Just a couple of years ago, Fascist in the Family might have been greeted as no more than an interesting addition to the ever-expanding genre of family memoir: a child’s unflinching account of a wrong-headed, right-wing father set against the panoramic backdrop of the divided domestic politics and international conflagrations of the first half of the 20th century.
Francis Beckett couldn’t have known it – these 396 densely packed pages must have been years in the making – but this publication comes at a political moment that subtly changes our reading of the particular history he describes. Today, in our world dominated by the hard men (and women) of the new right, the book reads more as a chill warning. British fascism of the pre-war period grew out of similar soil to Brexit, Bannon and Banks, including the cruel slashing of state benefits, a paralysing crisis in the labour movement, the false lure of nationalism, the rise of the extreme right on the Continent and the vile scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities.
John Beckett entered the Commons in 1924 as the youngest MP on the Labour benches. Within a few years, he had “become the most extreme, most newsworthy left-wing Labour rebel of his day”, known for his provocative speeches and outrageous tactics. He was a talented speaker, offering “fireworks and crudity” to working-class audiences across the country, an ingenious and indefatigable organiser and an energetic and successful womaniser. His impatience with the Labour and trades union establishment, combined with an irrational and uncontrollable anti-Semitism and reflexive nationalism, led him to Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists (BUF), where he became the head of propaganda.
At first worshipping the charismatic Mosley, a man with whom he shared the ability to stir up a crowd, Beckett soon came to distrust the high-handed, aristocratic BUF leader as a vindictive narcissist. He broke away to form the anti-Semitic National Socialist League with figures such as William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and A K Chesterton (a distant cousin of the better-known G K), and later the British People’s Party (BPP).
In the words of his only son, Beckett’s political career ended in “the squalid wastelands of neo-Nazi politics”, earning him four years’ internment during the Second World War and a bleak form of social exile in the postwar period. Francis, an impressively dispassionate biographer, is also well placed to unearth the twisted roots of his father’s anti-Semitism: he reports that John’s adored mother, Eva, was almost certainly Jewish, a fact he kept hidden all his life.…