Why victory at Cable Street really belonged to Mosley's fascists
It was the day the Jews triumphed over the Blackshirts. But who were the real winners?
Anti-fascist demonstrators flee as police break down a barricade during the Battle of Cable Street
The Battle of Cable Street, 75 years ago this week, has taken a proud place in Jewish collective memory, regarded as a decisive victory against Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Yet looking past the popular mythology, and at contemporary records instead, we find a very different picture. Far from damaging the BUF, Cable Street boosted it; and rather than bringing any relief to the Jews of the East End, it triggered the most intensive and violent period of anti-Jewish activity in modern British history.
The BUF had fallen into steep decline since the peak of its popularity in mid-1934. The media, under government pressure, now tended to report on fascist activity only when disorder occurred. In this context, the enormous demonstration on October 4 1936 - which saw the crowd of 100,000 or more anti-fascists clash repeatedly with the police, leaving 73 officers injured - thrust Mosley back into the limelight. Moreover, he used this platform to perpetuate a carefully cultivated image of his party as the innocent victim of anti-fascist attacks. This had been a lawful, police-approved procession, passing through areas of strong fascist support, he argued, yet had been forcibly and illegally prevented by an unruly mob of communists and Jews.
His version of events, however selective and exaggerated, received a sympathetic hearing in many quarters. Special Branch noted in the weeks after Cable Street "abundant evidence that the fascist movement has been steadily gaining ground" in the East End. The BUF had "conducted its most successful series of meetings" since its founding; 2,000 new members had joined the party. "A definite pro-fascist feeling has manifested itself," the report concluded.
The BUF itself, in an internal document, noted with satisfaction that the many locals had been "gravely offended by the rioting of Jews and communists… [which] was felt as a disgrace to the good name of east London".
"Innocent victim": Oswald Mosley in 1936
The reference to Jews was particularly telling, for their prominent involvement at Cable Street was exploited with particular relish by the Blackshirts. Antisemitism had not originally been part of Mosley's official programme, but he justified its adoption in 1934 by claiming that Jews themselves, through their regular attacks on his party, had forced him to respond. While such allegations were disingenuous, events such as Cable Street lent them superficial legitimacy.
The BUF claimed that an "alien mob" of Jews had obstructed the legitimate activity of "British patriots". By ordering Mosley to call off his march, the authorities had essentially "handed over" the East End "as the Jews' own territory". It was time, the fascists declared, for the true British people to reclaim their land. These appeals were well received, with Special Branch recording that among the cohort of new Blackshirt recruits were a "large number of gentiles with grievances against the Jews".
But Cable Street did not merely reinforce the BUF's antisemitism - it exacerbated it. Behind the scenes, an official at BUF headquarters recorded that the party planned to use the event as the basis from which to launch "a renewed antisemitic campaign". Over the following months, the volume and ferocity of anti-Jewish attacks in publications and speeches increased enormously.
More worryingly, words were increasing translated into action. In the immediate aftermath of Cable Street, a Blackshirt speaker promised, "by God there is going to be a pogrom…[and] the people who have caused this… are the Yids".
The very next weekend saw the most serious anti-Jewish violence of the interwar period, as a gang of 200 fascist youths rampaged down Mile End Road. The police and the Board of Deputies both observed that incidents of fascist "Jew-baiting" rose significantly after October, while the next summer the leading Jewish defence organisation in the East End, the Jewish People's Council, warned of the fascist "terrorism which appears to increase week by week".
The focus of this activity were local elections in the East End in March 1937. From the outset the Blackshirts had advertised these as a choice "between us and the Parties of Jewry", and their manifesto consisted almost entirely of anti-Jewish attacks. Although the party failed to win a seat, its showing revealed the enduring popularity of fascism in the area. Competing against the three mainstream parties, the six BUF candidates received 7,000 votes between them (18 per cent of the vote). The number would have been far higher had not only rate-payers been allowed to vote, thus disenfranchising much of the party's disproportionately young support. At municipal elections in the autumn, the party gained a similar result in the same East End districts.
The idea, then, that Cable Street represented a significant victory is simply a myth. True, it demonstrated the strength of hostility to Mosley, confirming that his political ambitions would never be realised. But this had long been clear. By 1936, the BUF was a local irritant but a national irrelevance. Instead, the actions of the demonstrators simply drew attention and new adherents to the party. Even worse, however laudable the motivation of the Jewish participants that day, the primary consequence of their actions was to make life significantly more unpleasant for their fellow Jews in the East End.
Daniel Tilles is co-editor of the collection 'Fascism and the Jewish: Italy and Britain' (Vallentine Mitchell, 2010) and has contributed a chapter on Jewish anti-fascism to Geoffrey Alderman's 'New Directions in Anglo-Jewish History' (Academic Studies Press, 2010).