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.

Somehow Mosley managed to make his adoring wife think that she was the one who was at fault. He lied, habitually and unashamedly, to men and women alike. He told her: ‘To lead what we believe to be a moral life in our immoral society, some subterfuge is necessary if we are to retain our power to change society.’ For several years he denied his marriage to Diana Mitford, which took place in Berlin in the presence of Hitler and Goebbels. He came clean to his mother and his children by his first marriage only when Diana was about to give birth.

He lied just as persistently about the source of his party funding, claiming under interrogation in 1940 that he had never received money from Mussolini and that ‘my general directions were that no money should be accepted except from British subjects.’ In fact, MI5 discovered that he had been receiving tens of thousands of pounds from Mussolini every year, totalling £234,730 – £8 million in today’s money, Dorril computes – through secret accounts personally controlled by him. And when Mussolini stopped the flow, exasperated by the Blackshirts’ pathetic lack of progress, Goebbels stepped in with handsome donations through a secret agent – £91,000 in 1936 alone. But Hitler, like Mussolini, always regarded Mosley as a second-rate imitator of his methods who had no idea how to appeal to the British people. Mosley was completely dependent on these grants, which made him subservient to Mussolini over Abyssinia, and then to Hitler over Czechoslovakia. He was, to use the sort of language that he belted out from the platform, the lackey of an alien power, in fact of two alien powers.

He lied repeatedly over the BUF’s anti-semitism, claiming that he was not to blame for the vile outpourings of the Blackshirt as ‘party journals were in other hands, because I was often absent from London.’ A.K. Chesterton, Gilbert’s cousin, whose views made GKC seem philosemitic, reminded him that he read the page proofs of every issue and if he was out of London would check them over the phone. Phrases in the Blackshirt such as ‘the oily, material, swaggering Jew’ and the ‘pot-bellied, sneering, money-mad Jew’ would have been specifically approved by Mosley. Interviewed by the Jewish Chronicle in 1933, he claimed that attacks on Jews were ‘strictly forbidden’ in the movement. But only a few months later, the BUF was attacking ‘the low type of foreign Jew who is to the fore in every crooked financial deal’ and denouncing Jews as ‘a cancer in the body politic which requires a surgical operation’. In talking to Nazi representatives (and in his rare meetings with Hitler), he stressed that he would have to take drastic measures against his Jewish opponents, though he was dealing with the Jewish problem in an appropriately English way.

Among those he considered his intimates, he was unashamed about his tactics. ‘A new movement must find somebody or something to hate. In this case it should be the Jews.’ Only Mosley could have said this to Israel Sieff and then been surprised when Sieff asked him to leave the house. His brutal tactlessness amounted to a form of autism, and it is noticeable that the only people who thought him a decent chap who might one day save the nation were themselves semi-autistic individuals, press lords such as Rothermere and Beaverbrook and writers such as Wyndham Lewis and George Bernard Shaw. As late as 1968, the lugubrious Cecil King, Rothermere’s nephew and then boss of the Mirror Group, planned to install Mosley as the head of a military-backed government, with Mountbatten as his second choice.

For short-term tactical advantage, Mosley was ready to say anything. In 1927, he was mocking the British Fascists as ‘black-shirted buffoons, making a cheap imitation of ice-cream sellers’ – which went down a storm with the ILP rank and file, who elected him to Labour’s NEC. As late as 1930, he was assuring businessmen that ‘you’ll never see in England people walking about in black shirts.’ The following year, in presenting the New Party as a centre party, he assured the Times that he had ‘no use for Fascism or anything else that comes from abroad’. But only a year later again he was telling Bruce Lockhart that his new organisation was to be ‘on the Hitler group system: members to wear grey shirts and flannel trousers. Storm troops: black shirts and grey bags.’ ‘You must be mad,’ Harold Macmillan told him when he heard the news. ‘Whenever the British feel strongly about anything, they wear grey flannel trousers and tweed jackets.’ Or that is what Supermac later said he said: he was rather anxious to make light of his own dabblings with the New Party.

