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Friday, 7 March 2014

FFB - The Leader

This 2003 thriller by Guy Walters falls into the ‘what if’ alternative history’ category of fiction. This kind of story goes a long way back – to the late 1800s. More modern examples are Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953) where the South won the Civil War and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) where the Allies lost WWII. British variants include novels where Hitler won, such as Len Deighton’s SSGB (1978), Murray Davies’ Collaborator (2003), Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992) and the Soviet’s take over Britain, such as Constantine Fitzgibbon’s When the Kissing had to Stop (1960), and Clive Egleton’s A Piece of Resistance (1970), and S.J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012). Sophia McDougall's Romanitas, the first of a trilogy, is a contemporary novel where the Roman empire didn't fall but dominates half the world. There are plenty of others, of course.

In the case of The Leader, in 1936 Edward VIII defied all advice and opinion and refused to give up his throne or Mrs Simpson. Political turmoil resulted and into the vacuum stepped the pro-monarchy group, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists – renamed the British Union. In 1937 Mosley was in power and had the tacit support of the pro-fascist king and his wife.

Within weeks of Mosley walking into No.10, the Emergency Powers were invoked by Parliament and a nationwide curfew was installed. They ended the right of assembly and His Majesty’s Secret State Police was set up to ‘combat anti-patriotic activities’ and to take over the work of MI5. Identity papers were introduced and the press was taken over by the state and absorbed into the civil service.

Of course all these measures were ‘temporary – for the good of us all.’ Mosley’s Blackshirts caused terror wherever they went, fomenting racial unrest, notably against Jews. Mosley even consults his fascist pal Adolf Hitler on a ‘more permanent’ solution to the ‘Jewish problem’.  

The first manifestation of this dictatorship was the plethora of posters of Mosley – in his Blackshirt uniform – ‘The Leader – For the Good of Us All.’ The cult of personality rising above policy.

Like all regimes of terror, this one was run by thugs of doubtful intelligence. There were ways round the system, ways to fight back. The populace wasn’t completely cowed, it just needed a few well-placed leaders. Unfortunately, old Winston Churchill was a prisoner in the Isle of Man.

First World War hero James Armstrong, now an MP, soon realised that this was not the Britain he’d fought for in the trenches. He started meeting friends of like mind – until he was arrested, having been betrayed. Armstrong learned that you couldn’t trust anybody anymore. That was the state’s invisible power - distrust spreading like a malignant tumour – and what kept the Soviets in power for so long.

But Armstrong escaped and with cunning and bravery links up with some communists to fight back at the authoritarian government.

The story is convincing on several levels and moves along at a good pace. I was reminded of Buchan’s Thirty-nine Steps – it seems as though every hand is turned against the hero, he can’t trust anyone. And unknown to Armstrong, there are behind-the-scenes manipulations going on, engineered by Russian moles ...
The select bibliography cites nineteen books concerning, Mosley, Fascism in Britain, the 1930s, the Windsors and the Russians – research all used to good effect without slowing the pace or appearing didactic.
Of course much of the background is based on fact – Mosley was quite powerful in his day and the king held pro-fascist views. Indeed, this was a historical turning-point – the king abdicated in order to marry the American Mrs Simpson.
It’s possible that it could have happened like this. And just because the story takes place in 1937, it doesn’t mean Britain is now forever free of a dictatorship...

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