Sir Oswald Mosley, A Story

(Sir Oswald Mosley, a member of the British Labor Government in the 1920s and rising political leader of the left, was an early critic of globalization, urging instead a self-sufficient “home market” economy. His home market program was never implemented, and he lost all political influence when he later allied with fascist movements. But he was one of the first to see certain trade-offs of globalization, especially for the working classes.).

“Is Globalization Dead?”, Asks a panel at the recent Davos World Economic Forum. Even at Davos, globalization is under attack. Reshoring jobs, rebuilding a production capability, nurturing a nation-based economy: these are themes of 2022.

We’ve been here before, of course. At various times over the past century, as globalization has advanced it has been met by nation-based counter-movements. And as we consider globalization, and its impacts on jobs and wages in 2022, post-Davos and post G-7 Summit, it is worth saying a word about one of the early and most unusual of these counter-movements: the “home economy ”Movement headed by Sir Oswald Mosley.

Though Mosley is largely forgotten today, he had a major place in British politics from the 1920s through the 1930s. Here we can only touch on his career and ideas, but more thorough discussion can be found in Brett Rudin’s monograph on Mosley, Robert Skidelsky’s 1975 biography, and Mosley’s autobiography, My Life.

Mosley was elected to Parliament in 1918, at age 21, a veteran of World War I and idealist, who saw politics as a way to “conceive a nobler world in memory of those who died.” Within a short time, he was singled out for his oratorical abilities (Beatrice Webb described Mosley as the leading orator in the House of Commons) and written about as a future prime minister. He rose rapidly and in 1929 became a minister in Ramsey MacDonald’s Labor Government.

Beginning in 1918 and continuing throughout the 1920s, Mosley set as his main challenge how to achieve High Wages and Full Production for the working classes. At the time British economic thought was dominated by free trade ideas: the British economy was to be rebuilt after World War I through the industrial export economy that had fueled it prior to the War. But over a period of time, Mosley began to question whether these goals could be achieved through a global economic system. Other emerging economies were beginning to develop industrial products at lower costs to compete against British goods.

In 1926, when Mosley visited the United States, he was most impressed by his visit to Ford MotorF
Works, and the middle class / family sustaining wages that Ford paid to his workers, enabling the workers to buy the Ford vehicles they produced. American industry was modernizing and investing with a vitality that left British industry behind. In Mosley’s view, Britain needed a new model of industrial cooperation: a corporatist model of economic direction by big government, big companies, and major labor unions, with the government protecting industries and agriculture from low cost foreign products.

The Stock Market crash of 1929 spurred Mosely into action. As unemployment climbed sharply, in January 1930, Mosely delivered what became known as the Mosley Memorandum. For Mosley it was not enough that unemployed workers be given expanded government benefits, as others on the left were advocating. Workers needed to have roles as producers, and they needed to be paid decently. The Mosley Memorandum set out actions around two key policies.

The first was a government sponsored jobs program. The unemployed would be put to work in slum clearance, road building and other public works projects.

The second was a series of import control and related measures to build the home market as a self-sustaining market. In his monograph on Mosley, Rubin details Mosley’s home market program. It is centered on Mosley’s aim to challenge the 50 year old system of free trade which exposes industry in the home market to the chaos of world conditions, such as price fluctuation, dumping and the competition of sweated labor, which results in the lowering of wages and industrial decay. ”

In a 1930 speech in the House of Commons, cited at length by Rubin, Mosley used the example of the British cotton trade, which had been selling 5.6 billion square yards of cotton a year to India. Now India was producing 1 billion square yards of cotton annually on its own, and other nations were increasing their industrial production of cotton. Britain needed to wake up and see that “intensified competition all over the world is making more and more illusory the belief that we can build up in the world that unique position which we occupied many years ago.” The country needed to “get away from the belief that the only criterion of British prosperity is how many goods we can send abroad for foreigners to consume.”

When the Labor Government rebuffed his policies, Mosley resigned in May 1930 and with John Strachey, Allen Young, his wife Cynthia Mosley and a few others, formed “The New Party”. They sought to appeal not just to the left, but across party lines, uniting Labor, Conservative, and Liberal party members in an action-oriented agenda. But the politics of an independent unity party, then as now, proved impossible to overcome. The Party failed miserably in the October 1931 elections (winning less than one percent of the vote), and soon disbanded.

Mosley, like others across the political spectrum in Britain, was impressed by the state driven, modern economies that appeared to be emerging in Italy and Germany. He visited Italy in 1932, and became convinced that its form of corporate state, with strong centralized state leadership, was needed to achieve his economic goals of high wages and employment. In October 1932, he founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF).

