Stephen Dorril’s “Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism” is an exhaustive re-examination of the man who, far from being a Hitler admiring crank, was inextricably bound up with British politics and upper class attitudes, writes Ben Granger
Many may find the sheer weight of this tome wrongly flattering of its subject, regardless of content. Why should such a figure merit 700 pages? Surely this was, at best, a nearly-man in British politics? He may have risen to Cabinet level certainly, but then so did hundreds of others. The grimy pack of thugs he came to lead once his mainstream ambitions failed may have caused a splash as they bashed enemy heads in, but no-one voted for them. Surely, ultimately, they and he were an irrelevance? Dorril’s expertly researched account gives the lie to such a view and leaves no doubt that the story of Mosley is inexorably entwined with the story of twentieth century politics as a whole, mirroring the highs and the lows, ricocheting from the machinations of high society to the violent desperation of the underclass, and taking in every major Parliamentary player in between.
Sir Oswald “Tom” Mosley was a pure-grade scion from a northern branch of the old land-owning aristocracy (Mosley Street in Manchester takes its name from the clan), of the type still rolling in money but comparatively side-lined politically in the bourgeois twentieth century. With a boorishly uncaring, neglectful father, and indulgent mother, his defining character traits were shown early on at boarding school and elsewhere. A narrow, directed charm, rampant ambition, intellectual laziness, sexual incontinence, untrustworthiness, and a tendency to brow-beat and bully. Above all, a narcissistic sense of self-adoration, belief in entitlement and complete lack of self-doubt, of the type so often found in his caste. But taken just that one degree further.
After service in the air-force during the First World War, where he performed with distinction and enthusiasm, impetuous Tom managed to secure a position as a Conservative MP by the age of 22, the natural home for a man of his class and connections. He soon became renowned as a powerful orator in the Commons for his party. But this “man in a hurry” was impatient with the old guard still running both party and country, those who had allowed the calamity of war to decimate the young men of the nation fighting abroad, and who allowed an untrammelled laissez-faire capitalism to terrorise them with poverty once they had returned. Dorril goes into expansive and exacting detail about the clashing political and economic trends amongst the elite of the time. This in itself provides an unfaultable Parliamentary political history of the period, a vivid picture of the flux at work, which formed the background of the contradictions which made up Mosley’s outlook. He at first identified wholesale with the “social imperialists” in the Tory Party as against its free trade faction. He supported those who, in wishing to save the existing social order, believed in economic protectionism to protect a relatively decent living standard for the British working-class, bolstered by the exploitation of Empire. Such a world-view was entrenched in a romantic conception of England, with the foreign (and, sometimes, Jewish) “other” as its symbolic foe. This paternalistic ethos was the basic core of Mosley’s philosophy from thereon, but his contempt for the Empire Tories’ lack of innovation made him seek his cause, his following and followers, elsewhere.
Mosley was as much a figure in “high society” as in politics, very Tatler fodder. Those he ran with were rich, young, louche, promiscuous, glamorous and shallow, of the type Evelyn Waugh at once admired and despised. As Mosley married his first wife Cimmie, this “dashing”, charismatic figure dazzled many. While gentle, warm Cimmie was liked by most who met her, quite as many people were as put-off by Mosley’s boundless self-importance as were taken in by his charm. While praise came from many, his Tory rival Stanley Baldwin spoke for many more by remarking “He is a cad and a wrong’un and they will find it out,” before he left the party. Cimmie’s delicate nature was in turn tested to immense distraction by her husband’s countless, remorseless affairs – including with her sisters.
Mosley would never be content as anything less than the biggest fish in the pond. The Tories disappointed him so he joined Labour, seeing that as the party more capable of delivering the change -still amorphously defined- that he craved. For a while his “radicalism”, advocating wholesale economic reorganisation to achieve full employment led a few on the Left, even the great Bevan for a short time, to see him as a potential leader. Indeed, it is distinctly unnerving to see both the respect Mosley was shown by sections of both the Labour Party Left and the Independent Labour Party, and the seeming ease with which his rhetoric of renewal could blend with theirs.
