Book Review: The Autobiography – Formula One and Beyond, by Max Mosley

This review by H&D Assistant Editor Peter Rushton first appeared in Issue 73 of H&D, published in July 2016.

We republish the review online today in tribute to Max Mosley, who died last night at his Chelsea home, aged 81.

The Autobiography – Formula One and Beyond, by Max Mosley, Simon & Schuster, 2015, ISBN 978-1-47115-019-7. 496 pages (hardback).

Max Mosley was only one month old when in May 1940 his parents were arrested and thrown into jail, without being charged, let alone tried and convicted. This was not in the Soviet Union or some banana republic, but in London – capital of a supposed democracy and centre of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. 

The reason for these arrests was that this Empire was at war with National Socialist Germany (and soon to be at war with Fascist Italy as well). Baby Max’s father Sir Oswald Mosley and his mother Diana were prominent opponents of this ruinous war. Diana (one of the famous Mitford sisters) had travelled several times to Germany during the 1930s and had acted as a liaison between Mosley’s British Union and German leaders including Adolf Hitler. Max’s aunt Unity Mitford lived in Germany for several years and became a particularly close friend of Hitler and some other NSDAP leaders: she shot herself in an unsuccessful suicide attempt on the day Britain declared war on Germany, and died (never having fully recovered from her injuries) in May 1948. 

Unlike many children of politically controversial parents (such as his own half-brother Nicholas Mosley or Francis Beckett, son of John Beckett – Sir Oswald Mosley’s fellow former Labour MP turned fascist rival) Max has never distanced himself from them, though he ceased being politically active on his father’s behalf more than fifty years ago and in some ways has more in common with the liberal left. Indeed in this new autobiography he touches very briefly on the question whether even his father should really be labelled as on the political right, let alone the far right: 

I can only describe my father as I saw him. He was an excellent if rather distant parent who was always interesting, as well as interested, and I enjoyed his company. My political instincts from an early age can crudely be described as liberal and slightly left. To me, freedom and liberty of the individual have always been paramount. The imprisonment of my parents without charge or trial certainly had an influence on my thinking. When I first heard about the rule of law and discovered John Stuart Mill and his writings, I found some sort of intellectual basis for my instincts. But in my youth I nevertheless agreed with my father’s ideas. If this appears contradictory it might perhaps seem less so to anyone who reads his books. 

Of course few readers of Max’s autobiography will have had the chance to read his father’s books: I recommend H&D readers to do so via (original copies occasionally turn up at online booksellers). 

Max Mosley with his parents at his wedding to Jean in 1960

Unlike his father, Max candidly admits that he had little interest in abstract political philosophy. As his later career has demonstrated, he was more interested in getting things done. His education was peculiar, influenced by his parents’ state of semi-exile after 1950 in Ireland and France. Max suggests that the family’s departure for Ireland five years after the end of the Second World War was in reaction to petty legal disputes: in fact it was also a consequence of the failure of Mosley’s first postwar revival – the Union Movement campaigns of the late 1940s. These are not mentioned in Max’s memoirs, though he does discuss the second Mosley revival (the UM campaigns of the late ’50s and early ’60s) in which he was himself involved. 

Max and Alex were the sons of Sir Oswald’s second marriage to Diana, who had herself been married briefly to the brewery heir Bryan Guinness with whom she had two sons, including future Monday Club chairman Jonathan Guinness (now Lord Moyne). By his first wife Cynthia (known to her friends as Cimmie), who died of peritonitis in 1933 aged 34, O.M. had a daughter and two sons. During their father’s wartime imprisonment two of these were adult: Nicholas Mosley [later Lord Ravensdale, who died in 2017] served in Italy with the Rifle Brigade and won an MC. He later published a semi-hostile biography of his father in two volumes: Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale

Max’s other half-brother Michael was aged 7 when war broke out, and by the end of the war was at Eton. In contrast, for a short while Max and his elder brother Alex were taught in Ireland by a private tutor. From 1953 to 1955 he joined Alex at a school in Germany run by a friend of Winifred Wagner, the English-born daughter-in-law of the composer Richard Wagner and staunch national socialist. During the mid-1950s Mosley’s political movement was electorally dormant but won the support of numerous intellectuals who contributed to his journal The European (edited by Lady Mosley), and he had considerable influence in European nationalist circles including Germany, where he was close to leaders of the postwar nationalist movement such as Werner Naumann and Adolf von Thadden. 

