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The Tragedy of Sir Oswald Mosley

by Robert Edwards, ESA No 52, May/June 2014

A life-long friend of the Mosleys, James Lees-Milne, was to visit Oswald Mosley at the Temple de la Gloire near Paris in May 1980 for the last time. Mosley died in his sleep only months later.

In his book Deep Romantic Chasm (John Murray, 2000), he wrote of that final encounter, “Sir Oswald has mellowed to the point of never saying anything pejorative about anybody ... I asked boldly if he thought he had made a mistake in founding the New Party. He admitted it was the worst mistake in his life. He said the British do not like New Parties ... that if he had led the Labour government he would have kept Edward VIII on the throne. He [the King] was eminently suited to be an intermediary between his country and the dictators. Said that critics of himself and Duke of Windsor never made allowances for the fact that they detested war, having experienced the horrors of the trenches. They wanted to avoid it happening again at all costs”.

Curiously, Lees-Milne helped out Mosley with canvassing and leafleting when the latter formed the New Party after his regrettable break with Labour. Lees-Milne looked back on those days with mixed feelings.

In another book, Another Self (Hamish Hamilton, 1970), Lees-Milne wrote, “He was, in those days, a man of overweening egotism. He did not know the meaning of humility. He brooked no argument, would accept no advice. He was over-bearing and over-confident. He had in him the stuff of which zealots are made. His eyes flashed fire, dilated and contracted like a mesmerist’s. His voice rose and fell in hypnotic cadences. He was madly in love with his own words”.

He concluded at that time in 1970, “I believe Mosley is no longer like this. He has acquired tolerance and wisdom which, had he only cultivated them forty years ago, might have made him into a great moral leader”.

It was the New Party that served as the forerunner of the British Union of Fascists. The military-style drilling and the NUPA “sports clubs”, along with Mosley’s rousing oratory, were the harbingers of fascism in Britain.

If Mosley later regarded the founding of the New Party as the worst mistake in his life then it follows, surely, that his embrace of fascism was an equally bad decision. The one followed the other as surely as night follows day.

In his autobiography, My Life (Nelson, 1968), he wrote of the Action Press uniform as a mistake. He explained it away with, “They were soldiers, good soldiers, and soldiers like a smart uniform ... It was an error and dereliction of duty [not stopping it], for I should have known that while we could have got away with the simple black shirt, the uniform made us much too military in appearance and would create prejudice. The old soldier in me get the better of the politician”.

The BUF’s black Action Press uniform with arm band, cap and high boots was much more than “the development of a full military uniform”. Even from a distance, it resembled closely the uniform of the Nazi Allgemeine SS and therefore more German than British. Men wearing the latter uniform were responsible for the mass killings during the Nazi Night of the Long Knives in 1934 when leading figures in the Brownshirt SA and others were brutally murdered. The Action Press uniform, in direct impersonation, was banned in 1936 in Britain under the Public Order Act. But the damage was done.

Another mistake was to elongate the movement’s title to The British Union of Fascists and National Socialists. Originally inspired by Italian fascism, Mosley was pressured into including the German influence, especially from anti-Semites like William Joyce, who later formed the National Socialist League. They were more and more wrapped up in the German ‘modern movement’ and its racialism.

In the 1970s, in a letter published in The Times, Mosley wrote, “I was never a man of the Right. I was a man of the Left but now I am a man of the Centre”.

Fascism and other forms of ultra-nationalism have long been regarded as right-wing by both opponents and those latter-day impersonators that now plague the Internet. I have written before on how fascism is now dead and was exclusively a phenomenon of the 1930s and therefore irrelevant today. It should be dead but there are still little cliques of enthusiasts who are thrilled by the wearing of black uniform with arm bands, etc., usually behind locked doors. These fools call themselves “right-wing” and their jargon consists of the worst reactionary nonsense. But Mosley was never of the Right. A fact that continues to evade them all.

As a minister in a Labour government in 1931 he was unequivocally of the Left in the Labour Party. He was a socialist by conviction, despite his class background. His socialism, I believe, was influenced largely by his experiences in the trenches of the Great War where he lost so many friends and comrades in needless slaughter. To build a land fit for heroes was a promise quickly broken by the “hard-faced men” in control of their lives then. The reaction to this was a belief that there should be a greater role for the state.

