In the early morning of October 4th, 1936, thousands of black-shirted fascists mustered around the Tower of London. Awaiting them in the East End were Jews, union men and communists. Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, had declared October 4th a day of destiny and reckoning. Mosley hoped his army of British Blackshirts would march east from the Tower and occupy the “Jew-ridden and communistic” dockside streets of the East End. But London’s Jews were not left to fend for themselves that day. They were joined at the barricade by numerous trade unionists, Communist Party members and Irish dock workers.
Together, they agitated against the fascists to the famous battle cry of “they shall not pass!”
It was a rare day in the history of British Jewry and the British Left when Fascism was defeated and People Power triumphed over the Establishment. For the Tory Government provided police protection to Mosley’s Fascists, he was related to both The Queen (Mother) and Winston Churchill. Appeasers such as Lord Rothermere wrote an editorial in his newspaper headlined “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” and thought “Herr Hitler is the type of chappie we can do business with.”
Afterwards Mosley was a busted flush and he and his Blackshirts became a ludicrous footnote in British History. Supported by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party appeasement was defeated and with the formation of a National Government in 1940 Britain stood, initially alone, against the Nazis and Fascists and the course of history was changed. But, it could have been so much different if the East End had not stood up to the Fascist phalanx and their Aristo sympathisers on that October Day in 1936.
What is less well known is the decisive role played by thousands of Irish Dock Workers on that day in defending their Jewish neighbours. As the large Jewish community (mostly refugees from the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, the Baltic States and Poland) prepared their barricades around Cable Street and Whitechapel, many wondered: what would the Irish do? Tens of thousands of Irish Catholic Dockers lived with the Jewish community, in an often uneasy, antagonistic relationship.
— BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) October 4, 2016
But for all that the Irish were no friend of the bosses and were themselves brutalised by the poverty and squalor of existence in the East End and the fight for better working conditions working as casual labourers in the huge docks where they were hired on a daily basis. When the Dockers went on strike in 1912 their families starved and hundreds of Irish children were taken in and fed by their Jewish neighbours. The Irish had never forgotten the solidarity from the Jewish community during that grim time and today on the 4th October 1936 they had a debt to repay and a common enemy.
The Irish in the East End had been courted by Mosley, a political firebrand and Anglo-Irish aristocrat. Mosley had often spoken of freedom and unity for Ireland, and some Irishmen had joined his cause. His deputy was William Joyce, the Galway-raised fascist who would later find infamy as the Nazi propagandist “Lord Haw Haw”. A former Belfast policeman was his personal bodyguard.
After service in the First World War, Mosley was a Member of Parliament for Harrow from 1918 to 1924, first as a Conservative, then an independent, before joining the Labour Party. He returned to Parliament as Labour MP for Smethwick at a by-election in 1926, and served as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Labour Government of 1929–31. He resigned due to his disagreement with the Labour Government’s unemployment policies and was succeeded by Clement Attlee. His “Birmingham Manifesto” called for unemployment to be tackled by protectionist barriers and nationalisation of industry and services. He then formed the New Party. He lost his seat at Smethwick in 1931. The New Party merged with the BUF (which included the Blackshirts) in 1932.
Mosley’s legions would be guarded by thousands of policemen, hundreds of them on horseback. He expected his fascists to sweep through London as Mussolini had marched on Rome – and, de facto, into power – in October 1922. It would be one of the most dramatic days of the 20th century on British soil. The Metropolitan Police attempted to divert the Blackshirt marchers through Cable Street to avoid crowds on Whitechapel High Street who had assembled to block their path. Violence was sparked when counter protestors too headed to Cable Street. Three hours of fighting at the barricades, mounted-police charges and riots would become known as the Battle of Cable Street.
Estimates of the crowds that met the 5,000 or so Blackshirts – led by Mosley standing in an open-topped Rolls Royce and throwing the fascist salute – vary widely from 60,000-200,000. Mosley’s people reached the top of Cable Street after marching from nearby Tower Hill. But despite the march being legal and stewarded by police, many drawn in from surrounding counties, the barricades and flying bricks and bottles meant the Blackshirts would get no further.
After several hours, the police officer in charge had to go to Mosley to tell him it was impossible and that he would have to turn back.
80 years ago today, 101-year-old Max Levitas was one of thousands of Londoners who stood up to Oswald Mosley’s fascists on Cable Street pic.twitter.com/iP5T8BcfvX
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) October 4, 2016
The Battle of Cable Street is today remembered by the left in Britain as an almost mythical moment, when the working class people of the East End won a rare victory over fascism. It may seem incredible to us now, but in the early-to-mid 1930s, Sir Oswald Mosley and his Fascists were seen as the coming force in British politics. Fascism had triumphed in Italy and Germany, and Spain would soon fall. The old democracies were judged by to be weak and spent.
However there is a longstanding and false narrative on the far Left whereby fascism was stopped which seeks to justify their holy grail of “Direct Action” in a Parliamentary Democracy. In fact Cable Street had little to do with Mosley’s increasing isolation and defeat. The British party system, in which all the main parties (Labour and the Liberals included, contrary to modern selective interpretations) made horrendous misjudgements about the gravity of the threat from Nazism, proved resilient against both political extremism and the forces of economic depression. Mosley was a sinister and repugnant figure but his bombastic absurdity – attempting to transplant the symbols of fascism to an altogether different political culture – along with the vicious sectarianism of extremist politics were the main influences in undermining his superficial appeal. By the time of his internment in 1940, he was an utterly discredited figure.
Mosley was a charismatic demagogue. On the day after his march on the East End, he flew to Berlin to marry his long-time mistress, the famed society beauty Diana Mitford, at the home of their great friend Joseph Goebbels. Adolf Hitler would be the guest of honour.
Mosley did go to Berlin, but not as the triumphant leader.
The thousands of Jews, trade unionists, communists and Irish workers who assembled that day nailed the coffin of British fascism and ensured their place in history forever as the Battle of Cable Street’s victors, a victory copper fastened afterwards by the British aversion to extremism and the resilience of Parliamentary Democracy which saw Labour under Clem Attlee in 1945 elected with a mandate for social reform to transform post-War Britain.
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