At this stage, Max and Alex were too young for politics but as typical 1950s teenagers not too young to embarrass their parents! Both were expelled from their German school in 1955. Max ended up at Millfield, a frequent destination for dissident public schoolboys, but at 16 left to spend a couple of years in London where he was educated at a “crammer”, spending most of his time around the rock and roll scene of that era. A youth subculture known as “teddy boys” was to some extent affiliated to UM: with his parents mostly resident in Paris, Max’s partying was probably seen as beneficial to the movement. 

Despite his unorthodox schooling, Max managed to win a place at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1958 to study physics. His admission was probably due to his parents’ friendship with the Christ Church economics don Roy Harrod, who was no fascist but like Mosley had been an ardent disciple of John Maynard Keynes. Harrod was a liberal but commendably unstuffy about his political friends – for example corresponding regularly with the Soviet spy Guy Burgess even after his escape to Moscow in 1951. 

Max assisted his father’s parliamentary election campaign at North Kensington in the 1959 General Election

At Oxford Max was more accomplished on the social and political scene than at his studies, though he did not become active in Oxford Union politics until his second year, suggesting that he had no illusions about political careerism. Just before the start of this second Oxford year he joined Alex in campaigning for his father’s candidature at North Kensington in the 1959 general election. Though he had been an MP for eleven years during the 1920s and ’30s, this was Sir Oswald Mosley’s first parliamentary candidature since 1931 when he had lost his seat at Smethwick. It was not a success. Mosley underestimated the continuing handicap of wartime stigma, and overestimated the extent to which White voters had been radicalised by racial problems in the area (the constituency included what was then a black ghetto area in Notting Hill, scene of serious riots in 1958). Mosley finished bottom of the poll with 2,621 votes (7.5%) – a good vote for a fringe party in that era (especially one labelled as ‘fascist’), but great disappointment for a man who had once been a government minister and potential national leader. Other UM candidates at the 1959 election fared far worse. 

Max Mosley chooses not to discuss one particular UM activist whom he and his brother knew well: the slightly shady businessman Sid Proud, whose travel agency was used as a front for Mosley’s couriers to travel on political missions to various European countries, probably with the knowledge and approval of the British security and intelligence services. Max’s brother Alex was closely involved with Sid Proud’s daughter at one time, and this contributed to a party dispute, with Mr Proud angry that his daughter had been exploited and that Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley didn’t think she was good enough to marry their son. 

The fact was that Alex was losing interest in politics and becoming more of a typical 1960s rebel (though in later years he was loyal to his father’s memory and sometimes escorted Lady Mosley to veterans’ events organised by the Friends of Oswald Mosley). With the financial backing of his half-brother Nicholas, he emigrated to Chile for several years. Alex died in 2005: his son Louis was a Conservative councillor in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea from 2011 to 2014, and worked for the Conservative MP Rory Stewart. [Louis now heads the London office of the security software company Palantir.]

Soon after the disappointment of his father’s 1959 election defeat, Max began his second year at Oxford, and in the spring of 1960 began attending Oxford Union debates, partly motivated by friends having warned him that his father’s notoriety would mean he would be ostracised. Max naturally saw this as a challenge, and as it turned out had little trouble being accepted even by “anti-fascists”. He was accepted into a semi-secret dining society known as the P Club (more formally the Pythic Club) based in Christ Church. In those days (more than today) such clubs and networks were important for any aspiring Oxford politician, and the P Club had an illustrious heritage with former members such as the late Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. Members included dons as well as students: a P Club member in Max’s day was the leading historian and wartime MI6 officer Hugh Trevor-Roper. 

