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The political career of Sir Oswald Mosley began shortly after the First World War. As an ex-serviceman who fought in the trenches and in the air, he personified the “war generation” returning from the front line. Like many of his generation, he had witnessed the tragedy of senseless slaughter, which moved him to enter the political arena with the vow that it should not happen again. He blamed the Old World for almost destroying his generation on the battlefields of Flanders and set himself the task of building a new world with hope and vision. British fascism had its roots in the trenches, even though it was more than a decade later when Mosley eventually established the fascist idea in Britain.
The beginnings of his political life were conventional enough for someone from his class as he entered the House of Commons in 1918 as the Independent Unionist member for Harrow, on the Conservative benches in a coalition government. At the age of 22, Mosley began a political career that would take him to the heights of cabinet office (the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster) and then lead him to reject all that failed the British people in the talking shop of parliamentary hot air and the lack of will to act and create a “land fit for heroes”, as promised by David Lloyd George.
He crossed the floor to the Labour benches in 1924 where his radicalism was better served, or so he thought at the time. His passion for social justice eventually brought him into conflict with some cabinet colleagues in Ramsay MacDonald’s government who found his proposals for dealing with unemployment too “socialistic”. He called for state intervention in the most important areas of public life but particularly those areas affecting the ordinary man and woman.
In his first election address in 1918 he had called for higher wages linked to higher productivity, the nationalisation of transport and electricity, state control of slum clearance, state scholarships in education, the protection of British industry in the face of world competition and the unity of the British Empire in its role with the League of Nations. As an Independent Unionist he had coined the phrase “Socialistic Imperialism” in his first election speech, which obviously found favour with the electors of Harrow and later with the radicals in the Labour Party.
The seeds of his rift with the parliamentary system were sown during the time of his dealings with the MacDonald government and particularly J.H. Thomas, the lord privy seal, with whom he worked on the problem of unemployment. Mosley’s solution was eventually outlined in the “Mosley Memorandum” submitted to MacDonald over Thomas’ head, opening up divisions in the Labour Party for and against the radical Mosley.
Mosley’s thesis was that unemployment could only be tackled through a large injection of public funds, the expansion of the home economy with import controls, along with a massive public works programme to be financed by £200 million pounds over three years. The argument that such a policy would cause a flight from the pound was met with his answer that his policy would create confidence in sterling with unemployment radically reduced and a programme of reconstruction rigorously pursued. All the resources of government were to take control of this new policy with the Prime Minister in charge and an executive committee of ministers working with him.
The Wall Street crash had occurred only the previous year in 1929. With the Depression that followed, the British economy had taken a hard knock from the shock waves with the result that the figure of 1,204,000 unemployed in March 1929 increased to over 2,500,000 by December. The entire capitalist system was in chaos and the British economy, dependent on world trade, was part of it and vulnerable to the ups and downs of each crisis … as it is today. Mosley wanted to insulate the economy from such instability, drawing on all the resources of the British Empire but especially the skills and talents of our own people in the creation of jobs at home, creating greater productivity and giving the workers purchasing power in the process.
Orthodox economics was tied to the idea of “export or die”, along with the deflationary fiscal doctrines of the Treasury and the Bank of England, neither of which remained insulated from the world system and its ebbs and flows. The boom and bust nature of this old doctrine was challenged by the young Mosley drawing support from many MPs from all parties and given a standing ovation at Labour’s National Conference.
The Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, a man with little understanding of economics, sided with the Treasury and its unbending fiscal policies and, at a special cabinet committee, rejected the Mosley Memorandum as “irresponsible”.
On May 23, 1930, Mosley resigned his post and moved a motion of censure on the government’s economic policies with the result that his motion was defeated by 29 votes to 210. In October he was elected to Labour’s national executive. In February 1931, he announced he was to form a new party and resigned from Labour. At the same time he was expelled.
The New Party, as he called it, fielded candidates in the following election but fared badly at the polls. A visit to fascist Italy impressed him so much that he then decided to adopt many of its features. The British Union of Fascists was launched in October 1932.
Many have said that Mosley could have been either Conservative or Labour prime minister if he had waited in the mainstream rather than resigning. After all, MacDonald’s government survived only fifteen months after his resignation, failing in its abysmal attempts to stem the increase in unemployment, along with a collapse in the currency after a series of monetary crises in Central Europe.
The Reichsbank in Germany had imposed exchange controls after a run on the mark. This created a run on sterling with the result that a massive withdrawal of money from London to counter the shortage of liquidity in Europe weakened sterling so much that the government had to decide on massive cuts in public spending, a recurring theme of successive governments ever since. The run on sterling became a flood.
