Today’s 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street marks an important milestone in British politics; with the benefit of hindsight we know that we triumphed, and the British Union of Fascists did not come to power. But the BUF were a serious threat, and despite self-serving banalities from liberals about British propensity towards moderation, there was nothing inevitable about the BUF’s defeat.
Sir Oswald Mosley was perhaps the most impressively talented fascist leader in Europe. A handsome and charming patrician, with a distinguished enough military record; he was also an intellectual politician who had been a Labour cabinet minister, and associated with the left. Indeed the Labour Marxist John Strachey briefly followed Mosley into the New Party in 1931.
It was Mosley who introduced the ideas of John Maynard Keynes into the Labour Party, in collaboration with the union leaders Ernest Bevin and A J Cook; and while not acknowledged for obvious reasons, Moseley was a key influence in developing the idea that the Labour Party should pursue distinctive economic polices based upon state interventionist government, whereas in the 1920s the Party had tended to follow liberal orthodoxy in the short term while advocating an abstract socialism for the future. The charisma of Mosley as a left winger is exemplified by the fact that 7 out of 20 girls in my mum’s class at primary school in Scunthorpe were named after his first wife, Cynthia.
This is not the place to speculate on the individual motivations for Mosley’s rapid evolution into open fascism, with the formation of the BUF in 1932, nor his increasingly strident anti-Semitism; but we do need to understand the context. Fascism was triumphant in Italy, and on the cusp of power in Germany when the BUF were formed: and in a few short years fascism spread across Germany, Austria, Spain and Portugal. Britain was torn apart by depression and class conflict, and there was a terrible sense of betrayal that the Parliamentary Labour Party had split with the unions and most of the membership to join the National government in coalition with the Tories.
Mosley’s BUF was initially supported by Lord Rothermere’s newspapers, the Daily Mail, Sunday Dispatch, and several local and regional titles. The Italian government subsidised Mosley to the tune of £224,230, equivalent to £7 million in today’s money. Fascism was also socially and intellectually respectable. Many glittering individuals from that generation of young men who had experienced the charnel house of the Western Front found the vigour and energy of fascism more attuned to their experience than the stuffy, complacent provinciality of civilian life. Henry Williamson, The author of the best selling children’s book “Tarka the Otter”, dedicated his rather good series of adult novels, the Dandelion Years, to Adolf Hitler; Britain’s foremost avant-guard painter and controversialist, Wyndham Lewis, wrote a short book praising Hitler and advocating fascism, and the literary clique around Ezra Pound and TS Eliot were admirers of Mussolini. Anti-Semitism was mainstream: indeed Ezra Pound’s introduction to Milton’s Paradise Lost (included even in my 1970s Penguin edition) castigated Milton for his “Hebraic influences”.
Mosley used his brilliant skills as a public speaker and his political charisma to devastating effect; with provocative rallies and marches in uniform through Jewish and immigrant areas; his firm grasp of the law meant that he sailed close to the wind in provoking a violent response from Jews and the left, without himself stepping outside legality; and then his blackshirts would go on the rampage; imposing by physical force their rule of the streets; while the BUF afterwards spun a narrative of self defence.
The determined opposition that the blackshirts received and the ensuing violence was a double edged sword, it did strip away respectability from the BUF, but the fascists revelled in their image of being hardened revolutionaries, and the prospect of violence attracted many to them, as well as repelling others. Mosley was aware of how Mussolini had politicised his squadristi, (originally recruited largely from apolitical thugs and petty criminals) through ritual violent confrontations; building a sense of group identity and camaraderie defined by their opposition to the reds
The Communist Party did achieve a great publicity victory by heroic heckling at the Olympia rally in 1934, where the savage backlash by blackshirt stewards caused a national outrage (I had a school teacher who lost an eye at Olympia through being kicked repeatedly in the head), and the Daily Mail dropped its support for the BUF. But Olympia did not stop the BUF from growing, and enhanced its reputation for seriousness.
Sunday 4th October 1936, the Battle of Cable Street was massive morale boost and victory for the left and for the Jewish community, but it was not necessarily a decisive defeat for the BUF. Indeed, within the two weeks following Cable Street, the BUF staged a number of very big and uncontested meetings in Stepney, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Limehouse, and on 14th October, just ten days after the Battle of Cable Street Mosley addressed a crowd of 12000 fascists in Bethnal Green, and then led them in a march to Limehouse. Indeed on the Sunday of 11th October a gang of 200 BUF thugs rampaged down Mile End Road, smashing the windows of Jewish owned shops, and throwing a hairdresser and a four year old girl through a plate glass window.
The most distinctive difference at the Battle of Cable Street was that Mosley and the blackshirts turned away rather than contest the streets by physical force. The scale of the left’s mobilisation would certainly have been a consideration for the BUF, but their retreat on 4th October may be explained because Mosley had important personal plans that meant he could not afford to be arrested on that particular day. On Monday 5th October 1936 Mosley flew to Berlin where he married Diana Mitford, in the presence of Dr Joseph Goebbels, his wife Magda, and Adolf Hitler.
