Freddie Starr ate my hamster. He did other things too, of course. Among which was making a career out of dressing up as Hitler on what was once prime TV’s Saturday evening variety spot. His very appearance on stage, vast Iron Cross, down-turned wellies, lustrous blonde hair peeking out from under the Führer’s eagle crested hat, was enough to set the audience tittering.

Starr was an antic jester and the incongruity of his swastika armband and long boxer shorts was part of the act. But he was also playing on a long-established English ability to find Nazism, fascism, Hitler and dictatorship funny. Those uniforms. The self-regard. The bombast and the lunacy that the paraphernalia of importance never quite disguised.

P. G. Wodehouse had beaten him to it. Roderick Spode, also forever in and with his “brown shorts” and always “on the verge of victory” by defending the right of  “every true-born Englishman to grow his own potatoes”. He also took a dim view of Bertie Wooster as exactly the sort of chap who could do with more PT.

Other variations were available. John Cleese repurposed his Ministry of Silly Walks routine in goose-stepping mockery of, well, goose-stepping, moustachioed and hen-pecked kings of their own little castle.  

Julie Walters, meanwhile, brought her heels smartly together like a good Prussian officer and, with arm raised in salute, marched to her desk to start again when Michael Caine’s professor criticised her essay in Educating Rita.

Parody Hitler was good for pricking pomposity and reducing grandiose authority to what it largely was. Small men, better suited to enforcing parking regulations and no cycling in the park, and who, by some quirk of fate, suddenly genuinely found themselves in charge.

Hitler, Mussolini, and those South American dictators who had got some bad ideas off those special guests who had arrived by U-boat in 1945 were, unintentionally, bloody funny. And, as any political historian will by tradition tell you, finding them so has always prevented England from encouraging them. 

Here, the loons of El Presidente-style politics, authoritarianism, dark cellars, personality cults, a thin-skinned intolerance for dissent and a penchant for quasi-military tailoring did a roaring trade in showbiz as a cipher for the national dislike of being told what to do.

Then things changed. And you only had to walk down the hill from my old and now long defunct school to see an example of why. In a multi-racial area like Lewisham, New Cross and Deptford in southeast London, fascism, nasty, boot and blood and burn ‘em out fascism had taken root in a National Front headquarters and regular bouts of riotous violence of which the most infamous was “the Battle of Lewisham” in 1977, now commemorated on a plaque.

“Billy’s joined the National Front
He always was (just) a little runt
He’s got his hand in the air with the other c***s

Humanise yourself.”

… as the Police – that’s the band not the lot in special measures – sang by 1981. And they’d sort of put their finger on the demise of Hitler as a comic turn. Flinging your arm up, whether it was during a punch-up or at a football match had suddenly become sinister again and, in an ironic twist of which Nancy Mitford would doubtless have approved, became non-U. Freddie Starr was reduced to munching rodents to get a laugh.

There was a flip side, of course. In the polarised politics of the 80s, “the loony Left” as the tabloids dubbed them, contrived the notion that any concept of which they disapproved was “fascist”. That figureheads like GLC Ken Livingstone held dubious views about Jews and supported the IRA – who espoused nationalism, socialism, authoritarian violence and a liking for military uniforms – never seemed to occur to them.

The posturings this produced were parodied by Rik Mayall in the sitcom The Young Ones. To Rick (famously with a silent “p”), the sociology student of Scumbag College, festooned in the badges of every passing modish cause, everyone and everything was “fascist”, particularly his parents and cleaning products. Like all good revolutionaries, he was middle class and his attempts to rob “Fascist Pig Bank”, defeated by his willingness to join a queue.

Sadly comic, universally disliked and incurably adolescent, his answer to any argument was to shout “fascist” and raise two fingers and, along with the Young Ones, the 80s and political anger, people like him passed into history along, very unfortunately, with the great Rik Mayall.

Or so we thought.

Fascism, you see, is back. Oh no, no, not the sieg heil-ing lunacy of a race riot – though doubtless some of that lurks in the shadows – but in being adopted as the weapon of choice to describe anything or anyone with whom you disagree. Its favourite medium is Twitter – though anywhere on the internet will do – and those most likely to reach for it are, ironically, the tolerantly intolerant of woke orthodoxy. You can see them in black balaclavas on that other haven, university campuses, screaming their hatred into the faces of women who would quite like to hold a view on what constitutes their own sex. Just like fascist thugs, really.

There are no limits on its increasingly meaningless use. Even the “tea and scones” village fete patriotism of the Queen’s jubilee was “just like Nazi Germany” because of an abundance of Union flags. This, apparently, had echoes of Nuremberg. Here, in the only Allied power that went to war with Nazi Germany as a matter of principle rather than having to be bombed into it.

Meanwhile, a professor at Sheffield University uses Twitter to play the common game that “what happens in America happens here” to opine that everything from gay rights to abortion laws is under scrutiny from “Tory think tanks” and that “fascism is on the march”.

So ubiquitous is this approach that it’s become an internet meme. “Everything I don’t like is Hitler.” Which at least shows there’s still some humour to be jerked out of it.

It would be easy, of course, to see this as the lunatic fringe doing their lunatic thing. Except so many mainstream characters are at it, tweeting and retweeting their increasingly deranged extrapolations at each other in a sort of “thin end of the wedge” war of escalation.

Some are surprising. GPs and the woman who belittles aspirant entrepreneurs on Dragon’s Den, Deborah Meaden. Their latest “descent into the darkness” cause celebre is Steve Bray, the loud-mouthed anti-Brexiteer who screams “Tory scum” at passing MPs through a megaphone and is a general irritant.

He recently had his amplification taken away under new powers. Not that this prevents his continued efforts to defy a democratic plebiscite while at the same being held up as a martyred beacon of democracy. It merely stops him doing it through a loudspeaker.

Bray, of course, persuades only those who are already persuaded. He is as futile as the man who used to prophesy the end of the world through the misuse of protein while wearing a sandwich board on Oxford St. An eccentric tolerated and, to show what a fascist regime we live in, Bray has been bunged £200,000 by our black-shirted population to keep going.

That needn’t of course prevent Meaden and Alastair Campbell retweeting the idea that Sky’s Sam Coates will be next for shouting questions at Boris Johnson as he enters Downing Street. That a gang of thugs has not set on Coates and given him a public hiding pour encourager les autres, nor that Bray has yet to join the disparus in a cellar with his sensitive bits wired to the grid seems to have escaped all of them. “First they came for a man with a placard.” Except they didn’t.

Brexit is the fascist cause that unites these characters. If your strategy was, is and shall be the smear that more than half the country is a racist in disguise, willingly duped by Boris Johnson and with one eye on reconquering the empire, then it follows that the government is, in fact, prone to meeting to discuss final solutions when nobody is looking.

Campbell, a man who campaigned for greater respect for politicians and for mental health causes, runs a Twitter stream akin to the River Fleet, a forgotten river of London converted into a sewer. A constant tirade of insult, his kindest assessment of the Prime Minister recently being “accidental fascist.”

That the cabinet is multi-racial, our police are more prone to sympathising with demonstrators than dealing with them or that Boris’ militaristic instincts are hampered by his uncertainty over defence spending are but details. 

Ultimately, it would be easy to dismiss all this attempt to raise Hitler from the grave as a bit 6th form. “We read a new word in our Alan Bullock and we’re going to use it.” We used to have the wit to treat fascism with the ridicule it deserved or the deadly seriousness its threat demanded. But beyond the extreme partisanship that our times demand and the internet enables, there is something sinister at play. Smearing dissent with a word. And that really is fascist.