LONDON — On October 15, 1932, the newly formed British Union of Fascists (BUF) held its first public meeting. Surrounded by eight men dressed in black shirts, Sir Oswald Mosley stood on the plinth beneath Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square and declared the birth of “a movement of the modern age.”
The leader of the Blackshirts, as they would become commonly known, Mosley was one of the most talented politicians of his generation, once tipped as a future prime minister.
But at this moment, he began his inexorable descent into the sewer of Jew-baiting, street-fighting and Nazi apologism from which his reputation never recovered. As the cover of his own autobiography conceded, Mosley was to become “more feared and reviled by many of the British people than any other British politician.”
Nonetheless, 85 years on, Mosley remains one of the more interesting footnotes in modern British history. His story is a study in the failure of the far right to catch on in Britain during the interwar years as it did throughout much of Europe. Moreover, Mosley was the central protagonist in one of the defining events of the 1930s in which, for all their current antagonism, the British left and British Jews still feel a sense of shared pride: the Battle of Cable Street.
In many respects, Mosley was an unlikely revolutionary. Hailing from an old landed family, he was educated at one of the country’s top public schools before graduating to the elite military training college at Sandhurst.
Talk, dark and handsome, he became a favorite of fashionable London hostesses who provided an entree into the world of Westminster politics. In 1918, at the age of only 21, he was comfortably elected to a safe Conservative seat. His wedding two years later to Lady Cynthia Curzon, the daughter of the foreign secretary, was attended by George V and Queen Mary.
However, Mosley’s early politics — forged by his experiences in World War I — had a distinctly radical streak.
Like many others who returned from the trenches, he was a keen advocate of social reform who wished to build a “land fit for heroes.” He had also developed a strong abhorrence of war and was thus an early and stalwart supporter of the League of Nations.
Unlikely as this seems for a future fascist, his break with the Conservative party later in 1920 came over the government’s handling of the revolt against British rule in Ireland and its use of the infamous “Black and Tans” auxiliary forces to carry out reprisals against the civilian population.
Mosley joined the Labour party, where his genuine concern for the plight of the poor and unemployed combined with his undoubted skills as a speaker made him popular with the grassroots.
One liberal newspaper admiringly described him as “the most polished literary speaker in the Commons… He has human sympathies, courage and brains.”
A close relationship with the leader of the powerful miners’ union as well as with the party leader, Ramsay MacDonald, ensured that when Labour came to power at the 1929 general election, Mosley was appointed a minister with responsibility for tackling unemployment.
Barely a year later, however, he resigned from the government, frustrated that his then-novel ideas for boosting the Depression-hit economy had been blocked by the Cabinet. Those measures, which included a Keynesian-style public works program, were to form the basis of the so-called “Mosley manifesto” published in December 1930.
While his stance won him plaudits from the left of the Labour party — Aneurin Bevan, who was later responsible for the foundation of the National Health Service, was a keen supporter — Mosley was already coming to the view that the existing political parties, and the “old gangs” who presided over them, were incapable of rising to the challenge of tackling the economic crisis then gripping the country.
Still not yet 35 years old, Mosley’s arrogance and impatience led him into what his biographer, Robert Skidelsky, labels “a series of catastrophic misjudgments.”
Hurrah for the Blackshirts!
In February 1931, Mosley quit Labour to form the New Party. Only six MPs — five Labour and one Tory — followed him. Worse was to come: the formation of a coalition government to wrestle with the impact of the Great Depression, and its landslide victory in a general election in October 1931, destroyed Mosley’s party at the polls.
Nonetheless, with unemployment rising inexorably, the possibility that the coalition might collapse and the country turn to a leader untainted by its failures remained very real. Mosley was determined not to let that opportunity slip through his fingers.
However, despite pleas from some supporters not to abandon conventional party politics and, as the future diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson put it, “get muddled up with the fascist crowd,” he traveled to Italy in early 1932 and met Mussolini. He returned convinced that fascism was the wave of the future.
Initially, the British Union of Fascists met with some degree of popular support. The party claimed a membership of 50,000; attracted a following among the young (it had branches in at least 11 major public schools); and appeared to have developed an appeal in declining industrial areas, market towns and agricultural districts, as well as in major cities such as London, Manchester and Leeds.