As Mosley made his way into the Cabinet of Ramsay McDonald’s doomed Labour government and expounded his economic programmes to tackle unemployment (Keynesianism with an authoritarian kick), their rejection by McDonald was due to the latter’s timidity rather than any genuine opposition to creeping dictatorship. Mosley was enraged as his proposals were ignored, and immediately split with the Labour leadership. As this schism occurred, it is a testimony to both the man’s demagogic charisma and his ideological vacuity that many in both main parties now saw him as a possible leader. The ambiguity was such that for a very brief time Churchill and Bevan alike were keen for him to lead their respective parties. But impatient Tom had his own ideas. He had taken his ball home. He would have his own party. The New Party.
The New Party was formed in early 1931, it soon became clear just what its founder’s forever trumpeted radicalism amounted to. Fierce rhetoric about change and national renewal (and the clamour of a throng of restless, violent young men to drive this home) masked a dangerous and ringing hollow at the party’s ideological core. Its launch was a huge media event at the time, and figures of the stature of Bernard Shaw and H G Wells were initially sympathetic (both being Fabian socialists but with a disturbing penchant for Mosley’s coldly elitist, authoritarian and technocratic attitudes). The initial boost was short-lived however, and the New Party’s lack of clarity, together with a poor showing at their first by-election in Ashton-under- Lyne, saw it heading nowhere in electoral terms. By 1932, the New Party had already changed its name to the British Union of Fascists.
The BUF was never less than an unabashed personality cult from the beginning, the logical conclusion of the overweening toxic brew of narcissism and megalomania that animated its founder. Massively over- represented by ex military men like Mosley himself, he found it easy to run the movement as army rather than a party, dominating every aspect of members’ lives. They even had their own uniform, they were the Blackshirts, aping Mussolini’s crew before them. Ex-member Colin Cross recalled the faithful “Even saluted him when he went into the sea to bathe at the Movement’s summer camps at Selsey”, and “they whispered his name in religious awe………he was presented to the public as a superman. Criticism was taboo and humour nearly so.” At last the man had found the captive audience he had always craved. Now all he had to do was enlarge the audience to encompass the whole nation.
The BUF was always clear in its violence, but it was far from ideologically coherent, even less so than the man himself. He took a fair-sized gang of old Labour comrades with him, but to the great majority of Labour and trade-union men and women, the Fascist movement was not just a mistake, but a sickening anathema. This was a party based on a movement that massacred their brothers and sisters in Italy, directly supported by the capitalist class in that country. They knew the enemy where they saw it. The organised working-class were forever, fervently opposed. Many more members came from elsewhere, including pre -existing smaller UK Fascist movements. Amongst them were the British Fascists, an old group of simplistic upper-middle-class reactionary blimps who had previously been active in trying to break the 1926 General Strike. Joining them were more recent and more vicious groups of Nazi cheerleaders, whose chief motivation was a pathological hatred of “Jewry”. Of equal importance and greater number were natural Tories driven to a new radical dynamism against the perceived socialist threat. This contingent was personified by Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere, a friend of Mosley’s who threw his paper behind the new movement wholesale. Meanwhile, the movement was secretly, and illegaly, receiving a large chunk of its funding direct from Fascist Italy, and, increasingly, (as the anti-Semitism increased) from Nazi Germany too.
The degree of the extent of Mosley’s anti-Semitism is central to the conundrum of his character. It is interesting to contrast his personality with that of Hitler, the man he so desired to emulate, failing so spectacularly. There is no doubt that Mosley was not possessed of the overwhelming personal hatred of Jews that so engulfed Hitler. He had several Jewish friends prior to the BUF. His rival, the hysterically overwrought anti-Semite Arnold Leese, leader of the tiny, ultra-fanatic Imperial Fascist League taunted Mosley as a “kosher Fascist” for this very reason. Amusingly, one of Mosley’s early New Party stalwarts was a Jewish East End boxer named Ted “Kid” Lewis, who exited the movement with a punch to Mosley’s nose when the latter confirmed that yes, he did intend his movement to be anti-Semitic. Furthermore, Oswald explicitly did not sign up to the facetious and insane pseudo-science the Nazis used to justify their race hatred, casually denouncing it as gibberish. He mocked the notorious forgeries the Protocols of the Elders of Zion too.
