In the world of Trump and Brexit is a mood music Mosley would have warmed to
PUBLISHED: 16:17 16 February 2017 | UPDATED: 16:17 16 February 2017
Elements of populist and post-truth politics that stir uncomfortable memories of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley
We should be wary of comparisons between extremists of the 1930s and politicians of today. But there are elements of populist and post-truth politics that stir uncomfortable memories of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, says FrancisiBeckett, whose father was Mosley’s director of publications
It seems to be a candid admission that lays bare the post-truth era: “I’m done with those who think. Henceforth I will go with those who feel.”
But these words were not uttered by Donald Trump, nor by any of his strategists, nor any of those at the more opportunistic wing of the Leave campaign.
No, this was Oswald Mosley, Britain’s fascist leader, as he abandoned democratic politics at the beginning of the 1930s. A closer look at the fascist who failed reveals some fascinating echoes through the decades, not least a contempt for knowledge and evidence-based decision-making often seen now.
For the avoidance of all doubt, none of this is to say that Trump, or any of the more hyperactive Brexiteer leaders, are fascists. They are not. But there is a mood music in the world which Mosley would have warmed to.
If Mosley had not been a massively wealthy man, few people would remember him. He was a Conservative MP from 1918 to 1924 and a Labour MP from 1926 to 1931, and a member of the 1929-31 Labour government. After falling out acrimoniously with the Labour Party, he used his own wealth to found the New Party in 1931, and this morphed into the British Union of Fascists the next year.
He was the Leader (it always had an upper case L in those circles) because he, personally, was the money. History offers few such naked and direct relationships between money and leadership. Until the emergence of Donald Trump, perhaps.
Mosley’s anti-Semitism arose from a need to find a scapegoat for the people’s miseries. He told an East End audience in 1937: “No more of admitting foreigners into this country to take British jobs, and those who are already here can go back to where they belong.”
Both Trump’s success and that of Brexit were aided by the invention of groups, at whose door the hardships and frustrations of the lives of the poor can be laid: these have included, variously, Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans, Poles, black Africans, the ‘liberal elite’ and ‘Brussels bureaucrats’.
Mosley principally targeted Jews, which is much harder to do now than it was in Mosley’s day. All the same, Minnesota Senator Al Franken pointed out that a Trump campaign advertisement claiming a plot to take over the world by international financiers included shots of three people – all Jews: billionaire George Soros, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellin, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
Franken told CNN: “I thought that this was something of a German shepherd whistle, a dog whistle, to a certain group in the United States... I’m Jewish, so maybe I’m sensitive to it, but it clearly had a sort of Elders of Zion feel to it.” The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was a fabricated book which many of Mosley’s followers claimed was a blueprint for Jewish world domination.
Franken, probably without knowing it, is describing the method adopted by British fascists when attacking Jews openly became unacceptable. They started using code words, understood by their supporters: ‘cosmopolitans’, ‘alien finance’, that sort of thing.
Mosley called himself a revolutionary, come to rescue the honest British working man from the political establishment, the “old men” as he called them (shades of the ‘Washington/Westminster elite’), and he owed what success he had in the early 1930s to the failure of governments of both political parties to narrow the gap between great riches and great poverty, and the feeling that the political establishment had betrayed the people.
That failure is much greater and more obvious now even than it was in 1931, and we have seen politicians in Britain and America tap into it.
But the revolution Mosley had in mind would not have helped the working man much. It included ending the end of the rule of law and the separation of powers. Mosley’s programme would have destroyed the power of Parliament to rein in the executive, and in 1936 he hoped to come to power by persuading the embattled king to throw out the elected Prime Minister and place him in Downing Street instead.
Such disregard for constitutional niceties has echoes in Trump’s refusal to give an assurance he would accept the US election result if it went against him. And when Britain’s appeal court ruled that the triggering of Article 50 required parliamentary approval, the first instinct of many Brexiteers, including, apparently, Nigel Farage, was to plan a 100,0000-strong march on the courts. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, branded the judges ‘Enemies of the People’ (a phrase, oddly, coined by Stalin to describe Trotskyists.)
