Beauty and the beast
... and Idi Amin ... special status and unrepentant.
TWO deaths in the past few days have brought back unpleasant historical memories. They have served also as reminders of an odd, and disagreeable, characteristic of British society.
One of the deaths was that of Diana Mosley. She was the widow of Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (the Blackshirts), before and after the Second World War. (He and she were interned during the war.) She died in Paris, aged 93.
The other death was that of Idi Amin, the former dictator of Uganda, who died in Saudi Arabia, where he had lived in exile after being overthrown by Ugandan army exiles.
Diana Mosley remained an unrepentant Fascist. She was anti-semitic. She admired Hitler. She was a racist.
Amin was a monster, who had thousands of his fellow countrymen murdered, and who expelled the Asian community of Uganda in the most appalling way. (Many had to flee to the United Kingdom, where they have added greatly to the quality of our society.) How are these two odious people linked through British society? The answer is that, in their different ways, they were given a kind of special status in the minds of many.
Diana Mosley was one of the Mitford sisters, well born, into an eccentric aristocratic family, and wealthy. She was beautiful. These facts combined to give her, in some quarters, a kind of respectability. She was described as a person of charm. To quote one commentator, Francis Beckett, a historian, in The Guardian, "this rich, stupid, superficial, selfish woman, who sneered at Jews and blacks in an upper-class accent, was fawned on by the establishment right up to her death".
Aristocratic charm is not an acceptable substitute for morals. It is unfortunate that Britain still has enough of the class-ridden society about it to make this kind of thing possible.
Amin's "strength" was that he was a soldier during the days of British rule in Uganda, He appealed to some of those in colonial charge of the country at the time because he was seen as a "simple soldier" and a "splendid chap".
Furthermore, he was a good rugby player. Even his admirers recognised that he was, to put it kindly, intellectually challenged, or "virtually bone from the neck up" as one person put it. But that did not matter. The "good chap" could be relied on to do as he was told.
Diana Mosley ...
The judgment, clearly, was woefully wrong. Amin was not a "good chap", but a tyrant, who did immense damage to his country and to its people.
We have to hope that our society is becoming rather more sophisticated, rather better at judging what people do by more rigorous standards than whether they have money, or titles, or beauty, or upper-class accents. The omens are not wholly encouraging. These things and the trappings of power still wield an often unhealthy influence over how people assess the behaviour of others.
The late Robert Maxwell, for example, who was a crook who stole from the pension funds of the Daily Mirror, which he owned, had been named, years before, in an official government report as being unfit to be the director of a public company. Nevertheless, he diverted criticism by threatening to sue and no government did anything about him. The extent of his criminal activity emerged only after he had died at sea; one cannot libel the dead.
If we have any doubts that the things Diana Mosley and her husband stood for are still a threat, we need look no further than another news story this week. In a local election the British National Party (BNP) today's fascists won a seat in a Yorkshire council, bringing the party's national total of councillors to 17.
Behind these successes is a background of unemployment, which can be used to fuel racist feelings. There is a huge responsibility on the mainstream political parties to tackle the issues, to remove the conditions which allow extremism to flourish Those elected for the BNP have not been aristocratic or "charming". Even if they were, their election would be none the less depressing. We need to be on our guard.
It behoves everyone who believes in the decent standards that should underlie a democratic society to recognise that these standards can be sabotaged by "charming" aristocrats and "splendid chaps" and to be on our guard about that also. We do ourselves no favours by allowing ourselves to be seduced by the likes of Diana Mosley and Idi Amin.
The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K.
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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