MANY people will be coming fresh to the work of Dame Muriel Spark in this year of celebrations to mark the centenary of her birth, and I will attempt to sum up her extraordinary life and career in a later column.

Some of those who pick up her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, will undoubtedly be shocked by the admiration of the book’s central character for Benito Mussolini – “romantic … a man of action”, as she describes him – and the “fascisti” of Italy.

Brodie says of Mussolini that he is “one of the greatest men in the world, far more so than Ramsay MacDonald” and claims that Mussolini “has performed feats of magnitude”. She shows her girls pictures of the fascisti marching in Rome, and generally comes across as a lover of fascism. When the book was written in 1961, such views were already out of date and I suspect that, taken out of context, they are even more anachronistic now.

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For fascism is dead, isn’t it? Really? When Tommy Robinson’s racism is lionised on the streets of London and in Washington’s Congress? When overtly fascist Holocaust deniers can berate Yes marchers? When silly boys can wear black uniforms and masks and give raised arm salutes on the streets of Glasgow in connection with their alleged support of a football team? When you see all this I think it is time to worry about fascism in Scotland again, and learn the lessons of history. For while fascism as a political system never gained too much ground in Scotland in its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, there was support in this country for fascism, for Generalissimo Franco, for Il Duce Mussolini and even for Der Fuhrer Hitler. It was subtle and had little of the neo-fascists’ modern love of showing off tattoos and tweets, but it was a real fact of life in Scotland for nearly two decades.

Last October in a column about the Scottish contribution to the Spanish Civil War – overwhelmingly on the Republican side – we discussed how some Scots supported the Nationalist cause, mostly inspired by their own extreme political and religious views.

As I wrote at the time, probably the most well-known of these was Captain Archibald Maule “Jock” Ramsay, the aristocratic and anti-Semitic Unionist MP for Peebles and Southern Midlothian, who formed the pro-Franco United Christian Front that worked alongside the Scottish Friends of Nationalist Spain.

Jean Brodie and Ramsay were exemplars of the kind of Scots who took up fascism as a political philosophy. Brodie is a brilliant tragi-comic creation, but was based on a true person, a teacher of Spark at James Gillespie’s School called Christina Kay. She was indeed an admirer of Mussolini and had a picture of the fascisti on her wall.

Kay had travelled to Italy and was no doubt entranced by the propaganda put out by the fascisti. Under Mussolini, the trains really did run on time and litter was outlawed – when you are the leader of a state completely under fascist control then you can do that sort of thing. We’ll come to Ramsay later, but suffice to say at this point that he was one of a number of Scots from an aristocratic background who, if they were not overtly fascist then they were certainly fellow travellers at least for some of the period in which fascism flourished.

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The point is that while fascism was very much the political philosophy of choice among the working class of Italy in particular, here the phenomenon of Red Clydeside that we examined a while back meant that the Scottish working class was too educated and informed to be suckered by the fascists. In this country, fascism was mainly the preserve of the middle and upper classes, and while some Scottish workers fell prey to the siren calls of Oswald Mosley and others, the vast majority did not.

Indeed fascism in Scotland in the 20s and 30s barely gets a mention in most histories of this land in the 20th century. We should not forget it, however, because it happened and as I always say, if you do not learn from your history then prepare to re-live it. At the outset I am going to say that I am not in the slightest bit interested in the usual Unionist claptrap that the SNP were pro-Nazi and pro-fascist. It’s a sideshow, and not worthy of consideration because the people who want to provoke a reaction are doing so from a political point of view.

This column is confined to a study of Scottish fascism and fascists, and will deal in facts, even painful ones such as the unexpected allegiance of some Scots to fascism. Such as Hugh MacDiarmid. Christopher Murray Grieve was the greatest controversialist of them all, and his gadfly intellect would alight on one “cause” after another. And yes, that included fascism.

As he wrote of himself in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle:

I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur

Extremes meet – it’s the only way I ken

To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt

That damns the vast majority o’ men.

Largely influenced by the American poet Ezra Pound, MacDiarmid called for a Scottish fascism of the left in 1923, just a few months after Mussolini took power in Italy as the first Prime Minister of Italy from the fascist party which itself had been born from the Fascist Manifesto of 1919 – an extraordinary document which, apart from its aim of making Italy and military giant, might be seen as socialist as it called for universal suffrage, progressive taxes, confiscation of church estates, an eight hour working day and a minimum wage.

