Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Battle of Cable Street

The Battle of Cable Street and the failure of fascism in Britain

by Daphne Liddle

ON THE 4th October 1936 thousands of working class people in London’s East End, led by the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Independent Labour Party rose early from their beds to occupy four key places along the route of a planned march by Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascist Blackshirts in order to block its path. Throughout the day they stood firm in spite of mounted police baton charges, numerous arrests.
By noon Gardiner’s Corner was impassable due to the number of anti-fascist demonstrators. Police tried to clear a route through Leman Street – but this was blocked by a tram, deliberately abandoned by its driver.
Police tried to reroute the march through Cable Street. Anti-fascist demonstrators, the vast majority local residents, blocked Cable Street with barricades in three different places. Police fought their way through one barricade, only to be confronted by the second. Eventually the police gave up and ordered Mosley to abandon his march. They escorted him to the Embankment where his followers dispersed.
This was a humiliating defeat for Mosley and eventually led to a cutting off of vital funds from his main financial sponsor, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
The Battle of Cable Street marked a significant turning point and the end of any prospects of fascism becoming a truly mass movement in Britain as it had done in some other European countries.
Mosley’s BUF was not the first fascist movement in Britain. That was the Imperial Fascist League, founded by Arnold Leese, a former army camel vetinary who had served in India and the Middle East. This tiny group modelled itself on Mussolini’s fascist movement but, unlike Mussolini at that time, Leese was virulently anti-Semitic. He claimed this sprang from his vetinary objections to kosher animal slaughter practices.
He was further influences by the notorious forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion – the same work that influenced the young Hitler.
Mosley began his political career by being elected Conservative MP for Harrow in 1918 at the age of 23. He soon found party discipline irksome and left the party to become first an Independent Conservative and then simply an Independent. In April 1924 he joined the Labour Party, five months after it had formed a minority government supported by the Liberals.
By 1925 Mosley was proposing a new economic policy based on the theories of John Maynard Keynes, whom he had consulted in drawing up his version of social credit policy. Mosley proposed the nationalisation of the banking system and a system of social credits to the unemployed to stimulate demand.
When Labour lost the October 1924 general election to the Tories, as a backbench MP he accused the Government of wishing to be fascist but not having the courage.
In May 1930 he resigned from Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government after it failed to adopt his economic policies and took with him a number of other Labour (or rather Independent Labour) members, including John Strachey, Dr Robert Forgan, W J Brown, Oliver Baldwin and his first wife, Cynthia Mosley, to form the New Party.
The New Party tried to make a populist appeal to the unemployed as an alternative to the young Communist Party of Great Britain. But it failed to attract a mass following. Then Mosley visited Mussolini in Italy and was very impressed; he decided to form a Union of Fascists based on the New Party’s youth movement. He drafted a new programme, the Greater Britain and aimed to win fascist power in Britain.
One obstacle to making fascism popular in Britain is that it is a particularly nationalistic cult and in the 1930s was already identified firmly with Italian and German nationalism. So Mosley tried to prove that fascism also had British roots and tried to construct a British tradition of fascism. For this he seized upon the Ulster Volunteer Force, an organisation led by Sir Edward Carson in the north of Ireland in the earlier part of the 20th century implacably opposed to home rule for Ireland.
In 1914 Prime Minister Lloyd George had passed a Home Rule Bill through Parliament, giving Ireland its freedom. But Carson staged a rebellion in Ulster. The army was ordered to deal with this rebellion but the officers mutinied – the British aristocrat class fully supported Carson – and Parliament was forced to back down. Lenin at the time pointed out that this was an indicator of the true nature of class power in Britain.
Mosley gave the job to one of his lieutenants, W E D Allen, former Tory MP for Belfast West to mould the legacy of Carson and the paramilitary UVF to fit a fascist perspective. Ever since, the fascist extreme right-wing in Britain has had strong links with Protestant paramilitaries in the occupied six counties of Ireland.
For Mosley himself this led to a strangely two-faced position as he had in the past backed a united Ireland and had links with the Blueshirt Irish nationalists. One of the advantages of fascism as an “ideology” is that it does not have to adhere to rationalism or consistency – “faith”, strong emotions and “leadership qualities” are given priority.
Mosley’s vision of a fascist Britain included an Enabling Act to free the Government from parliamentary control while it introduced the new economic policy. Parliament would no longer have the right to dismiss a Government through a vote of censure. Parliament would be elected on an occupational franchise rather than on geographical constituencies and its role would be purely advisory; the Commons would advise on political and economic matters while the Lords would advise on moral and religious matters.
