“It is time that the case for Mosley was made by the historian,” writes Mr. Skidelsky. He notes with asperity that none of the other recent writers on British fascism has “that indispensable quality of sympathy with the movement.” That will not be charged against him. This book is another step in a process, which has been gradually getting under way, of claiming that fascism was not so bad as it looks; that communists and their sympathizers have always been manipulating condemnations of fascism to their benefit; and finally that fascist leaders, give or take a few warts, have something “tragic” or “heroic” about them.
Sir Oswald Mosley fits all these claims. British fascism was largely an expression of his personality. Its style was his style. The figures are uncertain, but only about 100,000 people are thought to have passed on to the membership rolls of his British Union of Fascists. Though recruits seem to have come from all classes, variously disaffected, they were Mosleyites, temperamentally obedient to their Leader. Such defections or splits as occurred were rarely the result of disputes over policy, but took place because the movement lacked the necessary funds with which to expand. Mosley had no colleagues with first-rate talents to contribute to the movement, or possibly to disturb it and challenge him. Neil Francis-Hawkins, his deputy, and Alexander Raven Thomson, his resident social philosopher, were non-entities.
Born to command, Mosley cut a very different figure from such men; he had inherited a title and a fortune from estates in and around Manchester, as well as in Staffordshire. He grew up as a gentleman and sportsman, his early training including boxing matches with the servants. Physical fitness naturally found its place in his credo. True, he had little formal education, but even that proved an advantage, according to Mr. Skidelsky, for it enabled him to approach “the problems of his time with a mind uncluttered by what to him seemed obsolete intellectual luggage.” After gallant service in the First World War, Mosley was returned to Parliament in 1918 as a Conservative, the youngest member of the House of Commons. His aura as “the coming man” was enhanced by good looks, and later he was able to present himself with the flair of a matinée idol, his blackshirt uniform setting off his perpetually drawn white face with its twist of a moustache. By the time he married Lady Cynthia, the daughter of Lord Curzon, once Viceroy of India and Foreign Secretary, he apparently had the conventional world at his feet.
The careless rapture with which he threw all this away tantalizes British commentators, and to a lesser extent the public. So mediocre have our national politicians been in adjusting to painful twentieth-century realities that any potential remedy, or lost leader, has a morbid fascination. The tempter calls. If a man of ability stakes everything on himself and loses, is perhaps the fault not his but the country’s, for affording no suitable outlet? Romantic images …