The very fact he could then lead a movement openly engaged in repeated violence against this scape- goated racial group shows the black-hearted, gangster opportunism at the core of his being. The hatred of the Jewish enemy was a galvanising myth to a movement which otherwise had little to tie it together, and he knew it. With characteristic dishonesty, Mosley dismally pleaded self defence in his campaign against the Jews, claiming “they started it.” Mosley came to advocate the expelling of all Jews from Britain who had shown “disloyalty.” Where they were to go was unclear, Madagascar, or possibly Uganda (“very empty and a lovely climate” helpfully offered Mosley’s second wife Diana, formerly Guinness, formerly Mitford.) It is an interesting rumination of what constitutes a truer evil, the deep-felt fanaticism of a Hitler or the gutter-shallow opportunism of a Mosley. It is however, much easier to see which was more successful.
Adolf met Oswald on several occasions but was never fully convinced of him, doubting his commitment, sensing his lack of whole-hearted zealotry. Goebbels was even less impresed, dismissing him as “an outsider of small political significance.” Hitler was however genuinely taken with Mosley’s wife Diana. He was even more taken by her sister Unity, and the feeling was mutual. Mosley married Diana at a secret ceremony in Goebbels’ house, having already carried out a long affair with her. The contrast of kind-hearted if naive Cimmie with the coldly ruthless Diana was seen by some as emblematic of Mosley’s journey to the dark side. While her portrayal as a Lady Macbeth figure even more malignant than her husband may have a toe in misogynist myth, he had certainly met his match with her in amoral callousness. The Mitfords were the epitome of high society elan, and Hitler himself, for all his railing against “British decadence” was far from immune to the charms of this glamorous set. Diana and Unity, regular and welcome visitors to Hitler, acted as a conduit between Mosley and his new benefactor, while the intelligence services were more concerned with the Mitford pair than Mosley himself as a threat to the state.
The BUF was to change its name to the BU at the end of 1934. Short for the British Union, though its full new title was the rather less innocuous British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, reflecting the increasing influence of the Fuhrer. The thuggishness was thrown into sharp relief at an infamous public gathering at Olympia in June 1934. The mass meeting was held in a theatrical, explicitly Nuremburg style, the movement’s new Lightning-in-a-Circle symbol (wittily dubbed “the flash in the pan” by opponents) dominating the hall just as the swastika did to the Nazi faithful in Germany. The Blackshirts deliberately attracted as many opponents as possible to this meeting, and then, with a variety of home-made weapons, pulped into bloody submission anyone who heckled The Leader. Many serious injuries resulted. Mosley was attempting to prove his control of “the street” once and for all, yet this one meeting probably did more than any other act to convince potential followers of his ruthless, sadistic nature. His unpredictable nature too – probably a greater anathema to the British business class.
The BU suffered a severe propaganda blow with the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when a massive crowd of local working-class youths, Jews, Communist and Labour activists violently prevented Mosley (resplendent in a new uniform explicitly modelled on that of the Nazi SS), from provocatively marching down the street in the heart of the Jewish East End. As the Blackshirts were protected by police, (many sympathetic to Mosley, or at least distinctly hostile to his leftist opponents), the fight was between demonstrators and police rather than the barricaded Blackshirts themselves. But the victory was real, They Did Not Pass. As Dorril shows, in some areas of London, notably Hoxton and Stepney support from sections of the East End working-class was actually to rise afterward – but the psychological defeat struck deeply amongst its followers, and seemed emblematic of the movement’s wider failure. The early membership height of 50,000 had fallen to under 10,000 by this point. The movement was losing money continually, despite being bankrolled by both the foreign Fascist powers and Mosley’s own landed estates. Uniforms, banners, headquarters and truncheons do not pay for themselves. Intellectually he was without capital too. The writers of the day were overwhelmingly Left. The strangely acidic Wyndham Lewis was one of the few artists who were taken in for a time by the movement, but even this support did not last the distance. Dorril recounts Lewis and Mosley met on several occasions in the late 30s, but the former was increasingly alarmed by the latter’s talk of the sad practical necessities of machine gunning the movement’s foes in the street “when push came to shove”. When Lewis came to write the ironically titled “The Jews – Are They Human?” in 1937 he was sardonically repudiating his past Fascism. The only noted author to back Mosley by then was Henry “Tarka The Otter” Williamson. With even his few intellectual allies now taking the piss, who would take Oswald seriously now?
