How Oxford University is making the most of a fascist legacy

There is no more poisonous family name in recent British political history. 

But it has not stopped the University of Oxford grasping with both hands more than £12 million in donations from The Alexander Mosley Trust, a charitable fund primarily established on the back of money inherited from Sir Oswald Mosley, the notorious leader of the British Union of Fascists. 

The trust was established by Max Mosley in the name of his son Alexander, who died tragically at the age of 39 from an accidental drugs overdose. Max Mosley, who passed away in May at the age of 81 from cancer, was a controversial figure in his own right, acting in 1961 as an election agent for a fascist candidate at a by-election that included publishing a leaflet that warned voters “coloured immigration threatens your children’s health”. 

On another occasion, he was arrested after throwing punches at anti-fascist protesters during a march in support of his father. 

For a university that has got itself into knots over its colonial and imperial past – so much so that a statue of Cecil Rhodes sparked an academic boycott – it seems incredible that a £12 million legacy, drawn down from the most reviled British fascist, has barely caused an eyelid to be batted. 

Welcome to a world in which the University of Oxford, the oldest in the English-speaking world, eats itself up over whether to tear down a historic statue but dismisses any moral or ethical concern over the acceptance of a gift from the Mosley family. 

Oxford – a ‘sensitive’ university

In an interview with the BBC in 2017, when asked if the trust’s money came from his father, Max Mosley declared: “Not put together by my father – my father inherited it from his father and from his father. The whole of the middle of Manchester once belonged to the family, that’s why there’s a Mosley Street.”

At a university as sensitive as Oxford to the feelings of others – one college removed octopus from its menu so that disadvantaged students at mealtimes felt more “comfortable” and Theresa May’s portrait was taken down from the geography department so as not to antagonise EU students – the Mosley cash has trumped any queasiness.

Timeline

This turning of a blind eye – as one eminent Oxford academic has complained – has caused St Peter’s College to be £5 million wealthier as a result of what it happily calls a “generous gift”. 

The money is being spent on new student accommodation in the centre of Oxford. 

Alexander Mosley House, as it was intended to be named, will open its doors to students in the autumn of 2022, although the college has been forced into a rethink on the name. Alexander Mosley had studied at St Peter’s as a maths undergraduate.

Although less than 100 years old, St Peter’s occupies a prime spot in Oxford, close to the city’s castle, and its alumni include Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, Geordie Greig, the editor of the Daily Mail, the director Ken Loach, the ex-Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Condon, and the celebrated chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Meanwhile the Alexander Mosley Professor of Biophysics Fund, worth a further £6 million, was received “with gratitude” by the university itself. 

The choice of professor is made by the university’s vice-chancellor in conjunction with the Master of St Peter’s College among others. 

A second college – Lady Margaret Hall – took £260,000 to pay for disadvantaged students to spend a year at the college. 

Oswald Mosley – founder of the British Union of Fascists

Its Principal was Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian whose newspaper shared with Max Mosley a common enemy: the newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch, more of which later.

The payments are detailed in among other places the latest accounts of the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust, whose chairman of trustees until his death was Max Mosley.

Alan Rusbridger profile

Lest anyone forget, Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, was interned along with his wife Diana Mitford during the war for the threat they posed. The couple had married in 1936 in Berlin at the home of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi’s minister for propaganda. The guest of honour was Adolf Hitler. 

Nobody would want to blame Max Mosley for the sins of his father but the man who would go on to run the sport of motor racing had been a keen supporter of his father’s new post-war party the far-Right Union Movement. 

Max Mosley had been charged with assault and later acquitted for throwing punches at anti-fascist protesters in east London in 1962, while the year before, having graduated from Oxford University, he was a party election agent responsible for an election leaflet that included the disgusting, racist slur that “coloured immigration threatens your children’s health.” 

Asked about his leaflet, when it was rediscovered in 2018, Mosley was hardly contrite.

Excruciating interview

He refused to say sorry, finally conceding to Channel 4 News in an excruciating interview: “I think that probably is racist, I will concede that completely,” before adding that he had “no reason to apologise to anyone”.

In 2019, a year after Mosley’s car crash interview, the trust was beginning negotiations with St Peter’s College over a possible legacy. 

Professor Lawrence Goldman, an emeritus fellow and a former editor of the prestigious Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, says he was first made aware of the plans in February this year in a Zoom call with the current master Profesor Judith Buchanan. 

“The master mentioned that a new building will be named after Alexander Mosley and I was one of the few people old enough to remember we had educated the boy,” he recalled. 

But the death of Max Mosley in May – and a thorough reading of his obituaries – made him realise he could not sit back in silence.

In May, Prof Goldman wrote to Prof Buchanan and again in June, urging her to reconsider.

“Max Mosley was a fascist and racist for a significant part of his life when he was in his 20s, after he had graduated from Oxford,” he wrote. 

“He supported his father’s Union Movement, took part in antisemitic demonstrations, and published material containing the most heinous defamations of black immigrants to this country, and non-whites in general. All this occurred after the Holocaust. 

“All this was a matter of public record and could have been unearthed by basic historical research.”

‘Some might call it blood money’

He warned that to accept the funds was not only “morally insensitive” but also “politically naive”, adding: “Some might call it blood money. Everything about the Mosley family and Mosley name is tainted and the college should have had nothing to do with either.”

Prof Goldman, a fellow of St Peter’s College for 24 years, wrote plaintively of his own family’s experience to underline his opposition to the donation. 

