The fight against British extremism is never over

A century after the UK’s first fascist party was founded, we should recall the heroes of the past


Sir Oswald Mosley waving to his followers at a Fascist march through South East London, Millbank, Westminster, October 3rd 1937. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

July 20, 2023 13:57

It is easy to take the rights which we have as citizens in a democratic country for granted, and to believe that we and our families are safe and secure because we were blessed to have been born in the United Kingdom and live in a society which is broadly tolerant.

To a large extent that is true, but as a community we should know better than to take our freedoms for granted.

Antisemitism has affected each and every one of our lives. For the overwhelming majority, our families settled in the UK in response to state sanctioned anti-Jewish hate, whether that was pogroms or the Shoah. Our lives have been shaped by the decisions our forefathers made to escape a life of persecution. But — and it is a big but -— if anyone should understand that we cannot take our liberty for granted then it should be our community. At the beginning of his brilliant family memoir, Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad, Daniel Finkelstein reminds us that while we may be lucky to live in the UK, it isn’t an inevitability that our tolerant country remains open and tolerant.

His book is beautifully written and heartbreaking. It made me cry but there was one sentence that has stuck with me: “The idea that the value of liberal democracy, and law, and liberty, and tolerance, is a lesson that has been learned and can’t be unlearned seems hopelessly overoptimistic.”

After everything we have been afforded by the UK, the onus is on us to make sure that these lessons are not unlearnt. We must ensure that the politics of hate, division and extremism are never allowed to win and that our shared democratic values are cherished and celebrated every day.

Our community has always been at the centre of the fight against fascism. And this year marks a century since the first fascist party was launched in this country. In 1923, the “British Fascisti” was launched by Rotha Lintorn-Orman. Within a year, the first fascists were elected in Stamford and the fightback began. Days later, the first dedicated anti-fascist organisation was founded to combat the hate espoused by Lintorn-Orman and her friends.

In my time as a politician, I have been given many labels. Most are simply not true (I really am not a CIA spy or a Mossad agent) but one that I am very proud of is “anti-fascist”. I went on my first demo against the National Front when I was 12. I campaigned against the BNP across the country from Tower Hamlets to Burnley, from Stoke-on-Trent to Dagenham. I organised against the EDL, gave evidence against National Action and I am proud to be on the board of HOPE not hate, working to support Nick Lowles and his team.

The anti-fascist tradition in the UK is a Jewish tradition and we should all be proud of it. Last month, HOPE not hate produced a report and online interactive timeline of 100 years of fascism and anti-fascism in Britain, reminding all of us how difficult the struggle has been and how many different organisations we have had to challenge and defeat in the last century. One of the highlights for me is the celebration of those members of our community who were front and centre in fighting the fascists. These include:

  • Phil Paratin, a key figure in the Jewish fight against fascism in the East End of London. Paratin played a leading role in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, helped to establish the Stepney Tenants Defence League and became Communist MP for Mile End in 1945.

  • The Stepney Tenants Defence League was established in 1937 and its members were mostly communists and Jews, and predominantly women. They recognised that the growing tensions in the East End could be a fertile ground for fascist recruitment, so acted in response to poor quality housing and landlords.

  • The Board of Deputies Defence Committee was created in 1938 to monitor and combat the threat posed by domestic fascism.

  • The 43 Group was formed in 1946, primarily composed of Jewish ex-servicemen and women who were horrified at the rising presence of fascists in Britain. Ignoring the concerns of the communal organisations at the time with utilising force, they sought to disrupt fascist meetings and activity and clashed directly with fascists. It also ran an effective intelligence operation to disrupt fascists. The group wound down in 1950 as the threat from Mosley decreased.

  • The 62 Group was founded in 1962 as several new fascist groups began to emerge. After the Trafalgar Square Rally of July 1962, where the banner “Free Britain from Jewish Control” was unfurled, a new organisation was needed. The 62 Group was modelled on the 43 Group and combined intelligence gathering and on the ground anti-fascist action. Once again a similar debate on tactics took place in the Jewish community between establishment organisations and the 62 Group. Gerald Ronson, who had cut his teeth in the 62 Group, went on to found the CST.

These are the stories of our past, but in recent years we’ve seen other Jews lead the campaign against political extremism and fascism. From CST, to JLM to HOPE not hate, we have been front and centre.

I’m proud to be part of the fight.

Baroness Anderson is a Labour peer

July 20, 2023 13:57

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