Wrong turn

The Rebel Who Lost His Cause: The Tragedy of John Beckett MP

Francis Beckett <em>London House, 256

In 1930 John Beckett was one of Britain's most controversial MPs. A headstrong left-winger, he once seized the Mace in the Commons and tried to dump it in a lavatory. Yet, until the appearance of this well-researched book, he had been relegated to the historical footnotes, and he is rarely mentioned outside studies of British fascism. Francis Beckett has written about his father partly to rescue him from neglect, but also to explain his bizarre ideological odyssey. Leaving aside its contribution to important historical debates, John Beckett's story makes fascinating reading in itself.

His original commitment to politics was fired by the shabby treatment of first world war veterans like himself. Inspired by the hope of radical change, he proved himself to be an effective orator, a prolific journalist and a brilliant political organiser. He could have taken a lifelong lease of the Gateshead constituency he first won in 1924 had he not exchanged it for Peckham. In 1931 he almost clung on to that seat against heavy odds. But he had already proved adept at alienating his parliamentary colleagues, having decided that he would not suffer fools before his judgement of personalities and policies had been allowed to mature. His increasingly reckless decisions - in private as well as public life - had ensured his ruin long before his worst enemy, Herbert Morrison, ensured his prolonged wartime detention as a "traitor".

Beckett believes that his father's attachment to fascism was "the product of abused and distorted idealism". John Beckett despised the Westminster establishment, all the more so because it sucked the radical spirit out of representatives of the working class. His anti-Semitism was the unpleasant counterpart of his laudable antipathy to war-profiteers. Yet his short-lived alliance with Oswald Mosley remains a psychological puzzle. Beckett was not the only irrepressible individualist to offer his services to that manipulator of regimented mediocrity. Disillusionment came when Beckett realised that he would have to take orders like the rest; the mystery is why he ever felt that he might be exempted. Undoubtedly Mosley's chequebook helps to explain Beckett's behaviour.

Francis Beckett believes that revisionism has been too kind to Mosley, and most readers will agree. But, despite his fluent prose, the book has a partisan flavour which some might think misplaced when the subject is one's own father. It never attains the semi-detached melancholy of Nicholas Mosley's work, presumably because no one else has ever spoken up for John Beckett. He might have been a more likeable man than Mosley (or even Morrison), but that is not saying much.

Was Beckett's life a "tragedy", as his son's subtitle suggests? True, he ended up scraping a living as a Securicor guard. But to say that his talents were wasted is to ignore the truth that political talent without judgement is scarcely worth the name; and, had his cause succeeded, the tragic consequences would have extended far beyond one individual.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser