The BBC’s Peaky Blinders series five introduces us to a brand-new character and real-life historical figure: Oswald Mosley MP, played by Sam Claflin.
The show’s writer and creator Steven Knight has called Mosley’s language “chilling” as he taps in to “the rise of nationalism, populism, fascism, racism – a huge sweep across the world.”
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Here’s what you need to know about the real Oswald Mosley…
Who was Oswald Mosley?
Oswald Mosley was a British politician who rose to prominence in the 1920s as an MP. In the 1930s he founded and led the British Union of Fascists.
Did Oswald Mosley fight in the First World War?
Born in London’s Mayfair in 1869 into a wealthy family, young Oswald was raised mainly by his mother and grandparents after his parents’ separation. Mosley attended prep school and Winchester College, and then joined the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst as a cadet. It was not long before war broke out.
In 1914 he was commissioned into the cavalry unit the 16th The Queen’s Lancers. But he was keen to see action, and – realising that horseback fighting would not be central to this war – he soon volunteered to join the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps and gain a pilot’s licence.
In 1915, he was showing off in front of his mother at Shoreham Airport when he crashed his plane and badly broke his ankle. Despite that injury, Lieutenant Mosley was deployed to the trenches on the Western Front with his cavalry regiment – but his leg failed to heal, and the decision was made to send him home.
Mosley spent the rest of the war behind a desk in the Ministry of Munitions and the Foreign Office. Still, his experience of war had left him disenchanted (much like the fictional Tommy Shelby).
Mosley later wrote of watching people celebrate Armistice Day: “Smooth, smug people, who had never fought or suffered, seemed to the eyes of youth – at that moment age-old with sadness, weariness and bitterness – to be eating, drinking, laughing on the graves of our companions. I stood aside from the delirious throng; silent and alone, ravaged by memory. Driving purpose had begun; there must be no more war. I dedicated myself to politics.”
Which political party did Oswald Mosley MP belong to?
Mosley was just 21 years old when he was elected as MP for Harrow in the 1918 general election.
In Parliament he spoke of the need to avoid any future war, and gained a reputation as an orator and political player with extreme self-confidence.
Although initially elected as a Conservative MP, he soon clashed with the Party over Irish policy and quit to become an Independent MP, holding his seat through two more general elections.
As his political views developed, Mosley then joined the Labour Party and decided to contest Neville Chamberlain’s seat in Birmingham – only to be defeated in the 1924 election.
Mosley spent the next two years working with the Independent Labour Party to develop the Birmingham Proposals, attracting support by attacking the government for forcing down workers’ wages.
In 1926 he managed to slip back into Parliament, winning a by-election in Smethwick. He was now a Labour MP, and had also officially become “Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley of Ancoats, Sixth Baronet” after inheriting the family title.
Oswald Mosley was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the new Labour government in 1929, and some within the party even considered him a potential Prime Minister.
This is the point at which Peaky Blinders series five begins…
By 1931, Mosley had come to disagree with government policy, resigning from the Labour Party. Instead he founded the New Party just in time for the 1931 general election – in which he lost his seat.
The New Party became the British Union of Fascists in 1932, and Mosley became its leader.
The rise of the British Union of Fascists
After his defeat in the 1931 election, Oswald Mosley was – yet again – no longer an MP. However, by this point he was a public figure, and the leader of his own political party: the British Union of Fascists (BUF).
With its distinctive “flash and circle” flag and its charismatic leader, the BUF quickly built up a sizeable following as fascist ideas spread across Europe. Its official newspaper was called The Blackshirt, like Benito Mussolini’s militia in fascist Italy, and its members wore black uniforms.
Despite Mosley’s earlier socialist views, the BUF was virulently anti-communist. It was protectionist (i.e. wanted to restrict imports from outside the British Empire) and isolationist, and proposed replacing parliamentary democracy with executives elected by specific industries and professional interest groups – a system modelled partly on the Italian fascism of Mussolini, whose ideas and leadership Mosley aped.