For the next two years, the BUF operated as a political party, with the goal of winning popular support. Mosley traveled widely throughout Britain, speaking at over two hundred rallies, He sought to win over establishment politicians, press and voters to his economic nationalism, and to assure them of the peaceful political change he sought.

But BUF began to attract members with agendas more closely aligned with the fascist movements in other countries: glorification of violence, repression of dissent, a heated anti-Semitism. Mosely failed to combat these views, and increasingly expressed support for them.

The violence at the Olympia Hall rally in 1934, when Blackshirt BUF members battled Communist demonstrators, began to turn the British public against Mosley and the BUF. This shift in public views accelerated with other violence at BUF rallies, including the pitched battle at Cable Street in London in October 1936.

By the late 1930s, the BUF was a spent force, and Mosley a pariah in most political quarters. He continued to promote his home market strategies, but his publications and speeches attracted little attention. Due to his associations with the German and Italian governments, he was interned from May 1940 through November 1943.

After the War, he sought to return to political life, but found little support, including when he stood for Parliament on separate occasions. In his last political race in 1966, to represent a district in London, he received 4.6% of the vote. He was an early supporter of a strong centralized European government. He saw it as an opportunity for his corporate state: economic direction by “experts”, concentration of decision-making, a hedge against democracy — much as the European Union has become. He died in 1980.

What to make of all this?

Much has been written of Mosley, a good deal centered on the theme of “lost promise”. It is said that Mosley would have been prime minister if only he had not been impatient in 1931 and resigned from the Labor Government; if only he had waited his turn; if only he had not succumbed to the attractions of fascism. “Mosley created the British Union of Fascists as a vehicle for his economic vision of Britain as a Keynesian economic state”, writes Rubin. “After a period of initial popularity, his movement eventually became a haven for lunatic anti-Semites and fringe members of society. As Mosley became lost within the monster he created, frequent public violence at his group’s rallies made him a national pariah. ”

All true to an extent. Yet, the early Mosley of the left and the Mosley of BUF have much in common, the core weaknesses in their policies the same. Both believed in government by “experts” and administrators, and replacing the pluralism of the market and entrepreneurial economy with a corporatist directorate. Both held a distrust of democracy, despite their professed populism. These beliefs continue to be present in globalization debates — though today they are held mainly by the proponents of globalization, rather than its critics.

Further, there was much that Mosley got wrong in his understanding of global economics. He failed to fully appreciate the ways that globalization and trade generated jobs in Britain. He failed to see how other nations would respond to Britain’s import controls with their own. He failed to recognize the difficulties of a self-contained economy with Britain’s limited natural resources.

But Mosley had the foresight to see the trade-offs in globalization, that his critics failed to see, and that time would reveal. Cheap goods and the welfare state pushed by the left, were not enough. Agriculture and manufacturing had social values, beyond the goods produced. Abandon manufacturing and agriculture to other nations, Mosley predicted, and local communities, especially the industrial communities, would be devastated — as came to pass.

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Earlier this month, Bloomberg News reported that the reshoring of jobs in the United States was proceeding at a greater pace than prior to the pandemic. Construction of manufacturing facilities had increased 116% in the past year. Bloomberg’s monitoring of earnings calls and conference presentations found references to reshoring (or onshoring or nearshoring) were up 1,000% over the year. The driver is economics, not politics. Supply-chain disruptions, COVID-lockdowns in China, war in Ukraine and other geopolitical conflicts, are leading to a reconsideration of offshoring.

Economics will continue to be the main driver of any reshoring. But in the next year new policy initiatives of reshoring and home production — of a deeper and more thoughtful economic nationalism — also hopefully will emerge. These initiatives will be ones rooted in global economics, but centered on the nation-state. They will start not with the citizen as consumer or recipient of government benefits, but as producer.

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In literature and popular culture of the past few decades, Mosley is portrayed mainly as a sinister and one-dimensional character, focused on his time with BUF. In the movie version of The Remains of the Day, Mosley appears as Sir Geoffrey Wren, who visits Lord Darlington in the 1930s, to push a treaty with Germany. In the novel itself Oswald is mentioned directly in relation to Lord Darlington’s decision to fire two Jewish housemaids. In the popular Peaky Blindersnow streaming on NetflixNFLX
a leader of the criminal gang in Birmingham, Tom Shelby, meets Mosley and is repulsed by Mosley’s fascist sympathies — though in real life, at the time, 1929, Mosley was still a leader of the left, and some years before the BUF.

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