There is no doubt that Oswald Mosley was a charismatic and intelligent politician. Prior to reading this work I watched the Mosley TV series covering Mosley's political career up to 1940. What Jonathan Cake who played Mosley in this piece did so well was to portray the brilliance of Mosley together with his arrogance and impulsiveness. Had he played the party-political game I do not think it inconceivable that Mosley could have achieved high office as a Labour minister but the arrogant streak and refusal to bide time put paid to such ambitions.
At the age of 21 Mosley became the youngest member of parliament as a conservative MP, however it was not long before he fell out with the Conservative government over their Irish policy, particularly the harsh actions of the Blacks and Tans which Mosley (not alone) considered to be state-sanctioned torture. Mosley subsequently crossed the floor and in 1924 not only joined the Labour Party but expressed sympathy with the party's left by also joining the Independent Labour Party. In the Labour Party Mosley developed a friendship and alliance with Ramsey McDonald and when McDonald formed a government in 1929 he had expected a Cabinet position but, to his disappointment Mosley was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster with responsibility for looking at the nation's unemployment.
It was this commission that was to act as the catalyst for Mosley's extreme future political career. Mosley recommended a relatively radical solution that was both protectionist, aimed at stimulating the economy with public works and was inspired by Keynesian economics. That a party that styled itself as socialist should be so risk-averse infuriated him. Furious at the lack of respect (read - failure to recognise his greatness) and disillusioned with the party political system as it was Mosley, together with a number of fellow Conservative and Labour MPs left to create a new party which, imaginatively, the called The New Party.
The New Party still campaigned on a (largely) socialist ticket using as an election manifesto an expanded version of Mosley's memorandum. But because of poor electoral showings and suspicion of the increasingly authoritarian the New Party was disbanded and what came next was the first major explicit fascist political identification in the UK, namely the BUF (the British Fascisti did precede the BUF but in terms of external influence they were pretty inconsequential).
It is here that the first of two of the main aims of Thurlow's work comes into play. There is within academic literature much discussion of generic fascism. In the introduction to the book Thurlow (page xi, xii) writes of the British Union of Fascists (hereafter BUF) that "the BUF produced the most coherent and developed programme of any fascist movement ... it was anti-war, portrayed itself as law abiding engaging only in defensive violence, and for the 1930s had some relatively advanced views on feminism."
Although within a British context discussion of fascism is next to always made in reference to the German experience of German National Socialism Thurlow shows that the BUF in its earlier and most politically potent period had no substantive (policy) connections to Germany. If there were any connections of international fascism to Mosley's BUF it was to Mussolini. It is known that Mussolini was, second to Mosley himself, the key financial contributor to the BUF, that Mosley did meet with Mussolini early in the 1930s and that like Mussolini racialised fascism was not as significant as in Germany.
However much Mosley the BUF considered the BUF (in comparison to continental fascisms) as "fascism minus the violence" with the tail-off of press interest (following a particularly ugly scene involving warring communists and fascists) Mosley soon began using violence to keep in the political eye. Likewise, and here Thurlow never really explains why, Mosley unlike some colleagues in the BUF (e.g, William Joyce and A K Chesterton - cousin of GK) had never been exceptionally anti-semitic but this became a recurring motif in his speeches.
Thurlow continues to complete Mosley's story, including a fascinating chapter on Defence Regulation 18 which (and where have I heard this before?) suspended the right of habeas corpus and imprisoned most of the key players in British fascism without trial even though it is clear they were no threat to national security, as Thurlow shows. Mosley was to try to resurrect his political career post war in the union movement and while - arguably - it was not a fascist movement (it advocated a pan-european-nation instead of current political nation states) the authoritarian emphasis remained.
Fascism in Britain is not however just a history of the BUF and its impact on then contemporary British society. If it were then it would have achieved its aim and I would regard the book as an excellent one. The second edition, published in 1998 offers something more: namely a history and analysis of fascism in post-war Britain. In his analysis of Mosley's attempted political resurrection in his vision for a European Nation then this surely succeeds. Likewise, Thurlow does an able job of analysing the post war conspiratorial and racialised fascisms of other of the main players in the BUF (A K Chesterton et al).
The latter chapters deal with the rise of the National Front and thereafter, with the BNP. The fascism these groups present, argues Thurlow, is to be distinguished from that of Mosley. To be sure, no one in post-war British fascism has had the same intellectual substance as Mosley but that does not change the fact Mosley's own fascism was ambiguous. Mosley's fascism was at one point truly a form of national (empire) socialism but at another it was little distinguishable from the paranoid ramblings of the conspiracists. No real account is given for this change and, given Thurlow does not agree that this was just a political manoeuvre on Mosley's part to seek right-wing votes it must surely be accounted for. Despite having the largest fascist following at its peak in the UK Mosley's influence on post-war fascism appears to be negligible. Strangely, Thurlow offers very little analysis of why this is the case. Finally, Thurlow offers a premature obituary of British fascism arguing that the inter-group squabbling, Nazi connections and the strong and anti-immigrant legislation of Thatcher et al destroyed the chance of a fascist resurgence. Unfortunately, this predictions seems less safe now the BNP having featured on the BBC's flagship Question Time and the EDL regularly making the news. This neglect of recent history means this is not really a history of British fasism (and on this point, despite labelled as such, there is very little on Scotland or Wales).
In contrast to most British fascists Mosley was a man of charisma and intelligence, thankfully these are few and far between. Although lacking a critical edge that at times was needed Thurlow's book is a well-written history of British fascism as it related to Mosley, as a general history of British fascism in the current political climate less so.