Many politicians tell lies, or at least half truths, but there was a special shamelessness about the way Mosley did it. Take for example his famous press statement in 1937 when his candidates were soundly beaten. He said he had scored a higher percentage that Hitler scored in his first election. But Hitler’s first election was over the whole country; Mosley’s was in three carefully selected east London boroughs.
And politicians now seem to be deploying the same audacity. There’s an expectation – so far justified – that they will get away with it if they just brazen it out.
Take the slogan “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week” in front of which Boris Johnson was so happy to pose for the cameras. There is, now, little of the defensiveness and embarrassment that politicians might once have felt about being linked to such an empty, false promise. When pressed on it, Johnson says he only promised to “take back control and spend it on our priorities”.
With ordinary politicians, you can ask for a programme; with Mosley – and today’s populists – you are asked to put your faith in the leader, and sub-contract your thinking to him.
Such vagueness means an addiction to the sort of windy, meaningless rhetoric, that also characterises post-truth politics. Here’s Mosley in 1938, speaking to his followers: “Together in Britain we have lit a flame that the ages shall not extinguish. Guard that sacred flame, my brother Blackshirts, until it illuminates Britain and lights again the paths of mankind.”
Trump has pledged to make America great again. Mosley, like Brexiteer populists, said he would make Britain great again. How this was to be achieved was not your concern. They wrapped themselves in their nation’s flag and it helped hide their nakedness.
Wrapping himself in his nation’s flag, incidentally, did not stop Mosley from secretly accepting about £40,000 a year – a huge sum in those days – from Mussolini. When Mussolini stopped funding him, he tried unsuccessfully to get the money from Hitler instead. Trump may not have solicited his foreign assistance – from Russian hackers – but nor does he seem that disconcerted by it.
Lacking clear ideology, populism is addicted to charismatic personalities, as fascism was. A grovelling biography of Sir Oswald by his lieutenant AK Chesterton ended: “They will not relinquish the struggle until the heights of fascist power be won; until Britain’s great revolutionary leader, spring from one thousand years contact with British soil, achieves power to act for and with the British people, in the name of their ancient sanity and splendour, that there may be built up in their peerless land a corporate life which shall ensure that her million hero-sons did not die to make a mock for history. Their battle-shouts sound above the discords and semi-tones of a fading age: hail Mosley, patriot, revolutionary, and leader of men.”
Such a model of leadership brooks no criticism. Mosley would hand out vitriolic abuse, but became hysterically angry at the smallest criticism of himself, and surrounded himself with true believers who thought their Leader above questioning. Trump’s tweets reveal what an extraordinarily thin skin he has. And, like Mosley, he would not tolerate any dissent at his rallies. Mosley’s way with hecklers was to turn the lights on them and watch with grim approval, while his supporters beat them up and threw them out, occasionally remarking that they should be treated with “old-fashioned fascist courtesy”.
Trump told supporters at one rally that is they happened to see protestors about to throw a tomato at him to ‘knock the crap out of them’, adding that he would pay any resulting legal fees.
Professor Colin Holmes, an expert in British fascism, says Mosley had a condition called narcissistic personality disorder, whose symptoms are self-importance, arrogance, haughtiness, need for excessive admiration, sense of entitlement. The academic believes Trump shows the same symptoms.
Despite all this, Mosley apparently had great personal charm. He was also a serial womaniser, apparently unable to take women seriously except as sex objects. Regardless of the veracity, or otherwise, of the latest allegations against Trump, his use of misogynistic language (or “locker room banter”, as he would describe it) is already known.
Of course, as well as some parallels, there is much that marks these two men apart. The greatest difference of all is that only one achieved power.
Francis Beckett’s latest book is Fascist in the Family (Routledge, 2016.) about his father, John Beckett, a Labour MP who joined the British Union of Fascists in 1934, became its Director of Publications, and was interned during the Second World War