The tendency to violence emerged quite early. When Mosley was returned as Labour MP at the Smethwick by-election in 1927, the campaign was described as one of the most unpleasant contests since the war: there was ‘an atmosphere of violence and unrestrained personalities who surround Mr Mosley’s political career’. When he was setting up the New Party, his first thought was to recruit stewards who were useful with ‘the good old English fist’, the ‘Biff Boys’, who were to be led by the England rugby star Peter Howard at a salary of £650 a year. Mosley declared at this point that there could be ‘no corporate state without a private army’ and openly referred to the New Party as ‘the British equivalent of the Nazi movement’. Howard, who later decamped to work for Beaverbrook and then to lead Moral Re-Armament, described Mosley as ‘the most vindictive hater of anyone I know’. When I met Mosley thirty years later, the light came into his eyes at the thought of his dear old Biff Boys. He was, I suspect, only truly happy when he was haranguing a brawling mob, with a few girlfriends in fur coats rushing for the exit.

Robert Skidelsky, in his 1975 biography, attempted to mitigate Mosley’s culpability by arguing that the violence was ‘at least as much the result of Anti-Fascist demonstrators interrupting meetings or attacking Fascists’. In the original edition, Skidelsky said that Jews themselves ‘must take a large share of the blame for what subsequently happened’, and that ‘a Jewish malaise of this time was to be obsessed by Fascism.’ Dorril reminds us that, after strong protests, these remarks were toned down for the paperback edition, and Skidelsky later referred to ‘my unduly benign treatment of his later Fascist phase’.

But it is not clear that even now Skidelsky has really got the hang of what Mosley was up to. The whole point was to draw out the enemy; and he didn’t care how he managed it. Kay Fredericks, the Blackshirts’ in-house photographer, recalled Mosley telling him after the Olympia rally to fake some pictures to give the impression that it was the Blackshirts who had been attacked. From behind the Labour Party, Mosley said in January 1933, ‘will emerge the organised Communist, the man who knows what he wants; and if and when he ever comes out, we will be there in the streets with Fascist machine-guns to meet him.’ But because the Communists were too weak and few (Party membership was only six thousand at the time), the only hope of stirring up revolutionary violence on a large scale was to be flagrantly anti-semitic, which could be guaranteed to provoke much more widespread opposition. It is thus not true that, as Skidelsky maintains, from 1932 to 1934 Mosley ‘regarded the Jewish issue as more of a liability than an asset, a diversion from his main task’. On the contrary, it was, as Dorril says, ‘not cynical political opportunism but a genuine, integral part of the movement’. Indeed, as the BUF shrivelled back into the East End (by 1936 nearly half its members were concentrated there), the anti-semitic campaign was Mosley’s only hope.

And it failed. The failure of all Fascist movements and parties in Britain from the 1920s to the present day has been abject. Mosley’s huge rallies never translated into votes. His commanding presence and by now resonant speaking voice might hypnotise, but they did not inspire trust. Though the violence provoked by Mosley’s activities shocked the remarkably peaceable Britain of the 1930s, that too had its limits, and no one died as a result, as far as I can tell. The Mosleyites never got a single MP elected or even a single local councillor. They were infinitely less successful than today’s BNP, who themselves are a fairly trivial menace. Even when standing for the New Party in 1931, as a glamorous ex-cabinet minister who had just resigned on a point of principle, Mosley finished bottom of the poll at Stoke. At the 1935 election, the BUF were so terrified of humiliation that they did not dare contest any seats but campaigned on the dismal slogan ‘Fascism Next Time’. In subsequent by-elections they usually scored only a few hundred votes. The Fascist candidate at Hythe in 1939, Kim Philby’s father Harry St John Philby, received only 578 votes. After the war, the Union Movement suffered much the same fate, campaigning largely against immigration. In his last contest, at Shoreditch in the 1966 general election, Mosley himself secured only 1127 votes (4.6 per cent). All seven nationalist candidates in this one-time BUF stronghold lost their deposits. As Dorril points out, ‘the BUF was among the weakest manifestations of Fascism in Europe.’

