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May 15, 2006

Can a new biography of Mosley explain how a Labour politician concerned with fighting unemployment in the 1920s became the leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s? Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism - Stephen Dorril

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism
by Stephen Dorril
Pp. xiv+717. London: Viking, 2006
Hardback, 30

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - reviews Stephen Dorril's new biography of Sir Oswald Mosley, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism.

Sir Oswald Mosley was probably the most famous British politician of the twentieth century whose party never held a single seat in Parliament. Prior to founding the British Union of Fascists (BUF), he was a moderately successful Labour politician, but one who held only a ministerial, not a Cabinet post, in the 1929-31 Labour government; yet he is more famous than any but a handful of his senior Cabinet colleagues. Mosley was recently voted, in a poll in BBC History, as one of the most evil men in British history, along with Jack the Ripper and assorted Medieval psychopaths, yet he arguably never hurt anyone in his life, and in many respects remained a model English gentleman until his dying day.

In the English-speaking world, it is usually inadequates from the gutter or half-educated autodidacts who become fascists, yet Mosley was a wealthy hereditary baronet, educated at Winchester and renowned for his quick wit and intelligence. Fascists are supposed by many to represent the ruling elite and to stand for perpetual war, yet the driving force behind Mosley's political career prior to the 1930s was a sincere concern to help the poor and the unemployed, and an equally sincere desire to prevent another war. The BUF was assuredly anti-Semitic, yet Mosley had an unusual number of Jewish friends and associates and was widely believed (without evidence) to have been of Jewish descent. The number of paradoxes and ironies one can list about Britain's most notorious fascist is very lengthy, and perhaps no historian - or psychologist - will ever successfully resolve them.

Sir Oswald Mosley (1896-1980) was the subject of Lord Robert Skidelsky's famous biography Mosley (1981), a deliberately (some have said perversely) positive account which emphasised Mosley's role in 1929-31 as a proto-Keynesian grappling prophetically but unsuccessfully with unemployment as the Depression began, and which deemphasised Mosley's anti-Semitism, viewing it as largely a response to opposition from the Jewish community.

Mosley's own autobiography My Life (1968) had previously given a whitewashing account of his career. Numerous scholarly and semi-scholarly works examining and almost always damning British fascism have appeared over the years, while the two-volume biography by Sir Oswald's son Nicholas, Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale (1993), has also further blackened Mosley's reputation. The major new biography by Stephen Dorril reviewed here is clearly hostile to Mosley, although fair and supported by a good deal of new evidence. It is the best available account of Mosley's life, and is unlikely to be superseded for many years, although it has a number of faults, considered below.

At the heart of any discussion of Mosley's life is the central mystery: how could the once-Tory, then prominent Labour politician of the 1920s, genuinely and sincerely concerned with the amelioration of unemployment and with securing international peace, have become the infamous fascist monster of the 1930s? Neither Skidelsky nor Dorril give a comprehensive answer, although Dorril relates this change to the many deficiencies in Mosley's character, especially his narcissism, chronically bad political timing and misjudgement of the public mood, and recurrent love of self-publicity.

Related to this is another mystery, Mosley's anti-Semitism. Mosley had a long list of Jewish friends and supporters, and was never an anti-Semite in the Nazi racialist sense. Until 1933, Mosley's personal bodyguard was the East End Jewish boxer Ted "Kid" Lewis (ne Solomon Mendeloff), who actually stood in Whitechapel in 1931 as parliamentary candidate for Mosley's New Party, and Mosley was widely believed - by H.G. Wells and many others - to have been of Jewish descent, although he certainly had no Jewish ancestry. Mosley's first wife, Lady Cynthia Curzon, was the granddaughter of a Chicago meatpacking millionaire named Levi Leiter, and was also widely believed to have been of Jewish descent, although it seems that her American ancestors were "Aryan" Mennonites.

To what extent did Mosley adopt anti-Semitism to use as a populist vote-getting scapegoat, and to what extent did he actually become a confirmed anti-semite by the mid-1930s at the latest? Dorril presents damning evidence that Mosley had become deeply hostile to Jews by 1933 or even earlier, and well before he had become a hate figure to the Jewish community, although (like most European fascists outside of Germany) he drew a distinction between "good" and "bad" Jews, the former assimilated and patriotic, the latter found chiefly among the Marxists of the East End.

