Sir Oswald Mosley
Sir Oswald Mosley; drawing by David Levine

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 Mosley. 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.

It was an error, but Mosley’s reaction to the state of politics was not unique: all over Europe countless men of his generation were in despair. Who were the early fascists and their supporters? In spite of the vast literature on the subject and such classic apologies as Ernst von Salomon’s Fragebogen, we are still too much dominated by conventional analyses of the social origins and motives of these men. They came from all strata in society, not least among the orthodox working class and especially from among the veterans of the First World War in whom nostalgia for wartime comradeship and disillusion with the system combined to make them reach out for a political solution that would be “different.”

Mosley’s answer to the charge that he neglected to build up a political base within the Labour Party is that he had a good chance of building one up outside it, and if he is asked why he chose fascism, he has a ready answer. Although he had come within a few votes of capturing the support of the annual conference of the Labour Party for his program and was in a far more influential position than any other rebel against the party machine has been since, Mosley’s head resembled Lord Castlerosse’s stomach. It seemed pregnant with ideas. He therefore chose not only to leave the Labour Party, but to form a New Party, which put up candidates in the constituencies, split the Labour vote, and handed over safe Labour seats to the Conservatives. From then on he was regarded as a traitor to the movement, and when the party activists scent a scab or a blackleg, they can be tough. They treated Mosley as they treated MacDonald when he betrayed them a year later.

Mosley has a different explanation: according to his account, the communists moved in and systematically broke up his meetings. Out of this sprang his determination not to yield to force but to recruit a counterarmy to protect free speech, and in those days the only way to arouse enthusiasm, which was arousing frenzied enthusiasm in Germany and Spain, was to create a nationalist movement, semimilitary in nature, which would take its style from Mussolini’s party.

At this point in Sir Oswald’s narrative two other fallen angels from the infernal regions alight behind his chair and whisper arguments into his ear. One is Belial, the master of deceit and specious argument, the other is Mephistopheles, der Geist der stets verneint. Lucifer having told him that he was destined to be Prime Minister, a fact attested by all the leading authorities in England (see page 373 for the list), Sir Oswald is unable to believe that anything he did, not even the assumption of leadership of the British Union of Fascists, can have been wrong, and his arguments bemuse his readers by their deviousness.

Tactically, perhaps, at times he admits, he was a little at fault—he should never have allowed his men to blossom into full uniform. A simple black shirt should have been enough. But if anyone criticizes his principles or practices, he replies by throwing their own misdeeds in their face. So Churchill was ultimately right was he? That well-known warmonger, always obsessed with proving he had been right in the Dardanelles—are we to be told that he and those who eventually led Britain into the Second World War were better in judgment than Mosley when the war lost 25 million lives? (Curious that he adapts Lenin’s classic retort, “Who asks? The rulers of the nations who sent 10 million men to their deaths.”)

Anti-Semitic? Not a bit of it. Of course it was only to be expected that Jewish communists would resent what Hitler was doing in Germany—he wouldn’t blame them for a moment. Did he not sedulously play down the issue in Britain by distinguishing between those Jewish interests which were intent in getting Britain into a world war, and Jews against whom he has no more resentment than he has against Negroes? Against the Jews? Not at all. They were against him because they confused British fascism with German fascism. Of course if Jewish organizations tried against British interests to pick a quarrel with Germany because their fellow racists were being attacked there, they must expect him to object because he, Mosley, was dedicated above all else to the prevention of a repetition of the First World War. If Churchill is to escape blame for accepting Stalin as an ally in 1941, why should Mosley be blamed for accepting Hitler as an ally in the prevention of a Second World War in 1936? Why was Britain so insane as to stop Hitler from destroying communist Russia? And after all, it was not Hitler who caused the war. Britain and France declared war on him. But for the war no Jews would have been gassed.

It has become an article of faith among such commentators as R. H. S. Crossman, Malcolm Muggeridge, Lord Boothby, Lord Shinwell, Michael Foot, and Harold Nicholson that only a temporary aberration prevented Mosley from becoming Prime Minister, and the chorus of praise that greeted his book on its appearance in England showed that even a notable liberal Conservative Member of Parliament and defender of many unpopular causes such as Mr. St. John Stevas was prepared to accept Mosley’s explanation of that unfortunate decade in the Thirties. But there was one journalist who was not. That was Mr. Bernard Levin.

Mr. Levin is a remarkable descendant of the masters in the art of invective. He is an unshakable and pristine liberal who detests the attempts both from right and left to undermine the tenets of liberalism: personal liberty, freedom of speech, and the rule of law that guarantees them. He has recently been blackballed by the lawyers in a London club for having exploded in saeva indignatio at the death of Lord Goddard, one of the most odious of English Lord Chief Justices, who will go down in history in the ranks of judicial infamy with Lord Eldon and Judge Jeffrys. But no less did he take Miss Angela Davis to task when she declared that her acquittal was in no sense a proof that she had gotten a fair trial.

