English politician Oswald Mosley (1896–1980) founded one of the most notorious organizations in British politics of the 20th century. The black-shirted members of the Mosley-led British Union of Fascists provoked violent street clashes in London during the mid-1930s and stoked fears that well-connected elites like Mosley might join with the economically dispossessed and welcome an alliance with Nazi Germany in the years preceding World War II.
Before establishing the forerunner of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1931, Oswald Mosley formed political allegiances that veered from the establishment Conservative (Tory) Party with whom he sat in the House of Commons to hard-line leftists within the socialist-leaning Labour Party. His affair with (and ultimate marriage to) one of the celebrity debutante Mitford sisters also earned him notoriety in the British press and both he and his second wife were deemed dangerous enough to warrant a three-year detention without trial when Britain entered World War II. After making a failed attempt to re-enter politics on an anti-immigration platform, Mosley and his wife spent the remainder of their years in France, where their circle of friends included the former King Edward VIII and his American-born spouse, the duchess of Windsor.
Oswald Ernald Mosley was born in London on November 16, 1896, to Oswald and Katharine Maud Mosley. His mother used her middle name, and her family roots were in the landed gentry in Staffordshire; his father was heir to the baronetcy of Ancoats. The marriage was troubled, and the Mosleys were eventually granted a judicial separation after Maud provided evidence of her husband's multiple infidelities. Mosley's childhood was divided between stays at his father's estate at Rolleston Hall near Burton-on-Trent and the equally splendid Apedale Hall, the home of his maternal grandparents near Newcastle-under-Lyme.
In his autobiography, My Life, Mosley described an almost idyllic English childhood in which he and his two brothers learned to hunt and ride at an early age. At nine, he was sent off to West Downs School in Winchester as a boarder, after which he entered one of the top boys' preparatory schools, Winchester College, eventually ranking among the top junior fencers in England. In early 1914, Mosley entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, but was expelled five months later for his role in an epic clash related to Sandhurst's polo-field loss to rival military academy Aldershot. When World War I erupted later that year, his transgression was overlooked and he served as an officer with the Queen's Lancers regiment before training as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. Mosley participated in trench warfare in France in 1915, was injured, and spent the remainder of the war years assigned to the War Ministry in London, working on munitions planning and logistics.
In December of 1918, Mosley stood in his first election to the House of Commons as the Conservative (Tory) Party candidate for Harrow, a constituency in the greater London area. His victory, which came just four weeks after his 22nd birthday and five weeks after an armistice with Germany was signed, made him the youngest member of parliament (MP) at the time and one of the youngest ever to win an election. Over the next three years, he gained a reputation as a gifted orator inside parliament but a particularly contentious political agitator in the backrooms of Westminster and on the hustings of Harrow. After breaking with the Tories in 1921, he was twice reelected and then shifted to the Labour Party, running for a new seat in Birmingham in the 1924 general election. Mosley lost that contest to future prime minister Neville Chamberlain by 77 votes, but two years later, he entered a by-election for another Midlands constituency, Smethwick, and won.
In June of 1929, Labour Party leader and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald elevated Mosley to the post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a ministerial appointment. Later that year, the stock market crash on Wall Street triggered a global economic crisis leading to the Great Depression; in Europe, the collapse of financial markets was exacerbated by several factors linked to the end of World War I. As unemployment figures began to rise precipitously in Britain, Mosley was tasked with drafting policy suggestions for reform inside the Labour Party. He proposed a massive national infrastructure-building scheme along with a lowered retirement age and a nationalization of key industries. His draft had some support within the party, but when MacDonald and other moderates rejected it as unfeasible, he resigned his chancellorship and announced, in February of 1931, the formation of the New Party. In the general election later that year, Mosley lost his Smethwick seat and none of the other 23 New Party candidates prevailed against the Labour Party's substantial victory.
Undaunted, Mosley amplified his warnings about the threat posed by communism within Britain. For a few crucial years, he had the support of the Daily Mail, one of the leading British newspapers and a powerful force in shaping public opinion among the most gullible voters. In 1932 he formed an ancillary fascist group, the BUF, and merged it with the organizational remnants of his New Party. The BUF had a paramilitary arm, known as the Blackshirts, which aped the costumes of similar units operating on behalf of Benito Mussolini, leader of the Italian Fascist Party, and those in Germany who aligned with Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist (Nazi) Party.