When Britain went to war with Mosley’s ideological masters in Germany and Italy, it was the cataclysmic close of any last lingering chance of a revival in his movement. Unity Mitford shot herself in the head, yet failed to succeed in suicide, dribbling on for years afterward. While Mosley and his wife claimed they were still loyal to Britain (whilst agitating for “negotiated peace”) the authorities had different views, and imprisoned the pair in Holloway Prison. Sympathy was not widespread. Nancy Mitford was one of those who denounced sister Diana and her infamous husband to the security services. Several BU members either fled to Germany or had moved shortly before war was declared, to fight for the Nazi cause. Some were propagandists like “Haw Haw” Joyce, others like John Amery joined Waffen SS divisions. In keeping with the stomach-wrenching nature of their treachery, none saw active combat against soldiers, yet several were active in murderous atrocities against unarmed Jewish civilians. By association, Mosley was seen, by the vast majority of British people, as the most venal kind of traitor.
Churchill, one of many who once saw Mosley as a potential leader of his party and country, decided to release the man and wife in late 1943 in what he saw as a humane gesture in relation to the Blackshirt’s ill- health. The decision sparked mass popular protest and outrage. The working-classes in particular were prominent in street demonstrations demanding that the key should be thrown away, or the noose brought in. The would-be Leader of Britain was really – truly – loathed the length and breadth of the land. Oswald and Diana seemed to bear this hatred with an attitude beyond the straightforward arrogance which was their defining nature, and into a whole other worldly nether-realm of bitter fantasy. It was the Jews who hated them, the establishment, the government – certainly not the good old British people. These demonstrations were the results of the Jewish cabal that had Britain in its grip…..surely?
His solipsism increased by incarceration, Mosley took to writing at greater length, honing his philosophy in ever more verbose terminology. He claimed to have now moved “beyond Fascism”, and propounded that that he had found a unique “synthesis”, beyond the both capitalist and socialist ethic, fusing Christianity and the ideals of Nietzsche, combining dictatorship and democracy. But the schism between his feigning of esoteric high mindedness and the squalor of his day-to-day political activities became starker than ever when he began his new party in 1947- the Union Movement. The same gang of dysfunctional Jew baiters were to continue their street fighting, to a mixture of disgust and indifference from the general populace (gaining for instance less than 2000 votes in the whole of London during local elections in 1949). The full extent of the Nazi horrors, the millions of innocent souls butchered in the camps, was now evident, discrediting Mosley’s mob as never before. Accordingly, the calibre of the UM member was even lower than that of the BU before them, a selection of gangsters, psychopaths and street thugs, with the odd loopy Lord thrown in.
This sorry pack were eventually to find a new scapegoat, and a short-lived new lease of life with the “coloured immigration” of the 50s. As tensions grew in sections of the white population towards the novel new migrants from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent, the UM had some success in actively encouraging race riots, in particular the Notting Hill riot of 1958. Their success in leading to smashed windows and broken bones did not translate into votes however, and the fetid nature of their street activity stood in starker contrast than ever from Mosley’s increasingly abstruse theorising. His new vision was of a United Europe, national boundaries broken down among the great White brotherhood, who would in turn go to plunder what they needed from Africa, using their superior colonial know-how. Ironic that a movement now recruiting on an anti-immigrant platform should have as its ultimate goal the large scale immigration of a white master class to the African continent. This was grotesque racism sure enough, but it was neither populist nor popular. Even amongst rising anti-immigration feeling, the UM could not truly take off.
Ultimately it was to be Mosley’s intellectualism that was the final death knell of his movement. The issue of race did indeed strike at the core of British political life by the late 60s, and immigration became a key electoral theme. But the UM’s abstract ideas of White European Unity did not accord with the xenophobic mood ignited by the “Rivers of Blood” speech of the Conservative Enoch Powell. The sentiment he unearthed and tried to harness was as strongly anti-European as it was anti-black. Those who didn’t like the “niggers” and “pakis” didn’t tend to be too keen on “frogs” and “krauts” either.