It was proposed to cut unemployment benefit, a heresy for true socialists, while at the same time MacDonald’s Labour government refused any suggestion of insulating the economy. Orthodox financial opinion insisted that such benefits cuts were essential to balancing the budget. The Government was caught between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy but could not wrench itself from the old thinking. To remain in the gold standard, for example, it needed a loan from New York but that loan was impossible without a cut in unemployment benefit. A cabinet meeting voted by 12 to 9 for a ten per cent cut in unemployment benefit but they soon became aware that both the TUC and the parliamentary Labour Party would savage them for it. MacDonald resigned along with his government, perhaps wishing they had taken heed of Mosley’s proposals.
Mosley, it should be said, was a technocrat. He wanted to make things work because he fully understood the mechanics of the economy, its social implications and the best methods of managing it. Fascism, he later came to believe, offered the means for tackling all these problems by sweeping away the old world, which had floundered on the rocks of free market world economics with no real protection for a national economy.
He formed the British Union of Fascists with the intention of replacing the Establishment parties, which he referred to contemptuously as the “Old Gang”, and establishing a fascist government in Britain. Its main function would be to implement the ideas set out in his memorandum to MacDonald’s cabinet. In the 1930s, the decade of the European dictators, this was not viewed as an impossible task when many prominent people in public life favoured many aspects of the “new movement” and recognised the many achievements in Italy and Germany, particularly on the question of unemployment.
Society was also polarised in a pre-revolutionary atmosphere. Politics was more ideological … more so than today when the differences are blurred and most politicians seem to crowd onto the central ground of the new mediocrity after the demise of ideology itself.
There is now a political kind of agnosticism, a lack of faith and belief … and, even more so, a lack of passion so characteristic of pre-war partisanship. It is no exaggeration to say there was an almost religious fervour to both fascism and communism because both favoured an idealistic determinism based on an historical role in the world. This they had in common and which separated them from liberal democracy and placed them permanently in opposition to it.
It has been suggested that the reason Mosley’s fascist movement failed is because it was un-English to be fascist; that is to say, Englishmen do not pursue politics with the moral intensity of foreigners nor do they make a great noise about it, as foreigners sometimes do.
British history stands as a testimony against such a view as examples such as Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army of the parliamentarians spring instantly to mind. Mosley often invoked those heroes of our British past in his orations to his Blackshirt followers, heroes who are now derided by the “politically correct” as the harbingers of fascism for their intense Britishness or, sometimes more accurately, their English character. The British Empire was regarded by most as an immovable aspect of world affairs in those days and it was believed the sun would never set on it. British fascism embraced the imperial idea as the core of its quintessentially British patriotism, taking it as understood that every Blackshirt in British Union was loyal and true to our British culture and traditions.
After the Second World War, when he launched the Union Movement and the policy of “Europe a Nation”, Mosley would claim that the fascism of the 1930s was “far too national” and that the movements in the various European countries pursued their own nationalistic agendas thus inadvertently creating the conditions for division. There was no “fascist international” similar to the communist international. Mosley wanted to develop the British Empire while Hitler wanted to drive eastwards and Mussolini sought Italy’s “place in the sun” around the Mediterranean area. The problem was one of hegemony in Europe and the old balance of powers situation responsible for the First World War.
This he resolved with the post-war European idea.
This book is concerned with the period 1931 to 1940, the decade of Mosley and the BUF, often referred to as British Union. The text of this publication will henceforth refer to Mosley’s fascist organisation as British Union and his followers as Blackshirts … the fascist component neither diluted nor avoided in this shortened title.
It was necessary to begin with the background to Mosley’s earlier parliamentary career for the purpose of explaining his motives in the British political arena … motives that remained constant and unchanged up to his death in 1980.
His intellectual grasp of economics was phenomenal, as many academics and prominent politicians have acknowledged, with many of his ideas, spurned at the time of his earlier parliamentary career, being adopted later by post-war governments. The events leading up to the development of his proposals for economic renewal, rejected by Britain’s first Labour government, leaves open the question of whether he would have triumphed in Parliament if he was patient or whether he was right to go “into the wilderness” to attempt the fascist experiment in Britain in order to pursue the same objectives.
History continues to judge him.
Robert Edwards (former organiser West London Area Union Movement)
©2002 'Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists by Robert Edwards'
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oswaldmosley.net - 2008