There is doubtless a moment’s schadenfreude to be had at the news that an Oxford college accused of going “off the scale on wokery” has accepted a multi-million donation from a charitable trust set up by the Mosley family.
Its most famous scion, after all, was none other than Sir Oswald Mosley, a one-time rising political star who turned his back on both the Conservatives and Labour to eventually found the British Union of Fascists. The second-most, his son Max, was photographed at his father’s rallies in his youth and later gained notoriety for other reasons.
But hypocrisy is not an especially interesting charge once that moment passes. That a person or institution is hypocritical doesn’t really bear on whether what they’re doing is right or wrong. So the more interesting question is: should anyone be taking Mosley cash?
Happily, this isn’t one of those instances where we need detain ourselves overlong with the historical details. The nuances of Sir Oswald’s political journey are of undoubted historical interest – especially his rather heterodox foray into far-right pan-Europeanism after the war – but for our purposes he was a literal capital-F Fascist.
Not a great start for St Peter’s and Lady Margaret Hall. But in the spirit of Sir Geoffrey Cox, let us do what justice demands and examine a case for the defence.
For starters, if the problem is unsavoury organisations making donations to British institutions then it seems that donations by contemporary villains, be that the Chinese or the Saudis, pose a far more immediate and pressing danger of subverting our institutions or laundering justly-stained reputations.
By contrast the Mosleys, both senior and junior, are dead. There is no indication that the funds are going to be employed in any manner that will rehabilitate the works of either. A sponsored chair in Fascist Studies is not in the offing; the Friends of Oswald Mosley (yes, really) will not be sponsoring any dinners at high table.
As for the idea that it might soften his image, surely the only impact on anyone curious enough to google the name behind the bequest will be to find ‘fascist’ at the top of their results. The danger of rehabilitation seems fairly spectral.
Again, possible hypocrisy doesn’t affect the weight of the original charge. If taking Mosley money is wrong, it’s still wrong even if we’re less stringent with Xi money or Saud money.
But we ought to at least be wary that we don’t end up making burnt offerings of relatively trivial sums bearing the name of vanquished foes to provide a sort of moral smokescreen for a more relaxed attitude towards much larger piles of money proffered by those still with us.
We might then consider the nature of the Mosley fortune. Sir Oswald did not make it. It is ‘old money’, inherited by him upon assuming his baronetcy and then bequeathed to his son. This is not cash raised on the back of healthy sales of The Blackshirt, and it therefore isn’t obvious that it should carry the same curse we haphazardly attach to fortunes directly built on an evil such as slavery.
Furthermore, control of it presumably now rests with individuals who might bear the name of Mosley but are neither their father nor grandfather.
Even if this specific donation were to be barred on the grounds that Max signed off on it, is every successive generation of the family to be prevented from putting a share of their fortune to what is, in and of itself, inoffensive (and perhaps even good) use? If there is indeed some sort of inherited debt to be paid off (itself a dubious proposition), surely this is how it is most likely to be done?
A middle course is often the least exciting proposition on which to end a column. But perhaps the best way forwards is to permit such donations, subject to suitably intense scrutiny (which they are already receiving) and with all appropriate measures in place to ensure that no light cast by those in receipt of the funds is allowed to reflect on the dark memory of Sir Oswald Mosley.