These contacts doubtless helped Max’s progress in the Oxford Union, where he was elected Secretary for the Hilary Term of 1961. President of the Union that term was future Labour MP and television producer Phillip Whitehead: Max had even more remarkable left-wing friends around this time such as Paul Foot, son of the diplomat Hugh Foot and nephew of Labour leftwinger Michael Foot. Paul later became one of Britain’s leading Trotskyists, but was a close Oxford friend of Max Mosley! 

Max Mosley with Walter Hesketh during the 1961 Manchester Moss Side by-election

Despite such associations Max remained involved with his father’s Union Movement, which was now entering the final period of Mosleyite revival. In the autumn of 1961, just after Max had graduated from Oxford (though remaining active in the university’s political and social scene), he acted as election agent for the UM candidate Walter Hesketh in a parliamentary by-election for Manchester Moss Side. Younger readers will be surprised to learn that Moss Side (now one of the country’s most notorious black ghetto areas) was in those days still a Conservative seat (and remained so until 1974), though it was beginning to change and a corner of the constituency was already darkening. 

This by-election campaign (the first that Mosley’s movement had contested since 1940) was not without incident: Max had to seek a court summons against the returning officer to get UM’s nomination papers accepted! (The returning officer in question – then Lord Mayor of Manchester – was a right-wing Tory and solicitor, Sir Lionel Biggs, later struck off by the Law Society for “unbefitting conduct” over a client’s will.) One press report of the campaign said that UM agent Mosley “looks like an intellectual Adam Faith” (referring to a famous pop idol of that time). UM candidate Walter Hesketh was a former Manchester policeman and international long-distance runner who had represented England at athletics more than thirty times, and had been appointed North of England organiser for UM. He obtained a respectable 5.2% in the by-election.

1962 was to prove a significant year for post-war Mosleyites, and Max’s father again became the target of political violence from a revived alliance of Jews and Communists known as the 62 Group. (One leading 62 Group thug was Gerry Gable, present day editor of Searchlight.) By now Max was a trainee barrister, and occasionally put his legal training to use on behalf of the party, for example applying for an injunction against Manchester councillor and 62 Group operative Peter Grimshaw. He also had a brush with the other side of the law, after the 62 Group attacked his father during an East London UM rally at Ridley Road, Dalston in July 1962. Max was arrested and charged with threatening behaviour after stepping in to defend his father, who was then aged 65. (This period will be fictionalised in a forthcoming BBC drama, Ridley Road, likely to be broadcast later this year.)

Max pleaded not guilty and was acquitted after telling the court: “It was not only my right but my plain duty to go to his assistance.” This was actually his second brush with the law on political charges, having previously been arrested following a minor scuffle with left-wingers outside the South African Embassy in March 1961. Neither case prevented Max from being accepted as a pupil in Lord Hailsham’s barristers’ chambers, though eventually he abandoned the law for a career in motor racing. 

There was speculation that Max would be UM candidate at the Leyton by-election in January 1965, which was intended to provide a political comeback for Patrick Gordon Walker, the Labour Foreign Secretary defeated in a racially charged 1964 general election campaign at Smethwick. In the event UM did not contest the by-election, which became most famous in nationalist circles for a punch-up at a Labour meeting involving Mosley’s rival Colin Jordan. 

Max Mosley outside court accompanied by his father after his acquittal on ‘threatening behaviour’ charges after defending himself and his father against ‘anti-fascists’ in 1962.