Once every five years there would be a referendum and the population would be allowed to endorse the Government. If the people voted against it, the monarch would summon new ministers who, in his opinion, would be likely to win support in a fresh vote.
Parallel to this would be an apparently self-governing industrial structure, a “corporate state” comprising employers, tame trade unions and consumer groups. Each corporation – governing a whole sector of the economy – would determine its own policies on wages, prices and conditions.
His promises of full employment did attract some working class support in those areas worst hit: the depressed textile industries of Lancashire, Leeds and London’s East End. But even in these places the fascists never gained a majority and were tainted by the anti-Semitic reputation of international fascism.
Mosley was not originally anti-Semitic but did not discourage it among his members when they attacked Jews. He was a great opportunist, seeking financial support from European fascists who were very anti-Semitic. When Jews and communists united to fight back, Mosley’s movement became very anti-Semitic.
Arnold Leese, resentful that Mosley had stolen so many of his potential followers, was scornful of Mosley’s insincere anti-Semitism and labelled him a “Kosher fascist”.
Mosley sought but did not find support from Britain’s industrialists but did not admit this in public. Historian Robert Benewick wrote: “Among those rumoured to have contributed generously were Sir William Morris, Lord Inchcape, Sir Henry Deterling, Watney’s Brewery and the Imperial Tobacco Company. These rumours were, for the most part, without foundation.” Some had backed the New Party before Mosley turned it fascist.
Mosley did get some support from a section of the British aristocracy, particularly the friends and relations of his second wife, Diana Mitford and from the Cliveden Set, who toyed with the idea of supporting Hitler. Left-wing journalist Clive Cockburn, editor of The Week, certainly regarded the Cliveden Set as a pro-Nazi conspiratorial group. They did manage to spread some confusion among the German and British governments. Diana Mitford/Mosley and her sister Unity possibly gave Hitler a false impression that the British aristocracy would support him.
The BUF did gain some support in the London area, including a handful of intellectuals such as William Joyce, Raven Thompson and A K Chesterton, plus an assortment of disenchanted petty bourgeoisie and workers. But it never gained enough support from any class to say that it in anyway represented the outlook of that class.
The opportunism of the BUF, in allowing itself to be seen as anything that a potential recruit mighty want it to be, in order to maximise membership, lead to confusion and divisions and eventually more members were leaving than joining. Some who joined were obvious cranks and eccentrics, and their presence discouraged others.
Mosley did have one powerful supporter in the shape of newspaper baron Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, the Sunday Dispatch and the London Evening News. Rothermere used his papers to promote fascism, which he seemed to interpret as a sort of armed Conservatism. He did not share the fascists’ anti-Semitism nor their stated opposition to international finance capital.
Rothermere backed off from supporting Mosley as Hitler’s fascism became more notorious, especially after the “Night of the Long Knives”. Rothermere was also disconcerted by the violence associated with Mosley’s mass rallies in Olympia in the early 1930s.
This violence attracted a diversity of recruits who saw in fascism the embodiment of their own frustrated causes but who did not help the movement except in terms of recruitment statistics. Benewick wrote: “In 1933 and 1934, particularly during Lord Rothermere’s boost the BUF had taken hold like wildfire and had drawn to itself every unstable person and adventurer of either sex that the town.”
The BUF did provoke a great deal of opposition, which was mobilised by the CPGB – at the same time that volunteers were being recruited for the International Brigade to fight in the anti-fascist war in Spain. These twin struggles against fascism at home and abroad helped to strengthen and shape the CPGB. Membership doubled between 1935 and 37.
Following the seventh Comintern conference of 1935, the CPGB aimed to build a broad Popular Front against fascism based on Dimitrov’s analysis of fascism and the best way to combat it.
The Labour Party’s attitude to fascism was to hope that it would disappear naturally if ignored. The leadership felt that strong opposition to fascism only drew attention to it and encouraged. So they did not support the Popular Front as a party. But many individual members did support it.
The first large open air fascist rally in London’s East End happened on 7th June 1936. The fascists claimed that 100,000 had attended but press estimates varied from 3,000 to 50,000. Among them were 500 uniformed Blackshirts. The rally provoked a hostile crowd of local residents which was attacked by police. It ended in a free-for-all of hand-to-hand fighting.
