I doubt if more than a handful of today’s teenagers have ever heard of Sir Oswald Mosley, or if they have, he is but a shadowy figure haunting the nineteen thirties. And yet he was brilliantly guyed in the television series Jeeves and Wooster in the 1990s; with another name of course, P.G. Wodehouse invented a comic horror who has several brushups with Bertie, Jeeves and Gussie Fink-Nottle (newts and all). Wodehouse calls him Sir Roderick Spode. He is played to perfection by John Turner.
The real Mosley was born in 1896, a member of the ‘ruling classes’ who began his political career as a Conservative member of Parliament (1918 – 22) after surviving the Great War, in which he served as gallantly as anybody. He became an independent MP in 1922, crossing the floor in 1924 to join the Labour Party. He was a member of Ramsay Macdonald’s government in 1929, and was doubtless influenced by the teachings of the economist John Maynard Keynes, among whose jeremiads were how to deal with unemployment by restricting imports, expanding purchasing power and using private banks to finance industrial development: but Mosley resigned in 1930 to found his own political party – the New Party.
In that year there was an election and all New Party candidates including Mosley himself failed to win a seat. Mosley travelled to Italy, where he was duly impressed by the extraordinary Benito Mussolini (q.v.), an ex-journalist and editor who was busy building autostradas and planning an invasion of Ethiopia.
Mosley returned to Britain, dissolved the useless New Party and founded something based on his experiences in Italy – the British Union of Fascists. Now he was joined by fit but unemployed (or perhaps unemployable) young men and women who thought highly of the ideas of Fascism and were fed up anyway with British politicans who all seemed to be doddering old men, whiskered and whiskied, and incapable of making reforms in Britain, where everybody had been affected negatively by the horrible and wasteful First World War.
It seemed likely that Sir Oswald, with his muscular blackshirts, whom he organized on paramilitary lines, would become the Mussolini or worse, the Hitler of Great Britain. His adherents silenced hecklers at his many meetings, broke up gatherings of other parties, and gaily marched the goose-step in London streets. Middle class original supporters of Mosley now turned against him, as there seemed to be enough dictators in Europe with Mosley on the list too – Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler for example.
The Public Order Act of 1936 was a serious blow to Mosley’s ambitions, as it banned political uniforms (the blackshirts), and permitted the police to deal severely with marchers. After Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, it would have appeared unpatriotic for any Briton to support Mosley. He married one of the celebrated Mitford girls – Diana – the most beautiful – following a divorce from his first wife.
After one year of the 2nd World War Mosley and his wife were imprisoned in separate prisons by order of the Home Secretary – but without charges being made. This appeared to be tyranny to the Mosleys, and almost certainly was, but both Oswald and Diana found themselves locked up, without the right of visits, and Diana’s sister Nancy, the famous author wrote to Winston Churchill advising him to keep the Mosleys where they were because she thought ‘they were very dangerous persons’. It took a long time for Diana to forgive this apparent treachery by Nancy. After nearly three years the couple were allowed to share a cell together at Holloway, and were then placed under house arrest, with permanent police escorts. They were said to be for the Mosleys’ protection.
After the War was over Sir Oswald started another party, Union, entirely in favour of creating a European Common Market. This party failed too, though the European Union did indeed appear. Sir Oswald and Lady Diana lived happily ever after, dividing their time between Britain and their home in the French countryside. Oswald died in 1980, much mourned by Diana, and soon forgotten by everybody else.