Born to rule

Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British fascism

Stephen Dorril <em>Viking, 717pp, £30</em>


Oswald Mosley is such a repul- sive and ridiculous figure, it is easy to forget that, for one brief moment in his otherwise deplorable life, he was right. Mention his name and what comes to mind is the anti-Semitism, the treachery that, despite his denials, could have made him Adolf Hitler's quisling in Great Britain, and the absurd mock-heroic uniform in which he led his pathetic imitations of storm troopers. However, in the months leading up to the slump of 1931, his prescription for economic re-covery was convincing enough to attract the support of Aneurin Bevan. Half the Labour Party of that time backed his ideas for reducing unemployment. When Mosley decided that his policy could be put into practice only through a new and independent movement, however, Bevan announced: "It's the Labour Party or nothing." Mosley did not understand. Loyalty was not in his nature.

The ideas that so attracted Bevan were a crude version of Keynesianism: deficit financing, cheap money and public works. They were advanced by Mosley - a recent convert from Conservatism who served as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the second Labour government - as a remedy for the crisis that led, eventually, to Ramsay MacDonald's apostasy and the creation of a national government. The frustration that Mosley felt at being overruled by Philip Snowden (the most orthodox of chancellors) and Jimmy Thomas (whose elevation from trade-union leader to cabinet minister had only increased his unjustified self-importance) is easy to understand. But as Stephen Dorril makes clear in Blackshirt, Mosley was motivated less by despair at the short-sightedness of his superiors than by a belief in his personal destiny and a rejection of the idea that democracy might stand in his way.

There were many other members of the party who were frustrated by the inactivity of MacDonald and the inflexibility of Snowden. Yet only Mosley wanted to destroy the movement that they led. His willingness to sacrifice all in the pursuit of his ideas was based on a psychology that was typically fascist - what Jennie Lee called "the unshakeable conviction that he was born to rule". Clement Attlee's question about Mosley's manner makes the same point even more eloquently: "Why does he always speak to us as though he were a feudal landlord abusing tenants who are in arrears with their rent?"

The adjective that colleagues and contemporaries - both the serious politicians such as Hugh Dalton and John Strachey, who supported his policies, and louche friends such as Sybil Colefax and "Fruity" Metcalfe, who shared his pleasures - used consistently to describe Mosley was "arrogant". There must also be a suspicion that he wasn't very bright. When he told Harold Macmillan that he was think- ing of putting his supporters into black shirts, the future prime minister replied: "You must be mad. Whenever the Brit- ish feel strongly about anything, they wear grey flannel trousers and tweed jackets." There is no reason to suppose that Mosley appreciated either the joke or its underlying truth.

Dorril illustrates, time and again, the madness of a man who believed that he had been called to save Britain from the Jewish conspiracy and the advance of international communism. When, aged 35, he launched the British Union of Fascists, his opening address concluded with the exhortation to his followers "to march with us in a great and hazardous adventure. We ask them to be prepared to sacrifice all . . . to dedicate their lives to building in this country a movement of the modern age." Such language might at least have fitted the occasion at a British version of a Nuremberg rally, but he was addressing a rabble of 32 social misfits and malcontents.

Mosley's fascist movement would never have achieved the notoriety it did, had it not been subsidised, from the start, by the fascist dictators. Dorril makes an important contribution to history by exposing the myth - assiduously propagated by Mosley apologists - that the BUF was too patriotic to accept the charity of Britain's enemies. In 1932, Benito Mussolini's foreign minister asked the Italian ambassa-dor in London "to get the above sum into Mosley's hands in whatever form you think best". Other sums followed. The total subvention amounted to £200,000 - nearly £7m at today's prices.

The connection with Hitler was closer but even more clandestine. In 1936, Mos-ley married Diana Guinness (née Mitford) at Joseph Goebbels's house in Berlin, with the Führer in attendance. Hitler himself ordered the marriage certificate to be hidden. If the close relationship became public, Goebbels explained, "Mosley would lose his prospect of manoeuvring with other politicians like Lloyd George."

Mosley nearly missed his own wedding. Had he been arrested during the Cable Street confrontation between his Blackshirts and the anti-fascists, he would have been in prison rather than in Berlin. As it was, he was just in time to complete a marriage which may have been a love match, but which was also a partnership in pathological anti-Semitism and a conspiracy to overthrow the lawful government and replace it with a puppet dictatorship subservient to Berlin. From the perspective of today, the comprehensive failure of this conspiracy makes it look farcical; but that does nothing to mitigate its wickedness.

Stephen Dorril's biography - comprehensive though it is - leaves one ques- tion unanswered. Why, once Mosley had turned from practical politician to fascist demagogue, did so many "distinguished" figures - Robert Boothby and Harold Nicolson among them - still tolerate his company? Between the wars, there were sections of society in which contempt for democracy was only just under the skin.

Roy Hattersley is working on a history of Britain between the wars

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The real first casualty of war