The most obvious negative consequence for Mosley was that Mussolini drew the conclusion that the British fascist leader was a dilettante, and continued financial support was made conditional on good results in the London County Council elections in 1937, where in fact the BUF did relatively poorly; so they lost their subvention from Rome; the Public Order Act which came into force on 1st January 1937 also banned political uniforms, which was a potent psychological blow to Mosley’s movement.
Anti-Semitism continued to be a very strong force in the East End, the volunteer polling organisation, Mass Observation, reported in 1939 that 20% of residents of Stepney agreed with Jew-hating stereotypes, blaming Jews for their economic hardship. Throughout the late 1930s anti-Semitic violence was a daily feature of East End life; and in the 1937 election the BUF polled 16.3% in Stepney with 4172 votes.
The important legacy of Cable Street was not so much that it physically defeated the Fascists on the streets, but that it forged in fire the alliance between the left and the Jewish community, and boosted the confidence of the anti-fascists that they could defeat the BUF. A significant group of influential socialists in the Labour Party, people of the stature of Nye Bevan, and Sir Stafford Cripps, became convinced that building a Popular Front against fascism (which meant active collaboration between the Labour Party and the Communist Party), was the most vital task of their era; which led to their expulsion from the Party, although they were later readmitted.
Forget the cod-sociology and under-graduate Marxism about fascism being a “petit-bourgeois” movement of the middle classes. In Stepney in 1937 and in Barking in 2006 the BUF voters and BNP voters have been and are the most disadvantaged parts of the working class, and they have been attracted to vote for the far-right on the basis of anti-Semitism then, and anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia now. It is a social movement based upon racism, and the distinctive national chauvinism and sense of entitlement born of the British imperial legacy.
Fascism was defeated in Britain in the 1930s by a number of distinctive and complementary processes.
Firstly, the successful, anti-fascist Popular Front built around the defence of democracy in Spain, and stressing the traditional defence of democracy in British culture, that won around not only the labour movement, but shifted the intellectual climate, so that for example prominent Hitlerites like Wyndham Lewis repudiated their views, even before the war with Germany seemed likely. Significant alliances were made by anti-Fascists with the Catholic clergy, for example, in Stepney, where local priests were vital in preventing indigenous anti-Semitism merging with pro-fascist sympathy for Generalissimo Franco.
Secondly, the Communist Party in particular were instrumental in overcoming inter-community divisions though initiating the Stepney Tenants Defence League, which took militant action to defend the economic interests of working people, cutting across the religious and social divides. The STDF succeeded because it was deeply rooted in the local communities, and did not deal in platitudes and generalities, but campaigned for a sustained period over practical daily issues. It was this deeply rooted campaigning over social issues by local activists that cut away Mosley’s support at the roots, as described brilliantly in Phil Piratin’s “Our Flag Stays Red”
There are important lessons for today. Physical defiance of the BUF (and the NF in the 1970s) operated to impede the fascists from achieving mainstream respectability, but while such a physical force strategy may have been necessary it was never sufficient. In the changed political circumstances of 2011, the English Defence League have no respectability to lose, and the BNP are sufficiently arms-length from them not to be politically damaged by violence. We also need to understand that in certain circumstances, physical confrontation can make the far right MORE attractive to dangerous young men who enjoy violence, and it can further politicise their inherent prejudice.
The other thing to learn is that because the underlying cause of people voting for fascism in Britain is deep ingrained racism by socially marginalised people, then thinking that exposing the BNP to be Nazis is fatal to their electability rather over-estimates the political awareness of their voters, and betrays mistaken faith in the degree to which the anti-fascist consciousness forged in the Second World War still survives. Of course exposing the Nazi connections of the BNP leadership plays a useful role, but labelling the BNP as fascist or Nazi is increasingly ineffective.
The BNP remain a marginal political force, and if the mainstream consensus against them can be successfully mobilised at the ballot box then they can continue to be denied any sustainable breakthrough. However, the long term lesson of Stepney in the 1930s is that the social base of fascism is undermined by there being locally rooted community campaigns taking up those day to day issues which breed resentment.
This is where in recent years the far left in Britain have mainly failed, and failed utterly. There is no prospect of such rooted campaigning around social disadvantage springing from the outside left on Britain’s estates.
The legacy of the New Labour strategy meant that the Labour Party in more recent years has also neglected the concerns of many working class voters, because the type of tranformatory social democratic politics that would address their real world needs and anxieties was sacrificied in the interests of placating swing voters in marginal seats.
There are welcome signs of the necessary cultural shift taking place in the Party to again understand the need of hard graft in local communities, but concentration on swing voters in marginal seats cannot be allowed to mean that the predominantly working class areas are neglected.
The BNP have serial and serious problems at the current time, as political and financial chickens come home to roost; but the threat from the far right still rears seemingly large, not because the BNP are intrinsically important or liable to make a breakthrough, but because their racism is an easy answer to fill a political vacuum that the left has largely failed to even engage with, except at the level of generality.