The Battle of Cable Street

It is now eighty years since The Battle of Cable Street on October 4th 1936 when a Communist and ILP mass of about twenty thousand forced Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) off the streets of the East End. It was a great, but organised fight with strategic placements, barricades and worked-out rushes at the police, standing between the BUF blackshirts and the angry, but politically motivated East End working class. The organisation of the anti-fascists was hardly surprising. as not because they outnumbered the some 5000 fascist and some 6000 police, but because nearly every man over the age of 36 had fought in the trenches during the First World War and understood the military basics of attack and defence.

Energy and commitment are great, but energy, commitment, experience and expertise work much better.

Anyone who wants to read of the sheer verve and vigour of the day, should get hold of a copy of the communist Phil Piratin’s “Our Flag Stays Red”, and there are other tremendous communist eyewitness and participant accounts.

All of these accounts bring to mind, William Wordsworth’s famous lines on the French Revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven [i]

But though the Battle of Cable St was a very visible demonstration of Communist power and influence in the East End and the euphoria around it at the time and the continuing interest today is under-standable; and while the Battle of Cable Street should obviously be celebrated, it also has to be understood that it was a victorious battle, not a victorious war and not all its repercussions were favourable to the Communist movement.

After the blackshirts were forced off the East End streets, they continued to hold meetings which attracted large audiences in Stepney, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Stoke Newington. And Special Branch reported that the membership of the British Union of Fascists now actually increased some 2000,[ii] and there is no doubt, that if the Red Army had not defeated the Nazis and the now unimaginable had happened, the BUF could easily have reappeared in strength, rather than as it actually did in 1948, as Mosley’s new Union Movement, demanding a United Europe with no immigration. A political potage which attracted no attention from a post-war population interested in housing, the new NHS and nationalisation.

In 1936 it was not necessary to get police or local authority permission before staging a march or demonstration, but on October 2nd, two days before the B.U.F. march, a delegation from the “Jewish People’s Council (Against fascism and Anti-Semitism) went to the Home Secretary, Sir John Simon [iii] with a petition containing 100,000 signatures asking for the march to be banned as it would inevitably cause a “breach of the peace.”

The Jewish People’s Council was an ephemeral working class organisation, not be confused with the elite British Board of Deputies (BBD) but while the BBD position of avoiding direct confrontation with the fascists has been criticised, it was not inactive. [iv]

The cost of policing fascist marches had actually become an issue in several towns that summer, yet Sir John had left instructions for any delegation demanding a ban on the march to be ignored and for the BUF march in the East End to go ahead. Arguably, Sir John did not care if fascists and communists battered each other to pieces, but he also had an agenda, Letting the march go ahead and a battle to take place between fascist and anti-fascists would allow the government to introduce a public order bill, which would restrict the free speech and right to demonstrate of communists as much as fascists, even more so if the police were biased.

In 1936, the government of Stanley Baldwin had really looking for an excuse to introduce and impose a draconian Public Order Act. They seized on the opportunity presented by the Battle of Cable Street, but if the anti-fascists had taken the advice of the British Board of Deputies (and the Quakers) and just stayed indoors while the fascists marched past, the government would surely have found some other pretext to introduce a Public Order Act. This is not a call to inaction, but a call to recognise that while some glorious battles have been fought and won, victory is not yet ours.

Nor was it isolated from the Communist opponents of fascism. If nothing else the current president of the British Board of Deputies, Neville Laski was a brother-in-law of Jack Gaster, one of the two post war communist members of the London County Council (LCC).

*

On October 2nd, a senior civil servant [vi], spoke to the Jewish People’s Council delegation as Sir John was away in Scotland where he had delivered a speech, equating communism with fascism, “…Communism and Fascism… are both foreign products. However much they denounce each other, the Communists and Fascists have one aim in common—to get rid of democratic self-government in favour of a dictatorship”. [v]

The cost of policing fascist marches had actually become an issue in several towns that summer, yet Sir John had left instructions for any delegation demanding a ban on the march to be ignored and for the BUF march in the East End to go ahead. Arguably, Sir John did not care if fascists and communists battered each other to pieces, but he also had an agenda, letting the march go ahead and a battle to take place between fascist and anti-fascists would allow the government to introduce a public order bill, which would restrict the free speech and right to demonstrate of communists as much as fascists, even more so if the police were biased.

The moment the Battle of Cable Street was over, Sir John had the General Secretary of the Trades Union Council and arch anti-communist Sir Walter Citrine [vii] on side; Citrine had been general secretary at the time of the General Strike and in 1927 had written the opus, Democracy or Disruption – An Examination of Communist Influences in the Trade Unions. Citrine would successfully sue the Daily Worker for libel in April 1940. The judge [viii] would take time to praise him for strengthening non-Communist unions around the world, especially in the West Indies. Sir John Simon also gained the important support of Herbert Morrison [ix] current head of the London County Council. Later as Home Secretary during the wartime coalition government, Morrison would ban the Daily Worker [x]

Morrison’s anti-communism was as visceral as Citrine’s; and with no effective opposition from within the “Labour movement” the Public Order Act 1936 had no problem passing both houses. It received Royal Assent on 18th December 1936.

Most historical attention has been given to the banning of political uniforms, but just as important was the prohibition of organised training in military techniques and the imposition for the first time in British history of the need to get prior permission to march and demonstrate. Previously demonstrations could only be stopped if and when they had become tumultuous and violent; and only when the Riot Act had been read and people given time to disperse (that was the theory, though clearly, as at Peterloo in 1819, and at Coldbath Fields in 1833, theory was not always carried out in practice).

Even so the new legal requirement for prior permission to assemble and demonstrate was an enormous abrogation of traditional civil liberties, so were the new restrictions on free speech, which might lead to a breach of the peace.

And as might be expected and no doubt intended, The Public Order Act 1936 has been used far more extensively against the left than the right, including against flying pickets during the 1984/5.

In 1936, the government of Stanley Baldwin had really been looking for an excuse to introduce and impose a draconian Public Order Act. They seized on the opportunity presented by the Battle of Cable Street, but if the anti-fascists had taken the advice of the British Board of Deputies (and the Quakers) and just stayed indoors while the fascists marched past, the government would surely have found some other pretext to introduce a Public Order Act. This is not a call to inaction, but a call to recognise that while some glorious battles have been fought and won, victory is not yet ours.

The bourgeoisie is a Hydra not a cockroach.

i French Revolution by William Wordsworth 1805, he later turned against revolution.
ii Hurrah for the Blackshirts, Fascists and Fascism between the Wars by Martin Pugh, Jonathan Cape 2005
iii Sir John Simon 1873-1954
iv See British Fascism and anti-Semitism and Jewish responses by Daniel Tilles, Bloomsbury 2014
v Neville Laski (1890-1869) married Phina Emily Gaster, sister of Jack Gaster (1907-2007) Laski was president of the British Board of Deputies from 1933-1939
vi Sir Alexander Maxwell (1880-1963)
vii Sir Walter Citrine 1887-1983, General Secretary of TUC 1926-1945
viii Mr Justice Stable
ix Herbert Morrison (1888-1965)
x Banned on January 21 1941. The ban lasted for eighteen months.

 

This article first appeared in Live Encounters Magazine, October 2016. Reproduced with thanks and available at: https://liveencounters.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Live-Encounters-Magazine-October-2016.pdf