BOOK REVIEW The Man Who Might Have Been
BLACKSHIRT Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism, by Stephen Dorril Reviewed by Charlie Pottins
It may say something about the character of British society that the only fascist leader who came within a whiff of power was a scion of the landed aristocracy and officer class. Even after the War, when Sir Oswald Mosley returned to be among his faithful, the emotional scenes of followers touching the Leader's sleeve had something of the mediaeval.
Yet the man who would be dictator had begun by launching the New Party, claiming to speak for the young, and bringing to his side enthusiasts for fast cars, planes and planned modern capitalism. He was even ready to call it 'socialism' for, like several of his continental counterparts, the British fascist leader had his spell as a Labour man, however unconvincing. Those who gathered at Mosley's country house at Denham included Fabians and ILPers, some of whom remained by his side when the New Party gave way to the British Union of Fascists. He was even able to find ex-communists to start his own unemployed movement.
Not that ideas or parties were what counted for Mosley. He went through party allegiance almost as promiscuously as through the upper class loose box, cavorting away from home while first wife 'Cimmie' was ill. The 'comradeship of the trenches', idealised as a supposed alternative to the capitalist free-for-all, had nothing of equality, or even the common touch. The masses, like the other ranks, were to know their place and do as ordered or else, like the Labour crowd who shouted at him outside Ashton town hall, they were the enemy.
Unlike previous British fascists, however, with their amateurish Bulldog Drummond antics as anticommunist thugs and strikebreakers, Mosley realised he must pose as being 'above' left and right; he needed to win recruits among the small shopkeepers and working people hit by recession, as well as backing from rich businessmen and landowners looking for a 'strong man'. How was he to unite them and cover the contradictions of an 'anti-capitalism' designed to save capitalism?
'You can hardly exhort your stormtroopers to street fighting with an involved analysis of the difference between productive capital and loan capital,' wrote Cecil Melville. So 'instead of just downing the banker for being a banker, let's down the banker as being a Jew!' At the insistence of Harold Nicolson, Mosley deleted a passage about 'international Jewish' conspiracy from his book The Greater Britain, making do with allusion to 'a power largely controlled by alien elements.
Even as New Party speakers were starting to attack Jews, Sir Oswald assured the press he did not approve. Seeking support from Israel Sieff, chairman of Marks and Spencer and backer of Political Economic Planning (PEP), Mosley told Sieff he wanted PEP as his 'brainbox'. But he also said, according to Sieff, that a political party must be based on emotion, and supporters must be given something to hate. 'In this case it should be the Jews'. He hastened to add 'of course, it does not apply to Jews like you, Israel,' but Sieff was not reassured.
Coming out as the British Union of Fascists meant openly linking with Europe's fascists and Nazis, and emulating their means. Though not sharing the fanaticism or racial theories of antisemites like Beamish and Leese, Mosley would use antisemites and antisemitism if it helped him. It meant shedding quite a number of Jewish supporters. Perhaps the best-known, boxer 'Kid' Lewis, who had trained Mosley's Biff Boys, ended the association allegedly by giving the Leader a good slap. Harold Soref, later to be a Tory MP and Monday Club chairman, stayed around long enough to be a Blackshirt standard bearer at the Olympia rally.
With support from the likes of Lord Rothermere and his Daily Mail, as well as money to be had from and via fascist Italy and Germany, Mosley hardly needed to worry about Jewish opinion. Supporting Mussolini's savage invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the fascists combined anti-black racism with antisemitism, claiming Jewish finance supported Haile Selassie. 'Over the whole dispute rises the stink of oil. And stronger even than the stink of oil rises the stink of the Jew,' Mosley told a cheering rally at Manchester's Free Trade Hall. Claiming that sanctions against Italy would drag Britain into war, the Blackshirts chalked 'Mind Britain's Business' and 'Mosley Says Peace' on walls around the country.
In London's East End, particularly the depressed furniture-making district, where Jews were seen as competitors, Mosley's lieutenants like Mick Clarke, the cockney 'Julius Streicher’, and Jock Huston, worked up crowds at street corner meetings with virulent antisemitic attacks, which inevitably led to violence. Sometimes they had to be rescued from hostile crowds - the fascists had squads on stand-by for this - but they did get support.
Drawing on the earlier work of the British Brothers League against 'alien' immigrants, and appealing to Catholic antisemitism, they gave excited young supporters an 'enemy' nearer at hand than mysterious 'international finance', in the form of the Jewish shopkeeper or neighbour. Mosley himself weighed in at Stratford Town Hall on 17 July 1935 with: 'Who backs the Conservative Party? Who but international Jewish financiers? They are the people who put razor gangs on the streets. Who finances the Labour Party? The Little Jews in Whitechapel who sweat you in your sweatshops.'
Renaming his movement the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, or British Union for short, Mosley was turning from Mussolini to Hitler for support. The Nazis had more than one franchise outlet in Britain. The Anglo-German Fellowship had support from Tory MPs, peers and big business. The Link, including Mosleyite Major-General Fuller, Lord Tavistock and Admiral Sir Barry Domville (in later life a founder of the National Front) held more local meetings.
