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June 28, 2007

Oswald Mosley's post-War exploits show him to have had few - if any - redeeming features, argues William D. Rubinstein: Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism After 1945 - Graham Macklin

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism After 1945
by Graham Macklin
Pp. 205. London: I.B. Taurus, London, 2007
Hardback, 45

Sir Oswald Mosley became a household name in Britain in the 1930s. He spent most of the Second World War incarcerated in prison as a major security risk, and then - in the view of most people - faded into near-complete obscurity until his death in France in 1980. Some will be dimly aware that Mosley also had a post-1945 career as a reborn extreme right-wing leader; if nothing else, his later career shows what form a post-Holocaust, post-end of European fascism extreme right in Britain would look like, as well as its linkages, if any, with pre-War politics.

Tracing Mosley's followers and linkages is difficult and obscure at the best of times, and in the 1930s entails detective work in the lunatic fringe. Wholly in the shadows after his wartime incarceration - and wholly discredited in the eyes of ninety-nine per cent of the mainstream - Mosley and his new band of acolytes are even harder to delineate than before the War. Graham Macklin, previously a Visiting fellow at the Parkes Institute of Southampton University and now at the National Archives in Kew, thus deserves considerable credit for making the effort and setting out Mosley's later years in a well-researched and readable work.

After his release from internment, Mosley very quickly drew upon a wide variety of former supporters and new followers, and founded what he termed the Union Movement, an updated version of the British Union of Fascists, in February 1948. Mosley decided again to contest local elections and, whenever it did so, performed pathetically. At the London Municipal elections of May 1949 it polled exactly 1,993 votes out of 4.1 million cast. All of its sixteen candidates stood in seats near heavily-Jewish areas, suggesting that - as was said of the restored Bourbons - Mosley had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Mosley's dreadful electoral performance was presumably to be foreseen, although in grim London of the Austerity period, with its shortages, rationings, and bomb sites everywhere, one might have expected Mosley to have found as large a base as before the War. It seems clear, however, that the war against Fascism, universal perceptions of Mosley as a traitor, and the benefits of full employment and the Welfare State engendered by the Attlee government, all worked against him compared with his following during the 1930s. The wave of extremist Zionist terrorism in Palestine, which certainly produced an increase in anti-Semitism in England, and the reputation of many Jews in post-war Britain as "spivs" and "wide boys" (although they simply provided what the public wanted), were inadequate to assist Mosley to get back on his electoral feet.

Mosley's Union Movement quickly entered into the campaign against coloured immigration, an area where he might have been expected to have acquired a popular base, but, in general, he was overtaken by newer anti-immigration groups not directly connected with Mosley, old or new. Mosley then spearheaded a campaign to rearm and rehabilitate West Germany, but became best known - if for anything - for his efforts, from the late 1940s, to produce a United Europe, as a defence against Communism, American dominance, and a newly independent Third World. This effort, little noticed except by observers of extremist movements, was obviously unrelated - although parallel - to the origins of the EC led by Western Europe's Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. It drew instead on the efforts by the Nazis, especially during the latter phases of the War, to portray themselves as aiming for a unified but Fascist Europe, united against Communism and American mass capitalism.

Mosley was also one of the earliest "Holocaust revisionists", although his own attitude toward the Jews was often rather ambiguous, and it is genuinely difficult to discern whether he attacked the Jews because he hated them or as a scapegoat to attract populist support. Mosley, an hereditary baronet and a product of Winchester, came from a background in which Jews might well be disliked as vulgar and "pushy", but in which the grosser forms of anti-Semitism were normally well-disguised. Mosley had certainly had a range of Jewish friends and contacts.

I might add a rather bizarre personal note about this matter here. In 1968 or 1969, when I was a post-graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, working on an M.A. thesis on Sir Henry Page Croft (1881-1947), the extreme right-wing Tory M.P., I wrote to Mosley, then living in Paris, to ask whether he had ever had any dealings with him. Although I have an obviously Jewish surname, and was writing from an American university at the height of the Vietnam era student unrest, and although Mosley might well have been surprised to have received my letter, his reply - he did reply - was a model of civility and courtesy. Indeed, I have seldom received so courteous a letter from anyone, let alone a crony of Hitler's. (As I recall, Mosley stated that he hardly knew Page Croft, but that both men were victims of the party system which marginalised independent voices - or words to that effect.) Breeding always tells!

After 1953, Mosley lived in France, in order to facilitate his movement for European unity. As is so often the case in Britain (if one lives long enough), a process of the semi-resurrection of Mosley's reputation began in his lifetime, in particular because of a revival of interest in his (enlightened) proto-Keynesian ideas put forward, unsuccessfully, when he was a Labour minister in the 1929-31 minority Labour government. In 1968, Mosley was famously interviewed by BBC's Panorama programme, the first time he had been allowed to appear on the BBC since 1934 - so much for the British "Establishment's" sneaking admiration for Mosley and fascism, as so many leftists imply. In 1975 came Robert Skidelsky's very positive (too positive, as Lord Skidelsky, I believe, now admits) biography. When Mosley died in 1980, his reputation probably stood higher than it had done for fifty years.

There is, however, absolutely nothing in Graham Macklin's biography from which anyone can infer anything except that Mosley remained, if not exactly an odious thug, then certainly an habitual tilter at windmills. This is not to deny his merits: he was regarded as one of the very best speakers in British public life, and - as has often been pointed out - was arguably the only man who could realistically have become either the Labour or Tory Prime Minister in this century. But instead he wound up in prison, always at the fringes, followed by exile, his last tilting being for a united Europe.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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