Britain, 4 October, 1936 – The Battle of Cable Street.
They Shall Not Pass!
At the beginning of September, twenty-year-old John Cornford was still in Aragon, where there had been little fighting In the Spanish Civil War for some weeks. He found some time for writing, including three poems he wrote in his mind, while on sentry duty, and then scribbled in his notebook. Full Moon at Tierz, written on 2nd September, contains a penultimate verse revealing the connection which he felt between the fight against Fascism abroad and poverty and unemployment at home:
England is silent under the same moon,
From Clydesdale to the gutted pits of Wales,
The innocent mask conceals that soon
Here, too, our freedom’s swaying in the scales.
O understand before too late
Freedom was never held without a fight.
Five days later, he wrote in his diary, ’Asleep! By the shit house. Beginning of the sickness.’ On 12th September, his thirty-seventh day in Spain, he was back in Barcelona, from where he was to be invalided back to England. His final poem, ’A Letter from Aragon’, contains a moving message from the Spanish anarchists to his comrades at home:
Tell the workers of England
This war was not of our making,
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.
Those who heeded this call suffered an appalling casualty rate. Of about 2,400 British volunteers, 1,700 were wounded and 500 killed . Wales as a whole sent 174 men, many unemployed miners, 33 of whom died there. Most of them were members of the Communist Party, some were members of the Independent Labour Party, which gave money and goods, as well as men to the Republican cause at a time when both Ramsay MacDonald’s ‘National Labour’ and the Labour Party, led by the respected pacifist hero of the Poplar Rising, George Lansbury, were divided against each other, yet both non-interventionist as far as Spain was concerned. That same September, Ernest Bevin, Walter Citrine and Hugh Dalton won over the Trades Union Congress for the Eden-Baldwin policy.
Meanwhile, the struggle against fascism, between Right and Left, was beginning to be fought out on the streets of London and other major British cities. In 1936, about 330,000 Jewish people lived in Britain, less than one per cent of the population. Half of them lived in the East End of London, most of them in a concentrated area on Brick Lane. During the Depression years, it was a pocket of poverty as bad as anything in the distressed areas of South Wales, Clydesdale and Tyneside, with ‘the eternal slums, the litter, the filth, the futility of it all’, as Bill Fishman recalled, having grown up there. Many, like Fishman, were second-generation Jewish ‘immigrants’, the children of parents who had been forced to flee the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the sanctuary that Britain offered. Most of the first generation spoke only Yiddish and lived in what was effectively a ghetto, an enclosed community of crowded tenements. They worked mostly in the furniture and clothing trades, and were an easy target for the Jew-baiters of the BUF, who regularly smashed their shop windows and shouted insults during street meetings. Throughout the summer of 1936, they seemed to be enjoying the protection of the police. In September, there was particular anger over two incidents. Fascist thugs threw a Jewish boy through a plate-glass window, blinding him. Then a Jewish girl was caught and strapped to an advertising hoarding in the attitude of a crucifixion. Neither incident led to a prosecution.
Many in the second generation were determined to fight back. Even though British-born and British-educated, they felt alienated from British society. They saw Germany, boosted by the success of ‘their’ Olympic Games, the Civil War in Spain, and feared that Fascism would spread to Britain. Many became Communists, seeing the Party as the most vehemently anti-Fascist organisation, some joined the Labour Party, but still more formed street-gangs for self-defence. The BUF had already announced its plans for a fourth anniversary march through the East End on 4th October, so the battle lines had already been drawn. At a rally in Leeds on 27th October, Oswald Mosley had been showered with missiles. Labour MPs and the mayors of London boroughs pleaded with the Home Secretary to ban the planned march, together with 100,000 petitioners. He refused to do so.
