Magazine article History Today

Insiders and Outsiders

Magazine article History Today

Insiders and Outsiders

Article excerpt

Mosley was authoritarian but I don't think he was intrinsically more authoritarian than many other political leaders. I wouldn't have thought he was more authoritarian than Margaret Thatcher who was perfectly able to stay within a conventional political system.

If Dalton had been Foreign Secretary a lot of things would have been different, I think, after 1945. It's an interesting example of the way in which a very momentary decision of an almost casual kind can change the way in which a nation's development or indeed international developments can continue for a subsequent period of years.

The biographers of Oswald Mosley and Hugh Dalton were my first two interviewees for the new Radio 4 series of |Conversations with Historians', currently being broadcast by the BBC. Once again producer John Knight and I were delighted that all our first six choices agreed to take part. This time they seemed to fall naturally into complementary pairings by subject-matter and approach - Arthur Schlesinger Jnr. and Stephen Ambrose as biographers of Democratic and Republican presidents respectively; David Cannadine and Linda Colley analysing different aspects of what has formed the character of the British nation; and Ben Pimlott and Lord Skidelsky on some of the most controversial and influential figures of the British political scene in this century.

The latter two were recorded within a week of each other and, although I had necessarily prepared for each encounter separately, their joint interest in the same period of study meant that their reflective paths crossed in a most illuminating way. Each programme stands as a self-contained entity, but those listeners who make a point of hearing both will gain more than a double insight into what, and who, shaped those mistaken policies of the post-First World War period, which produced such economic misery and diplomatic disaster.

Oswald Mosley, Hugh Dalton and Maynard Keynes were all three deeply influenced in their thinking by their experiences of that war and its misbegotten Peace Treaty. For Robert Skidelsky it is the key to the proper understanding of Mosley:

It was an era in which political and economic systems were in great turmoil and crisis. There had been a terribly destructive war which he had fought in, and that shook his faith and that of so many other people in liberal democracy and in ideas of progress that had come out of the nineteenth century. And then you had this immense intellectual energy, you had governments that didn't seem to want to do very much in peace to make the condition of the people much better; they had been perfectly prepared to organise the whole nation and society for war purposes, when it came to peace purposes they seemed to be saying, |business as usual'.

|Business as usual' could never accommodate Mosley's restless impatience. Elected as a Tory (Coalition) MP in 1918, he crossed the floor of the House of Commons in 1920 to sit in Opposition, in 1923 Attlee called him |the very independent member for Harrow'. In 1924 he joined the Labour Party, in 1927 he was elected to its National Executive, was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the second Labour government, but resigned in 1930 when Ramsay Macdonald's cabinet rejected the Mosley Memorandum advocating massive public works as the cure for unemployment. One little-remarked consequence of that resignation was his replacement as Chancellor of the Duchy by Clement Attlee - which Professor Pimlott notes as a crucial stepping-stone for Attlee to the leadership of the Labour Party.

While many predicted and hoped for a glowing future for the young charismatic Mosley, the opposite expectations of the decidedly uncharismatic Attlee were also to be confounded. Few had a lower opinion of him than Dalton, as Ben Pimlott points out:

Dalton was very contemptuous of Attlee before the war, perhaps there was a big element of envy about it, Attlee had survived the 1931 election, whereas Dalton had lost his seat, and that gave Attlee a head start and meant that he was available for the leadership in a way that Dalton wasn't in 1935; and he always felt, as indeed it was, faute de mieux that Attlee became leader. …

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