Oswald Mosley: From Radical Right to Fascist Ideologue

Sir Oswald Mosley’s adoption of fascism was greatly inspired by his ‘Italian adventure’ of 1932. In the early months of that year, Mosley travelled to Italy and was captivated by what he experienced there: purportedly successful reclamation schemes, which employed hundreds of thousands of men; and meetings with prominent Fascist officials, including Mussolini, who Mosley described as ‘charming and asked a lot of very good questions’.[1] He returned to British shores with a head full of ‘Mussolinian ideas’ and ‘waxed lyrical’ about the achievements of Italian Fascism to the British press in the lead-up his formation of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in October 1932.[2] Although Mosley’s trip to Italy had a profound and immediate impact on his decision to create his own fascist party, the longer-term issue of unemployment is central to understanding how Britain’s most significant and influential radical right thinker ultimately turned to fascism.

Importantly, radical economic policies had been part of Mosley’s remedy for combatting unemployment in his home country years before holding high office for the Labour government. Even before his first General Election contest, immediately following the end of the First World War, Mosley described in his election manifesto how a high standard of living for the working classes needed to be ensured by introducing a minimum wage and reducing work hours. This, he claimed, was proven to increase production, and therefore create jobs.[3] Several years later, in a publication entitled ‘Birmingham Proposals’, Mosley presented the case for a more demand-side approach to economics, in stark contrast to both classical economic liberalism and orthodox socialism – both of which held that ‘contemporary unemployment was a consequence  of a maldistribution of rewards emanating from Britain’s existing, though static, productive base.’ Instead, Mosley argued for an expansion in production, whereby demand could be increased through a number of measures, including distributing consumer credits to the unemployed, which, in turn, would stimulate the jobs market and therefore alleviate the ‘curse’ of unemployment.[4]

In 1929, Labour was elected in large measure due to its manifesto promise to ‘conquer unemployment’. As part of Ramsey MacDonald’s government, Mosley got his chance to shape government unemployment policy when he was tasked with solving the growing joblessness in Britain at the time. The Great Depression had hit the country hard, with unemployment reaching an all-time high of 3.5 million (up to 70 percent in some regions).[5] Mosley’s principle idea was an ambitious national road building scheme, which would cost the government two million pounds and employ some 600,000 workers. He argued that the scheme would ‘siphon off the surplus unemployed from the job market’.[6] Labour rejected his proposals, with one Labour cabinet minister branding them ‘something approaching insanity’, while another described him as an ‘economic ignoramus’. A furious Mosley resigned from the government, continuing his fight from the backbenches. [7]

In response to the snub, an incensed Mosley proposed even further state intervention and, crucially, an overhaul of the parliamentary system. In 1930, he called for ‘decisive policy and action – An immediate policy is required, more drastic and determined than any policy yet formulated by any government in the House of Commons…we want action now’.[8] This led to accusations of a move towards fascism, even if he had not yet moved from what we might now recognise as a radical right position. By the early 1930s, newspapers had begun to draw parallels with Mosley and Hitler and Mussolini. For example, The Daily Worker claimed that ‘Mosley-Mussolini [would give] Parliament the sack [and] abolish unemployment benefit’.[9] The Manchester Guardian claimed that ‘in Sir Oswald Mosley British Labour may yet find its Hitler. The parallel is not so absurd as it sounds, for…resemblance might be found between the crude aspirations of the “Nazis” and the new Socialist Imperialism to its own Imperative needs, to which Sir Oswald Mosley is drifting’.[10] Even those close to him observed that he ‘professes a policy which he thinks would enable him to become an English Mussolini’.[11] A short time later, Mosley resigned from the Labour Party to create his short-lived New Party, a radical right halfway house on his path towards fascism.

There can be no doubt that the issue of unemployment played a significant role in Mosley’s conversion to fascism. He was continually frustrated by the perceived inaction of successive governments to tackle the problem; most notably, by the refusal by his party to implement his own radical proposals to create more British jobs. This rejection led him to renounce the British parliamentary system in favour of a more radical right stance, consisting of economic councils and investment boards. Undoubtedly, Mosley’s Italian excursion, where he was astounded at how the Fascist state appeared to have resolved the question of unemployment, pushed him over the political edge toward fascist ideology. Throughout his leadership of the BUF (and beyond), Mosley advocated the Corporatist model as the means to solve the problem of unemployment and poverty. These proposals have continued to influence later adherents to fascism, including contemporary groups and individuals in Britain.[12]

Robert May is a Fellow with CARR, and Doctoral Candidate of Radical Right Extremism at Sheffield Hallam University. See his profile at:

© Robert May. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] Letter to [wife] Cimmie from Rome, 8 January 1932, in N. Mosley, Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale: Memoirs of Sir Oswald Mosley and Family; Revised Edition (London,1998), pp.209-210.

[2] Entries 15 March, 5 and 19 April 1932, in Harold Nicolson, The Harold Nicolson Diaries and Letters 1907-1963 (London, 2004), p.112-115; and Daily Mail, 1 February 1932.

[3] O. Mosley, ‘A Soldier M.P’ (1918), in Michael Quill (eds.), Revolution by Reason and Other Essays by Oswald Mosley (New York, 1997).

[4] T.Linehan, British Fascism, (Manchester, 2000), p.176.

[5] For (more) statistics and an overview of the Depression in Britain, see H. Richardson, ‘The Economic Depression in Britain’, Journal of Contemporary History 4:4 (1970), pp.3-19; and K. Laybourn, Modern Britain Since 1906: a Reader (London, 1999), p.105.

[6] O. Mosley, ‘Unemployment Policy’, 23 January 1930.

[7] C. Melville, The Truth about the New Party, and Much Else Besides (London, 1931), p.29; J.R. Clunes, Memoirs (London 1937), p.185.

[8] Daily Worker, 11 December 1930, p.3.

[9] Daily Worker, 23 December 1930, p.1.

[10] Manchester Guardian, 8 October 1930, p.5.

[11] S. Ball (eds.), Parliament and Politics in the Age of Baldwin and MacDonald: The Headlam Diaries, 1923–35 (Cambridge, 1992), 25–28 September 1930.

[12] For example, Gary Raikes, who is leader of a Mosley tribute party called the New British Union.

 

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