Dorril never loses sight of what matters. There are a few repetitions. We are told twice that the Duke of Windsor said: ‘Tom would have made a first-rate prime minister.’ (In exile outside Paris, the Windsors and the Mosleys dined together twice a week, either at the Windsors’ Moulin de la Tuilerie or at the Temple de la Gloire, a grand neoclassical villa whose name even Mosley saw the joke of.) And there are one or two errors, mostly when Dorril is hacking his way through the thickets of dim Fascist-leaning toffs. Unity Mitford’s second name was Valkyrie, not Swastika; Lord Portsmouth was formerly not Lord Sydenham, who was dead, but Lord Lymington, a ubiquitous figure in Fascist circles of the 1930s, whose English Mistery movement advocated selective breeding and unpasteurised milk and regarded the decline of the feudal system as the greatest misfortune to have befallen the English people. Dorril also confuses those two frightful Fascist moneybags, Lady Pearson and Viscountess Downe. Mosley’s headquarters, the Black House, cannot have been simultaneously in Chelsea and at 232 Battersea Park Road (in fact it was next to the Duke of York’s Barracks, not the Duke of Wellington’s). There is also a little too much in the later chapters about the toing and froing of various undercover Fascist agents. This reflects Dorril’s special interest as a writer on the intelligence services, but the reader can motor through these passages without missing much.

The only serious complaint about this fine book is Dorril’s refusal to include proper notes. Dissatisfied readers are referred to his website, where it is difficult to pick up which reference belongs where, because the numbering system refers only to whole paragraphs. This might not be so bad if Dorril weren’t inclined to fragmentary, unattributed quotes where it’s impossible to tell who is speaking.

Martin Pugh’s much shorter book is virtually error-free, just as lucidly written as Dorril’s and just as pleasurable to read. It has, however, one whopping drawback: it proves, in abundant and often hilarious detail, the very opposite of the thesis it sets out to prove. The introduction starts by describing what is regarded as ‘a comforting and widely held British view that Fascism is simply not part of our national story’. We are, he says, led to believe that

Fascism in interwar Britain was not just a failure, it was an inevitable failure. While it flourished in Italy and Germany, the British simply failed to see its relevance to them. In fact, Fascism seemed fundamentally alien to British political culture and traditions; the British people were too deeply committed to their long-standing parliament, to democracy and the rule of law to be attracted by the corporate state, and they found the violent methods employed by Continental Fascists offensive. Fascist organisations arrived late in Britain and when they did they were easily marginalised by the refusal of conventional right-wing politicians to have anything to do with them. When the Fascist movement under Sir Oswald Mosley showed itself in its true colours in 1934 the government took prompt and effective action to suppress the violence and the paramilitary organisation. The outbreak of war in 1939 promptly put an end to the movement.

Alas, by the end of the book that is pretty much what I do believe, and believe a good deal more fervently as a result of Pugh’s researches.

Fascism, he argues, was ‘much more central to British interwar history than has traditionally been appreciated’. ‘Like other European countries, Britain had a pre-Fascist tradition, and consequently there is no reason, other than hindsight, for regarding Britain as inherently less likely to generate a Fascist movement after 1918 or for seeing British Fascism as a mere import from the Continent.’ But we have only to read Pugh to see just what this pre-Fascist tradition amounted to. There is Lord Lymington, of course, and Rotha Lintorn-Orman, the Girl Scout known as ‘Man-Woman’, who actually founded the British Fascists, and Valerie Arkell-Smith of the National Fascisti, a transvestite who spent many years masquerading as ‘Sir Victor Barker’, and the vet Arnold Leese, the author of A Treatise on the One-Humped Camel in Health and Disease, who dominated the Imperial Fascist League. Pugh rather half-heartedly adjures us to take these double-barrelled dolts seriously, but even he has to admit that the British Fascists never attracted a politician of the first rank to lead them. Nobody much wanted to join what Churchill called ‘the suicide club’.

Pugh points out that we can’t say that Mosley was bound to fail just because he did fail. Yet counterfactual hindsight can be just as pernicious as confirmatory hindsight. Yes, if one or two things had turned out differently, Mosley might have got closer to power, but to make any such thesis plausible you have to compare carefully the weight of the evidence of what actually happened against the weight of your counterfactuals.

