Different careers, similar lessons: Oswald, Enoch and David - Britain d emands more than charisma

Click to follow
The Independent Online
In March 1925, a crack unit of the British Fascists - a forerunner to the British Union of Fascists - kidnapped the Communist leader, Harry Pollitt. On the continent Mussolini was consolidating his hold on power, and Hitler was being released from prison where he had completed Mein Kampf. So Mr Pollitt might have expected the worst - to share the recent violent fate of the Italian socialist, Matteotti. Instead, according to the historian Roger Eatwell, he was released by the embarrassed fascists, who told the judge at their subsequent trial that he had accepted pounds 5 by way of compensation for his inconvenience. Britain was, somehow, different.

This difference really struck home this week, when a coincidence of events led me to think about charismatic political leaders in this country. First, last Sunday, Enoch Powell died. Immediately tributes in many newspapers testified to the unique qualities of an exceptional man.

Then, today, the New Statesman publishes an interview with Dr David Owen, in which he says that he might return to active politics because, "it is hard to stand aside on such an issue as the single currency, when I believe that what is at stake is the whole history of this country". Excited Eurosceptics (often the same people as those posthumously praising old Enoch) have instantly begun to talk abut Owen leading the anti- Euro crusade.

And finally, last night saw the first part of Laurence Marks' and Maurice Gran's enjoyable TV bio-drama of Sir Oswald Mosley ("Leader, Fascist, Adulterer" as the blurb put it). So in one week three great lost leaders made demands once more upon our attention. All three were once held in the kind of regard by some of their contemporaries that most politicians never experience. All three were said to possess rare intellectual gifts, to be men of destiny, to be prophets standing above party and beyond compromise, to be in direct contact with the soul of the nation. And, in Powell's words, to be odd men out.

Mosley was a stirring orator and possessed - as the Marks and Gran films make clear - a combination of brilliance and the attention span of a gnat. He was essentially a moderniser, arguing through the inter-war recessions for New Deal Keynesiansism. His impatience with Labour's impossible gradualism, and his gigantic ego, led him - via byways - to the fashionable creed of Fascism, with its impressive colours and cult of absolute leaders. His anti-Semitism was not much more than a populist accretion, though that was of little comfort to the Jewish population of Britain.

Powell was no fascist, of course. He too was a moderniser, a man whose intellect had led him to embrace a free market philosophy and to reject the agreed statism that was a feature of the post-war consensus. Like Mosley, he was a beacon to younger, technocratic politicians, impatient with the status quo. He himself had, by 1968, resigned from the Cabinet once, and refused to serve in a shadow cabinet under Alec Douglas-Home.

And, also like Mosley (but in greater contradiction to his free market views) he adopted the language of race and nation when it suited him to do so. It was not - as his apologist wish to claim - cold logic or unwavering commitment to the truth that led to the Rivers of Blood speech 30 years ago. When he used the language of invasion and terror, repeated urban myths about little old white ladies being terrorised by excreta through the letterbox and by "grinning piccaninnies", he knew that he was acting - in his own words - as a "lightning conductor", and he expected to benefit from that. A few weeks later the tabloid columnist, Jean Rook ("The First Lady of Fleet Street") appeared on Any Questions and told an applauding audience that she would loathe to live next door to a black man.

Paradoxically it was the end of Powell's career. The Tories shunned him. "I never played the game," he later said, somewhat disingenuously. In 1974 he urged a Labour vote over the EEC, and subsequently became an Ulster Unionist MP.

Owen's history is more familiar and more recent. He was another future Prime Minister, another impatient, handsome technocrat, this time of the centre. The failure of various parties to comprehend his message - and to act upon it - took him through Labour, into the Mark 1 SDP, and when that merged with the Liberals into the Mark 2 SDP, which then folded. And now he may be contemplating a return to battle, with further European integration as the casus belli.

The similarities really are striking, even if one should be careful to note the differences - there has never been a suggestion that David Owen is anything other than a committed anti-racist. All three men were frustrated modernisers, questing for some way of achieving the power to realise their objectives. As they failed, all three turned to some form of sectionalism, to ancient nationalism and - in the case of Powell and Mosley, to racism. It is interesting to note that what is at stake for Owen is "the whole history of this country", not its whole future. And yet, for all their qualities and capacity to stir the blood, they have all been failures. There was no Powellite movement after 1968, no Fascist MPs elected in the Thirties, no successful Owenite organisation.

At best two of them have acted as reluctant John the Baptists to politicians who assiduously played and won the party game - Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. And it says something interesting about this country that this should be so. For all the talk about our disillusionment with party politicians, we are far more suspicious of those who refuse to play the party game. The anti-Bonapartist streak in British political life - the same streak that made England so relieved to see the back of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell - penalises the man or woman without a party. Mosley's failure was partly due to the suspicious among right-wing Tories about him personally and about his infinite capacity for disloyalty. Powell was never forgiven by the Conservative party for his lack of collegiate discipline - and could never construct a powerbase outside it. David Owen's inability to stay in any political party that was imperfect cost him the highest office.

In one of the Mosley films Marks and Gran have a Tory friend of Mosley, the MP Bob Boothby, warn the future fascist leader that Britain "is an old country". So it is. It is a country where racial intolerance is not really respectable, where leadership is always constrained, where a single currency is not an issue of life or death, and where fascists give their opponents pounds 5 to cover inconvenience.

`Mosley: leader, fascist, aldulterer', Thursdays, Channel 4, 9pm.