Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the historic battle of Cable Street when tens of thousands of East End workers blocked a march through the area by Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Given protection by the police and supported by much of the media, Mosley’s home grown Nazi movement aimed to intimidate the local Jewish community. Four local mayors pleaded with the Tory Home Secretary for the march to be banned - but to no avail. The Jewish Peoples Council against Fascism collected a petition of 100,000 signatures calling, unsuccessfully, for the march to be banned.
Jewish workers ignored the advice of their community "leaders" – the upper class dominated Board of Deputies - who told them to stay indoors. Instead, they joined dockers and other trade unionists, the Irish community and members of the Communist Party and Labour Party on the streets. The march was re-routed to Cable Street after a sea of people blocked Gardiners Corner, the gateway to the East End at Whitechapel. A sympathetic bus driver abandoned his vehicle using it as a barricade.
The police were determined to ensure a way through for the BUF. Violent clashes took place in the narrow Cable Street between 6,000 mounted and foot police and protesters. After several hours, with dozens of police injured, and 84 protesters arrested, the police finally told Mosley and his 3,000 supporters that they would have to march in the opposite direction.
The media’s attitude was not unlike that of today – except then Jews were in the firing line while it’s the Muslim community which is the target today. Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany had recently come to Britain and the Sunday Express wrote that they "are over-running the country". In another edition the Express claimed, "Aliens who can hardly speak English are now driving London taxicabs and forcing British drivers off the streets." The Sunday Pictorial waded in with: "Refugees get jobs, Britons get dole", while Evening Standard billboards announced: 'Alien Jews pouring in". Mosley won open support from the press baron Lord Rothemere and his Daily Mail newspaper ran a centre-spread: "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!".
Although workers forced the fascist movement off the streets of the East End that day, the state struck back. Some anti-fascists arrested during the fighting were jailed and The Public Order Act was passed, ostensibly to ban the wearing of uniforms on marches. It was used most frequently against left-wing marches, however. The British ruling class continued to appease Hitler’s Nazi Germany and within three years of Cable Street, workers were conscripted to fight in another inter-imperialist world war.
What Cable Street showed is that only independent action with the aim of changing the course of events can defeat these types of attacks. Just as in 1936, the capitalist state lends comfort to the racists and modern-day fascists and calling on the authorities to take action to protect communities is fruitless. You only have to witness New Labour’s relentless demonisation of minority communities and asylum seekers as part of its "war on terror" to see that that is the case. The right-wing press picks up the government’s line and the sentiments of the headlines of 70 years ago can be found on a tabloid front page most days of the week. Cable Street is unfinished business.
* On Sunday, 8 October the Cable Street Group, and Alternative Arts are planning a commemorative day, starting at 12 noon. The festival will include a procession, street theatre, music, singers, an exhibition of photographs from 1936 and from more recent events, as well as stalls.