The Devil, as we all know, is a gentleman. Fatally attractive, he is clever and intelligent, possesses a boisterous, if rather coarse, sense of humor, and is such good company that you scarcely catch a glimpse of the horns beneath his curly locks. He and his minions take many shapes—Milton identified five of them taking part in the Infernal Debate in Paradise Lost—and each spreads his own special virus of evil with which he tries to infect human souls.
Sir Oswald Mosley bore such a marked resemblance when he was a young man to Mephistopheles that the Devil must have determined to infect him with the particular sin that brought about his own downfall. Lucifer fell through pride; and though that word has now a slightly old-fashioned ring and is seldom used about people today, the word egoism, which has replaced it, is certainly one of the sins that beset Mosely. His egoism is gargantuan. To describe it as a cancer would be to underestimate its size and malignancy. It is like the body in the Ionesco play which grows so enormous that it finally expels the owner of the apartment and brings everything down in ruin. He is never wrong, has never been wrong—over a detail here perhaps, or in making an underestimate of someone else’s stupidity, duplicity, or treachery occasionally—but throughout all the events in public life, he and he alone has consistently seen what was the right thing to do.
Whatever else Sir Oswald Mosley may be, he is not a violet and he does not shrink from any of his former actions or beliefs. Other men were wrong; other men betrayed by their excesses or their folly the causes he fought for. But he remains in his own view the one man who might have rescued the world from the enormous crises of the years between the wars and saved it from the disaster of the Second World War.
What truth is there in this myth which Mosley has been at such pains to propagate, and why do so many English political commentators and historians from left as well as right nod sagaciously at the mention of his name and declare that he was potentially the savior of his country and his times? They do so partly because the British still grieve over their share of the guilt for the Second World War—over their supine conduct in the face of fascism in the Thirties and their inability in common with all other European countries to eradicate the vast unemployment which rotted parliamentary democracy and drove so many into political groups dedicated to violence and revolution. To the British the years between the wars are years of extraordinary cultural achievement and fascination: but they are also a time of political shame in which the one politician of genius, Lloyd George, disqualified himself from office, in which none of the three political parties emerges with credit, and when good intentions destroyed each other because political will had failed. How true is it that Mosley prescribed the right remedy for his country’s ills until, betrayed by the contemptible party leaders, he was forced into the wilderness?
Certainly this is the part of Mosley’s book that makes the most agreeable and the most plausible reading. The childhood reminiscences are rather dull, and he writes about his days when at only eighteen he was flying as an observer in the rickety aircraft of 1914, or later as a cavalry officer fighting in the trenches, in much the same way as he does about schooldays at Winchester or the social life of Dublin during the troubles in 1919. But once he begins to describe London society and the way he advanced through it in politics, the fascination of the man appears. He had dashing good looks, had been as brave as any of the generation of young who were slaughtered in the war, was not at all well off but came of an old family. He had that ability, which among the upper classes Churchill had and Sir Alec Douglas Hume as conspicuously had not, of developing his brain, though apparently he had been a stupid boy at school.
He not only taught himself some economics, rare in those days, he began to read widely so that his autobiography sparkles with references to Hobbes, Hegel, and Popper, as well as to much accessible literature and the history which men of the world draw upon for confirmation of their intuitions. He was not only ambitious but reckless and original. Having captured the nomination to a safe Tory seat at age twenty-two, he almost at once crossed the floor of the House, outraged by Tory support for the Black and Tans which had been recruited to smash the Irish Republican Army through a counteroffensive of murder and torture.
Since Mosley’s main defense of the violence in later years of his own Blackshirt party was that it was a retaliation against communists and Jews who deliberately attempted to break up his meetings, it is ironical that what made him first notorious was his respect for constitutional and legal niceties and his denial that the brutalities of the Irish liberation movement authorized the British to reply in kind. Similarly he thundered against the Amritsar massacre where British troops had opened fire on Indians. He was then to discover how the establishment reacts to one of its number who is being more than rather a nuisance. The Conservative Central Office briefed members of the parliamentary party with a libelous and totally inaccurate account of his speech. He won his constituency twice as an independent—it has always been a considerable feat to buck the party machine—and then joined the Labour Party. By this time he was married to the daughter of the mandarin of Conservative politics, Lord Curzon.
