Sunday Review: 75. The battle of Cable Street, edited by Steve Silver; and Hate, by Matthew Collins.

By Anthony Painter

This week marked the 75th anniversary of the battle of Cable Street. When Oswald Mosley attempted to march his British Union of Fascists black shirts through London’s East End on 4 October 1936, they were met by fierce resistance led by the area’s Jewish community. It was the moment pre-war British fascism was broken. Two days later, Mosley married Diana Mitford in the presence of Hitler in Berlin. She should have waited.

In a stunning publication edited by Steve Silver, 75. The battle of Cable Street anniversary, Searchlight commemorates the events of that day. It mixes textured history with rare photos published for the first time and eye-witness accounts. Through the mists of time the facts get lost. When the EDL tried to march on East London a few weeks ago, a Cable Street inspired protest was planned. Voices on the liberal left, including liberal conspiracist Sunny Hundal and academic Nina Power, even called for the EDL march to proceed. Neither seem to have read their Cable Street history. As Silver writes:

“Feelings ran high and the JPC [Jewish people’s council] led opposition to the proposed march by organising a 100,000 strong petition urging the home secretary to ban the march… But the government refused to ban the march and it was left to local people to defend their community from the fascists”.

This summer, Searchlight organised a similar petition. On this occasion the metropolitan police and the home secretary saw sense and the march was banned. The people of London’s East End stopped Mosley in his tracks. They did so again, but this time they had the support of the authorities. No pasaran.

Unfortunately, Cable Street wasn’t the last word in British fascism. It has never gone away and while the alienation, hatred and the angst which lie at its core are still with us, its form shifts continually. Matthew Collins’s account of life on the far-right, Hate, covers the decline of the National Front, the rise of the BNP, mainland unionist paramilitarism, the appearance of combat 18, the terrorist attacks of David Copeland, and the fight-back led by Searchlight and hope not hate in different ways in response to different challenges. It is gripping yet discomforting stuff; the writing is high-tempo and powerfully honest. For anyone wishing to know what we are contending with – including those who naively want the police and security forces to treat the English Defence League as a protest movement instead of an extremist organisation – Collins’s account is an essential text.

What this book makes absolutely clear is the violent, holocaust denialist, Nazi, and racist foundations of the British National Party. Holocaust denial has served an important function for the far-right. If you can deny the Holocaust, you can deny anything. That then gives you enormous room for political manoeuvre. Violence follows as night follows day. So denialism is not harmless political posturing – it’s highly dangerous.

The BNP started life as modern version of the British Union of Fascists with John Tyndall as a preposterous reincarnation of Oswald Mosley. His right-hand man was Richard Edmonds, who just this week walked out on Nick Griffin and his disintegrating bunch of merry men following a failed leadership bid. Collins lays bare the deeply disturbing organisms that one finds in the fetid water of the British far-right one by one. The lucky thing is that political unity on the far-right is no more enduring than that of the far left. Their pasts with their enduring enmities always catch up on them in the end. Maybe it’s the lack of female company that loosens their grip on reality over time.

Beyond the damage and harm he caused, Collins’s biggest regret seems to be missing out on more female company. But it raises a question about what we can do with unloved, angry, lost, hurt, and vengeful young men. Their existence is miserable unless they are offered sanctuary in a bottle, a pill, a wrap or a gang, a cause, an organisation. All these things create havoc and misery. Extremism – of all types – is at once political and personal, ideological and social, criminal and cultural. How much more violence will it take?

Collins began his journey away from far-right extremism following a particularly vicious attack on a public meeting in Welling library where 17 people – including many women – ended up in hospital. A pregnant woman was locked in the toilet in fear of her life and that of her unborn baby. Around this time he started leaking bits of information to Searchlight magazine. The place of Searchlight in bringing down several far-right individuals and organisations is clear from Collins’s account.

Hate ends with a bigger reflection on what is happening to society. Identity politics is on the rise. So far no political movement has found an effective way to tap into that in a mainstream fashion. It’s no longer purely about race – it’s about immigration, nation, and Islam. It amounts to the same thing though. It’s about creating an “other” and feeding off of that. Pick a faultline, expose it, and drive people apart. And if you get the right mix of charisma, organisation and events go your way, who knows where things could end up? This process is terrifying in the context of economic hardship. These elements have never been combined in the UK context. We’ve been lucky with our far-rightists in a political sense. The poor victims of their actions in targeted communities are anything but lucky: living life in fear and coming to physical and psychological harm from time to time.

The politics of hatred, division, and fear must be overpowered by a politics of hope, honesty, engagement and unity. Matthew Collins traveled on that journey. The Cable Street resistance forced hatred down towards the river. In minds, in communities, in the media, in elections these battles aren’t going away. The BNP will disintegrate but something else will take its place. Don’t think for a minute Britain is immune. It is not and we must be vigilant. The best way of beating back hate is to concentrate on what unites us rather than the little that divides us. That’s when hope is triumphant.

Both publications are available here.

Anthony Painter is a writer and critic.

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3 Responses to “Sunday Review: 75. The battle of Cable Street, edited by Steve Silver; and Hate, by Matthew Collins.”

  1. Ian McGargle says:

    I made a documentary film about 30 years ago, called They Shall Not Pass. It includes sections on Cable St and Spain. Trying to upload it onto YouTube. Technical problems. Anybody interested?

  2. kevin jay says:

    My grandmother was in cable street on this day…on the roofes throwing tiles at the facists…she was the last surviving member of 10 children who died in WW1, her father became o Consciecious Objector and died as a fieman in the blitz in WW2…she was a Marxist and her father a friend of Bevans in the ILP….

    she bought me up in the late 60’s and early 70’s with these tales and it is in her memory I view this anniversary

  3. Ralph Baldwin says:

    What happens when the politics of division is advocacted by the Labour party as it continues its decline to irrelevance “hatred, division, and fear” as it continues to recruit ex-bankers and become more of a liability than an asset to our democracy and a threat to our natiional security in its blind arrogance?

    I took on the BNP and played an instrumental role in their defeat unlike Anthony Painter.

    Until represenationel democracy is restored articles like this are in vain.

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