Review of 'Black Shirt', Stephen Dorril, Viking £30
There have been two previous mainstream biographies of Britain's most infamous Nazi, Sir Oswald Mosley, and both have serious flaws. The first was Rules of the Game/Beyond The Pale by Mosley's son Nicholas - hardly a neutral affair. The other, called Oswald Mosley, by Robert Skidelsky was an outrageous defence of his turn to fascism and his anti-Semitism. We are on much safer ground with Stephen Dorril's new biography Black Shirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism.
Dorril's biography spares the reader no detail in painting a picture of the life and times of Mosley. This pernicious Nazi was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His family were titled landowners and very much part of Britain's ruling class establishment. His forefathers also played a part in smashing the Chartist movement. As Mosley admitted, his background made it easy for him to become a Tory MP and later a minister in Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government.
But it was the rise of Hitler and the massive economic crisis that swept much of the world in the 1930s that gave Mosley the confidence to break with Labour and create the hybrid New Party. In Britain industrial production fell by 15 percent between 1929 and 1932, and mass unemployment was rife. Dorril argues that, as the economic crisis began to bite, Mosley began to paint himself as the great messiah figure who could save the country arguing that "only the corporate state could defeat Communism".
On 1 October 1932 Mosley's political transformation reached its zenith when he launched the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Mosley's belief was that the economic crisis would drive people into the hands of his party. Within two years the BUF claimed a membership of 34,000.
Mosley's organisation was funded by several major capitalist corporations - Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), Courtaulds Textiles and the car manufacturer William Morris. The press baron Lord Rothermere was another one of Mosley's backers. His paper the Daily Mail ran a front page which said, "Hurrah for the Blackshirts."
Dorril uncovers the facts to prove that Mosley's organisation was funded by Hitler's Nazi regime. He delves into secret government files to find that Hitler wanted to use Mosley as a nominal leader if he had successfully occupied Britain.
Between 1932 and 1934 Mosley held monster rallies and spoke to audiences of up to 12,000 people. But after 1934 the BUF began to lose members, and more importantly, support among powerful backers. The BUF's failure was not due to any natural British aversion to extreme right wing ideas. It had everything to do with the slow recovery of the British economy and the left's counter-mobilisations against the BUF.
In 1934 the BUF concentrated on building a fascist movement in east London based on anti-Semitism. Dorril argues that this was at the core of Mosley's fascist project. I still believe the evidence suggests that it had more to do with the failure of Mosley to create a mass movement backed by powerful sections of the establishment. But where I agree with Dorril is that this fascist drive into the East End of London was thwarted by anti-fascist mobilisations which took place in Cable Street, Bermondsey and a host of other places.
If I had one more criticism of the book, it is that it is overlong. Wading through the mass of detail means you miss many of the key points Dorril is trying to present. Nevertheless Blackshirt is a useful tool for understanding the BUF.