In fact by this stage Max had already decided to withdraw from politics, influenced by several factors including a further violent assault by anti-fascists in 1962 and an official investigation into his service with the Territorial Army Parachute Regiment. He writes that his interest in politics “gradually declined. I wanted above all to go motor racing, my spare time was taken up with the TA and, though still sympathetic to my father’s ideas, they seemed to me increasingly unlikely ever to be relevant in the real world. I remained on excellent terms with him, but by late 1963 I was working for my Bar finals and destined to take no further part in his politics. My father decided to stand for parliament one last time at the 1966 general election but I did not get involved or visit the constituency. He realised I had moved on and never held it against me.” 

That last parliamentary campaign by the 69-year-old Sir Oswald Mosley was in the East London constituency of Shoreditch and Finsbury, where he polled 4.6%. By then his Union Movement was winding down, though Mosley was to have one last spell of media prominence at the end of the ’60s after publishing his autobiography. Max and his wife Jean (who had married during his Oxford student days) remained regular visitors to his parents in Paris and usually holidayed with them, where they were social acquaintances of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, themselves in effective political exile since the Duke’s abdication from the British throne in 1936. 

After his father’s death in 1980, Max again briefly considered a political career (having long ago accepted that during his father’s lifetime this would not be practical). A very different set of family connections seemed likely to assist: in 1982 he was introduced to former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at Chatsworth, the Derbyshire stately home of his aunt Debo (Duchess of Devonshire), youngest sister of Lady Mosley. 

The Duke of Devonshire (whose sister Lady Dorothy Cavendish had been Macmillan’s wife until her death in 1966) had a hereditary influence in the Conservative Party, though like Macmillan he was no fan of Margaret Thatcher. Macmillan had been an ally of Oswald Mosley at the start of the 1930s, and though he never had the slightest attraction to fascism, he had considered joining Mosley’s New Party after its split from Labour in 1931. Though Macmillan was a Tory, he shared Mosley’s interest in Keynesian solutions to unemployment. Had he led a pro-Keynesian breakaway from the Tory party and allied with Mosley’s New Party, the history of inter-war Britain could have been very different. 

Sir Oswald Mosley (above right) with future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1930. Half a century later Macmillan attempted to assist Max Mosley when he considered a political career.

In May 1930, following Mosley’s resignation as a Labour minister over the government’s rejection of his Keynesian economic proposals, Macmillan wrote to The Times in his support, suggesting that the traditional rules of party politics were now redundant and adding: “if these rules are to be permanently enforced, perhaps a good many of us will feel that it is hardly worth while bothering to play at all. Sir Oswald Mosley thinks the rules should be altered. I hope some of my friends will have the courage to applaud and support his protest.” 

More than fifty years later, having in the interim been Prime Minister for almost seven years, the 88-year-old Macmillan sat down at Chatsworth to discuss the 42-year-old Max Mosley’s political future. The latter writes: 

Macmillan’s view was that no serious figure in politics would mind in the least who my father was and he thought that no voter would care, either. I later came to think he was almost certainly right but that the people in between – those who decide whether or not you get a seat – might be more of a problem. There was also the risk that my opponents would drag my father into any controversy. 

Max nevertheless decided to make the attempt, and at the end of 1982 temporarily stepped aside from his motor racing work in an attempt to build a political career. His first efforts as a Tory campaign volunteer involved assisting Tory candidate Robert Hughes at the Bermondsey by-election in February 1983. This was a no hope campaign for the Tories, made worse by a huge tactical vote for the Liberal candidate Simon Hughes, who defeated Labour left-winger Peter Tatchell after a campaign marred by controversy over Tatchell’s private life. (I understand that while Tatchell’s homosexuality became a campaign issue, at least two of the other candidates were secretly of similar persuasion: Simon Hughes and the NF candidate Jim Sneath.) 

Max first encountered motor racing during an Easter vacation visit to Silverstone in 1961 and the sport came to dominate his life. A large part of this book covers his growing involvement in the administration of Formula One, where after 1971 he became right-hand man to the leading figure in the sport, used car tycoon Bernie Ecclestone. It is clear from this book that Max Mosley can be credited with many improvements in driver safety, both in the design of cars and tracks. There can be little doubt that he is personally responsible for saving many drivers’ lives, as well as enhancing the worldwide media profile of motor racing. 

