Oswald Mosley had been a junior minister of Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government advising on rising unemployment. In 1930 he issued his 'Mosley Memorandum': A proto-Keynesian programme of policies designed to tackle the unemployment problem. He resigned in early 1931 when these were rejected and formed the New Party, with policies based on his memorandum. Despite winning 16% of the vote at a by-election in Ashton-under-Lyne in early 1931, the party failed to achieve electoral success.
During 1931 New Party policies became increasingly influenced by Fascism. In January 1932, Mosley's conversion to Fascism was confirmed when he visited Benito Mussolini in Italy. He wound up the New Party in April 1932 but kept the youth movement as the basis for a Fascist fighting force. He spent summer that year writing a Fascist programme; The Greater Britain. The BUF was launched in October 1932.
The BUF's programme and ideology were outlined in Mosley's Tomorrow We Live (Abbey Supplies, Ltd., 1938), and A. Raven Thompson's The Coming Corporate State (1938).
Most BUF policies were built on isolationism, prohibiting trade by British nationals outside the British Empire. Mosley proposed this would protect the British economy from the flux of the world market, especially during the Great Depression, and prevent "cheap slave competition from abroad."
Of anti-Semitism in the BUF, The Times wrote, in 1934:
"The listeners heard Sir O. Mosley refer to his would-be interrupters as 'sweeping of the Continental ghettoes, hired by Jewish financiers...an alien gang imported from all quarters of Britain by Jewish money to prevent Englishmen putting their case [forward]....'"
Responding, in 1935, to a question from The Times about BUF policy regarding Jewish Britons, Mosley said: "We will not tolerate within the State a minority organized against the interests of the State. Jews must either put the interests of Britain before the interests of Jewry or they will be deported from Britain."
The BUF claimed 50,000 members at one point and the Daily Mail was an early supporter, running the headline "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!".
Opinion was divided on the BUF's black-shirted followers; in some quarters, their unified appearance, and the vision of militant Britishness, won supporters. Others found them absurd. P.G. Wodehouse based the "amateur dictator" Roderick Spode and his Black Shorts, in Jeeves and Wooster, on Mosley and the BUF.
Despite considerable and sometimes violent resistance from Jewish people, the Labour Party, democrats and the Communist Party of Great Britain, the BUF found a following in the East End of London, where in the London County Council elections of 1937 it obtained good results in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and Limehouse. However, the BUF never faced a General Election: feeling unready in 1935, it urged voters to abstain, offering "Fascism Next Time". There never was a "next time", as the next General Election was not held until July 1945, by which time World War II in Europe had ended and fascism had been discredited.
Towards the middle of the 1930s, the BUF's violent activities, and discomfort at perceived alignment with the German Nazi party, began to alienate some middle-class supporters. Membership decreased. At the Olympia rally in London, in 1934, BUF stewards were in a violent confrontation with militant communists, and this caused the Daily Mail to withdraw support.
Membership fell to below 8,000 by the end of 1935. The government was sufficiently concerned, however, to pass the Public Order Act of 1936, which banned political uniforms , required police consent for political marches, and destroyed the movement. The BUF was banned in May 1940, and Mosley and 740 other fascists were interned for much of World War II. Mosley made unsuccessful attempts at a comeback after the war, notably in the Union Movement.
Harry Turtledove's alternate history novel, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, is set in 2010 in a world where the Nazis were triumphant, the BUF governs Britain — and the first stirrings of the reform movement come from there. The BUF and Mosley also appear as background influences in Turtledove's Colonization trilogy which follows the Worldwar tetralogy and is set in the 1960s.
The BUF is also in Guy Walters book The Leader (2003), where Mosely is the dictator of Britain leading up to WWII.
British humorous writer P.G. Wodehouse satirized the BUF in books and short stories. The BUF was satirized as "The Black Shorts" (shorts being worn as all the best shirt colors were already taken) and their leader was Roderick Spode, owner of a ladies' underwear shop.
The lyrics are as follows: