The events in London’s East End 80 years ago this month marked a turning point in the fight against fascism in Britain. Ken Olende looks at the various responses to the BUF’s planned march—and how anti-fascists succeeded in stopping it
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine September-October 2016, issue 17. Email UAF to ask for printed copies firstname.lastname@example.org
Britain’s coalition government claimed that the economic depression was over as 1936 progressed. But years of unemployment and austerity had left people in many industrial areas in terrible poverty. Fascist parties emerged across Europe scapegoating immigrants for the crisis. The turning point in Britain was the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End in the autumn of 1936.
Several fascist groups emerged in Britain after the First World War, inspired by the success of Benito Mussolini in Italy. They attracted people who were scared that the British Empire was in decline and feared social unrest. They were terrified by the extension of the vote to all adult men and some women.
The most successful was the British Union of Fascists (BUF) set up by Oswald Mosley in 1932. From an aristocratic background, he had been an MP for both the Conservative Party and Labour. Looking back it is easy to see him as the leader of an irrelevant fringe organisation, but at the peak of his influence he was holding rallies of up to 10,000 people, and had significant support within the establishment.
Mosley’s followers were known as the Blackshirts because of their uniforms. The Daily Mail newspaper promoted the BUF running the notorious, “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” article in 1934. This looked forward to the fascists developing into, “a well organised party of the right ready to take over responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed”.
Mosley hoped to cement his organisation’s position in national politics with a mass rally at Olympia in West London in 1934. But he also wanted to show his willingness to use violence.
A spotlight was trained on any anti-fascists who heckled as a gang of uniformed stewards rushed down to violently eject them. One witness wrote that Mosley “held up his speech at each interruption for periods varying from three to six minutes when he could perfectly well have drowned them with a voice made unbearably loud by the amplifiers. Slowly we all understood that it was done to allow his Blackshirts to make a thorough mess of the interruptor.”
However, the level of brutality had the opposite effect to what the fascists had hoped for. People were disgusted by what they saw. It became less possible for mainstream figures to identify with them. The Daily Mail stopped its regular positive coverage.
The BUF shifted its focus to poorer areas such as the East End of London—an area of extreme poverty made worse by the Great Depression. It was also an area where Jewish and Irish immigrant groups were concentrated. Both were blamed for poverty and taking peoples jobs. The Jewish community faced extreme anti-Semitism, much of it similar to modern Islamophobia.
The Jews were mostly refugees who had fled pogroms in Eastern Europe. Local Conservative MP Major W Evans-Gordon said of them in his book, The Alien Immigrant, in 1903 that, “East of Aldgate one walks into a foreign town. In the by-streets north and south of the main thoroughfares it is an exception to hear the English language spoken. The advertisements on the walls are in Yiddish and written in Hebrew characters.” In some ways it is remarkable how little the language used by racists has changed over the last century.
Evans-Gordon was instrumental to the founding of the British Brothers League, an anti-immigrant forerunner of the British Union of Fascists, which spread fear in Jewish areas before the First World War.
Phil Piratin, a member of the Communist Party from a Jewish background, was one of the organisers of the East End anti-fascists during the 1930s. In his memoir about the period, Our Flag Stays Red, he said that the fascists appealed to “the worst elements, and the basest sentiments. Jews were ‘taking away your jobs’. Because of the Jews, ‘you had no home’. The Jews were the bosses and the landlords. The capitalist Jew exploited you—the Communist Jew was out to take away your liberties.”
The fascists planned a march through the East End on 4th October 1936 in four columns as a show of strength.
However many people who opposed the fascists thought that the best thing to do was to ignore them. The Board of Deputies of British Jews said the BUF march was anti-Semitic but urged Jewish people to stay away. The popular Daily Herald newspaper said the same, as did the leadership of the Labour Party. Meanwhile, more than 70,000 people signed a petition calling for the provocative racist march to be banned.
Despite the pressure to stay away, large numbers of anti-fascists did mobilise to stop the Blackshirts. They took their slogan, “They shall not pass” from Spain, where masses of people had risen up to resist General Franco’s coup earlier in the year.
When it was clear which way the police intended to take the fascists a lorry was overturned in Cable Street to stop them passing. One of the demonstrators, Julie Gershon, recalled, “I think that Mosley was supposed to come along at eleven o’clock, but thousands of people were there early in the morning. They might have reached the beginning of Cable Street but they didn’t get down there. People were throwing things out of their windows. Anything to build up the barricades so they couldn’t pass.. There were Jews and Irish, the lot. Everyone was down there.”
Up to 300,000 came to support the protest. The streets were full and the fascists were only able to get down Cable Street because police forced their way through. By 3.40pm the police abandoned their attempts and escorted Mosley’s 3,000 supporters out of the area.
Very few demonstrators came into contact with the fascists. It was police charges trying to clear them off the streets that led to their injuries.
Demonstrator Max Levitas said, “The police force came into Cable Street with their horses and tried to throw ordinary people about. But they didn’t get away with it. We stayed there even though people were knocked down by batons and by horses.”
Over 80 protesters were arrested and more were injured. Yet as the police withdrew, protestor Joe Jacobs remembered, “All the cafes and other public places were full of laughing people swapping stories of their own particular experience of the past few hours.”
The battle of Cable Street was a turning point, though no one at the time thought it was a final defeat for Mosley. Indeed the BUF’s fortunes revived temporarily in 1938 and 1939 as it ran a campaign against Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression in Germany, but it never came close to getting mass support again.
Jewish service men returning to Hackney after the war were shocked to find Mosley still organising around the markets of east London. Fascist organisations were marginalised, but racism still had to be challenged.
The fascists would always try and scapegoat new immigrants. Mosley was active in the 1950s in organising against West Indian immigrants round Notting Hill, in West London.
The tactic used at Cable Street of bringing people together to stand up against racism has been needed again and again, with the Anti Nazi League challenging the National Front in the 1970s and 1990s and Unite Against Fascism taking on the BNP more recently.
Events to commemorate the anniversary
March and Rally
Speakers include Max Levitas (Cable St veteran), Jeremy Corbyn MP, Rushanara Ali MP, Unmesh Desai (GLA member), Frances O’Grady (TUC general secretary), Michael Rosen
Sunday 9th October Assemble 12 noon, Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel Road, London E1. March to a rally at St George’s Gardens, Cable Street.
Exhibition: The Battle Of Cable Street
The Idea Store, Watney Market, 260 Commercial Road E1 2FB.
28th September to 18th October 9am-9pm Monday to Saturday (plus special opening after march on 9th October). Organised by the Cable Street Group.
For details of these and other events go to cablestreet80.org.uk