There is great concern in the air today about totalitarianism. Few eras of peacefulness can have been so obsessed with their antithesis. In the US, discussion of President Trump – from the comedy shows to the opinion pages – fixates on his alleged authoritarian traits. The Right, meanwhile, sees the rise of far-Left ideologues such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York as a sign of things to come. In the UK, everyone sees it everywhere. And the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil will do little to keep people’s authoritarianism-detectors stilled.
Yet there is very little focus on the issue of how this political extremism grows: that it is not something that only happens to other people, but something that can theoretically grow in any of us; that it is worth trying to work out when or if your own side may have gone too far.
One of the best guides we have is the experience of people from history.
The dark games played by political extremists
The diplomat, politician and author Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) was a relatively minor figure in the 20th century. But a knack for knowing all the right people and being around them at crucial moments helped make him a superlative diarist. He was at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and was a friend of almost everyone of significance in literature as well as politics. One of the most interesting aspects of his life was his friendship with Oswald Mosley.
Mosley was first elected to Parliament, in 1918, as a Conservative – but he soon became an Independent, and by 1924 had joined the Labour Party. In 1929, he was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster with special responsibility for unemployment in the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald. It was the Great Depression, and between 1929 and 1931 the number of people out of work in the UK tripled to almost three million. MacDonald’s government was out of money and his socialists had no answers to the unemployment problem. Mosley had his own ideas of how to solve the unemployment problem and in 1930 resigned in frustration from the government. In 1931, he founded the New Party.
The New Party is a fascinating corner of British politics. At this point, Mosley was still a reputable figure. All three main parties were in contact with him, and his personal relations with politicians across the political divide remained remarkably close. It was during this period that Harold Nicolson was closest to Mosley.
It is clear from his diaries of the period that Nicolson was deeply impressed by Mosley and found him an energetic figure who had answers in a period otherwise dominated by enervation and dithering. Nicholas Mosley – Oswald’s son from his first marriage – once told me that he thought that the bisexual Nicolson may have been in love with his father. And it is certainly possible. So, when the New Party was formed Nicolson accepted Mosely’s invitation to join.
Nicolson tells his diary of his decision to join the New Party on February 4, 1931. Soon, he is meeting other prospective members, both with and without Mosley. By May he is telling his diary that Mosley is having difficulty restraining “the more active members of the party” who are begging him to do something dramatic. The party is at risk of attracting “eccentrics and people with a grievance”, in Nicolson’s view. But if they keep their heads, he counsels his friend, “we shall attract more serious people”. On May 30, Nicolson meets Harold Macmillan on a train:
He takes the usual young Tory view that his heart is entirely with the New Party but that he feels he can help us better by remaining in the Conservative ranks. He does not hesitate to admit that if we could obtain a certain number of seats in Parliament, most of the young Tories, all the Liberals and a large proportion of the youngish Labour people would come over to us. He anticipates the present Government being in power for another two years, followed by a Tory administration lasting some three years. He feels that five years from now, the New Party will have its great opportunity.1
But Mosley is not that patient. In June, another party member, Allan Young, invites Nicolson to join the party’s council and confesses to being uneasy about the possibility that the party might swerve to the Right “and be forced into Hitlerism”. Though there is talk of a potential revolution breaking out in Britain, Young “does not approve of the idea that we should meet communist force with fascist force”. Nevertheless, there are problems with the ‘Youth Movement’ of the party and questions start to arise about the ‘active forces’ that they seem to be becoming.
A month later, on July 17, 1931 Nicolson writes: “I think that [Mosley] at the bottom of his heart really wants a fascist movement, but Allan Young and John Strachey think only of the British working man. The whole thing is on extremely thin ice.”
But it isn’t until September that the crucial moment comes.
That month Mosley had a public meeting in Glasgow. One of his colleagues claimed 20,000 people in attendance. But opposition to Mosley had been growing and word came that communists planning to disrupt the meeting had razor blades on them. As Mosley went into the crowd, there were stones and punches thrown. A meeting of the party is called in the aftermath and Mosley says that “this forces us to be fascist and that we need no longer hesitate to create our trained and disciplined force”.
Nicolson writes in his diary on September 21: “We discuss their uniforms.” To his shame he adds, “I suggest grey flannel trousers and shirts.”
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This is – whether Nicolson could admit it to his diary or not – the central moment. Now that the New Party has not only a youth wing, but a youth wing to protect the leader, and dress in uniform, this is no longer a normal political party or movement.
The realisation doesn’t drop until the next month. On November 2 Nicolson writes that he realises that what he is involved with is not a party but “a rather sly little movement”:
I am loyal to [Mosley] since I have an affection for him. But I realise that his ideas are divergent from my own. He has no political judgement. He believes in fascism. I don’t. I loathe it. And I apprehend that the conflict between the intellectual and the physical side of the New Party may develop into something rather acute.
Which proves astute. Some months later, in April 1932, there is a New Party meeting in Westminster. Mosley says that he has been invited by both the Conservatives and the Labour Party to rejoin their ranks. But he wants to rejoin neither. Instead he wishes to bring together all fascist groups in the country and form “a central fascist body under his own leadership”. Nicolson tells his friend that this is a mistake and that he will never be able to rejoin any of the parties if he takes this road.
Mosely is certain. He is certain that British politics is going to enter a phase of “abnormality” and that he must not be associated with the old parties and the old regime. Besides, he says, more can be achieved as a leader of a fascist movement than as a backbench MP. So, Mosley decides to take the risk. In his diary entry on April 19, 1932 Nicolson describes what he told his friend:
I again say that I do not believe that this country will ever stand for violence, and that by resorting to violence he will make himself detested by a few and ridiculed by many. He says that may be so, but he is prepared to take the risk. I say that on such paths I cannot follow him.
And that is that. Within 14 months the whole trajectory has been achieved. Within those 14 months, everything about Mosley had become clear and everywhere he was heading – from the British Union of Fascists to alliance with Berlin and eventually Brixton Prison and obloquy – had become foreseeable.
It’s easy to criticise Nicolson – now as then. At best, he had put his career recklessly in the hands of a maverick. And we now know where fascism would lead. But he kept his political and moral antennae alert and eventually chose to abandon his friend rather than follow where he was leading.
Certainly, there were greater acts of heroism from that period. But perhaps, since small acts are the only ones most of us will ever be capable of, these ones are just as worthy of study and certainly worth remembering today.