I think the UK likes to see itself as a spectator of other countries struggling with the threats of extreme parties. It is true, our voting system grants us a degree of protection from the rise of small, radical parties (and although the system has many faults, I won’t be going into them now). However, we are not exempt. Extreme views can be found anywhere and there will always be people hoping to represent them. In the 1930’s, it was Oswald Mosley and his ‘British Union of Fascists’. Perhaps the most explicit example of the threat that far-right extremism poses to the UK. Mosley had his own band of ‘Blackshirts’ a group of young men he used as his own from of security. Sound familiar? It should. Modelled on the likes of Mussolini and Hitler, taking tips from the dictators of the continent. It probably won’t surprise many people to know that the Daily Mail showed support for the party from early on, running headlines such as “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”. If not for the war, it is not certain how much power the BUF would have accumulated.
Much like Germany and Italy the time, the UK was facing high levels of poverty and unemployment. As ever, the fascists used a malcontented society to drive their agenda, capitalising on people’s frustration, emphasising differences in order to ingrain divisions. They held frequent rallies and meetings, gaining huge amounts of support, feeding on dissatisfaction. When he felt he had outgrown the Albert Hall, Mosley organised for the next meeting to take place at the Olympia. This event was heavily publicised with hopes of drawing in crowds and spreading the message of antisemitism as far as they could. Mosley was outspoken in his belief that the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany was justified, and that British Jews were hoping to drag Europe into another war. For all the support gained, resistance was also strong.
At the Olympia meeting in 1934, this resistance was made known. Many tickets were given out freely, so left wing groups and members of the Jewish community seized the opportunity to attend the rally and show their opposition to the hateful rhetoric that was being spouted. Unsurprisingly, this led to clashes between the Blackshirt stewards and the anti-fascists. There is still debate over who is to blame for the fallout, but it is clear that this was the start of a tense period between those calling for fascism and those opposing it.
The most notable clash was in 1936, Cable Street, the East End of London. The British Union of Fascists staged a march, which was met with an estimated total of about 20,000 protesters. The protesters were formed out of many anti-fascist groups, including: Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, the Independent Labour Party, Irish Dockers, and British Jews. Over 6000 Met Police Officers, including some mounted officers, were there to supervise the event. As the Fascist marchers (roughly 2000 of them) made their way, so did a counter march from the Jewish Ex-Servicemen Association. Early in the day, the counter-marchers were interrupted by the police and ordered to disperse. Their refusal led to a clash that ended with many being beaten by the police.
With the help of Irish Dockers, who stood in solidarity with the Jews, Cable Street had been prepared with barricades in the hopes of blocking the BUF. Even Tram drivers had abandoned their vehicles in the middle of the street. Signs strewn across the area reading “They shall not pass” and “Remember Olympia!”. The police response was a harsh one. Violence erupted, local cafes became first aid centres for the nearly 200 people who were wounded, at least 150 people were arrested. The East End had become a battle ground.
It’s easy to look at these events and blame the anti-fascists for the violence. After all they knew about the planned march and purposely staged a counter-demonstration. However, the BUF were calculated in their moves. London’s East End is known for it’s diversity, and at this time it was home to large Jewish Community. The Fascists had gone out of their way to intimidate and anger. In my view, they were simply met with self defence and those trying to protect the minority. I don’t condone unnecessary violence, but I do stand in support with the courage of those who stand up to those inciting hatred.
As the Second World War crept closer, support for the BUF dissipated, they were seen to be enemies of the state for their support of Hitler’s ideology. Rightly so. However, it should not take a war to do so. This country can be so conflicting at times. So accepting, yet so divided. There is a beauty in diversity that I hope will be seen by more people. Events of recent years have allowed divisions to resurface, society is beginning to tolerate the intolerable. To me, the Battle of Cable Street shows the best and worst of people. It reveals the dangers of extremism and the power of resistance.
One thing that is striking to me is the fact that I wouldn’t have known about this if i didn’t stumble across it whilst reading. My discipline has always been in politics and history, yet not one of my teachers has ever mentioned this, even when studying the events just before the war. It is so important that we know about the past, that we learn from it, rather than trying to recreate it. The same insularity that was a threat to Europe over eighty years ago feels as though it is edging its way back in. From the first call for us to “Take back control”, the veil dropped and the ugly side of society began to show. Perhaps the most disappointing thing of all is the fact that the veil was there in the first place – that these views were present, just never on show. Now, certain individuals feel proud to say the most grotesque things, ignoring the fact that this country was built off the back of hundreds of other cultures. It is time to open our minds again.