Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley, 6th Baronet Ancoats, was born on 16 November 1896 at Rolleston Hall near Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire. He was one of a privileged class who were born to rule, at least he thought so. He served on the Western Front during World War One and then for ten years as a Member of Parliament for both the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, and as an Independent. But he was a man for whom personal advancement always outweighed any human empathy or political conviction.
Following a fairly standard upbringing of nannies, servants, and public school, in January 1914 he enrolled at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Always a confrontational man he was to have his disciplinary problems but all this was forgotten when by August of the same year Britain found itself at war with Germany.
Mosley was to have a good, if somewhat truncated service record. He fought on the Western Front with the Queen’s Lancers in the early months of the conflict before volunteering for the recently formed Royal Flying Corps. He was to injure himself when he crashed his plane whilst showing off to his family. The accident left him in great pain and with a permanent limp but despite his injuries he was to return to the trenches where he fought at the Battle of Loos in April 1915.
Shortly after however, he was withdrawn from front-line service and provided with a desk job.
A man of ambition with an ego to match, following his discharge from the army he was desperate to get involved in politics and with his social connections he had no problem securing the position of Conservative candidate for the Constituency of Harrow. He was elected as its Member of Parliament in the 1918 General Election aged just twenty one. Four years later he left the Conservative Party over its role in the brutal suppression of the rebellion in Ireland. Such was his personal charisma he was to successfully retain his seat standing as an Independent.
In 1920, he married Lady Cynthia Curzon, known as Cimmie. She was the daughter of Lord Curzon and in terms of his social-standing it was a match made in heaven. Others were aware of this and some doubted his sincerity, none more so than his father-in-law. The marriage had elevated him into the upper-echelons of high society and provided him with a considerable inheritance.
The wedding itself was one of the social events of the year, but despite the fact that they were to have three children and portray themselves in public as the perfect family, Lord Curzon’s fears were soon realised as Mosley had numerous affairs including with his wife’s sister and his mother-in-law.
Aware that there was little future in remaining an Independent M.P, Mosley began looking elsewhere and in 1926 he joined the Labour Party which had just formed its first Administration, and it was with the Socialists that he now believed lay not only the country’s future, but also his own. He had always considered himself a radical and a man of vision. He was a Conservative only by background not by nature, he would say, and he would forge a career for himself as a visionary ahead of his time, or so he believed.
The first Labour Administration lasted only eight months but even so Mosley was by now an enthusiastic supporter.
In the election of 1926, Mosley had challenged the future Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain for his Seat in Birmingham and was defeated by just 77 votes. Not long after, on 21 December, he was returned as the Labour M.P for Smethwick in a by-election.
The Labour Party were re-elected to power in October 1929, and as a close personal friend of the new Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, Mosley expected to receive one of the High Offices of State. Instead he was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a position that did not even secure him a place in the Cabinet. He was furious and told MacDonald of his disappointment in no uncertain terms.
He was a man who had a high opinion of himself and expected others to think likewise, he was also desperate to be taken seriously as a politician but his reputation as a loose cannon and a serial philanderer who could not keep his trousers on went before him, however.
To placate his ire he was given the task of coming up with a proposal to solve the problem of unemployment which was rising fast in the wake of the Wall Street Crash. He was excited at the opportunity to show that he was a man of ideas and one not afraid to make tough decisions. He dedicated himself to coming up with a plan that would see Britain come out of the economic depression that was stifling world trade and crippling global markets.
When he presented his so-called Mosley Memorandum that proposed high tariffs, the nationalisation of industry, and a massive programme of public works and job creation to the Cabinet it was dismissed out of hand. Angered that the Cabinet was not even willing to discuss his proposals Mosley stormed out of the meeting and on 30 May 1930, he resigned his post.
For months he festered on the backbenches expecting MacDonald to recall him to the fold. When this didn’t happen on 28 February 1931, he quit the Labour Party altogether. Not all were disappointed and many were willing to express the view that he had never believed in anything other than himself. His cynicism they felt was best summed up in his remark, “Vote Labour, Fuck Tory.”
Mosley, never one to doubt his own political genius, didn’t view his resignation as a setback but as an opportunity. He firmly believed that he had the answers to the country’s problems and if the established political parties would not listen to him then he would form his own party and take his message directly to the people.
So soon after leaving Labour he formed his own somewhat unimaginatively named New Party.
The Mosley Memorandum had been well received by many across the political spectrum as a radical alternative to the sterile economic orthodoxy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Snowden, and among its signatories were seventeen Labour M.P’s of whom were such prominent men as the future architect of the National Health Service Aneurin Bevan and the Miners’ Federation President A.J Cook. He also had the support of a great many Conservatives including the future Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.
