Magazine article History Today

Contextualizing Mosley

Magazine article History Today

Contextualizing Mosley

Article excerpt

Following Channel 4's recent screening of th four-part drama Mosley, Paul Martin questions the role of the fascist bogeyman in our national consciousness.

Channel 4's Mosley, shown in February, received a rather guarded critical reaction. It was a bold decision to make the series, but some critics have condemned what they see as Mosley's rehabilitation. In our post-modern society, the past is often seamlessly reincorporated into the present as though it were a new idea, and doubts about the intentions of the film-makers are understandable.

Just as the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day offered us an opportunity to reflect and remember those who fought and fell in the Second World War, Mosley equally affords us the opportunity to look at the British prewar admiration of fascism. Significantly, in the series Mosley is shown primarily as a philandering playboy, his political activities reduced to a supporting role; his son Nicholas' biography, recently republished, enhances this swashbuckling image. Thus we can more easily condemn him as a bad husband than as a political extremist.

The interwar glitterati are fashionable again: it is perhaps not coincidental that the dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited was reshown at the same time as Mosley, following closely Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. Subliminally, we pick up the message that it was understandable -- if mistaken exuberance that turned Mosley's earlier idealism into `wayward' fascism. The recent rerun of BBC2's The Traitor King showed Edward VIII's image as a tragic romantic to have been politically convenient, masking his treasonable political allegiances. Many influential prewar fascist sympathisers have pleaded a similar naively; thus in the film of Ishiguru's novel The Remains of the Day, `a misguided' aristocrat hosts a meeting between British fascist businessmen and Nazi trade officials. On a different level this naively translates as buffoonery, as in the case of P.G. Wodehouse who made several broadcasts from Berlin in 1941 which he described -- rather like a character from one of his novels -- as `purely comic in tone'. He was adjudged `an ass rather than a traitor' for it.

The habitual excuses for upper-class British fascist sympathisers allow Mosley's legitimate political past conceptually to accommodate his fascism, just as appreciation of Wagner's music is not vitiated by his virulent anti-Semitism. Mosley's progressive ideas for dealing with unemployment, though rejected in 1929, were implemented after 1945 and this fact can be used to explain his fascism as frustration with the political process rather than totalitarian in intent.

To treat Mosley's fascism as an aberration is dangerously flawed. So, too, his British Union of Fascists (BUF) should not be demonised in order to distance them from `people like us'. A closer examination reveals Mosley as the inheritor of an older reactionary tradition, which he reinvented as his `modern movement', elevating him above his fellow travellers.

Mosley, in 1918 as the Tory candidate for Harrow, stood partly on a platform of anti-immigration. In so doing, he was voicing establishment sentiment. In Britain, between 1901 and 1905, The British Brothers League (BBL), `an organisation which conducted an agitation against Jewish immigration', had a membership of some 12,000. Like Mosley, it operated principally in East London. It was strongly eugenicist, a trait inherent in Victorian muscular Christianity, which was itself a contributory factor in British fascism. In 1902, thirty-four years before the infamous battle of Cable Street, one A.T. Williams, addressing a meeting of the BBL, stated that:

... as I walk through Mile End or

Cable Street, as I walk about

your streets, I see names have

changed; I see good old names of

tradesmen have gone, and in

their places are foreign names. …

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