Valentino in Knuckledusters: the Rise and Fall of Oswald Mosley

Oswald Mosley by Glyn Warren Philpot

One can journey profitably through the life of Oswald Mosley looking at the many extant portraits and photographs of him. First we see the Byronic idealist, represented by Glyn Philpot’s painting in the National Portrait Gallery in London, a dreamy Fitzrovian icon one might easily mistake for a poet or painter. Then there is the bounder, typified by photographs of Mosley in Venice, every inch the matinee idol, recalling the well-known words of Stanley Baldwin, that Mosley was a “cad and a wrong un” – and the prophetic utterance that followed them: “…a cad and a wrong ’un. And they will find out.” Following that came the Valentino in knuckledusters era: Mosley the Blackshirt, inspecting ranks of adoring female Fascists in the north of England. Finally, one sees a picture of Mosley in middle age, raising a pint with huddle of tipsy East End ruffians. As his son Nicholas put it, describing a miserable Fifties gathering, ‘There was dad on top of a van again and bellowing; so much older now with his grey hair and grey suit. . . there he was roaring on about such things as black men being able to live on tins of cat food, and teenage girls being kept by gangs of blacks in attics. And there were all the clean-faced young men round his van guarding him; and somewhere, I suppose, the fingers of the devotees of the dark god tearing at him.’

Tmie out in Venice.
In the pub, 1953.

The iron fist.
Mosley’s adoring women followers.

Whatever else that might be said about it, Fascism is an expensive hobby, what with the uniforms, banners, flags, vehicles, hired muscle and high-profile venues. Mosley was one of the few people in recent history who had the private means to afford it, albeit augmented to a certain extent by contributions from his wife and some minimal donations from Hitler and a very sceptical Goebbels. In Mosley’s HQ in Battersea Park Road there were, at any given time, over 200 men working out, doing gymnastics, training in martial arts. The Leader, if not doing the rounds in his open-topped Bentley, cruised the streets of Chelsea and Mayfair in a fleet of armoured cars, accompanied by a bodyguard of black-shirted ‘Biff Boys’. At one point in 1938, Mosley was subsidizing the BUF to the tune of £35,000 a year, which translated into today’s terms is some £25,000 a week. At its height, the BUF had some 50,000 supporters.Given Mosley’s considerable charisma and the enormous budget he commanded, it may seem odd that he didn’t get further in his cause than he did, prior to the war. That the outbreak of war eventually put an end to the British Union of Fascists is only part of the story.

Among Mosley’s most loyal friends were Bob Boothby and Harold Nicolson, who both in their different ways issued the warning, “remember thou art mortal”. When discussing what uniform the newly-formed BUF might wear, Nicolson said he thought that black shirts and jackboots might be rather de trop and that “grey flannel trousers and white shirts” would be more more appropriate. In Mosley’s early days as an outspoken MP, when he castigated the Government for the brutalities it had perpetrated in Ireland, Boothby told him to sit tight, since if he played the game he could expect to be swept to high office in a Churchill government. But Mosley wanted more, and he wanted it sooner. Leaving hubris to one side, there was also the question of how much time Mosley was really prepared to commit to his enterprise – how much real depth and planning he could bring to bear to underpin the surface theatricals. Lord Lymington, in A Knot of Roots, recalls how in 1932 he attended a Conference in Rome when he and Sir Rennell Rodd were invited to a private audience with Mussolini in the Palazzo Venezia. Mussolini’s remarks on Mosley, touching on his fitness as a leader, are of interest.

[Mussolini] suddenly turned to me and asked me the most searching questions about the English political scene. It was clear that he was very well informed, and that polite evasions would not get us anywhere. To Rennell’s grave disapproval I gave quite frank straightforward answers, upholding my country but not, unless they deserved it, our politicians. I became more than ever struck by his very intimate grasp of the situation. Oswald Mosley came up as the result of a question. “Ah,” said the Duce, “he has been spending most of this summer on the French Riviera. I spent quite a lot of time on the Riviera myself, but I was in exile struggling to make a living with my hands. It’s not a place for serious reformers to linger in private villas or grand hotels for more than a few days. He wants too much the best of both worlds.” This may have been unfair to Mosley as a Fascist leader, I do not know. It was certainly a very shrewd observation from an outside colleague.

A further intriguing take on Mosley, a perfect companion piece to Mussolini’s observations, comes from T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia). The following excerpt is from letter a from Lawrence to Billy Luttmann-Johnson, excusing himself from participation in a fringe right wing group for which Luttmann-Johnson was recruiting. Turning to the BUF, he criticises Mosley’s go-it-alone approach (“staff work very patchy”). He also points out that the real obstacles to making any radical changes in Britain lie in confronting and defeating the “machine of government”, by which he meant not the government of the day but the perpetual and formidable gate-keeping bureaucracy that lies behind it. (American citizens take due note, before Trump takes you by surprise.)

Politics in England mean either violent change (I care not enough for anything to lead me into that) or wasting 20 years of one’s time and all one’s strength pandering to the House of Commons. The meanest Government servant has more power than any unofficial MP. So I can’t afford politics either. I suppose Mosley is doing his best. He is daemonic, and a leader of conviction……but the staff work very patchy. Men are only made great by the linked force of their friends. The lesser Elizabethan dramatists made Shakespeare great! If only you had some real opposition. These Jews, Diehards, Liberals are like wet brown paper. What faces you actually is the machine of government; and what ails you is that you don’t know where the keyboard is – or so I think.

The end for Mosley finally came in May 1940, in a decisive swoop masterminded by Churchill. Mosley and hundreds of others with known or suspected pro-Nazi views were arrested and detained without trial. For this draconian exercise the Government invoked the wartime security measure, Defence Regulation 18b, part of a raft of legislation designed to cover emergencies in war and designed to catch those suspected of being enemy collaborators. In a meeting of the Privy Council on May 23 1940, Regulation 18b was modified by an all-important addendum, Clause 1a. This small but significant refinement strengthened the Government’s position considerably, increasing its powers of arrest to catch not only the traitors it could verify but also the extremists it merely suspected. The Mosleys fared rather better on remand than a great many prisoners. Diana Mosley was allowed to wear her furs in Holloway to keep off the chill. Mosley, finding life tough in Brixton without servants, was eventually allowed the services of a couple of deferential sex offenders as valet and gofer. The emblem of the British Union of Fascists (below) had proved to be a “flash in the pan”, a fate Mosley’s opponents had always predicted.

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