One notable early supporter of the BUF was Lord Rothermere, a newspaper magnate and admirer of Nazi Germany whose Associated Newspapers Ltd owned the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. In 1933, the Daily Mail ran with the notorious headline: “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” praising the British fascist movement.
However, this was not to last. In 1934, as 12,000 supporters attended the Olympia Rally, the BUF’s paramilitary wing (known as the Fascist Defence Force) violently attacked and beat up anti-fascist protesters. The Daily Mail withdrew support and Lord Rothermere withdrew funding.
From 1934, the British Union of Fascists increasingly embraced antisemitism and hatred of Jews. Membership dropped, but a hard core of supporters remained. At rallies and marches they gave the Hitler salute.
And then, in 1936, came the famous Battle of Cable Street – when anti-fascists in London’s East End prevented the BUF from marching through their neighbourhood. Flyers asked counter-protesters to turn up and “answer Mosley’s provocation” and “demonstrate against fascism in Spain and Britain – the butcher General Franco and the Jew baiter Mosley,” and on a Sunday in October various demonstrators clashed with the BUF and with the Metropolitan Police who had been sent to protect the fascists’ march.
The BUF never won any parliamentary seats, and only elected a handful of local councillors. However, as Nazism grew in Germany, the BUF once again began to pick up supporters – thanks to its “peace” campaign to prevent a second World War by backing the Nazis. Membership grew and Mosley’s fascist rallies became increasingly popular.
Who were Oswald Mosley’s wives Lady Cynthia and Diana Mitford?
Oswald Mosley married his first wife in 1920. Lady Cynthia Curzon was the daughter of the famous Viceroy of India (and later Foreign Secretary), and their wedding was a society event, with guests including King George V and Queen Mary.
However, as Cynthia and Oswald’s eldest son Nicholas Mosley later wrote in his biography, during the following years Oswald Mosley had numerous affairs – sleeping with his wife’s youngest sister and with her stepmother and with other women.
Lady Cynthia initially shared her husband’s politics, and in 1929 she was elected as a Labour MP, joining Mosley at Westminster (even as they were mocked in the press for living a luxury lifestyle while campaigning for socialism). Like Mosley, she became frustrated with her party’s response to high levels of unemployment, and when her husband formed the New Party in 1931 she also joined. However, she increasingly rejected Mosley’s political views and did not stand for election again.
In 1933, Cynthia died of peritonitis at the age of 34, and so Mosley married his mistress Diana Guinness (née Mitford). They secretly tied the knot in Germany in 1936, at the home of Nazi Propaganda leader Joseph Goebbels, with Adolf Hitler as a special guest, and only went public with the marriage in 1938 on the birth of their first child.
Mosley’s new wife was one of the six famous Mitford sisters. These high-profile siblings, who became celebrities of their time, were well-known for their wildly different political views – ranging between communism and fascism.
Diana Mitford and her sister Unity were especially close to Hitler, while Jessica was a communist (running off to fight fascists in the Spanish Civil War) and Nancy a self-proclaimed socialist.
What happened during World War Two?
In 1940, the British Union of Fascists was banned by the government and Mosley was interned for much of the Second World War in Holloway Prison, alongside his wife and hundreds of other British fascists.
By the time he was released, Mosley’s political movement was dead. He had been politically disgraced by his association with fascism, Mussolini and Hitler, and would never again attract such support.
What happened after the Second World War?
After the war, Oswald Mosley formed the Union Movement, calling for a single nation-state to cover the whole continent of Europe. While many turned out at his rallies, he was also met with strong opposition and distrust.
In 1951 he left the UK to live abroad – but that was not the last of it. Mosley tried to make a comeback in 1959, standing in the general election on a virulently anti-immigration platform. He called for forced repatriation of Caribbean immigrants, and a ban on mixed-race marriages.
He was back in 1966, again making a bid for Parliament – but with no success. Instead he returned to France, where he worked on his autobiography and died in 1980.
Who is Oswald Mosley’s son Max Mosley?
Oswald Mosley had five children: three with Lady Cynthia, and two with his second wife Diana Mitford.
His youngest child, Max Mosley, was born in 1940 and will be a familiar name to many. He is the former president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body for Formula One and other international motorsports.
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