To Mr. Levin’s mind Mosley’s genial excuses for his fascist period were not merely offensive but shit upon the dead. He brought up from the press cuttings that in October, 1934, Sir Oswald distinguished the little Jews in the foreign ghettos from the big Jews and the system of international usury by which they lived; and that in March, 1936, he spoke of a “crusade against Jewry” and the “corruption of Jewish power,” and called for a policy of compulsory deportation or deprivation of citizenship for recent refugees. Once, when interviewed by the Catholic Herald on the occasion of the London County Council elections, Mosley observed that “all the present bureaucratic parties are Jew-ridden.”

The truth is that, whatever way Mosley wriggles, he did little to prevent the British Union of Fascists from doing all they could to exploit anti-Semitic feeling. As they marched through London’s East End, the Black-shirts chanted, “The Yids, the Yids, we’ve gotta get rid of the Yids.” Or sang, “We’ll raise the golden fasces high,/Beneath whose shade all Jews will die.” The acid test of a democratic politician is whether he will renounce support from those whose conduct or policies he regards as despicable or horrifying. All politicians want their power base to be as broad as possible, and it does not do to be over-scrupulous; but there are limits and Mosley overstepped them. That was why after defending one of his early anti-Semitic speeches Mosley was asked by that wise and just man, Israel Sieff, to leave his house. Inevitably he became identified in the public mind as the supporter for Hitler and all his policies.

At the next point in the narrative Mosley’s effrontery is breathtaking. In May, 1940, as France is falling, Britain alone, the air full of rumors of fifth column activity, with Quisling governments popping up all over Europe, with German and Italian refugees or citizens being packed off into camps and shipped to Australia and Canada (in some cases torpedoed and drowned on the way), Sir Oswald is arrested under emergency regulations and held in prison without trial. It is not suggested that he is a traitor (he successfully, owing to the British respect for rule of law, is able to sue someone who claims he is): it is suggested that as an advocate of a negotiated peace, an opponent of the war, and as one who has a special relationship personally as well as politically with Hitler and Mussolini, he should not, with the invasion of Britain looming, enjoy normal liberty.

The aggrieved tone with which Mosley recounts his imprisonment in a bug-ridden cell is a good deal too shrill. (His second wife, arrested a month or so later, had a better case for complaint. The most beautiful of the remarkable Mitford sisters, with an eleven-months baby, was not likely to be a security risk; and if one sister, Unity, had shot herself for grief that her country was at war with Hitler, she was at any rate balanced by another, Dekka, who was, in the language of those days, a “premature anti-fascist” and all too soon to be the widow of Esmond Romilly, Churchill’s rebellious left-wing nephew who was shot down over Germany.)

But Mosley’s resentment seems to know no bounds. To him the fact that he gave orders to his followers not to collaborate with the Nazis should have been taken as a guarantee that he was not a security risk—though the “orders” which he sent out before the war and which he quotes to counter criticism hardly seem to have been followed to the letter. The fact escapes him that the British fascist party members were treated less harshly than the Nisei in California and escaped the savage if comprehensible reprisals executed on fascists in the occupied countries of Europe after 1945. German Jewish refugees were imprisoned under the same regulations, treated as potential enemies, and, when later released, were allowed only to join the pioneer corps: if they had complained in Mosley’s tone, it would be comprehensible, but they accepted their lot wryly. Mosley by contrast thunders that in his case the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and Habeas Corpus had been flouted. He was in fact released in 1943 and in spite of left-wing agitation was subject only to comparatively mild restrictions for the rest of the war and comparatively little harassment after it.

But Mosley was not a man to accept any harassment. As one who in his youth had swapped insults with Churchill and Birkenhead, he fought back at once when he was libeled and won cases in Germany and France as well as in his own country. His was, of course, a totally different situation from that of the collaborators or criminals or members of European fascist parties, and he was entirely right to insist that he had done no more than to exercise his democratic right of protest against a war which he opposed and believed to be against the best interests of his country and of Western civilization. What is so odd is that he seems impervious and insensitive to the notion that after a war in which six million Jews had been exterminated, some people might nurse a faint resentment against him.

What is perhaps odder is that he declined to see any connection between what he said in the 1930s on the Jewish question and in the 1950s on the black question. In the Fifties his revivified Union Movement had seized on black immigration to Britain as an issue, and as he put it:

There had been considerable white versus black riots in North Kensington during the previous summer of 1958, and feeling on this matter was still smouldering. I thought someone should give the electorate the opportunity to express legally and peacefully by their votes what they felt about the issues involved.