Despite the urging of every organisation from the Jewish Board of Deputies through to the Labour Party for people to stay off the streets, as many as 310,000, liberals as well as young Jews and communists turned out to stop Mosley’s blackshirts in their tracks, chanting ‘they shall not pass’, the cry of the Republicans defending Madrid. The mounted police charged them, in an attempt to clear a path for the marchers. Resisting passively at first, the anti-Fascist demonstrators then attempted to remove the police from their horses. The Police Commissioner, Philip Game, decided that there was no way of clearing the planned route through to Commercial Road, so he decided on an alternative: Cable Street, by the docks, lined in those days with ships’ chandlers, lock-up garages and warehouses. The demonstrators made barricades from the contents of these. The police again charged them, without success. Retreating, they were barraged by women from the tenement blocks, to such an extent that many ‘surrendered’. Others fought a pitched battle with the demonstrators, arresting eighty-three. At six in the evening the news filtered through that the march had been cancelled on the Police Commissioner’s orders, after consulting with the Home Secretary. It was a moment of jubilation for the anti-fascists, matched only by the despair among the BUF. For the Left, the Battle of Cable Street was a great victory, not only because they achieved their objective of stopping Mosley’s march, but also because it brought together a broad movement which had previously been fractured on the major issues, uniting different races, classes, and traditions.
A week later, the Cabinet met and agreed the Home Secretary’s recommendations for a public order bill banning the wearing of military uniforms and giving the police the power to stop processions if they considered there was a serious risk to public order from them. The House of Commons passed the Bill a month later, and it became law, recognition that in the modern age there would have to be limitations on civil liberties. These measures may have been designed to prevent a repeat of the widespread street violence, which had reached its peak at the Battle of Cable Street, but they also crippled the BUF. Much of the appeal of membership lay in the uniform, which gave working-class men the opportunity to look as good as their social ‘superiors’ in the movement, and the curbs on marches also took away the potential for street brawls with the Communists, which had added spice to otherwise depressed lives. Mosley observed that ‘the British Government’ had ‘surrendered to red terror.’
Mosley and The Mitford Girls
In reality, Mosley’s retreat may have had more than a little to do with his need to keep an important personal date in Berlin on 6th October. On 5th, the day after the Battle of Cable Street, a tired and frustrated Mosley had flown to Germany to marry the Mitford girl, Diana Guinness, in a ceremony to be held in the Reich Chancellery. Her sister’s friend, Josef Goebbels, had persuaded Hitler and had made the necessary arrangements. These remained strictly confidential both in Germany and Britain. Apart from the unpopularity of an affair that had resulted in Diana leaving her husband, the hosting of the event by the Führer himself would have put paid to any remaining hopes Mosley had of winning broad public support. For his part, Hitler still believed he could gain the support of respectable British politicians, and any obvious links with the BUF would have ruled these out completely. So, the wedding had to be kept a secret. Mosley himself had met Hitler only once before, though Diana knew him well, as did her sister, Unity, and both had learned German so that they could converse fluently with him. Diana had persuaded the Führer to take the day off for the ceremony.
At 2.30 p.m. on the 6th Hitler walked across the Reich Chancellery gardens to Goebbels’ official residence for the short ceremony. Watching her hero from Mrs Goebbels’ window, Diana later described it to her sister as ‘the happiest moment of my life.’ Perhaps, then, Oswald Mosley could be forgiven for sensing that his bride was more in love with Adolf Hitler than himself. He was also jealous of the man who had achieved everything that he had wanted to achieve, but seemed to have failed in, especially in winning street battles with opponents. He couldn’t speak German, and was therefore excluded from his new wife’s gleeful conversations with the Führer. The resulting argument between the newly weds threatened to spoil the day for Diana, but their attendance, with twenty thousand others, at the Sportpalast that evening, to hear Hitler speak, helped her to blot out the quarrel.
The marriage turned out to be almost as disastrous for Mosley as the Battle of Cable Street. When it became public in Britain in 1938, with the birth of their first child, the link to Hitler did prove as damaging to the BUF as they had expected. Diana also suffered when both of them were imprisoned during the war. She complained afterwards that she had missed the childhood of both of her two sons as a result, and a large part of the childhood of her other two. There was little sympathy for her after war broke out, and even less for her sister when Unity arrived in Dover with a bullet in her head, following an attempted suicide in Germany.