Most famously, Mosley initially won the backing of the press baron Lord Rothermere, whose Daily Mail newspaper notoriously ran an endorsement entitled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”
Among the Conservative parliamentary party, fascism also found sympathizers. Under the headline “The Blackshirts Have What the Conservatives Need,” one Tory MP wrote admiringly of the BUF as a “virile offshoot” of his party, with whom there were no “fundamental differences of outlook.”
Notable by its absence from Mosley’s 40,000-word manifesto, “The Greater Britain,” was any mention of the Jews. Mosley had no record of anti-Semitism and had previously dismissed the Imperial Fascist League, an early fascist grouping founded in 1928, as “one of those crank little societies … mad about the Jews.”
Its leader, Arnold Spencer Leese, in turn branded Mosley’s new movement “kosher fascists” and suggested that Lady Cynthia had Jewish blood.
But even while some Jews joined the BUF and its leader sought to assure the Jewish Conservative party politician and industrialist Lord Melchett that “anti-Semitism forms no part of the policy of this organization, and anti-Semitic propaganda is forbidden,” something ugly was already stirring in Mosley.
Anti-Semitism takes root in fertile BUF soil
Less than a month after the BUF’s launch he made his first anti-Semitic remark when he branded a group of hecklers at a public meeting “three warriors of the class war — all from Jerusalem.” In disgust, Israel Sieff, a prominent Jewish businessman and admirer of Mosley, withdrew a tentative offer of support for the BUF.
The antagonism between Jews and the new fascist party was set. Jews frequently scuffled with BUF members selling the party newspaper, The Blackshirt, and often joined communists who attempted to break up Mosley’s meetings.
As Skidelsky explains, Hitler’s victory in Germany had “turned many Jews, especially from East London, actively anti-fascist; Mosley was the chief English fascist; and the Communist Party was the most militant anti-fascist force.”
Indeed, it was not hard to see why events on the continent made many Jews instinctively nervous of an organization whose members dressed in black shirts, delivered raised arm Roman salutes and were protected by a private paramilitary force.
Despite some early attempts by Mosley and Jewish leaders to pull back from the brink — the BUF leader suggested Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies were “a great mistake” and promised “religious and racial tolerance,” while the Jewish Chronicle cautioned against “wicked and stupid” attacks by Jews on Blackshirts — a dynamic was already in train that would lead to confrontation.
Moreover, while Mosley may not have had a history of anti-Semitism, some of his keenest new recruits — Director of Propaganda William Joyce; the journalist AK Chesterton who edited The Blackshirt; and former Labour MP John Beckett, who became director of publicity — most certainly did.
Anti-Semitism would grow into a core part of the BUF’s message with the failure of the paradoxical strategy Mosley had adopted — what his son, the novelist Nicholas Mosley, described as the attempt to build “a fascist street-movement that would be respectable.”
As Martin Pugh argues in his history of the Blackshirts, Mosley wanted to build a mass movement, yet — drawing on the experience of Hitler and Mussolini — he also believed that it would be the traditional right who would provide his path to power.
In a moment of crisis, he believed, they would inevitably turn to him to protect their positions and keep the “reds” out. Thus through groups such as the January Club and conservative journals such as the English Review and Saturday Review, Mosley wooed fascist fellow-travelers on the Tory right.
Violence at Olympia cuts fascists’ oxygen
What biographer Skidelsky terms the “bubble of ‘respectable’ fascism” was burst when, on June 7, 1934, Blackshirt stewards violently ejected left-wing hecklers from a 12,000-strong BUF rally at Olympia.
Unfortunately for Mosley what should have been a triumph — 150 MPs were among the audience — turned into a disaster.
“I witnessed scenes of great brutality such as I thought I would never see in England,” suggested the Reverend Dick Sheppard, while a Tory MP said the behavior of Mosley’s supporters “made my blood boil.”
Three other Conservative MPs who were at the rally wrote to The Times denouncing the “wholly unnecessary violence” of the Blackshirts, which was “a deplorable outrage on public order.” While much of the heckling was organized by the Communists, and, outside the hall, Blackshirts were also subject to attacks, the blame fell overwhelming on the BUF.
