Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Book Review by Robert Edwards

Matthew Worley

Palgrave Macmillan                                           234 pages

Published in ESA No 31 - November/December 2010

Long in coming, a book on Oswald Mosley’s earlier political career is a refreshing change from the interminable rehashing of his fascist Blackshirt phase, from 1932 to 1940. A mere eight years but, nonetheless, the most turbulent and controversial and, therefore, the more sensational for the sensationalising ‘anti-fascist’ writer with a penchant for conspiracy theories and an urge to character assassination. How many more do we have to suffer?
This book places Mosley’s underlying core political ideas into their proper perspective, going back to his true political roots which were in the Labour Party, the New Party being created within it. Fascism came later.
In his introduction, Worley asks the question, “How was it that a man purportedly of the left, a former Labour government minister recognised by some as a future premier, could so seamlessly become a would-be Führer cast on the margins of what is usually perceived as the far right?”
This more or less sets the tone for the rest of the book. However, on BBC’s Panorama programme in 1968, Mosley was to explain, “I exhausted every means in the Labour Party of getting my policies accepted before I left. First of all, the Parliamentary Party; secondly the Conference. And not until I was rejected and defeated in every attempt to get the Labour Party to accept it did I go over with precisely the same policy — and this is so curious — and start the fascist movement. Having been denounced as the wild man of the left by Snowden and others, I was then supposed to become a right-wing reactionary. But my policy was precisely the same”. There is your answer, Mr Worley.
The author takes us on a journey from the time Mosley was first elected a Unionist MP for Harrow in 1918, later joining Labour in 1924, and then onto the ‘proto-fascist’ New Party in 1931 after his failure to convince the Labour leadership of the need to do something about increasing unemployment during a time of economic recession. It was as a firebrand socialist, with his collaborator at the time, John Strachey, that Mosley discovered Keynesian monetary theories and the necessity for government intervention and planning. This was not to the taste of Labour’s old guard in office, still stuck on the laissez faire economics of the previous century and doing absolutely nothing about the plight of the unemployed.
When he left the government, Mosley had support from across the party divide and the names tumble off the pages, reading like a roll call of the most prominent and promising politicians of the day, mainly well-to-do with a smattering of a few with working class backgrounds. The New Party’s inaugural meeting at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon, London, was on March 5, 1931, with Mosley laid low with pneumonia and pleurisy, unable to attend. In April of that year, Allen Young, a former Independent Labour Party member from Glasgow, stood as a New Party candidate for the Ashton-under-Lyne by-election in what was a working class Labour stronghold, at that time suffering under the economic recession. He finished third, helping to defeat Labour in the process. On polling night, with a Tory victory, Labour supporters turned on the New Party members at Ashton Town Hall, throwing class war abuse at them.
Mosley has since been attributed with the now oft quoted response to them with, “That is the crowd that has prevented anyone doing anything in England since the war”, which was also the signal for Strachey to denounce that point in Mosley’s political course as “the moment when fascism was born in England”.
Strachey and Young were to resign in July. C.E.M. Joad soon after. In the General Election of that year, all 24 New Party candidates performed disastrously. Worley points out, “Only Sellick Davies (who ran in a straight fight with the ILP in Merthyr) and Mosley polled anything resembling a respectable total; only James Stuart Barr finished higher then bottom of the poll, and that because the National Labour candidate’s withdrawal from the contest came too late for his name to be removed from the ballot paper”.
Surprisingly, we learn that Mosley had been offered prospective parliamentary seats from both Labour and Tory parties after the New Party’s electoral collapse but in January 1932, he visited Mussolini in Rome with Harold Nicolson and Christopher Hobhouse. This occasion convinced him that fascism offered the only alternative to communism and was needed in Britain to prevent economic collapse. So began the transformation of the New Party into a fascist movement. He had burned his bridges for all time.
Worley offers the premise that the New Party’s transformation into a fascist organisation was inevitable even without the fateful visit to Rome in 1932 because it already possessed the trappings of fascism with the formation of a youth movement and an emphasis on drilling and physical fitness. Mosley was already talking in terms of the corporate state.
Other aspects of the New Party are covered in this riveting book which tend to confirm the ‘proto-fascist’ accusation levelled at it. Chapter 8, with the title ‘Leaders of Men: Masculinity and the Promise of a New Life’, argues the New Party more or less anticipated the later fascist dynamics.
What is so fascinating about Worley’s book is his painstaking research into all those who were initially attracted to Mosley’s radical ideas for economic revival even though most were to eventually fall away as he leaned further and further towards fascism. They did not all join him in the New Party but some were very much sympathetic towards his proposals to cure unemployment with an economic plan when he was in the Labour Party.
Besides John Strachey, during the time of his resignation from the government, there were Nye Bevan from Labour and Robert Boothby from the Conservatives. Boothby advised Mosley not to resign from the Labour Party but to no avail. Even Ian Mikardo joined the New Party after disillusionment with the MacDonald government. He left after the lurch towards fascism, becoming a Labour MP in 1945.
Perhaps the most colourful character to join Mosley in the New Party was Peter Cheyney “the maverick journalist, actor and ultra-nationalist who helped to develop the Nupa prototype” and who believed the New Party was unlikely to achieve power through parliamentary means. Nupa was the party’s youth movement with Cheyney becoming increasingly influential in turning it into a ’shock movement’, as he perceived it should become.
According to Worley, Cheyney, who Harold Nicolson thought was “a most voluble, violent and unpleasant type”, left in February 1932 after playing a role in developing Nupa into the ‘nucleus of Britain’s storm troops’. He had, in fact, helped pave the way for fascism in Britain to take root in October of that year when Mosley unveiled a new ceremonial banner emblazoned with the fasces.


Jon Risdon said...

I found this book very comprehensive and a useful addition to my reference collection.

Robert Edwards said...

I am inclined to agree, Jon. It covers an area previously neglected.
The reference value is in the painstaking research.

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