Just under a century before the Brexit referendum, John Warburton Beckett was imploring Britons to Take Back Control. Frequently referring to his “yeoman ancestors” to emphasise his patriotism, he would rage at grinding social inequality — telling packed meetings that ordinary people were victims of the elite’s “money-power”. Some of those in charge, he liked to point out, used to have different surnames (a common code for “Jew” at the time).
In today’s political language, Beckett would be described as a classic populist. In 1924, he was Labour’s youngest MP and the left’s brightest hope, elected at the age of 30. But, by the start of the following decade -— cast out by the establishment for his provocative behaviour — his career unravelled. Ranting increasingly about the “alien control of our country,” Beckett lurched across the political spectrum and into the arms of fascism. Through most of the war he languished in jail as an enemy of the state, and spent much of the rest of his life bankrupt and being followed by MI5. Beckett’s son, Francis, tells his story in his extraordinary new book Fascist in the Family, a moving journey of historical discovery.
He will be remembered, if at all, as a bit of an absurd historical footnote. Yet his politics, and the public’s reaction to them, feel contemporary. For Beckett’s sermons were motivated by rage at social unfairness, and his overwhelming conviction that mainstream politicians — goaded on by Jewish money — were a roadblock to social change.
According to a report released by the Social Mobility Commission, that sense of injustice is now deepening again and, according to the organisation’s head Alan Milburn, we are now more vulnerable than ever to a resurgence of the grievance-driven politics of the 1930s.
The indicators are stark. A child living in one of the most disadvantaged areas is 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school. Millennials are the first generation since the war to have lower incomes than their parents. In the north east, not a single child on free school meals went to Oxbridge in 2010. Never has it been clearer that globalisation and modern politics, are leaving too many behind.
Modern political insurgents have enjoyed a year of astonishing success that would have been beyond Beckett’s wildest dreams, and who could dare predict what lies ahead?
But Beckett and his fascist allies failed spectacularly, and it wasn’t only because of the impact of the war. From 1945, Britain’s politicians put party differences aside to embark on the most radical social reforming policies of the modern era, creating the welfare state and the NHS and pulling down slums and tenements. It took decades but, thanks to the post-war consensus, the conditions where radicals of all colours could thrive were seriously harmed until the 1970s.
In 2017, mainstream politicians must find the solution to modern social anger by learning from the post-war consensus and developing a cross-party pact for social change. Why, for example, should revolutionising the financing of the NHS to meet the needs of the modern world contravene socialist values, so long as it remains free? And how, really, could developing a genuine affordable house-building programme be anything other than a logical step for Conservatives trying to encourage aspiration and mobility? Likewise, investing in parks and public services, supporting small businesses and controlling migration. As Britain reinvents its continental politics, we must also rethink our own.
As is the case with all extremists, Beckett’s politics were filled with contradictions. As it turned out, so was his carefully constructed life story. For, in the years following his death, his son, Francis, was stunned to discover that this virulently antisemitic fascist was, secretly, a Jew.
David Byers is assistant news editor at The Times