Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Cable Street heroics are a myth
Mosley and his followers were indeed prevented from marching to Victoria Park.
But they reaped a rich reward Geoffrey Alderman Jewish Chronicle 13 October 2006, p.33.
In the early 1990s, I had the privilege of supervising a brilliantdoctoral student, Thomas Linehan (now of Brunel University), who had taken upon himself the daunting task of recreating the membership lists of the East London and South-West Essex branches of the British Union of Fascists,and, from those lists, of discovering who the members of these branches wereand why they joined the BUF.
When the BUF was proscribed in 1940, and its leaders arrested, most of its membership records were deliberately destroyed. Historians who, in the1960s and 1970s, first started seriously examining the phenomenon of the BUF,had relied almost exclusively on what were, at best, intelligent guesses as total BUF and individual branch membership.
Dr Linehan swept all these generalisations aside. Through painstaking detective work, he was able to give us our first accurate insight into the periodic rise and fall of BUF membership, which was (as it turned out)tied very much to local politics and local circumstances.
Linehan's thesis was published in 1996 as "East London for Mosley." Onpage 202 of that book you will find an extraordinary analysis of the impact of the so-called "Battle" of Cable Street on BUF recruitment. The Battle of Cable Street took place on Sunday, October 4 1936. To celebrate the fourth anniversary of the establishment of the BUF its founder, the former Labour minister Oswald Mosley, announced that the massed ranks of the party would> assemble for "inspection" at the Royal Mint and then march .through east London for a rally at Victoria Park.
The BUF was fully entitled to hold such an event under the then existing law. Nor would this have been the first time the BUF had marched through the East End; there had been previous marches without serious incident. But an> alliance of left-wing groups, led by the Communist party, decided to pick a fight with the BUF in order to heighten awareness of the Fascist threat and to engineer a situation in which - as they hoped - the BUF would be banned, or its activities severely restricted.
The Spanish Civil War had broken out three months previously and British Communists were going to show, at Cable Street, that they, too, could fight Fascism. Or,as one of them confessed at a seminar I chaired at London University in 1986 (at which Cable Street veterans from all sides were brought together for a civilised discussion), physically confronting the BUF was going to make us "feel good."
So, in order that a motley collection of left-wingers (many of them Jews) could "feel good," the civil rights of the BUF were going to be swept aside. The police were out in force to protect these rights. And the "battle"that took place was not (as it turned out) between the anti-Fascists and theBUF, but between the anti-Fascists and the police. That was what the Battle of Cable Street was really about.
Mosley and his followers were indeed prevented from marching to Victoria Park. But they reaped a rich reward. It is owing to the research of Dr Linehan that we now have an authoritative account of the effect of Cable Street on BUF popularity. There was, concludes Dr Linehan, a "spectacular leap" in BUF recruitment in east London following the events of Cable Street.
The membership of the BUF rose steadily to a peak of around 40,000 in1937. At the London County Council elections that year, the BUF polled 14 percent of the votes in Shoreditch, 19 per cent in Limehouse and a stunning 23 per cent in Bethnal Green.
Why did upright tradesmen and shopkeepers and even professional people, support and join the BUF? Why was there so much hostility in the East End towards Jews?
These questions obsessed the Board of Deputies. Ten days after CableStreet, the Board's president, Neville Laski, had a secret meeting with the Communist leader Harry Pollitt and the Labour MP Herbert Morrison. Both agreed that Jews carried much of the responsibility for the prejudice against them. This resulted from such behaviour as flouting the Sunday trading laws; the use of blackleg labour to undermine trade unions; and sharp practices by Jewish landlords and estate agents. The impact of Cable Street was to add to this list by enabling the BUF to brand Jews additionally as enemies of the freedoms of speech and of lawful assembly.
Veterans of Cable Street, who claim to have stopped the Fascists there,are clearly proud of their achievement. But their unlawful activities don't strike me as having been clever at all.