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Nicholas Mosley (right) with Raymond Carr, photographed for Standpoint

In June, the British National Party won two seats in the European Parliament. The roots of fascism in Britain go back to the 1930s and the founding of the British Union of Fascists by Sir Oswald Mosley, a charismatic politician and brilliant orator. Mosley had been a minister in the Labour government and briefly threatened to become the British counterpart of Hitler and Mussolini. In the week that the BNP made its biggest electoral breakthrough, Standpoint brought together two men who have been friends for more than 60 years and had an intimate knowledge of Mosley: his son, Nicholas Mosley, 86, the prizewinning novelist and biographer of his father, and the distinguished academic Sir Raymond Carr, 90, formerly Warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, and a leading historian of modern Spain.  

Daniel Johnson: With the rise of the BNP, people are very interested in the phenomenon of fascism in Britain. There are many misconceptions about your father, Nick, and new generations need to be taught these things all over again. Raymond, how did you first come across Oswald Mosley?

Raymond Carr: As a friend of yours, Nicky, he invited me to lunch, I think in 1944. It was an uncomfortable social occasion because Connolly disliked me and I disliked him.

DJ: One thing that emerges from your books, Nick, is that you don't think Oswald Mosley was fundamentally serious as a politician. What do you think about that, Raymond? Could he have been a threat?

RC: Of course he could not have been a threat, although the Left in general and the communists in particular insisted that he was. He would never have come to power in a general election. Any more drastic seizure of power was out of the question. London in the 1930s was not the St Petersburg of 1917 and Mosley was no Lenin. I think in Luton today the BNP and Muslim extremists exploit the racial tensions of the town. They are a problem for the local police but do not threaten to overthrow the government. Surely the same might be said of Mosley's fascists in London's East End. You remember Mosley was a junior minister in Ramsay MacDonald's government: the thing starts off when he submits the Mosley Memorandum, which sets out his policy, roughly, to deal with unemployment by a Keynesian policy. He was quite close to Keynes and he submitted this memorandum, like a bloody fool — he was a very bad politician, your father — not to the Minister for Labour, J. H. Thomas, but directly to MacDonald, the Prime Minister, over Thomas's head. MacDonald was a genuine friend of your father, they went on trips together. Thomas was furious, angry and turned to drink, actually, over the whole problem. The memorandum was submitted to the Cabinet, which rejected it, and so did the parliamentary Labour Party. I think Mosley handled the whole thing very stupidly. Mosley demanded it be submitted to the party conference, and to astonishment, and this is where Mosley made his great mistake, he nearly won, and he then set up the New Party. Can you remember any of the New Party members?

Nicholas Mosley: John Strachey was the most important one.

RC: There were 24 members who contested seats. Nearly all of them lost their deposit, and Mosley lost his seat. So he was flung out of the parliamentary way of pushing policies, and then he moved over to not being a party politician, but the leader of a movement, which was the British Union of Fascists. And that was his fatal mistake, because quite clearly, if he'd stuck to his parliamentary career, he would have been a powerful member of the Labour Party. 

DJ: When you talked to him later on, do you think he recognised that this was a great mistake, or did he stubbornly insist that he'd done the right thing?

RC: He couldn't say that he'd done the right thing, of course he kept on talking all the time about victory but the universal reaction of the political elite was to say Mosley has flung away the prospect of becoming a great figure in Labour, possibly even a future Prime Minister. Even Macmillan sympathised with Mosley's New Party. Once Mosley sought to bring fascism to England he was doomed. Great talents and great strengths, Macmillan considered, were thrown away. Mosley later recognised this. He said to your younger brother [Max], Nicky, a very interesting thing: "I could have been a powerful politician but I flung it all away." 

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