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Given that manifesto it’s no wonder that in the immediate post-war years with a broken economy, the Italian working class embraced the fascist party, though Italian workers soon began to regret that when Mussolini sent in his Blackshirts to smash strikes. By early 1925, Mussolini’s grip on power was complete and he was able to proclaim himself dictator of Italy. Adolf Hitler was only just out of jail at that point, and then got himself banned from speaking in public for two years as Germany wasn’t yet prepared to accept his forms of racism and fascism.

In Britain, the ongoing political strife at Westminster was played out across the country as the three major parties took part in a power game while the working class organised itself and trades unions led the way to the General Strike of 1926.

There were fledgling fascist groups in England throughout the 1920s, such as the British Fascists, the National Fascisti and later the Imperial Fascist League whose main policy was to embrace Nazism when Hitler came to power.

None of them could convince the working people of Britain to lend them much support, but then along came Oswald Mosley. A former Tory, he was thought likely to succeed Ramsay MacDonald as Labour Prime Minister, but instead founded the New Party with a handful of other disaffected Labour MPs.

After Mosley toured Italy and met Mussolini, the New Party became the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932. Mosley soon preached anti-semitic hate policies, and violence followed.

Scotland in the grip of depression should have been a recruiting ground for Mosley. But there was a problem, and that problem was religion. For all his many faults, Mosley was not anti-Irish or anti-Catholic, and indeed the BUF attracted many Catholics into its ranks.

Scotland in the 1920s and 1930s was a bigoted place. In 1923 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had debated a report calling for restrictions on Irish immigration to Scotland, and the more right-wing elements of Scottish political life seized on this to justify support for the Scottish Protestant League, founded in 1920 by Alexander Ratcliffe who had one policy – racist anti-Catholic anti-Irish decrees such as “no Rome on the Rates” against Catholic education. The league had some success in winning council seats in Glasgow while John Cormack of the Protestant Action Society was later a councillor in Edinburgh.

Ratcliffe’s real core beliefs showed through when he joined the Scottish Democratic Fascist Party, founded in 1933 by William Weir Gilmour and Major Hume Sleigh. Gilmour was a former Labour man who espoused the cause of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic Protestant supremacy. His party did not allow Catholics as members, and campaigned for enforced Irish immigrant repatriation. Those policies put Scotland’s only declared fascist party directly at odds with Mosley’s BUF, and given the rise of the Irish Catholic working class in central Scotland, it meant that Scottish fascism never got off the ground, not least because the vast majority of trade unionists also boycotted it, certainly after Mosley’s blackshirts wreaked havoc in England. Gilmour, by the way, later became a Labour party organiser before becoming a Liberal party candidate before being jailed for child sex abuse – not something those parties will like to be reminded about.

As Hitler took over Germany and worked along with Italy and Japan to form an Axis of fascism, Scotland’s pitifully few fascists were falling out of favour, never really having come into it.

Then up popped Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, a different fish altogether. Wounded in the First World War, he became the Unionist MP for Peebles and South Midlothian, and throughout the 1930s he developed anti-semitic views not unlike Hitler’s. In 1936 the Spanish Civil War saw Ramsay become a leading figure in the support for Francisco Franco’s Nationalists. The following year he formed the United Christian Front to campaign against what he called interference from Moscow, and though he was not a Catholic, Ramsay drew his influences from right-wing Catholic priests.

There is little excuse for his conversion from war hero to anti-semite Christian bigot, and he also founded the Right Club which sadly numbered prominent Scottish aristocrats and business people among its members, all dedicated to “ending Jewish control.”

He went too far in 1940 when documents were stolen from the American Embassy by a clerk called Kent Tyler. He was a member of the Right Club and the British authorities acted – Ramsay thus became the only sitting MP to be detained in prison under the Defence Regulations. He was finished, and did not even defend his seat in the 1945 General Election.

One of Ramsay’s family in a way redeemed his father’s sins. His fourth son, Father John Ramsay, always known as Jock, was a Scots Guards officer who became a much loved Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, putting his military organisational skills to great use at the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Scotland in 1982. He died in 1997.

There are descendants of Archibald Ramsay extant and in no way should they be blamed for the wayward intellect of their ancestor. For that would be like blaming our own Queen for the fact that her ancestor Charles Stuart could not keep his head.

If you discount the rabid anti-Irish racism of the Protestant supremacists, the fact is that the ordinary people of Scotland, with precious few exemptions, firmly shut the door on fascism before the Second World War. We must be vigilant and do so again if necessary.