The tabloid press likes to refer to almost anything in Britain that it doesn’t like as being fascist (I’ve read of fascist postmen, fascist nurses and even fascist lollipop ladies), and this has to some extent rendered the term redundant. However, actual fascism, as in that which we attribute to have started in political form in Italy in 1921, is generally thought to have by-passed Britain when it spread its ugly wings throughout Europe. This is not necessarily the case. Interwar British fascism did manifest itself, and met its most famous resistance in the East End of London.
The British Union of Fascists (referred to as the BUF and also ‘Blackshirts’ due to the political uniform worn by its members), led by the gifted orator and former labour MP Sir Oswald Mosley, formed in 1932, and in 1934 began to develop a noteable following, not least because of the backing of the Daily Mail for a short time (Something you won’t find in any of their commemorative books), and to a lesser extent the Daily Mirror. Though the BUF never genuinely threatened electorally, it did undeniably have support, as testified by the nearly 10,000 people that attended a BUF rally at Olympia in April 1934.
Cable Street, a mile-long road that today stretches from Tower Hill through Shadwell to Limehouse, was, on October 4 1936 the site of perhaps the BUF’s greatest and most well-publicised defeat. The BUF, with the supervision of the Metropolitan Police, had planned to march through the East End of London. Inspired by Mussolinian fascism, Mosley was attracted to the demonstration of power, unity and symbolism of such marches. Mosley’s rhetoric was increasingly anti-semitic (having established a certain amount of sympathy amongst anti-semitic elements in this part of the capital), and the East End had a large Jewish population. Thus, the Jewish community were outraged, but were warned against opposing the march. They ignored these warnings.
As did anti-fascists and communists, not just here but all over the country. An astonishing 300,000 of them built barricades out of timber, rubbish and overturned lorries at the west-end of Cable Street. Together they shouted ‘No Pasaran’, the Spanish Civil War slogan meaning ‘They Shall Not Pass’. Women and children threw rotten food, rubbish, marbles, rocks and chair legs at the 10,000 police as they tried to clear a path for the march. They would not pass, and Mosley and his 7,000 Blackshirts were denied a route through, and sent to Hyde Park instead with their tails firmly between their legs. The fact that many BUF supporters went to Hyde Park instead matters little; a march is a symbolic act, and its defeat was by the same token a symbolic defeat.
The BUF continued, with limited success, until the advent of the Second World War when Mosley and many other members were arrested for fear of their co-operation with Germany and Italy. But as a result of this event, the Government introduced the Public Order Act of 1936, which forbade the wearing of political uniforms. The uniform of the Blackshirts defined them, and this was another nail in the coffin of interwar British fascism.
Today there is a red commemorative plaque on the junction with Dock Street, and a large mural on St. George’s Town Hall. If you find yourself anywhere near Cable Street, go and have a look. If you can, stand at the junction with Christian Street at the west-end near Tower Hill station, and imagine those 300,000 building a barricade. It’s easy now to look back and think that standing against fascism was an obvious decision, but it is worth remembering that they did not have our hindsight; this was still a relatively young and unknown political phenomenon.