Coming shortly before Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives,” the impression of British fascism as no different from its brutal German manifestation, and the strong denunciation of it by many conservatives, had an immediate impact.
Over the next year, membership fell to just 5,000; press support fell away (under pressure from advertisers, including Jewish-owned businesses, Rothermere withdrew the backing of his newspapers); while the BBC, banning Mosley from the airwaves for the next 31 years, denied the fascists the vital oxygen of publicity.
In 1935, the BUF chose to sit out the general election, urging voters to abstain under the unconvincingly slogan “Fascism next time.” In truth, with the economy recovering and unemployment falling — the Depression had in any case been far shallower than that experienced in Germany or the United States — if fascism were to have a moment in Britain, it had already passed.
Unsurprisingly, Mosley pinned the blame for the Blackshirts’ woes on the Jews, who “more than any other single force in this country,” he proclaimed, “are carrying on a violent propaganda against us.”
Later in life, Mosley would claim that while he had had a “quarrel … with certain Jews for political reasons,” he had not “at any time been an anti-Semite.”
In his biography of his father, his son, Nicholas — who had no truck with fascism — attempted to shift the blame. Mosley, he wrote, “allowed his party to become infested with followers who were openly anti-Semitic; they looked for scapegoats to excuse the movement’s foundering sense of purpose.”
Even if, as author Pugh claims, Mosley had never planned for anti-Semitism to rest at the heart of the fascists’ appeal, and his subsequent exploitation of it was “at least partly political or opportunistic,” he was nonetheless utterly implicated in the crudely anti-Semitic campaign which the BUF officially unleashed in the autumn of 1934.
“What they call today the will of the people,” Mosley charged, “is nothing but the organized corruption of press, cinema and parliament … ruled by Jewish finance.”
The paradox — that the Jews were, in Mosley’s telling, behind both Communism and international finance — was lost on many of his supporters.
Jews hated fascism, he announced, “as the burglar hates the policeman.” Jewish influence in Britain was “naked and unashamed,” and the “Jewish problem” would only be solved by deporting Jews found guilty of “anti-British conduct.” Moreover, those Jews who were allowed to remain would be barred from becoming MPs or civil servants.
The Battle of Cable Street
The BUF now decided to throw its efforts into the East End of London — then home to 150,000 of Britain’s 350,000-strong Jewish population — cynically tapping a range of social and economic grievances. Jews were running sweatshops and driving local businesses out of business; “Jew boy gangs” were responsible for crime; “Jew landlords with the money bags” were exploiting a chronic shortage of housing.
Marching through heavily Jewish areas, Mosley’s storm troopers would chant: “the Yids, the Yids, we gotta get rid of the Yids.” Physical attacks on Jews rose. With press reports of a wave of “fascist terror,” many Jews lobbied their MPs furiously for action.
New bodies sprung up, such as the Board of Deputies Defense Committee and the Jewish People’s Council, were established, while the Archbishop of Canterbury lent an ecumenical hand as head of Council of Citizens. Others took more direct action: fascist meetings were regularly disrupted, with the Ex-Servicemen’s Movement pledging to sweep fascism “off the streets of London.”
Events came to a head on October 4, 1936 when Mosley planned to lead a march through the heart of the East End and its many Jewish neighborhoods.
After attempts to have the parade banned failed, anti-fascist forces prepared to halt the Blackshirts, adopting the slogan of Franco’s opponents: “They Shall Not Pass.”
They made their stand at Cable Street in Limehouse. Over 100,000 people — a collection of communists, socialists, local Irish dockers, Jews and trade unionists — amassed and the road was barricaded. Repeated attempts by the police to clear a path for the 3,000 Blackshirts failed. Warned by the police of a “shambles” if he tried to proceed, Mosley backed down and abandoned the march. Within weeks, the government rushed legislation through parliament giving the police greater powers and banning the wearing of uniforms on political marches.