Mosley’s plan was simplicity itself. Pay the blacks to return to Jamaica and ensure jobs for them there by subsidizing their sugar industry. (This from a by-now-ardent proponent of European unity who should have been logically advocating the end to such bilateral Commonwealth trading agreements.) Bland as Belial he defies any hint of racism. Like Lucifer he proudly claims to have anticipated Britain’s present immigration laws and parades his contempt for Enoch Powell, who jumped onto his bandwagon a decade too late and had been as a member of the Cabinet at least partly responsible for the folly of failing—in the words ominously painted on London walls—to “Keep Britain White.”

Eventually violence erupted in 1962 as it was bound to do. Did the consequences upon race relations of the kind of campaign that he and his followers fought never cross his mind, and did he never cast his mind back to the effect of Nazi Jew-baiting in the 1930s? His denunciations of the British establishment are well-calculated to win support, but perhaps there is this to be said for the conservative as well as the left-wing establishment, that just as before the war anti-Semitism was frowned on, like prefects in a prep school cuffing the boys who talked smut, so after the war to play on color prejudice was thought to be a particularly low form of political advancement, and the prefects have kept it in check.

Mosley retired from active politics to the heights to write this book. How are we to sum it up? Mephistopheles always makes the same mistake. Just as we are beginning to be seduced by his charm, by the gay cynicism about men’s motives and ideals, and by the brandy fumes of agreeable living, he suddenly goes too far.

When an interviewer on television began, “You seem to me to take a view of morality in politics,” Sir Oswald interjected, “There is none.” That was a foolish remark. Even those political theorists who have been skeptical or hostile to accepted notions of morality, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Proudhon, and Marx, are all passionate moralists. Even the analysts of realpolitik, Treitschke, Michels, Mosca, and Pareto, believed that certain objectives—the expansion of the nation state or security or the preservation of a balance between the groups competing for power or between economic interests—are desirable. Indeed Mosley’s whole book is a testimony to his own belief in political ideals.

If he means that men in politics are governed, and must inescapably be governed, by a morality which takes into account the fact that the business of living together in society imposes limitations on our ability to do good (limitations which often are imposed by the need to restrain those who would do evil), then he is saying nothing different from what Aristotle said. If, on the other hand, he is contrasting political morality with private, personal morality and arguing that the former is different and inferior in its ideals to the latter, then again he is merely repeating what dozens of moralists have said over the ages. But, of course, he does not mean this. What he means is that he was unjustly betrayed and thwarted by the British establishment and extreme leftwing forces who, the one covertly, the other openly, denied him political rights and influence.

It is, however, possible that the establishment, for once, in Mosley’s case, made a just estimate of his situation. To have been the leader of the British fascist party, however patriotic that party may have been before and during a world war against the two major fascist countries, is not a situation from which it is easy to recover. There is a maxim in British parliamentary politics that if a minister or a member of parliament has made a fool of himself through incompetence, misadventure, or even chicanery, the best way of getting the incident forgotten is to apologize openly and wholeheartedly: everyone is so relieved that the black sheep is restored at once to the fold. There was not much chance that this would have operated in Mosley’s case after 1940—and in any case he is not a man much given to apology, as the Devil particularly dislikes any sign of repentance among those in his snares.

He was too embarrassing to have as an ally, and in all the wearisome debates about Britain entering the European Economic Community there has been a marked disinclination by either political party to appeal to Sir Oswald as an authority on the European ideals. Politically he has been a dead duck for over thirty years.

But if the bureaucracy of the establishment chivied and snubbed Mosley in order to protect its masters, the politicians, from being embarrassed by him, he was saved in his fall from the trapeze by the old boy net. When Evelyn Waugh’s Captain Grimes recounted his lurid past he recalled how, in the First World War, he had been put under arrest. “A major came over from another battalion to try my case, and bless me if it wasn’t a cove I’d known at school…. ‘What’s all this about a court-martial?’ So I told him. ‘H’m,’ he said, ‘pretty bad. Still, it’s out of the question to shoot an old Harrovian. I’ll see what I can do about it.”‘

Sir Oswald was at Winchester, but the old Harrovian, Winston Churchill, saw to it that he was released from detention well before the end of the war, even though it was a year later than it need have been. Churchill was entirely right, and so were former friends of Mosley’s such as Walter Monckton, Bob Boothby, or Harold Nicholson who visited him in jail—just as Dean Acheson was right not to turn his back on Alger Hiss. It is always good to put friendship and compassion to those in misfortune, and all the more to those in disgrace, before political or ideological considerations, and it was certainly good not to have been swayed by vindictive, narrow-lipped nailbiters who, whether on the left or on the right, enjoy nothing more than persecution under the guise of self-righteousness. On the whole the British treatment of fascist or communist sympathizers in recent years has not been too bad. But the tolerance contains a grain of truth that is exceedingly unpalatable to Mosley: that his countrymen cannot take his claims to fame or wisdom very seriously.

This Issue

August 31, 1972