Mosley and his BUF reached the peak of popular support at a rally held at London's Olympia Exhibition Hall on June 7, 1934. Photographs and newsreel footage from the event show a crowd estimated at 15,000, whose members cheered Mosley and returned the infamous right-armed salute associated with fascism. There were also Communist Party agitators in attendance who heckled Mosley, the sole speaker, until they were hustled away by Blackshirts and viciously attacked outside the venue. There were multiple arrests and an immense public outcry over the brawls, which were then almost unprecedented within the sphere of British politics. “We are very grateful to those few people who are interrupting. They illustrate how necessary a Fascist defence force is to defend free speech in Great Britain,” the London Times quoted Mosley as saying. His carefully scripted sentences steered clear of openly anti-Semitic remarks, but he employed code words and phrases hinting that international conspiracies of Jewish-dominated bankers were funding his detractors on the left. In one instance, Mosley characterized his opponents as “gangs subsidized by Moscow gold and paid by alien finance,” according to the Times report.
The BUF's tacit endorsement of several new and alarming laws instituted in Nazi Germany to deprive German Jews of basic civil rights marked the beginning of the end for Mosley's party. On October 4, 1936, the group staged a march through the predominantly Jewish section of London's East End and was pushed back by communists and other opponents in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street. The raucous clash even prompted an official response in the form of the Public Order Act of 1936, which prohibited the wearing of specific apparel like the Blackshirts or other non-military uniforms that displayed the wearer's political allegiance.
Mosley's personal life also provided steady fodder for journalists of the era. In 1920, then a young member of parliament (MP), he had made a stellar match with Cynthia “Cimmie” Curzon, whose father was the British Foreign Secretary and a former viceroy of India; her mother was an American heiress whose family fortune originated in a business partnership that evolved into Chicago's Marshall Field & Company department-store empire. The Mosley-Curzon nuptials at St. James Palace were chronicled in breathless prose as the society wedding of 1920 and the guest list included King George V and Queen Mary. Mosley and Curzon had three children during their 13-year marriage, but at the time of Cimmie's sudden death following an appendectomy in 1933 Mosley was already involved with another prominent socialite. Born one of the six talked-about Mitford sisters, Diana Guinness subsequently divorced her brewery-heir husband and married Mosley during a civil ceremony in Berlin, Germany. The official record of the wedding was ordered sealed by newly installed German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who was a guest at the nuptials, and Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda hosted the reception at their home in Berlin's posh Wannsee district.
The final chapter for Mosley and the BUF came at a Britain First rally held at the Earl's Court Exhibition Hall in London on July 16, 1939. Seven weeks later, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, and World War II began. As German planes began bombing British targets, Mosley advocated for a negotiated peace settlement with the Axis alliance of Germany and Italy, continuing his efforts until March of 1940. Two months later, Britain's intelligence services warned newly installed Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Mosley and his wife—Diana Mitford Mosley was a cousin of Churchill's—were considered a viable threat if Hitler's planned invasion of Great Britain succeeded. The couple, along with more than 700 other BUF members, were promptly rounded up, taken into custody, and detained without trial. The Mosleys were finally released in November of 1943.
Mosley attempted a political comeback after the end of World War II by promoting his new Union Movement, an early advocate for a single European nation-state. Although the idea gained adherents, he failed in his bids to return to the House of Commons in the U.K. general elections of 1959 and 1966. He and Diana, with whom he had two sons, lived out the remainder of their lives in Ireland and France. Nicholas Mosley, a son from his first marriage, inherited the Ancoats baronetcy and had a long career as a novelist and biographer. Mosley's second son by Mitford, Max, served as president of the prestigious motor-sports league known as Formula 1 racing for many years.
Banned for years by British Broadcasting Corporation's radio and television affiliates due to his racist views regarding British citizens of Asian and African heritage, Mosley hectored mainstream newspapers and magazines with signed letters to the editor contesting assertions regarding his political legacy. He continued to write these letters up until the week before his death, from Parkinson's disease, on December 3, 1980, in Orsay, France.
Authors of speculative alternative histories often rely on a Mosley-like figure to carry out Nazi policies in Britain, and the anti-immigration policies he espoused continued to be debated in British politics almost a century after he won his first election to the House of Commons in 1918. “No twentieth-century British politician has been hated as much,” contended historian Albert Henry Hanson in reviewing Mosley's 1968 autobiography My Life for the Times Literary Supplement. “In the end, the sentiment that prevails is sorrow for a man who might have achieved so much and who achieved so little.”
Macklin, Graham, Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism after 1945, I.B. Tauris, 2007.
Mosley, Oswald, My Life, Arlington House, 1968.
New Statesman, August 16, 2013, Hugh Purcell, “The Beast Unchained: Encounters with Oswald Mosley, the Unrepentant Fascist,” p. 8.
Times (London, England), June 8, 1934, “Fascists at Olympia,” p. 16; December 4, 1980, “Sir Oswald Mosley,” p. 19.
Times Literary Supplement (London, England), October 24, 1968, Albert Henry Hanson, “Old Men Forget,” p. 1200.□