In mid-July the East London Trades Council organised an anti-fascist march and rally in Victoria Park, with Labour MP Herbert Morrison to speak along with Sylvia Pankhurst. Fascists attacked the march, throwing stones as well as bags of flour and soot.
The East End became engulfed in a frenzy of political activity, with meetings every night – for and against the fascists. The Home Office recorded police attendance at 536 meetings in August, 603 in September and 647 in October. Nearly 300 extra police a day were drafted into the area.
In Parliament Herbert Morrison described how the Jews in the area felt under this pressure: “I say, and I am sure the whole House will agree, that in this country we are not prepared to tolerate any form of Jew-baiting.
“We are not in the least disposed to look with an indulgent eye on any form of persecution. It is therefore necessary that public attention should be drawn to this danger.”
Subsequently Mosley wrote in protest to the Home Secretary, Sir John Simpson, claiming that Jews were now the only people in Britain immune from attack! He argued that it was illegal to incite others to violence but felt he had as much right to attack Jews on their conduct in Great Britain as the Labour Party had the right to attack capitalists.
This was the background to the Battle of Cable Street. The BUF planned to assemble in Royal Mint Street near Tower Bridge and then march in four columns to meetings in Shoreditch, Limehouse, Bow and Bethnal Green. Mosley planned to address all four meetings. Various Labour local authority and Jewish groups had tried to get the march banned in vain. The Labour leadership and its papers, the Daily Herald and News Chronicle advised all anti-fascists to stay away.
But the Communist Daily Worker called on people to come out, a previously planned rally in Trafalgar Square in support of Republican Spain was dropped, after pressure from Communist Party members living in the East End, and comrades were told to rally to defend the East End.
Benewick describes the scene: “On the morning of 4th October, the East End was transformed into an expectant Madrid. Red flags were draped from windows, and variations of the slogan ‘They shall not pass’ adorned walls throughout the district. Gangs of youths marched through the streets chanting ‘Mosley shall not pass’ and ‘Bar the road to fascism’.
“Members of the Jewish People’s Council distributed a handbill which ended, ‘This march must not take place’. Leaflets were distributed by the Communists calling for a demonstration at Aldgate. The Ex-Servicemen’s Movement Against Fascism distributed handbills calling on its supporters to parade. The national Unemployed Workers’ Movement boasted of a human barricade. The loudspeaker vans of the Communist Party and the Jewish ex-Servicemen’s Association echoed throughout the boroughs. Anti-fascist rallies were announced for 2pm at Cable Street and at 8pm at Shoreditch.”
Hundreds of thousands of people began to converge on the four places where the fascists had planned to meet.
Some 3,000 fascists assembled in Royal Mint Street at 2.30pm. Even at the starting point, police had to baton charge anti fascists to try to clear a way for the fascists.
Throughout the East End, anti-fascist crowds – mostly local residents – blocked the planned fascist routes at strategic points. The path from Leman Street to Commercial Street was blocked by an abandoned tram. When police tried to reroute the march through Cable Street, it was blocked by barricades at three points.
The anti-fascist crowds defied repeated mounted police baton charges. There were legends of one or two police officers trying to surrender to the crowd – much to their embarrassment. Eventually the police gave up and told Mosley he could not march that day.
There were subsequent fascist rallies and meetings but none so big again. On 3rd October 1937 Mosley – now banned from the East End – attempted a march through Bermondsey in south London which also met with implacable opposition from local anti-fascists.
The communists stepped up their work among the East End residents on all sorts of local issues but especially housing. They backed rent strikes against exorbitant rents rises and won many working class former Mosleyites away from fascism. Workers soon learned that in any dispute with landlords or bosses, the fascists would take sides against the workers and consequently their support declined dramatically.
Mussolini’s support for Mosley waned when he could not gain mastery of London’s streets. Mosley complained that this was due to Communist influence and underhand conspiracies – but that the local people really did support him. But in subsequent elections BUF support declined and Mussolini withdrew financial support from Mosley.
The BUF never recovered from Cable Street and the fascist movement was totally discredited during the Second World War when Mosley and a number of his followers were interned as potential fifth columnists.
After the war Mosley made several unsuccessful attempts to revive his movement under different names but his support was reduced to a small fringe of cranks and eccentrics. When racism reared its ugly head in Britain again in the 1970s neo-nazi parties like the National Front barely mentioned him.