Sir Oswald Mosley is perhaps Britain’s most notorious fascist. A member of the ruling classes by birth, Mosley lived a privileged life and used his charisma and oratory skills to court some of the biggest names in 1930s Europe and to develop a devoted following for his right-wing, authoritarian beliefs.
Here are 10 facts about one of Britain’s most divisive political figures in the 20th century. .
1. He had a privileged upbringing
Born the oldest son of a baronet in Mayfair, London, young Oswald’s childhood was predominantly spent at Apedale Hall before he was sent to finish his studies at Winchester College.
In 1914, Mosley started at Sandhurst, but was expelled 6 months later for his behaviour towards another student. His prospects were somewhat salvaged by the outbreak of war in August of the same year. He was commissioned into the Queen’s Lancers and fought on the Western Front.
An injury saw him discharged from active service after the Battle of Loos and Mosley spent the majority of the war worked in desk jobs at the Foreign Office and Ministry of Munitions.
2. He became one of Britain’s youngest MPs
Aged just 21 and with little experience or higher education, Mosley decided to go into politics, running as the Conservative candidate for Harrow in the 1918 general election. He was elected with little opposition and became the youngest member of the House of Commons to take his seat.
Immense self-confidence and eloquence quickly established him as a force to be reckoned with in the Commons. He opposed Conservative policy in Ireland and successfully ran as an Independent MP in 1922 and 1923.
3. He was notoriously unfaithful
Mosley married Lady Cynthia Curzon in 1920, a match which the more cynical believed was to help Mosley’s advancement within the Conservative Party. Their marriage was a major social event, with King George V and Queen Mary in attendance.
Mosley’s attentions quickly wandered, taking Cynthia’s two sisters Alexandra and Irene, as well as her stepmother Grace, Marchioness Curzon, as his mistresses at various points. Cynthia died from peritonitis in 1933 after becoming gradually more politically estranged from her fanatical husband.
4. He briefly served as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
In 1924, Mosley switched alliances once again, joining the Labour Party and campaigning hard against Neville Chamberlain in the seat of Birmingham Ladywood, losing by only 77 votes. He was eventually returned to parliament by a by-election in 1926 as the MP for Smethwick.
Following Labour’s win in 1929, Mosley was appointed as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by Ramsay MacDonald. His proposals to solve unemployment, which included nationalisation of main industries and the implementation of a public works programme, were viewed as too radical.
Disillusioned by Labour, who he viewed as too slow to adapt, Mosley founded his own political party: the New Party. Initially, it gained a good deal of support from cross-spectrum figures, but as the Depression took hold in 1931, it became increasingly radical and authoritarian, quickly losing the burgeoning support it had.
5. He founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932
Having visited Mussolini’s Italy, Mosley returned convinced of the merits of fascism and sure that it could advance Britain’s economic prospects. The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror were some of the organisation’s major supporters and they claimed to have a membership base of 50,000 supporters.
Mosley’s excellent oratory skills and charisma quickly developed him a keen following, and rallies he held often had extremely high turnouts. However, his bodyguards, also known as the Fascist Defence Force (but best known as Blackshirts) developed a reputation for violence and brutality, damaging the New Party’s reputation.
6. Violence escalated into the Battle of Cable Street
Anti-Semitism was rife amongst Mosley’s fascists, and he continued to spew anti-Semitism at every opportunity. As violence against Jewish communities worsened in Nazi Germany, support waned even further in Britain. Previous supporters of the BUF chose to distance themselves from Mosley.
In October 1936, Mosley and the BUF marched through predominantly Jewish areas of the East End. A petition to prevent them marching gained 100,000 signatures, but the government’s response was simply to provide a police escort for the marchers.
Anti-fascists laid roadblocks and tried to stop the march taking place, but to no avail. Violence clashes between marchers and protesters transformed the event into a major clash which came to be known as the Battle of Cable Street.
Concern over similar events occurring in the future was so great the the government published the Public Order Act (1936) which prevented the wearing of political uniforms and required organisers of large demonstrations to obtain police permission.
7. His second marriage had Adolf Hitler as guest of honour
In 1936, Mosley married his former mistress Diana Guinness (nee Mitford) in secret at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. Hitler himself was present for the ceremony and became a friend of the couple.
Diana was just as committed to fascism as her husband, if not more so, and the pair were interned for most of the duration of the Second World War, firstly at Holloway Prison and later under house arrest.
8. He remained unrepentant after the Second World War
Many historians consider Mosley to be one of the earliest champions of Holocaust denial. He claimed photos of the camps were doctored, that ovens were used to burn bodies from typhus outbreaks rather than those murdered in gas chambers and that Hitler knew nothing about the Holocaust.
Mosley’s beliefs in fascism did not waver following the war: he continued to advocate for apartheid (this time in Africa) and although he found some supporters in Britain, he largely relocated to Ireland as he found less disruption there.
9. He tried to run as an MP again – twice
Despite the post-war political climate, Mosley ran again as an MP not once, but twice, in 1959 for Kensington North and in 1966 for Shoreditch and Finsbury, in both cases receiving a minimal share of the vote.
His policies, which included the prohibition of mixed race marriages and the forced repatriation of Caribbean immigrants, met with little enthusiasm from his potential constituents. After his second defeat, he retired to France to write his autobiography, ‘My Life’.
10. He died in France in 1980
The Mosleys had long kept houses in Ireland, England and Paris. After years of ill-health, Mosley spent his final years suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He died at home in Orsay, just outside of Paris in 1980.
Despite his reputation, the family reported they received no abusive messages, only words of condolence on Mosley’s death.