Dons and students at Oxford have in recent years been deeply exercised about Cecil Rhodes, who died 120 years ago. Some politically sensitive students removed a portrait of the Queen in the Magdalen graduate common room, and others even persuaded the geography department to remove a portrait of Theresa May. Yet they seem strangely silent on the implications of taking money tainted by fascism.
This month it was announced that the university had been given £6 million from the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust for a chair in biophysics. Two colleges have also taken money from the Trust — St Peter’s College received £5 million for a new block of student accommodation and a Fellow in Engineering; and Lady Margaret Hall received £260,000 to fund a foundation year.
Alexander Mosley, after whom the Trust has been named, was a grandson of Oswald, and a graduate of St. Peter’s. By all accounts, Alexander was a fine mathematician and without political affiliations. He died, tragically young in 2009 at the age of 39, of a suspected drug overdose.
Alexander’s friend, Giles Coren, who is Jewish, recently argued in the Times that guilt by descent is obnoxious. That, of course, is true, but it is the name of Mosley that is being honoured, not merely Alexander. And although there is no such thing as hereditary taint, there is hereditary responsibility. I doubt even Oxford would endow a Beria chair of criminology or an Assad chair of ophthalmology unless their descendants had dissociated themselves from their forbears and given practical expression to this by some form of reparation.
The novelist, Nicholas Mosley, Oswald’s son, did dissociate himself. Watching his father’s campaign against West Indian immigration in North Kensington in 1959, he wrote that, while the right hand dealt with grandiose ideas and glory, ‘the left hand let the rat out of the sewer’. Alexander Mosley did not, so far as I am aware, similarly dissociate himself. In any case, the donations come from Alexander’s father, Max, son of Oswald, and chairman of the Trust until his death earlier this year.
Oswald Mosley is best remembered for his support for fascism and Nazism and his anti-Semitic campaign in the 1930s. He accused Jews of being anti-patriotic. However, the historian of the British Union of Fascists, Stephen Dorril, has shown that it was Mosley himself who was unpatriotic since the BUF was financed by Britain’s enemies: Mussolini to the tune of around £60,000 a year, worth around £2m a year today, and to a lesser extent Hitler. The Trust claims that the Oxford benefaction contains no money tainted by fascism. Does Oxford have a cast iron guarantee that this is so?
In the post-war years, British fascists shifted from anti-Semitism to anti-black racism. For, as the late Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks noticed, anti-Semites are never just anti-Semites. In his book Beyond the Pale Nicholas observed his father, Oswald, in his 1959 electoral campaign declaring that West Indians lived on tins of cat food and that teenage girls were being kept by West Indian gangs. Max Mosley was part of this campaign. He was then agent for a Union Movement candidate in 1961 whose election leaflet declared that, ‘Tuberculosis, VD and other terrible diseases like leprosy are on the increase. Coloured immigration threatens your children’s health’. When this was revealed in 2018, the Labour party refused to take further Mosley money. Oxford should have done the same.
Of course there is a case for drawing a line under the past. But that must depend on the consent of the descendants of those victimised by the past. No one has a right to draw a line under the past on their behalf. Remarkably, Oxford did not consult either Jewish or non-white students before accepting the benefaction. It is difficult to imagine that such students can feel entirely comfortable in a university accepting this money. And I wonder if potential Jewish or non-white sixth formers contemplating their choice of university would now be wholly comfortable about applying to Oxford.
The distinguished biophysicist, Sir Alan Fersht, and other Fellows of the Royal Society, including four Nobel prize winners, have declared that Oxford ‘is dishonouring science’ and ‘will repel rather than attract’ candidates for the professorship. So, even in utilitarian terms, it was a mistake for Oxford to take the money.
But the issue is not one primarily of utility, nor one solely for ethnic minorities or scientists, but for all decent people since racism and fascism are antithetical to the whole idea of a university. Oxford should never have been so morally crass as to negotiate and accept money from the Trust.
This is not the first occasion on which Oxford has been morally oblivious. In 1996, it proposed to accept money from the grandson of Friedrich Flick, an associate of Himmler’s, who had profited extensively from slave labour, and had been convicted as a war criminal at Nuremberg. No compensation had been paid to the slave labourers, many of whom had been broken in health by the experience and were living in straitened circumstances, but the grandson sought to purchase respectability by giving money to Oxford instead. Public pressure forced withdrawal of the benefice.
The same should happen with the benefaction from the Mosley Trust. Dons and students should insist that Oxford return the money. If the Trust wishes to honour Alexander and make reparation, it might then consider funding organisations providing for the welfare of migrants and refugees.
Oxford University had a proud record in the 1930s in looking after academics fleeing from regimes which Oswald Mosley supported. But I suspect that I am not alone, as a former professor at Oxford and honorary fellow of one of the colleges, in feeling ashamed of my old university.
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Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government, King’s College London. He was Professor of Government at Oxford University from 1996 to 2010 and is an Honorary Fellow of The Queen’s College.