Mosley confidently expected them to follow him but few did.
Nevertheless, he remained undeterred. He received £50,000 in party funding from Lord Nuffield, established a party magazine under the editorship of the famous diarist Harold Nicholson, and formed a party militia known as the “Biff Boys” under the command of the former England Rugby Captain, Peter Howard.
He believed they were going places but the fact was that they were heading towards electoral oblivion. In the 1931 General Election the New Party contested 24 Seats and lost their deposit in all of them.
Following his political debacle a depressed Mosley embarked on a tour of Europe looking for inspiration and was to find it in the charismatic leadership of the Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini. By the time he returned to Britain he had found a new way – Fascism.
Mosley now took a sharp lurch to the right and what remained of the New Party was disbanded and subsumed into his British Union of Fascists.
Always a greater admirer of Mussolini and his corporate vision of society than Adolf Hitler and his theories of racial purity, he now advocated an authoritarian centralised State with a strongman at the helm, and he knew exactly who that strongman should be – Oswald Mosley.
On 16 May 1933, Mosley’s long suffering wife Cimmie, Lady Curzon, having contracted peritonitis died aged just 34, following a botched operation. She had given up her own promising political career to support her husband and had turned a blind eye to his many affairs despite the great embarrassment that they caused her.
Mosley was distraught at her death but no one could be sure whether his grief was genuine or they were crocodile tears, for those who knew him were more than aware that he was having an affair with the already married Diana Guinness, one of the notorious Mitford sisters.
Three years later on 6 October 1936, he was to marry her in the drawing room of Joseph Goebbels house just outside Berlin. The guest of honour was Adolf Hitler, from whom he received a silver framed photograph of the Fuhrer.
The death of Cimmie had not distracted Mosley from the business of politics for long and the formation of the British Union of Fascists (B.U.F) was initially well-received in some quarters of the press and political establishment.
Indeed, Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail ran the headline “Hurrah, for the Blackshirts!” and held competitions to win free tickets to B.U.F organised events but as their rhetoric became increasingly anti-Semitic and hard-line support began to wane. Even so, in the two years following its formation membership peaked at almost 50,000.
On 7 June 1934, the B.U.F held the biggest indoor rally in British political history at London’s Olympia. It was Mosley’s opportunity to stamp his mark on the national stage and he had learned his speech and practised his gesticulations ad-nauseum.
Resplendent in his uniform he arrived late to build up the tension and entered from the back of the hall and through the massed ranks of his supporters chanting his name.
It had all been choreographed and fine-tuned to perfection but within minutes of beginning his speech the event descended into chaos as hundreds of people within the crowd began to shout, heckle, and hurl abuse.
Mosley ordered his Blackshirts to remove the hecklers and they were forcibly dragged from the auditorium and brutally beaten up on the streets outside. Indeed, such was the level of violence used that the Daily Mail withdrew its support, party membership began to haemorrhage, and political funding dried up, so much so that the B.U.F was unable to contest the 1935 General Election.
In an attempt to revive his party’s fortunes the anti-Semitic rhetoric was ratcheted up and the decision was made to march his Blackshirts through a predominantly Jewish area of the East End of London. The B.U.F had always garnered sizeable support in the East End sometimes as much as 25% of the vote in local elections.
The march was designed to be a show of force and to re-establish Mosley and the B.U.F on the political stage.
Mosley, who was tall, handsome, and looked good in a uniform, had long been considered the most eloquent politician of his age. This would be his moment.
On 4 October 1936, 1,900 of Mosley’s Blackshirts assembled in the Borough of Stepney waiting to be addressed by their leader. Banners were unfurled and flags were raised as Oswald Mosley took the salute, but for all the passionate rhetoric and the heady atmosphere that prevailed very little happened. Prevented from entering the East End via Whitechapel by the police, Mosley decided to march down Cable Street. Forewarned, the people of the East End had barricaded the intended route of the march and more than a 50,000 people had taken to the streets, Jews, dockworkers, Irish labourers, anti-fascists, and local people. Chanting “They shall not pass”, they had armed themselves and they were ready.
Mosley was ordered to wait whilst the police attempted to force a way through. More than 8,000 policemen had been mobilised to shepherd the march but they were unable to control a demonstration that very quickly descended into a pitched battle and as the police tried to dismantle the barricades, missiles began to be thrown, fights broke out, chamber pots were emptied onto policemen’s heads, and marbles were strewn on the pavement bringing police horses crashing to the ground.
For hours the police and demonstrators fought and all the time the increasingly restless Blackshirts waited for an order from their leader, their strongman, to march.
