seat in 1931. For his openly pro-Nazi views he was interned under the Emergency Powers legislation in May 1940. Prior to that he had been active in bodies such as the Link and the Right Club both of which had vocal support from an element within aristocratic and Conservative Scotland. The plebeian fascism and street violence of Mosley’s movement made little appeal to them and Bowd gives an excellent summary of the reasons why the British Union of Fascists signally failed to create a real support base in Scotland. As he says ‘Scottish Fascism had to carve out a niche in a crowded market for bigotry’ but it was unwilling to associate itself with the politics of a Protestant sectarianism which achieved a toxic presence in both Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1930s.
They also found themselves outflanked by an emergent political nationalism. Mosley and his party had little to contribute to any debate on Scotland’s constitutional future though they did consider the case for Scottish BUF activists to wear kilts with their black shirts. Grey was the favoured colour, ‘tartan being impossible, as the fascist policy is to embrace all clans and classes’. Such support as they did mobilize could owe much to local power-brokers like James Little, bank manager and Town Clerk of Dalbeattie where for a time the local BUF branch claimed four hundred members. In Aberdeen funds and support came from William Chambers-Hunter, a landowner with African colonnial connections. There, as in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee the left was on hand to provide militant, often violent but effective opposition.
The left was also there in force to support the Spanish Republic after 1936 but Catholic Scotland largely espoused General Franco’s cause with enormous open-air masses and rallies at Carfin grotto. This, Bowd points out, was not so much an expression of overt fascism as solidarity with a church seen to be under dire threat in Spain though some Scottish Conservative MPs who were, like an element within the aristocracy, already on the far right ideologically were quick to take up the Francoist and Falangist cause.
Fascism, as Brecht famously put it, is a bitch that is always in heat. It will feed off and also stoke real or imaginary fears as readily as it will absorb whatever is on offer from the effusions of any flawed intelligentsia. Scotland gave the world David Hume and Adam Smith but also crude eugenicists and pedlars of bogus racial science like the anatomist Robert Knox and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. They of course influenced what Fascism there was here and may too have had a corrosive effect on the discourse of early nationalism. Andrew Dewar Gibb held a chair of Law at Glasgow University as well as senior office within the Scottish National Party but in his 1930 book Scotland in Eclipse he wrote in obscenely racist terms about the Catholic Irish community in Scotland.
Gibb was someone whom Gerhard von Tevenar, a Nazi emissary to Scotland in 1937 and 1938 was anxious to meet though he had to settle for writing to him as part of his quest for ‘Blutsgefuhl’, i.e. a sense of race awareness within Scottish nationalism. He had to conclude that there was little of it but there was some, as the crass anglophobia of some contributions to the pre-war Scots Independent serve to remind us. An example of this was Arthur Donaldson and today’s SNP should surely take no pride in his post-war rise to a ten-year tenure as its chairman or indeed in still having an annual conference lecture named after him. Having been expelled from the party for his open support of Scottish neutrality in the war Donaldson, though not a Fascist in any card-carrying sense, was at the very least a defeatist in 1940 when Hamish Henderson and many more who thought as he did were already in uniform. In 1940 and 1941 Donaldson talked and wrote of a Nazi victory as a moment of political opportunity for Scottish nationalism. His careless talk and some of the company he kept led to his arrest in May 1940 and a six-week spell in Barlinnie during which he was allowed to wear his kilt. His release was sanctioned by the Labour Secretary of State Tom Johnston who felt there were insufficient grounds for holding him.
Like the poet and classicist Douglas Young, Donaldson continued to categorise as Quislings Scots who publicly made the case that victory over the Third Reich should take priority over Scottish self-government. The extent to which such views still had support within a small and fractious SNP brought the departure of its most able leader,the pro-war democrat Dr John MacCormick, but they were the views of fools rather than Fascists. Whether the fools and such Fascists as there were could ever have played an actively pro-German role would have had to depend very much on the ability of the Wehrmacht to land in Britain or in Scotland itself.
The possibility of this is a major concern of Gordon Barclay’s fascinating and lavishly illustrated account of how the defence of Scotland was planned, resourced and coordinated in 1940 and 1941. Only on 2 July 1940, he writes, did Hitler, still astonished by the speed of his armies’ victory in the West, order preparations to begin for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain. This he then postponed in mid-September to clear the way for his onslaught on the Soviet Union but Britain’s defence planners had to assume an invasion was still on and that, after the fall of Norway, Scotland’s northern and eastern coasts would be prime target areas for it. Churchill always thought that the English Channel coast would be where the Germans would try to land but vast resources were nonetheless thrown into the defence of Scotland and large forces deployed there, some of them, after Dunkirk, poorly equipped for their role. General Sir William Ironside, Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces, confided to his diary in early July 1940 his doubts about being able to stop a German landing in Scotland and there was indeed a real chance that Hitler’s forces could at least have secured footholds in Caithness and the Orkney islands had they chosen to capitalise on their air-power and parachute troops the way they had in Norway.
