Last weekend, I found myself in Tower Hamlets. Not somewhere I go often, but not a completely alien part of the world to me. It was a lovely sunny day with a clear blue sky and lots of people making the most of it.
I walked down Leman Street and looked across at a little family run shop off to the left. A shop that had probably been there decades, been through a number of variations in type-of-business, and had different families owning it and living above it.
It cheers my heart to see small corner shops run and owned by families, especially in this day of mass commercialisation and Starbucks cloning of every neighbourhood.
I try to do as much of my shopping from this type of establishment over the massive supermarkets we see getting built on every vacant plot of land. Probably doesn’t make a massive difference, but it eases my conscience which must surely be good for my blood pressure.
But this time it wasn’t the shop that moved me. Because a foot or two above the red-painted woodwork of the shopfront was a small sign. And it was this sign that sent a shiver through my body on this hot and sunny, quiet Sunday in the east end of London.
Because the sign was this one:
Cable Street. A name that really resonates with anyone with knowledge of socialist and British history.
It was on another quiet Sunday, 4 October 1936 – exactly 75 years ago today – that Cable Street gained it’s place in the annals of history. A quiet Sunday was, at least, how it started. It ended in a battle between local residents and the Metropolitan Police.
The Metropolitan Police – 14,000 of them – had been deployed to support the British Union of Fascists march through the east end of London. But locals had drawn a line in the proverbial sand of Cable Street. Local groups – Jewish, Irish, Anarchist, and Socialist – had come together at this place. They had built barricades together. Barricades of furniture, scrap, bedsteads, mattresses, and the street’s own paving stones. They had topped those barricades with buckets of rotting fruit and vegetables as well as full chamber pots. They had stood side by side, and they had said
This far, and no further. They shall not pass.
Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, hoped to march 7,000 Blackshirt supporters through the east end as a demonstration of strength in an area of predominantly Jewish and Irish migrant communities. He planned to parade through the streets and give a speech to his supporters and any locals who would listen to his diatribe.
He expected a handful of dissenters who would fade away at the sight of 7000 BUF men in black shirts, caps and jackboots.
What he got was 300,000 Londoners chanting ‘No Pasaran’, the cry of the Spanish Civil War where many trade unionists from London and across the country had already been fighting the Fascist forces of Franco that Summer.
Mosley had no choice but to stand down his men and march away to Hyde Park. The next day, he fled to country to wed Diane Mitford. He fled, by the way, to Berlin and married her in the house of a little known friend of his called Josef Goebels.
This was a real turning point for the fascist movement in Britain. Mosley became a spent force as the nation moved inexorably into war with Hitler’s fascist Nazi party. Cable Street really was the beginning of a long stand against fascism.
A long stand that continues as I stand there 75 years later and try to imagine the immense numbers in that narrow road.
A long stand that must come to the forefront of our minds again as we see jackboots on the march again in Europe.
A long stand that we have to continue in these hard economic times.
There is an undeniable link between a rise in unemployment and social deprivation and a rise in fascism. And the surest
way to bring about the end of fascism is to bring about an end to social deprivation.
It was a real honour and privilege to me to meet and hear from Max Levitas, a 96-year-old veteran of the battle of Cable Street who has fought fascism ever since. I also got to hear from Hettie who was on the eve of celebrating her 106th birthday and announced that she had been a peace campaigner since the first world war!
As well as the joy of remembering what these communities did, it was also sad to reflect that we were in Tower Hamlets where not long ago the English Defence League had tried to march and promote their fascist cause.
In the 75 years since the battle of Cable Street, there were still people who hadn’t learned the lessons to be taught by Max, Hettie, and their comrades from a different time.
I even spoke to a couple of residents of Cable Street who didn’t know why their street was famous. That sent a second shiver through me on that hot, sunny, and peaceful day as three sentences zoomed to the front of my mind.
Lest we forget.
They shall not pass.