Dorril also devotes attention to Mosley's lesser-known post-1945 career, when he returned to the fringes of British politics and met with an astonishing degree of adulation from his former supporters. After 1945 Mosley advocated European union, well before the EEC became an issue. This was the final misjudgement in Mosley's career, for, to the British right, European union is one of the ultimate red rags to a bull. Dorril, like Skidelsky before him, imagines what would have happened had Mosley stuck to the straight-and-narrow and remained within the Labour party after 1931: he, rather than Clement Attlee, might well have become Prime Minister in 1945 and be remembered as arguably the greatest modern British peacetime leader. Such are the vagaries of history.

While Dorril's is a valuable and important work, it suffers from a number of deficiencies. The author almost certainly overstates the support, overt and covert, which Mosley and the BUF received from right-wing, Tory, and Establishment sources in the 1930s. Sometimes, indeed, there is a whiff of guilt by association - generally, remote association - in his lists of Mosley's intellectual and other friends, and friends of friends. For instance, there is Sir Henry Page Croft (1881-1947), the extreme right-wing Tory M.P., who, in 1917, had founded the ultra-patriotic and xenophobic National Party, a group which in some ways anticipated the BUF. Croft and his influence on Mosley are mentioned in various places in the book. Yet in the 1930s Croft - whose driving force was always Empire unity and an Imperial tariff - had nothing whatever to do with the BUF, remaining a backbench Tory M.P. with an astronomical majority (he sat for Bournemouth) who was pleased by the National government's enactment of Empire tariffs in 1932, but deplored moves towards Indian independence. In the late 1930s Croft became an ally of Winston Churchill, and was made Under-Secretary for War in 1940-45. There were dozens of Page Crofts in British politics in the 1930s, men who might have been expected to have supported Mosley but actually had nothing to do with him or the BUF.

Conversely, the author surely underestimates the strength of the 1931-40 National government, which was elected with unprecedented majorities, and was supported by virtually all of Britain's upper and middle classes and by much of the working class; almost all of its opponents supported the Labour party or other left-wing movements. Against this formidable political reality, Mosley stood no chance whatever, and drew his support from a residuum of youthful thugs, malcontents, and some disaffected semi-intellectuals. At the so-called "Battle of Cable Street" in October 1936, of the 3000 blackshirts assembled to march through the East End, three-quarters were, it seems (p.390), under eighteen, and 400 were women - who constituted a surprisingly large percentage of Mosley's core supporters.

I do not wish to dwell negatively on aspects of this important book, but, perhaps because the author is an expert on security and intelligence rather than a political historian, Blackshirt contains many minor factual errors. Elizabeth I (p .4) did not grant Mosley's ancestor a baronetcy, since the order was invented by James I in 1611. In fact the family's baronetcy dates from 1640; it became extinct in 1779 and was revived for a cousin two years later. It was not (p. 5) Justinian Heathcote, the brother of Mosley's maternal grandfather, who was created Lord Anslow, but Tonman Mosley, the brother of Mosley's paternal grandfather. Sir John Simon (p.57) was not a "Tory", but, until 1931, a prominent Liberal who sat in Asquith's Cabinet. The President of the Jewish Board of Deputies in the 1930s was not (p. 310) the left-wing LSE professor Harold Laski but his brother Neville Laski, a barrister.

More generally, the "Selected Notes" at the back of the book, which serve in place of footnotes, are impossibly difficult to use or follow; they are, in fact, just about the most unhelpful set of references I have ever encountered in a major biography. The author states that detailed notes are available online, but, while books hopefully last forever, websites are ephemeral. The final lesson from this important biography is surely that, given his talent, Sir Oswald Mosley proved that fascism was impossible in Britain.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. Amongst else, he is the author of Twentieth-Century Britain: A Political History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). The Social Affairs Unit will shortly be publishing a fully updated and revised edition of Prof. Rubinstein's seminal Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution.

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