In quitting the Conservatives, Mosley’s instinct was right. They were imprisoned as a party by vested interests and had set their face against brilliance, panache, new ideas, as they trundled into the Baldwin era. His judgment to steer clear of the Liberal Party was also sound, and Mosley rightly felt that there was not much competition in the Labour Party to prevent him from getting to the top. But in fact he never had the faintest notion of what the Labour Party was about.
As you read his account of London political life, when Lady Cunard came up to his table at the Ritz where he was lunching too well with his best man before his wedding and asked, “Were you not being married five minutes ago?”; when Margot Asquith after the birth of his first child implored him not to impregnate his wife again—“Henry always withdraws in time, such a noble man”; or when congratulating him on a speech she said it reminded her of Lord Randolph Churchill, “But, dear boy, do not share his vices, never live with six women at once, it is so weakening”; when the bright and puritanical Lady Astor patted the vast stomach of Lord Castlerosse and said, “If that was on a woman we should know what to think” and was met by the retort, “Well, last night it was, and what do you think?”; when he analyzes with generosity and sagacity the political abilities of Churchill, Birkenhead, and others among the buccaneers with whom he was in perpetual conflict in Parliament, yet basically on good terms; when he recreates the battles of those days and advances to the point where in the days just before the Depression hit the Western world he was advocating policies of dirigisme, deficit budgeting, and currency manipulation which became accepted years later; when you listen to his plea that two years before Churchill he had begun to agitate for rearmament, you are almost persuaded by the charm that here was a virtuoso that by sheer bad luck got diverted from the path. But you also realize that he had no place in the Labour Party.
The Labour Party does not fancy dashing sprigs of the aristocracy bidding for leadership, with their roots, if they have any, in London or cosmopolitan society. Mosley nearly succeeded by appealing over the heads of the trade union leaders to their rank and file, but like Beaverbrook after him when in 1942 he bid for left-wing support by an all-out campaign for aid to Soviet Russia, Mosley was never anywhere near convincing the conservative-minded trade unionists to overthrow the leaders of the party. The Labour Party was then an extraordinary amalgam of state socialists such as the Webbs, guild socialists such as G. D. H. Cole, syndicalists such as A. J. Cook, high-minded idealists, pacifists, theorists, austere plain-living intellectuals, but above all trade unionists, some of them tempered by the defeat of the General Strike, such as Ernest Bevin, and only loosely attached to the politics of the parliamentary party, but all vital figures in the movement who could swing at Conference thousands of votes one way or the other against policies or men.
Mosley deserves high praise for recognizing that the economic blight of the times was underconsumption, which could be dispelled if the state intervened to equate production and consumption. He regarded the gold standard as a boa constrictor and he did not go along with other social democratic theoreticians in believing that the prime objective should be the redistribution of wealth. His 1929 memorandum to the Labour Party, moreover, envisaged an administrative revolution in Whitehall as a pre-requisite to the implementation of short- and long-term plans for public expenditure.
But he made a mistake, common enough in British politics, in resigning. No political party likes those who will not work in harness. Resignation is occasionally forgiven by the Conservatives as an eccentricity of character, but in the Labour Party it is regarded as betrayal of the movement unless the minister who resigns has solid backing for his action in either the trade union movement or in the activists of the constituency parties who create and live off the waves of emotion in the annual Party Conference. Mosley did not even get the good men on his side. Arthur Henderson, the noblest of the Labour leaders, begged him to withdraw his motion of indictment of the government at the parliamentary party meeting and, when he refused, slew him by the simple method of appealing to party loyalty. He would be king or nothing.
Mosley describes with a sneer one of the rising upper-middle-class intellectuals in the party in his time, Hugh Dalton, a product of Eton and King’s, as a third-rate don. Dalton will not cut an impressive figure in history, but he understood the Labour Party far better than Mosley did. He sat for a miners’ constituency, kept in touch with the grass roots, and in so doing built up a political base. The art of maintaining and extending a political base is one that any democratic politician must acquire or he will perish. It is not that Mosley’s estimate of the leadership of the Labour Party in the 1920s is unjust. It was mediocre and its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, inferior in intellect and deficient in character—above all in character. In retrospect it seems as if any young man of ability at that time would be either excluded or emasculated by both the party machines. But rebels, such as Macmillan or Cripps, managed somehow to survive, snubbed and at times banished, and to keep some sort of political following. Driven on by the arrogance of pride, Mosley made a fatal error: he decided to buck the system.