They chose not to and thus gave precious time for the construction of strongpoints, stoplines and coastal defences, the location of which Barclay clearly knows like the back of his hand. By the time of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 an invasion of Britain could not have succeeded but elaborate counter-measures went on and remain the visible part of our landscape that this fine book shows them to be. As its author notes, ‘From being prudent precautions against an identifiable risk, defence preparations and the numbers of men making them became an impediment to the successful prosecution of the war, wasting materials and time better spent training for offensive warfare.’
An all-consuming fear at the height of the invasion scare was of the enemy within, the legendary and largely imaginary ‘Fifth Column’ that was supposed to have facilitated German victories in France and elsewhere. Barclay gives us a vivid account of how the Home Guard and locally based army units responded to a ‘Fifth Column’ scare in and around Montrose in mid-June 1940. Little came of a series of alarms but he points out that the local MP, a Lieut.Colonel Kerr, was a kindred spirit of Captain Ramsay and that his constituency had hosted lectures sponsored by the Link and the Right Club in which praise had been heaped upon Hitler and his Reich.
Internment in May 1940, though it scooped up many totally innocent ‘enemy aliens’, rightly took from political circulation Mosley, Ramsay and other Fascists. Only one Scottish nationalist, a minor figure, was arrested. Other nationalists remained under close observation and Arthur Donaldson might well have offered his tawdry services to the Nazis had they wanted them. He and the few who thought like him were however small fry from Berlin’s point of view. When Rudolf Hess landed near Eaglesham on 10 May, 1941 contact with Scottish nationalists does not seem to have been part of his agenda. The addresses he was concerned with, those of impenitent appeasers, were up-market ones in London and the English Home Counties and perhaps too within the extended Windsor family.
In fact, the Gestapo was rather more concerned with those whom it would want to arrest in and deport from an occupied Scotland. Gavin Bowd quotes from its ‘Search List’ which reveals predictable names such as those of James Maxton, Naomi Mitchison and the maverick Conservative MP, the Duchess of Atholl who had campaigned for republican Spain and against appeasement. Whether Hugh MacDiarmid was upset at being absent from the list is not known. His pre-war Communist Party membership might have earned it but as Bob Purdie shows in his recent study MacDiarmid – Hugh MacDiarmid: Black, Green, Red and Tartan – had also unwisely written in the 1920s of Italian Fascism embodying a dynamism and national pride from which a reborn Scotland might benefit.
He had too from his island fastness of Whalsay mocked Britain’s war effort in 1940 and revelled in his indifference to the German Blitz on London. He had also compared Churchill’s ministers to Gauleiters. By then he had already been under surveillance for ten years but having supported Donaldson and Young in their call for Scots to refuse their registration for war service he tamely accepted his when it came in 1943 and left Whalsay to work on the Clyde. As he later cheerfully wrote of himself, his intellectual and political life had been akin to that of a volcano emitting a great deal of rubbish along the way and he also made amends with a fine poem inspired by the Second World War names on the memorial in his old school in Langholm.
Neither of these authors can, by the very nature of what they have undertaken, avoid straying into some counter-factual history, such as whether Operation Sea Lion could have succeeded in 1940 and where it might have left those Scots who would have wanted to collaborate with it. They have opened up by their meticulous research and their stylish presentation of it issues which have a very real bearing on both how we view our past as well as what political future we want for our country. Bowd has come under vitriolic abuse, most of it online, for daring to look at recent history in the war and for reminding us that our body politic is not immune to the virus of racism and other forms of prejudice.
Finally, this reviewer as a Hibernian supporter of long standing has noted the fact that in 1935 Mosley’s men tried to leaflet a home game at Easter Road. There was a bigger and effective leafleting exercise there in October 1988 by home fans in protest at the vile racism which had greeted the Rangers player Mark Walters at other Scottish grounds which will be left unnamed here. This point could perhaps be included in a second edition of Fascist Scotland which it fully deserves.
Fascist Scotland: Caledonia and the Far Right
Birlinn, £12.99, ISBN: 978 1 78027 052 4
If Hitler Comes: Preparing for Invasion: Scotland 1940
Birlinn, £20, ISBN: 978 1 84341 062 1