The Mosleys were livid that Enoch had succeeded on territory where they had failed. In an amusing glimpse of the couple’s snobbery and delusion, Oswald dubbed Powell a “middle-class Alf Garnett”, while Diana denounced him as “far-right” as opposed to their “hard centre”! A truly Fascist party was to gain from the racist rhetoric of Powell. This was not the Union Movement however. It was the National Front.
The NF was inspired by the same Nazi and Fascist ideas that Mosley first fermented in the country. Its first chairman was A.K. Chesterton, formerly a leading figure within the BU and a close confidante of Oswald. But its simplistic, xenophobic approach was far more adept than the UM at tapping into the visceral, base hatred that keeps such a movement going. It was blacks and Asians who were getting the beatings and firebombed houses now, with the added advantage they were much easier to spot than Jews. The boot- boys of the NF were every inch the descendants of the Blackshirts before them, but they had moved on and left their spiritual grandpa and grandma Oswald and Diana behind. Bitterly jealous of the NF’s success, Mosley remarked to his private circle, in a statement beyond the parody of the most gifted satirist, that the Front was “funded by Jews.”
The pair moved to France, and lingered on as bitter remnants, their reputation rotting in a pleasing reflection of their withered souls, cursing the cosmopolitan conspiracies that had kept them from greatness, never seeing the fault in themselves. No matter that most saw a malevolent opportunist, in his mind’s eye he would always be the great, lost, put-upon prophet. Mosley would periodically attempt to reappear with attempts at self-justification. Following one such appearance on The Frost Report in 1967 interviewer David Frost remarked.
“He saw everything through the distorting mirror of his own fantasises, and was irretrievably consumed by them. He would never see himself as others saw him.”
Oswald died in 1980, and the vaguely sympathetic obituaries he received in certain quarters such as The Times revealed for the last time that the solidarity of the ruling classes will out in the end.
Dorril has produced the definitive Mosley biography, superseding the absurdly sympathetic soft-soaping work of Robert Skidelsky, which centred on Mosley’s Parliamentary career and treated the BUF as an epilogue (a bit like a biography of Fred West which focussed more on his earlier career as an ice cream salesman.) This is a fascinating story, both for anyone interested in British political history of the last century, and anyone intrigued by the tragic tale of a truly diabolical man. Dorril has done an unfaultable job on the research, and brings the narrative to life well with his grotesque menagerie of characters. There are flaws to the book. The author has a background as an analyst of the machinations of the intelligence services of Britain and abroad, and while this eye for detail has undoubtedly made this work the powerhouse of research it is, the endless recanting of certain details, the exact nature of how the BUF obtained its funding for example, can sometimes drag the story’s flow. More directly, he concentrates a little too much on the nature of MI5’s observation of the movement, when this is very much a side-show to the main narrative. This dry style can sometimes cloy over such a long length. Further, while Dorril is great on the detail, actual analysis is very thin on the ground. The one time Dorril does attempt an analytical overview, it is with some rather tenuous observations about Messianic leaders toward the end, claiming that one Tony Blair shares the traits of this style. Maybe so, but the point is made clumsily and without satisfactory justification.
Ultimately however, Dorril’s stance in going for the research style, dispassionately observant, pays off into a great narrative by nature of the sheer dramatic scope of the story he so meticulously examines. Scene after scene and figure after grotesque figure linger on the psychic retina. The drawing room parties of the man playing host to every major political figure of the early part of the century, one by one falling away as he fell into disrepute. Mosley’s seaside frolics with his patrician pals, offset against the pogrom style excesses of his nastiest East End thugs, breaking into Jewish houses and attacking children within. Mosley’s relentless psychological torture of his first wife, the most poignant of his bullying victims. Diana fending off the accusations of sister Nancy that she had had supported a movement that murdered six million Jews with the remark “But darling, it was the kindest way.” The London BUF headquarters that doubled up as a knocking-shop, underlying with grim humour the movement’s crossover with organised crime. The UM hijacking the teddy-boy youth cult just as the NF did with skinheads two decades later. The sheer gall and lack of self-awareness in Mosley’s late-life attempts to rehabilitate himself, attempting a “truce” with Jewish leaders without any pretence of apology.
This is a grim tale that needs only clear explanation and examination to be one of fascination. This is a task Dorril has performed with enormous success with this eye-opening and exhaustive work.