The Battle of Cable Street, a humiliating defeat for Mosley, did not stop the Blackshirts’ antisemitic activity. If anything, the violence intensified, as fascists took their revenge on synagogues, cemeteries, Jewish shops and individuals, even children, and promised full-scale pogroms. But it was seen and noted as a setback. In Rome, Foreign Minister Count Ciano told Mosley his patrons were considering ending their subsidy. Mosley promised that his fascists would sweep the coming London County Council elections. In March 1937 they stood six candidates in East London, none of whom was elected. Mussolini stopped his cheques, and Mosley had to dip in his own pocket. There was a leadership crisis, Becket deriding the leader's unreality. Joyce who had enjoyed the violence, broke away to form his own, more openly Nazi group before going off to Berlin to become Lord Haw-Haw.
As war loomed nearer, Mosley's prospects declined in the regions, where industry was reviving, and with it Labour. In London, too, antisemitism was not enough. Awareness of the Nazi threat aroused both class conscious and patriotic opposition. In the Silvertown by-election in 1939, the Mosleyite candidate obtained 151 votes, against Labour's 14,343, and only one sixth of the vote received by communist Harry Pollitt. All the same, sections of the upper class still hoping for peace with Hitler pursued secret contacts in wartime, and considered a Vichy-styfe regime headed by Mosley with the Duke of Windsor.
Despite knowledge of what Nazism had done, and strong hatred against the man who might have been Britain's Quisling, Mosley's movement began coming back together as the war ended, returning to old haunts like Hoxton, and finding new openings, like the anti-refugee campaign initiated by Tories in Hampstead. There were fights with the left and with militant Jews. Reaction to Jewish terrorism in Palestine afforded a brief but violent antisemitic campaign. Then, in the 1950s, Mosley and Jeffrey Hamm turned to west London, blaming housing and other problems on the new, mainly West Indian immigrants. After the Notting Hill race riots, Mosley stood in North Kensington in 1959, and fascist youth leader Walter Hesketh stood in Moss Side, Manchester.
Racial prejudice and anti-immigrant attitudes which the Tories accepted with their Immigration Act, did not provide Mosley with the recruits he hoped for. There was still enough anti-Nazi feeling for his upstart rival Colin Jordan to be mobbed in Trafalgar Square, and Mosley himself was knocked to the ground when he tried to parade his supporters in Manchester. The South Africans to whom he turned for funds were sympathetic, but more inclined to back right-wing Conservatives. Get-togethers with leading European fascists did not produce the movement he hoped for, any more than nostalgic soirees with the Windsors in Paris. Though Mosleyite Danny Harmston mobilised the Smithfield porters' march for Enoch Powell, Mosley regarded the Tory MP as too much of a Little Englander. By the time a new generation of British Nazis emerged in the 1970s, Mosley was too old to lead them, and his ideas on Europe were too new, for their racialism harked back to Empire.
Seeking respectability again, Mosley wrote to the Jewish Chronicle in 1966 saying his 'quarrel' with the Jews was over. Having spoken at universities and Liberal Party seminars, he took the BBC to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn its ban on him, and when he appeared on Panorama, the JC said he appeared 'moderate and reasonable'. Sister-in-law Nancy Mitford was not impressed: 'Have you noted all the carry-on about Sir O? He says he was never antisemitic. Good gracious! I quite love the old soul now, but really!'
Away from the microphones, bitter Mosley had blamed Jews for everything from the rise of the rival National Front to the vandalising of first wife Cynthia's grave at Denham. Diana Mosley, asked by her sister Nancy about the millions exterminated in Nazi death camps replied: 'But darling, it was so much the kindest way.' Appearing years later on Desert Island Discs, Diana preferred to recall Hitler's blue eyes, and did not believe so many people were killed by the Nazis.
Still the rehabilitation continued, from Robert Skidelsky's praise of Mosley's policies, through to Channel 4's mini-series by Jewish writers, presenting Mosley as not too bad, albeit a philanderer. Though Mosley no longer received the open enthusiasm he had had from Rothermere's newspapers, Cecil King, Rothermere's nephew at the Mirrror, campaigned for a united Europe and sounded out Mosley as 'strong man' to head a military- backed government.
Stephen Dorrill deserves congratulation on producing what must be the fullest work on Mosley and British fascism, and gratitude for challenging those who tried to whitewash the Blackshirt. As a writer on the intelligence services, he has been particularly assiduous in opening up previously classified documents, revealing the fascists' secret links with foreign nations, and the ambivalent role of Britain's secret state. Some parts of the book could be clearer but providing such a rich mine of information, Dorril's minor transgressions can be forgiven. This book is essential reading if you want to know all about fascism or British politics in the 20th century.
JEWISH SOCIALIST No.53, Spring 2007
Posted: 7 October 2014