Around 4.00pm, some two hours after the march was supposed to have begun, Sir Philip Game, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, aware that his force could no longer guarantee security suggested to Mosley that the intended march be called off to avoid bloodshed. After no little dithering Mosley agreed.
Many in the Blackshirt ranks were angry and dismayed at his decision especially among the more hard-line within the party, including William Joyce the future Lord Haw Haw. As far as he was concerned they had been betrayed and at the very moment when decisive action had been required Mosley had crumbled. It had become apparent that he was not Britain’s very own Mussolini, after all.
Forced to march under police escort to the West End and denied permission to hold a rally in Hyde Park the Blackshirts dispersed – defeated, demoralised, and humiliated.
Many of the more prominent members of the B.U.F now began to desert the party among them, Major J.F.C Fuller, military theorist and future follower of the Satanist Aleister Crowley; Arthur Gilligan, ex-England Cricket Captain; Ted “Kid” Lewis, the Jewish European Middleweight Boxing Champion who had taught the Blackshirts self-defence and was Mosley’s personal bodyguard; and any number of ex-M.P’s and Peers of the Realm.
The Battle of Cable Street, as it became known, had seen 84 people arrested and many hundreds injured. It had also forced the Government to act and later that year it passed the Public Order Act which banned the wearing of uniforms and required in future police permission to hold political rallies, demonstrations, and marches.
The fiasco of Cable Street saw a sharp decline in the membership of the B.U.F and by the end of 1936 its numbers had fallen to below 8,000 and Mosley was forced to axe hundreds of jobs simply to save money. One of those to go was William Joyce. He had been Mosley’s effective right-hand and a man who was tougher, more spiteful and more vicious than the leader could ever aspire to be, a real street-fighter.
To many within the party he seemed the genuine article, not an aristocrat playing at dress up. They saw him as a rival for the leadership of the party. Mosley certainly thought so, that’s why he sacked him.
At the local elections of 1937 the B.U.F still polled around 25% of the vote in its East London strongholds but it was financially a busted flush and Mosley was reduced to spending much of his own personal fortune just to keep it afloat.
As conflict with Germany loomed ever larger Mosley embarked upon a tour of the country to warn against the dangers of a war that was the work of the Jewish Global Conspiracy and called for a peaceful negotiated settlement. With the devastation of the previous war still fresh in the public memory people were for a time willing to listen but as soon as the phoney war became a shooting one, Mosley’s political career was finished.
Despite ordering that all B.U.F members should do their patriotic duty and take up arms in defence of their country, on 23 May 1940, Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana endured the public humiliation of being arrested and imprisoned as potential traitors and fifth columnists.
After a brief period in the cells they were permitted to live together in a house in the grounds of Holloway Prison and provided with servants. It was less imprisonment than a form of splendid isolation.
Mosley was to spend his time in incarceration reading up on the great civilisations of ancient antiquity, pottering around in his garden and keeping a low-profile refusing requests to meet other imprisoned B.U.F members.
His wife, Diana, remained unrepentant however and railed at the woeful treatment meted out to such a great man.
In November 1943, they were released into house arrest and went to live with their slightly embarrassed relatives.
Following the end of the war Mosley became the focus of constant media attention and any thoughts of a quiet retirement were dashed by his still overweening ambition. He could not stay away from politics for very long and he formed the Union Movement to campaign for a single unified European State. But by now he was more mocked than hated.
Few people any longer took him seriously and in any case his meetings were invariably interrupted and would end in chaos with Mosley being dragged from the podium and ushered away for his own safety. In 1951 he left England for France with the words:
“You cannot clear up a dung-heap from underneath it.”
In exile he blamed the Jews for both the war and the ruination of his own political career. He was to spend the rest of his life campaigning against immigration, and every time it became a hot political issue he would turn up like the proverbial bad penny.
In the wake of the Notting Hill Race Riots he stood for Parliament in the General Election and lost his deposit.
He claimed that the election had been rigged and took those responsible for the count to Court, and lost there to.
In 1966, he returned to stand for the seat of Shoreditch and fared even worse gaining less than 4% of the vote.
The simple fact was that he was yesterday’s man. The man who had once aspired to be Britain’s Fuhrer was by now a marginalised and pathetic figure, a maverick politician without a cause any longer worth fighting for.
Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley, who had been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease died at Orsay near Paris on 3 December 1980, aged 84.
The British press was to almost universally eulogise him as a visionary, one of the outstanding politicians of his generation, and as a lost leader; as if his fascist and anti-Semitic past, his aspiration to be a dictator, and his arrest on suspicion of treason, had never happened.
How Sir Oswald would have enjoyed that.