Mosley wanted state control of the banks in order to boost the spending power of the working class and to increase pensions. It was called Keynesianism. It was always Mosley’s belief that the state should intervene where necessary.

The old guard in the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald were convinced of the ‘self-correcting mechanism’ in nineteenth century laissez-faire economics (or free market economics, as we call it today) and regarded Mosley’s proposals as too “socialistic”. It was later admitted that he was right all along.

In 1980, probably his last appearance at a social function with members, he accompanied Lady Mosley at a book signing session at the Ecclestone Hotel in central London. The book was her biography of the Duchess of Windsor.

Mosley sat at a table with a few of us and talked about past events but, mainly, his time in the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald, then involved with the task of curing mass unemployment.

Not a word about the Blackshirt movement or fascism.

I remember the names Snowden and Thomas dropped in his animated conversation, despite the onset of Parkinson’s disease.

This was what James Lees-Milne would have observed, that mellowing and accumulation of wisdom over the years.

The Labour MP Ian Mikardo was initially supportive of Mosley when the latter was battling the old guard of Labour, who were to reject Mosley’s proposals for curing unemployment.

Mikardo called him a “bloody fool” and opined that if Mosley had waited and not been so impatient he would have won and served the party and the country in a big way.

So, was Mosley justified in breaking with the Labour Party? The answer is a resounding no. If he could have won with a lot more patience then Britain would have been the better for it. Of that there is no doubt. There would have been no war, for a start.

If founding the New Party was the biggest mistake in Mosley’s life then fascism was a complete disaster for him. As Mikardo said of him in the late 1960s, he was talented and gifted but in too much of a hurry. He should have stayed in the Labour Party because in this country, with the working class, loyalty to the party is regarded as a great virtue. Breaking away is akin to treachery.

After the Second World War, after internment without charge or trial, Mosley said he had gone beyond both fascism and the old style democracy. He declared that fascism had tended to ride roughshod over civil liberties. I remember in Union Movement of the 1960s that fascism was never discussed and the salute was forbidden. There was never this interest in it as there is today under the direction of the “researchers” and “archivists” of the Friends of Oswald Mosley group, so obsessed with British Union and all the trappings of fascism. It is, after all, an archivist’s club concerned largely with research into the history of individual Blackshirts and their internment under Defence Regulation 18B, none of which hold any relevance to the politics of the 21st century.

Union Movement was entirely concerned with the ideas behind Europe a Nation and European Socialism, which turned away from fascism. Only European Action promotes this set of ideas as an answer to the economic problems of today.

We have no desire to defend fascism nor to promote fascist ideas. Most of all, we do not promote the image of Oswald Mosley as a fascist leader in the way the mainstream press and the big book publishers have always done in the past.

Oswald Mosley was essentially a socialist in word and deed.

During the General Strike of 1926, embryonic British fascist grouplets backed the government and were used as strike breakers. They manned vehicles in direct opposition to those men on strike for a living wage.

Mosley was a Labour politician at that time and firmly on the side of the trades unions. You could not get anyone more left wing than Mosley.

Shortly after the General Strike, Mosley addressed a massive socialist demonstration at Summerfield Park in Birmingham. At this Labour gathering he described the General Strike as a glorious triumph for those who had “beaten the boss class”. Rousing stuff for someone later vilified as being of the Right and against the workers.

One of his colleagues at the time said as he was rich he was beyond corruption. What had he to gain asked another. There was no fortune to be gained by joining the Labour Party.

Although without any academic training (he never went to a university) he had a natural mind for grasping economics, better than most of his contemporaries.  He immediately understood what was going on and went about trying to influence others.

The plight of the working class was his over-riding concern and he challenged the old orthodoxy regarding the economic system. We always said in Union Movement that 90 per cent of Mosley’s thinking was economics and UM policy reflected that.

He wanted to create an insulated home market using all the resources of the British Empire. He wanted to finance this by giving the workers purchasing power through nationalised banks. It is the greatest socialist ethic, to raise the working class from poverty and give them an economic power within their own country, thus restoring their dignity. That is what it was all about.

He thought fascism could deliver all this. As it “rode roughshod over civil liberties”, as Mosley later admitted, it would not have been the case.

It was only in East London that British Union had a large and significant working class base whereas around the rest of the country it tended to be middle class in character and appearance.

It is the contention of European Action that the decision to found the New Party was “the biggest mistake of his life”. Mosley would have agreed.

 

This website is maintained by Robert Edwards