Oswald Mosley was a member of the British Establishment with sufficient wealth to act as he wished during the political instability of the inter-war period. He was a fine speaker and orator which, coupled with supreme self-confidence, created an image of arrogance based on political insight. His marriage to Lady Cynthia Curzon, attended by the King and Queen, was the social event of 1920. His father in law thought Mosley was looking for social advancement and his daughter's inheritance. He was probably right as Mosley had affairs with his wife's younger sister, her stepmother and the anti-semitic Diana Guinness for whom he refused to leave his wife or her inheritance. Despite his personal failings he was widely regarded across the political spectrum as providing a new and exciting analysis of the social and political needs of a nation whose politicians seemed incapable of controlling events.
Mosley became the youngest active member of the House of Commons when he was elected Conservative MP for Harrow in 1918 aged 22. His brand of socialist imperialism did not sit well with the Coalition policy in Ireland. He saw himself as a centrist on a political spectrum which was moving leftward, representing a new generation ready to meet new challenges. He became an Independent MP, defecting to Labour in 1924 and returning to Parliament in 1926. He advocated new policies to deal with unemployment and during the second Labour Government mapped out new economic measures based on a planned economy as the way to deal with the Wall Street crash and its aftermath. The Mosley Memorandum, which wanted to centralise power in the Executive and reduce the role of Parliament, was narrowly rejected at the 1930 Labour Party Conference. It was quickly expanded to provide a manifesto for the New Party founded later that year.
Mosley's policies may have been effective but his political strategy was not. His weakness lay in the narrow circles of friends he maintained, most of whom were of high social standing with an inbred belief in their natural superiority and overdeveloped sense of their own importance. Although there was plenty of support in the Labour Party for Mosley's ideas many, including Aneurin Bevan, put party before personality leaving just a handful of Labour MP's defecting to Mosley's New Party. When the New Party fought the Ashton by-election in 1931, splitting the vote and facilitating a Conservative victory, Mosley faced a hostile crowd and allegedly declared it was the "crowd" which had prevented progress historically. The probability is that he was disgusted they did not recognise his political genius or leadership qualities.
As, in Mosley's opinion, the electorate was too stupid to change things from below, he would have to change it from above. "His vanity and egocentricity served only to blight his ambition leading him away from the political mainstream and towards a politics of evermore violent expression." A visit to Mussonini convinced Mosley that Fascism represented the future and he brought sympathetic organisations together to form the British Union of Fascists. Mosley advocated increased State intervention directed by a small but strong Executive effectively free from Parliamentary obstruction. The viability of Parliamentary democracy was frequently questioned between the Wars along with the limitations of political parties and class conflict. The adoption of the corporate state would deal with all these problems under the driving influence of government, headed, naturally, by Mosley. He failed to understand the British were never going to opt for dictatorship, especially one imported from Europe. The "new spirit" which Mosley hoped would attract those discontented with conventional politics never developed.
The New Party's meetings attracted fierce opposition from Communists and Labour supporters who accused Mosley of being a traitor to the Party. As Mosley became more openly fascist those he identified as enemies (the Communists and the Jews) adopted the Stalinist policy of taking politics away from the intellect and putting it into street fighting. However, the BUF found support across the media, including the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail, whose proprietor Lord Rothermere provided financial assistance. However, the violence generated by meetings held at Olympia in 1934 and the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 alienated many middle class voters. In 1936 the Public Order Act was passed which made it compulsory to have police permission to have a march and banned the wearing of political uniforms.
Mosley's attempt to create a new political culture (socialistic imperialism) free from party political influence was, according to John Strachey, "an entirely utopian appeal for social compromise." That was due, in part, to the rarefied political and social circles in which Mosley moved. Mosley regarded them as an elite ready to galvanise the British population in service to the nation. However, this elite included "an array of misfits and malcontents" whose presence allowed opponents to denigrate the New Party as a travelling circus. The Conservatives held the Right and Centre ground, a variety of socialist groups the Left. The New Party's best hope was to take the centre ground but instead it opted for a position outside the prevailing political culture. Its more realistic policies were adopted by cross party groups and individuals such as Harold McMillan, PEP and the Next Five Years group. The BUF itself split into factions.
This is a book for specialists in - or students of - fascism and captures the intellectual paucity of the 1930s in Britain. It's very well researched and boasts an extensive fifteen page bibliography. Four stars.