There were many reasons why extremists failed to gain mass support, of varying degrees of importance. This answer will include National Government policies and unemployment, the weaknesses of the Extremist parties and the association of extremists with violence. It will be argued that the fall in unemployment was the most important factor, and that the National Government’s actions were partly responsible for it. National Government policies did play an important part directly and indirectly in limiting the threat from political extremism. Legislation was passed to curb the activities of both the communists and fascists.
The 1934 Incitement to Disaffection Act could be used to prosecute anyone advocating revolution or violence of any kind. The Public Order Act in 1936 forbade the wearing of political uniforms and gave the police greater powers to control and even to ban political meetings and demonstrations. There were to be no Nuremburg-style rallies in Britain. The National Government itself, with its huge parliamentary majorities in both the 1931 and 1935 general elections, ensured stability and prevented extremist parties from exploiting any power vacuum.
It also meant that the government had no need to depend on any political alliances with the extremists. The National Government was in place for nine years, in itself a source of stability. In foreign policy, both Baldwin and Chamberlain avoided coming into conflict with either communist or fascist countries – their policy of ‘appeasement’ and the avoidance of war ensured public support at least until march 1939. The policies of the National Government in aiding economic recovery were a factor. National Government policies such as low interest rates, Imperial Protection and by the late 1930s rearmament did help reduce unemployment.
It may well be argued that the fall in unemployment was a key factor by drying up the likely recruiting grounds for extremism. Total unemployment was halved 1933-38. Equally, it may be argued that most National Government policies were not that effective and that some policies in the 1931-34 period such as cuts in wages and the means test may well have kept unemployment high by reducing demand. Nevertheless, though the national level of unemployment fell, regional unemployment especially in the old industrial areas remained high throughout the decade.
There was no direct correlation between high levels of long-term unemployment and political extremism; indeed the long-term unemployed often became politically apathetic as they coped with the problems of poverty. The Extremist parties themselves had many weaknesses. The communists had no outstanding leader, and while the BUF did they had few other talented individuals. Labour refused to enter an alliance with the Communists and trade union leaders like Bevin were determined to fight Communist influence within Organised Labour.
Similarly, the conservatives had no need to ally with the BUF since they dominated the National Government, and Fascism was quite alien to men like Baldwin and Chamberlain. Importantly, unlike Italy or Germany there was no sense of national humiliation after the Great War in Britain, traditional institutions such as the Monarchy continued to provide a focus for national loyalty, the empire maintained the image of Britain as a World Power and the British parliamentary system was deep-rooted.
A final point would be that the street violence associated with both the Fascists and Communists for example at Olympia and Cable Street frightened off many potential supporters. Also, in the late 30s, the outbreak of war in Europe rapidly drove support away from the BUF, and Mosley himself was incarcerated in case he helped the Nazis. In conclusion, the most important factor was the fall in unemployment, as extremist parties emerged as a direct response to the depression and the unemployment that came with it, and shrank as unemployment did.