My book Lost Imperium: Far Right Visions of the British Empire, c.1920-1980 studies how the far right in Britain responded to the decline and collapse of the British Empire during the 20th century. As one of the most important ideologues and activists within the British far right throughout the period, A.K. Chesterton is one of the crucial figures of the book and thus, the Chesterton collection at the University of Bath has been an invaluable resource.
One document which proved particularly useful was a scrapbooks containing Chesterton’s own collection of press cuttings. He was a man who loved publicity and meticulously collected newspaper articles which mentioned him and the League of Empire Loyalists (a far right group he founded and led between 1954 and 1967). This document demonstrated to me how the controversial activities of Chesterton and his followers gained national and indeed, international attention - a host of newspapers from Australia to South Africa are exhibited in the collection of cuttings. This shows that whilst he may have been a somewhat obscure and eccentric figure, his activities were able to gain traction worldwide. Attention provided however was rarely flattering.
The articles in the scrapbook were also useful as a way of seeing what types of activism were undertaken by Chesterton and the LEL. As staunch defenders of the British Empire and fierce critics of decolonisation, they often targeted politicians who they blamed for Britain’s imperial retreat. This often took surprising and somewhat bizarre forms. In one case, in November 1961, I found an article which reported that an LEL activist threw rotten eggs at Kenyan nationalist leader (and the first President of independent Kenya) Jomo Kenyatta in London. South Africa’s Cape Argus newspaper noted the absurdity of an activist, who was not local to the area, travelling over 100 miles to throw an egg (and be arrested in the process). Many other cases of similar stunts are recorded in the press cuttings.
The farcical activism of the LEL laid bare in Chesterton’s own collections demonstrates why they were not able to gain much public support or traction. Their juvenile stunts - such as egg throwing - highlights the weakness of the far right more generally during the period. Yet, lessons were learned and many realised that more serious forms of activism were required. Chesterton and other members of the LEL went on to form the National Front in 1967 - a far more effective and dangerous organisation responsible for violence meted out to ethnic minorities in Britain throughout the 1970s and 1980s.