Thursday, September 29, 2011

They Did Not Pass
NO ENTRY. Sunday, October 4, 1936

IT was good of the English Defence League berks to choose the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for their proposed big march at the beginning of this month, enticing their supporters with the prospect of a show of strength through an area where many Asian Muslims live, going past the East London Mosque, and getting up to - well, a good Saturday afternoon's fun no doubt. Or freeing the area's white Christian population from Muslim terror, if you'd believed them.

As it was, a massive petition backed by local people appeared to persuade Home Secretary Teresa May and the police that the march on September 3 should be banned, hearing which many EDL supporters apparently dropped out leaving organisers with half-empty coaches. RMT union members said they would shut down stations if the EDL were allowed to gather at them to be ferried by train for their static meeting, and the EDL never got into Tower Hamlets. Except for one misguided coach load who chose to go home via the Whitechapel Road, stopping near the mosque, and had to be rescued from opponents. The coach company is hoping its insurers will understand.

The reason I say it was good of them was that they helped set the stage for the commemorations starting this weekend of events 75 years ago, when the Home Secretary of the day ignored a petition and allowed the fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley to marshal his uniformed blackshirts for a march into the East End of London, on Sunday, October 4, 1936.

Then too, the fascists did not make it, because people would not let them.

In those days there was a large Jewish population in the East End, mostly poor working people whose families had immigrated from Europe, particularly Czarist Russia, in the late 19th century. There had been an anti-immigrant agitation started by Tory MP Major Evans Gordon, at the turn of the century, with the British Brothers League. In the 1930s depression years Mosleyite agitators sought to build on this, with vicious antisemitism, persuading people hit by bankruptcy and joblessness that it was down to the Jews.

If the rich and supposedly powerful Jews they blamed for capitalism's ills were remote, there were poor Jews, workers and small shopkeepers near at hand who, even if they were suffering the same problems as everyone else, could be a convenient target for the thugs and bullies.

Mosley was having some success, particularly in Hoxton and in Bethnal Green, where many small workshops were closing and could blame Jewish competition. Less success perhaps in docklands, where the dockers were more class-conscious, and his efforts to win over the Irish met opposition. Nevertheless he now hoped to climax his campaigning with a triumphal march through the heart of the Jewish East End, and to have something to show the potential ally to whom he was turning for backing, Adolf Hitler.

Hitler's success in Germany had dispelled illusions in what might happen if people did not unite to stop fascism. Advice from the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Jewish Chronicle and the official Labour Party leadership to stay indoors and avoid trouble were ignored. The Communist Party which had been planning a rally in Trafalgar Square on October 4 to support the Spanish Republic was persuaded by its members in Stepney to change its plans, and the call went out, everyone to Aldgate. On the morning of October 4, 1936, crowds began gathering at Gardiners Corner, blocking the road to the fascists, and to the police who tried to clear a way for them. An anti-fascist tram driver left his vehicle skewed across the road.

Realising the fascist march might take a detour along Cable Street, anti-fascists went and joined local people there, and threw up barricades. Jews and Irish dockers famously joined forces there, and repeated charges by the police could not clear them. As the anti-fascists fell back, the advancing police came under fire from upper-storey residents, anything from milk bottles to the contents of chamber pots being hurled.

The Battle of Cable Street, as the day's events became known, ended with the police telling Mosley that his march could not go ahead, and that he and his minions must head back to the West End and disperse. It was not the end of fascist activity in the East End, but Mosley as strong man had suffered a setback, whereas many an East Ender who had previously had to fear the blackshirts now walked tall, and had a story to tell their grandchildren.

There are a number of events coming up this weekend, including a march and rally beginning from Aldgate East (corner Braham Street and Leman Street) 11.30 am on Sunday, and going on to St.George-in-the-East Gardens (off Cable Street).

At Wilton's Music Hall, Grace Alley, there'll be an exhibition and a concert, various organisations and groups will have their bookstalls, and Five Leaves Books from Nottingham have a book launch at 3pm for no less than five books they have published or republished for the occasion. Among these is Battle for the East End by David Rosenberg, which I am just reading at the moment.

Dealing extensively with the way Mosley made use of antisemitism, and with the varied ways Jews responded, David's book began as a rewrite of an earlier work he had written, I think (which sold out on a previous anniversary!), but he has done enough fresh research and thinking about his subject to produce a new, and very informative work. One thing he reveals is how widespread in British society was the prejudice into which Mosley tapped.

Something else Dave goes into, which I've heard him talk about on his excellent East End Walks, is the way the Communist Party did not wait for street confrontations with the fascists, but took up basic work to establish working class unity in struggles over rents and housing conditions.

Another item I was interested to come across was a debate between two people over how to deal with antisemitism, one of them being Julius Jacobs of the Jewish People's Council. In post-war years Julie Jacobs was much involved in fighting a resurgent Mosley fascism and confronting the Labour government's use of it to ban all marches including May Day, as he had become leader of the London Trades Council.

That was closed by the TUC but eventually reborn as the Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils (GLATUC), at which I am proud to be a delegate. GLATUC is among the bodies supporting Sunday's march, which as a commemorative event has escaped the Home Secretary's ban on marches.

Some places for more information:

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