“My story is not uncommon. My grandfather lost two siblings, their spouses, and five nieces and nephews in the Holocaust,” he wrote. 

His father’s family, moreover, had come from Dalston in east London, where “Oswald and Max Mosley decided to launch their antisemitic campaign in 1962, two decades after other families called Goldman were murdered in Poland for the crime of being Jewish”.

He went on: “There are, in fact, many people alive today who share a family history like this. And there are many black families also who know and fear the name of Mosley. 

“The Governing Body [of St Peter’s], lacking in British historical knowledge and sensitivity, may have underestimated the degree of feeling incited by the name Mosley.”

Twice he wrote to Louise Richardson, Oxford University’s vice-chancellor, pictured below, but received no reply.

Credit: Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

Exasperated, Prof Goldman wrote an open letter in June to all the governing body fellows of St Peter’s College, appealing to each of them personally to use their vote to stop the donation. 

“It is unusual to address the fellowship in this way but my attempts to start a dialogue with senior officers of the college have failed,” he wrote to them. “Though you may not realise it, you are each party to a highly ‘unusual’ act: taking funds from the most infamous fascist dynasty in the English-speaking world, the Mosley family.”

Prof Louise Richardson profile

Accepting the money, he warned, would not only be a “disaster” for the college but also poses a “reputational threat” to Oxford as a whole.

In response, he received a formal letter from the college’s governing body, doubling down on their reasons for accepting the funds and warning him that if he made his concerns public he would be in breach of his fellowship. His pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

After Oxford and his flirtation with his father’s fascist movement, Max Mosley went on to become president of the FIA, the governing body for Formula One and other motorsports. 

But it was his bizarre sexual practices, disclosed by the News of the World in an undercover sting operation, that would catapult Mosley into the limelight and make him the darling of wounded celebrities and even leading politicians, among them Tom Watson, once the Labour Party’s deputy leader. 

In 2008, Mosley, along with the rest of the UK, woke up to the headline “F1 BOSS HAS SICK NAZI ORGY WITH 5 HOOKERS” plastered across the News of the World. Mosley was furious. 

His sexual predilections were his private business and a court would later uphold that in a ruling that would shape privacy law for years to come. 

Mosley’s sexual practices were odd – he enjoyed the pretence of having his hair combed for lice in a prison in which the female guards spoke with German accents. But a High Court judge ruled that the sex games had no Nazi connotations and that there was no public interest in reporting them.  

Max Mosley and the phone-hacking scandal

When shortly after, the phone-hacking scandal began to envelope the News of the World (the tabloid would shut in 2011), Mosley became a champion of the tabloid’s many victims, financially underwriting the legal costs of claimants bringing phone hacking legal cases against Murdoch’s newspaper empire. 

Any celebrity or ordinary person, unwilling to risk the expense of suing News International could go to court, knowing that if they lost Max Mosley would foot the bill. 

By now The Guardian newspaper, edited by Rusbridger, scented blood and had begun to go after the Murdoch empire for hacking phones and paying public officials, including police officers, for stories. 

Rusbridger, 67, left The Guardian in 2015 to take up the prestigious post of principal of Lady Margaret Hall, from which he stepped down in September 2021.

Max Mosley, through the Alexander Mosley Trust, funded Impress, a state-backed press regulator to the tune of £3.8m. 

No mainstream media, including The Guardian as well as The Telegraph, has agreed to be regulated by the body, which has been insistent – and the claim tested in court – that Mosely would have no influence on its decision making.

Mosley, through his tabloid crusade, made friends in the Labour Party as a result. 

Watson, Labour’s deputy leader who led the charge in the Commons against the excesses of the Murdoch press, declared: “I’m proud to call Max Mosley a friend and I’m delighted he has made a financial contribution to Labour.” 

In less than a year between June 2016 and February 2017, Mosley gave £500,000 in political donations to Watson that followed £40,000 to support his successful bid to be deputy leader in 2015.

At the same time that Mosley was funding Watson, the family trust set up in his son’s name was making its first donation to Oxford – just over £1.1 million to the St Peter’s College development fund, the payment for which is revealed in the charity’s 2017 accounts. 

The bigger payment of £5 million for the construction of the new student block followed. 

Mark Damazer profile

For almost a decade, St Peter’s College was presided over by its Master, Mark Damazer, 67, a stalwart of the BBC, whose roles included editor of Newsnight and controller of Radio 4. 

Damazer stepped down from St Peter’s in 2019 but by then the negotiations for the endowment from the Mosley trust had been agreed and the deal done.

The death of Alexander Mosley

Alexander Mosley, pictured below, a student at Westminster School, studied maths at St Peter’s before obtaining a Phd in economics at the University of London. 

He was a “flawed genius”, according to friends, his body found at his mews house in Notting Hill, surrounded by drugs paraphernalia, in May 2009. 

The coroner ruled that Alexander, a long-time heroin addict, had died from cocaine intoxication. He was just 39. 

His father’s response was to set up the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust, whose aim is to “support diverse charitable causes”, that also includes training young radio broadcasters in Africa to scientific research into the potential medicinal uses of banned drugs for the treatment of psychiatric disorders. 

The construction of Alexander Mosley House is one of the charity’s biggest funding projects. 

A decision was taken in secret earlier this year after Prof Goldman raised his complaint to change the name of the new student building so that it will not carry the Mosley family name after all. 

But St Peter’s remains all too happy to take the money. 

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