Despite having renounced a political career, Mosley’s role in motor racing inevitably led to high level political contacts. For example in 1994 he insisted on changes to the track at the Italian Grand Prix venue Monza, which were resisted by local political authorities. When these authorities failed to meet his deadline for the necessary changes, Mosley threatened to cancel the Italian Grand Prix, prompting a serious government crisis and long negotiations with Prime Minister Berlusconi. At the eleventh hour a deal was reached. 

In 1991 Mosley had been elected President of the world motor racing body FISA, and in 1993 took over as President of the wider organisation FIA. A decade after abandoning his Tory ambitions, this role led to close contacts with the Labour Party leadership. First Mosley met with Labour leader John Smith via Smith’s aide David Ward, who was an amateur racing driver. Following Smith’s death in 1994, Ward took a job with Mosley and Ecclestone, working in FIA’s Brussels office. 

Max Mosley with Tony Blair at the British Grand Prix, Silverstone, 1996

Ward introduced Mosley to the Labour Party’s fundraising 1000 Club: he joined the party and became friendly with new leader Tony Blair. By 1996 it was obvious that Labour would win the next election and Blair would be Prime Minister: his right-hand man Jonathan Powell approached Mosley and Ecclestone (via Ward) soliciting a £1 million donation to the party’s coffers. At a meeting in the Houses of Parliament later that year, Blair’s chief fundraiser Lord Levy directly asked Ecclestone for the £1 million: he at first refused, but then made the donation a few months before the 1997 election. 

This Ecclestone cash led to a great political storm later that year, when it was wrongly alleged that it was in some way linked to the issue of tobacco sponsorship, which had ceased in British motor racing during the 1970s. There was a continuing issue however over a proposed Europe-wide ban on tobacco sponsorship and advertising across all sport, including Formula One. Against this background – and despite Labour fundraisers continually pursuing Ecclestone for additional donations – the political standards watchdog ordered Labour to give back the initial £1 million. 

Mosley insists that Ecclestone was unfairly treated by the media in this affair, as it was implied that he had set out to inject ‘dirty’ money into British politics so as to influence the decision on tobacco advertising, whereas in fact it was the Labour Party that had pursued him for cash, without any suggestion of a tobacco link. Mosley himself remained a Labour Party member until Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003: he then quit the party, and attended the great anti-war demonstration in Hyde Park. 

Several years after the Ecclestone donation row, Mosley himself was the target of a media-confected scandal. In March 2008 the News of the World – then Britain’s best-selling newspaper – carried a front page exclusive, complete with sensational photographs, of Max Mosley and five ladies, headlined: “F1 Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy with 5 Hookers”. As was later admitted, the “nazi” aspect of this story was a pure invention, inserted to provide “public interest” justification for a story that would otherwise have no legal justification for invasion of privacy. 

Mosley remains mystified as to the paper’s motives, since he had never had any dispute with its owner Rupert Murdoch. One assumes that it might have been connected in some way to matters inside the motor racing world, which can involve very large sums of money. It turned out that one of the five women involved was the wife of a former Royal Marine who did surveillance work for MI5: he had arranged for the encounter with Mosley to be filmed and passed to Murdoch’s journalists. There is no suggestion that MI5 was itself involved in the affair, and they dismissed the former Marine when it came to light. 

By taking successful legal action against the News of the World, and pursuing further campaigns for privacy against media intrusion, Max Mosley has made a major contribution to the development of press regulation in the UK, a process that is still developing after the inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Leveson. It is for this, alongside his work to improve the safety of Formula One, that Max Mosley will be remembered. This book leaves the impression of a man who could have made a significant contribution to British politics, had we lived in better times. Though only a small proportion of the book deals directly with party politics, H&D readers will find considerable interest in this story of how a good bloke sought to improve a bad world. 

Reviewed by Peter Rushton, Manchester, England

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