The legend of the Battle of Cable Street remains potent to this day. However, as many historians now argue, its mythical status disguises the fact that Mosley’s Blackshirts were not driven from the East End. Instead, the BUF decided to capitalize on the events of Cable Street, and the publicity it was usually denied by the media and government, to launch a “renewed anti-Semitic campaign.”
Portraying themselves as the innocent party whose rights to free speech had been denied and accusing the police of “openly surrender[ing] to alien mobs,” the fascists redoubled their efforts. The Blackshirts ramped up their anti-Semitic content; Mosley held a series of large rallies across the East End (one attracted a crowd of 12,000 people); and membership in the capital jumped by 2,000. It was part of a “definite pro-fascist” shift, reported the Special Branch, Britain’s national security force.
Mick Clarke, a Blackshirt leader in the East End, menacingly warned that “London’s pogrom is not very far away now.” A week after Cable Street, the so-called Mile End Pogrom saw Jews, their businesses and shops attacked by a mob of 200 young men.
It was also at this time that Mosley, who had taken his inspiration from Mussolini, began to shift his movement towards the Nazis.
The BUF was renamed the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, while Mosley chose Berlin to marry his second wife, Diana Mitford, with Hitler attending the reception. (Obsessed with Hitler, Diana’s sister, Unity, attempted to commit suicide at the outbreak of war in 1939.)
Hitler: ‘a calm, cool customer’
At his two meetings with him, Mosley later wrote, he found Hitler to be “a calm, cool customer, certainly ruthless but in no way neurotic.” He also described the Fuhrer’s rarely remarked upon sense of humor and abilities as “an extraordinarily gifted mimic.”
But Mosley’s hopes for victories at the polls in the East End in local elections in 1937 were frustrated.
Playing the anti-Semitism card ruthlessly — the choice was between “us and the parties of Jewry,” the fascists claimed — Blackshirt candidates polled around one-fifth of the vote. It was a respectable figure (especially considering the fact that this probably accounted for one in three non-Jewish voters in the East End), but hardly the breakthrough Mosley had anticipated.
The fortunes of the Blackshirts once again dipped. Mussolini cut off the much-needed supply of cash which had helped keep the BUF financially afloat.
Internal disputes saw Joyce and Beckett, who believed Mosley soft on the question of the Jews, depart to form the National Socialist League (Joyce fled to Germany shortly before the war, broadcast traitorous messages back to his home country and was executed after the Allied victory). Indeed, in the battle to stir the pot of anti-Semitism and peddle conspiracy theories, the Blackshirts were not without competition.
As the drumbeats of war grew louder in the following years, Mosley reinvented himself as a peace campaigner. With a general election due in 1940, it was a cause which offered far greater political dividends than Jew-baiting in the East End.
Of course, anti-Semitism underpinned Mosley’s claims that it was the Jews who were pushing Britain inexorably into conflict with Hitler. Jewish finance, he argued, was waging an “implacable vendetta” against Germany simply because it had “suppressed the great Jewish interests.” The Nazis’ persecution of the Jews was simply “lying Jewish propaganda.”
Nonetheless, Mosley’s campaign to put “Britain First” aligned him with the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain’s government and mined a rich seam of public opinion. Membership of the BUF rose and his peace rally at Earls Court in July 1939 attracted some 20,000 people.
When war — “a Jews’ quarrel,” in Mosley’s mind — came two months later, Mosley urged his supporters to “do nothing to injure our country, or to help any other power.”
But while he continued to address “Stop the War” meetings, there was a far smaller audience for this message. With the end of the Phoney War in the summer of 1940, Mosley, together with his wife and key lieutenants, was interned as a security risk, and the BUF banned.
Churchill claimed that, in the event of a German victory, Mosley would serve as “Hitler’s puppet” in Britain, while the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, labeled him “our own Quisling.”
It has long been suspected that, had Germany defeated Britain, Hitler would have placed Edward VIII — who had been forced to abdicate in 1936 and had later shown considerable sympathy for the Nazis — on the throne. Mosley had been one of the King’s most enthusiastic supporters during the abdication crisis and Edward, as head of a Nazi vassal state, would surely have handsomely rewarded him.
Thankfully, Mosley’s best chance of power — the defeat of his country — never came to pass.