We are told, for example, that if the Slump had gone on longer, voters might have turned in desperation to Mosley. This is the argument advanced by Skidelsky and indeed in later years by Mosley himself. But there was no sign of it in the worst years of the Depression. Mosley made virtually no headway in the areas worst hit by unemployment. What is much more likely is that people would have turned to the Labour Party. There were clear signs of this at the 1935 election, and Gallup’s early polls suggested that the 1940 election might have been a close-run thing had it not been cancelled.

Again, Pugh’s contention that a prolonged General Strike in 1926 could well have destroyed Baldwin’s government, and created the opportunity that Fascists were looking for, ignores the much more likely alternative that Baldwin would have been succeeded by a Labour government after a general election. Nor do I see how the crisis of 1931 could have brought Mosley to power, even if he had had a full-blown Fascist party ready for action. After all, his New Party was slaughtered at the polls that very year.

Pugh claims that the abdication crisis was Mosley’s best chance: ‘December 1936 was the closest Fascism came to obtaining a share of power in interwar Britain.’ How, precisely? If the king had attempted to dismiss Baldwin and appoint as prime minister Mosley or some other member of the ‘King’s Party’, the House of Commons would have erupted in fury and the king would have been dethroned in days. The king’s ‘sudden withdrawal’ was not, as Pugh argues, an unlucky contingency that snatched Mosley’s opportunity away. The king knew the rules and he knew that the game was up. With each of Pugh’s counterfactuals, there is an absence of any mechanical device to trigger the required sequence of events. In any case, Mosley was, as his own henchman Peter Howard defiantly remarked, ‘the most unpopular person in England today’. When he was finally interned, Mass Observation took a poll and had never found such a high approval rating for anything. And when he was let out in November 1943, huge crowds marched to Trafalgar Square demanding that he be interned again.

While interned, he read Goethe, Winckelmann, Schiller, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle and Freud – which shows that the redemptive power of literature has its limits, because he emerged utterly unrepentant. He told the Sunday Pictorial that he had not changed his ideas one inch. ‘I do not retract anything that I have either said or stood for in the past.’ And he hadn’t. On launching the Union Movement at the end of 1947, he said that Jews would not be allowed to join and that a Fascist government would deport them from Britain. As for the Nazi concentration camps, the ruin brought about by our bombing was much to blame. ‘If you have typhus outbreaks, you are bound to have a situation where you have to use the gas ovens to get rid of the bodies.’ In his magpie way, he added to the old menu only his schemes for a united Europe and for worldwide apartheid. Indeed, it is doubtful whether he ever really shifted from the underlying programme on which he had been first elected in 1918, which he called ‘socialistic imperialism’: a mixture of state control, protection for British industry, imperial preference and immediate legislation ‘to prevent undesirable aliens from landing; and for the repatriation of those who are now resident in this country’.

The one thing that can be said for his later tactical adjustments was that he had the wit to pick up a smattering of Keynes, and to see the need for going off the Gold Standard, so the recovery could begin with devaluation and cheap money. But in the end the Old Gang realised that too, or were made to realise it, and in any case Mosley’s gut instincts in favour of protection joined him up with the very forces that helped to deepen and prolong the Depression. Besides, he did not really understand the policies he had espoused, because he still thought that the Depression would go on for ever and was taken aback by the evidence of economic recovery across the South and the Midlands through the 1930s, as the housing boom gained pace and the new industries – plastics, radio, cars – found their markets. His economic prescience was decidedly limited.

The mystery remains why the academic world has this incurable inclination to magnify Mosley, for Pugh is far from alone in the tenor of his researches. Skidelsky had at least the excuse of being the authorised biographer. He felt honour bound to establish what sympathy he could with his subject and hunt out any redeeming feature. Besides, he was dealing face to face with a couple of accomplished liars, who managed to find the most charming ways of denying the death camps: ‘Darling, it was so much the kindest way,’ as Diana said to Nancy.

But why should this insistence on the fragility of British democracy persist in the face of such abundant evidence not only of Mosley’s nastiness, but also of his failure to inflict the slightest dent? Is it simply a desire to make our flesh creep, or is there lurking somewhere a sense of disappointment that the British electorate proved so damnably phlegmatic and preferred to potter along with Baldwin and Attlee? That if we had been ready to run greater risks, we might have achieved greater things? If so, it is not a disappointment I share.