Double-Barrelled Dolts

Ferdinand Mount

  • Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism by Stephen Dorril
    Viking, 717 pp, £30.00, April 2006, ISBN 0 670 86999 6
  • Hurrah for the Blackshirts! Fascists and Fascism between the Wars by Martin Pugh
    Pimlico, 387 pp, £8.99, March 2006, ISBN 1 84413 087 8

It is 26 years since Oswald Mosley breathed his last at the Temple de la Gloire, the athletic frame which he had once so proudly flexed now sadly bloated, his piercing eyes shrunk to peepholes, the sinister moustache long shaven. It is 66 years since Churchill brought his serious political career to an abrupt end by interning him in Brixton jail. Yet Mosley never quite stops haunting us. He provokes questions that some people think have not been properly answered even now, stirs uneasy if fading memories, tickles up nightmarish might-have-beens. Was he a lost leader, a usable Lucifer who need not have fallen? Why did he go off the rails, or was he pushed? Did he ever come within touching distance of power, and if so when? Was he right about the Slump and how to cure it, and, by extension, right about the Old Gang blocking his path? Martin Pugh’s publishers tell us breathlessly that ‘this book demonstrates for the first time how close Britain came to being a Fascist state in the interwar years.’ Is that a fact or just a pretty piece of hype? Does the limelight that Mosley continued to hog show how powerful his hold was over the British people, or was it merely a reflection of the far more powerful and evil megawattage sweeping the Continent?

Stephen Dorril’s intertwined biography of Mosley and British Fascism is exhaustive but easy-paced and entertaining, judicious – and damning. We shall not need another. He says pretty well everything that needs to be said, working his way carefully through all the claims made for Mosley and showing how far each one is hollow, misconceived or false.

It is not true, to start with, that Mosley, always known as Tom, entranced everyone from the moment that, as a war veteran of 22, he was elected as the Conservative Unionist MP for Harrow, the youngest member of the House. On the contrary, something about him apart from his wealth and glamour instantly aroused suspicion. Beatrice Webb called him the most brilliant man in the Commons, but argued that ‘so much perfection argues rottenness somewhere.’ F.E. Smith, another unscrupulous chancer whom Mosley idolised, called him ‘the perfumed popinjay of scented boudoirs’. His voice initially had a high-pitched note, and after he took voice lessons, ‘its calculated changes in pitch sounded like a car changing gear.’ Duff Cooper called him an ‘adulterous, canting, slobbering Bolshie’. When Mosley switched over to Labour in 1924, his new colleagues were equally suspicious of him. Ernest Bevin thought him ‘the kind of unreliable intellectual who might at any moment stab me in the back’. Attlee complained: ‘Why does Mosley always speak to us as though he were a feudal landlord abusing tenants who are in arrears with their rent?’ For Ellen Wilkinson, he was the Sheikh – ‘not the nice kind hero who rescues the girl at the point of torture, but the one who hisses: “At last – we meet.”’

It is worth noting, too, how soon the mockery in print started. Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point was published in 1928 while Mosley was still a Labour MP. Yet Everard Webley, the leader of the British Freemen, in their green uniforms ‘like the male chorus at a musical comedy’, is unmistakeably Mosley, very tall and burly, consumed with ambition and deliberately unpleasant: ‘Many people, he had found, are frightened of anger; he cultivated his natural ferocity.’ Nancy Mitford, although persuaded by her husband, Peter Rodd, to don a black shirt and gush in print on behalf of TPOF (The Poor Old Führer), was already marshalling the Union Jack Shirts for her novel Wigs on the Green. But it was not until 1938 that P.G. Wodehouse brought on Sir Roderick Spode and his Black Shorts in The Code of the Woosters:

‘By the way, when you say “shorts”, you mean “shirts”, of course.’

‘No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.’

‘Footer bags, you mean?’

‘Yes.’

‘How perfectly foul.’

Spode, a huge man with piercing eyes and a moustache, can be brought to heel by the mention of the word ‘Eulalie’, because in private life he designs ladies’ underwear under the name of Eulalie Soeurs. Mosley, it turns out, had a plan for a range of Blackshirt cosmetics which were to be marketed on a commercial radio station secretly controlled by himself.

Previous biographies have not, I think, fully brought out how nasty Mosley was in private life. He was, for a start, what might be called a hereditary blackguard. The Mosleys once owned the whole of Manchester (admittedly then not much of a place) and were plutocrats of the most unmitigated ghastliness. A Sir Oswald Mosley built the Manchester Cotton Exchange in 1729. His descendants helped to instigate the Peterloo Massacre and suppress the Chartists. Mosley’s grandfather was at the forefront of the campaign against Jewish emancipation. Both his father and grandfather were dissolute pugilists who quarrelled violently, liked to punch the lights out of each other and refused to leave a penny to their eldest sons. Mosley’s mother left his father because of his goatish infidelity, and Sir Oswald senior poured out a stream of vitriol when Mosley decamped to Labour.

Mosley himself was anally tight with money, raided the trust funds of his first wife, Cimmie, and their children, and refused to pay for his son Alexander’s university education. He was also notoriously ruthless in his pursuit of women. Apart from dozens of other married women, he slept with his wife’s stepmother, Grace Curzon, her sister Irene and, after Cimmie’s death in 1933, her other sister, ‘Baba Blackshirt’ Metcalfe, who was married to the Prince of Wales’s equerry, ‘Fruity’ Metcalfe. Poor Fruity was a faithful member of the British Fascisti and had to put up with being cuckolded not only by Mosley but by Count Grandi, Mussolini’s man in London.

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