Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Battle of Cable Street: - Searchlight, October 1996 - Harold Smith

Harold Smith was an active anti-fascist in the 1930s. An 18-year-old office worker at the time, he told Searchlight what he remembers of 4 October 1936.
In the summer of 1936 there was a whole building up of fascist activity in London. I was 18. There was this tension because Mosley was doing relatively well, not popular, but he had a certain amount of support from people who were not only fascists. There was a feeling that he had to be stopped. There were skirmishes building up to Cable Street and earlier, in 1934, there had been the famous Olympia meeting where anti-fascists had been severely beaten. In September the fascists had a big rally in Hyde Park. That summer was one of those hot summers where things were just going to happen. The Labour Party had taken the view that people should not come out, the Board of Deputies of British Jews had taken the same stand: "Stay away, don't make a fuss". The Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party and other factions said: "No we've got to stop them"
I lived in Highbury in North London, and on the day we all gathered at Highbury Corner and trundled off to Cable Street. We never got there of course. The point that I'd like to make now, and I always make it, is that Mosley was not beaten in Cable Street itself. It was a side issue, a skirmish really. What he was beaten by was the fact that, who knows the real figure, hundreds of thousands of people just stood there. People like to romanticise things, but what stopped Mosley was that when you got to Gardiners Corner you just couldn't move.
I happened to be there fairly early. We got right to the centre and it was hopeless. We just stood there. There was no shouting, no violence, no sectarianism, no holding up of this party banner or that party banner. We all just stood there. There was no singing, it was really quite incredible. It must have been one of the biggest civil disobedience actions in British labour history. There were no paper sellers, you couldn't have sold the Daily Worker because you couldn't get in between the crowds. It was like a festive occasion. I think that when the police saw that they would have to get Mosley through that crowd they called it off. The hostility locally was so deep seated.
The significance of Cable Street is that it was one of the great turning points in a sense. Although Mosley wasn't defeated he did quite well in elections the following year in Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. In a sense you could say that he saw what could be done against him and it marked the beginning of the decline. It's always held as a great moment in history, and I think it is in that sense. Nothing has happened since like that.
It was a welling up of feeling. People saw Mosley as symbolising Hitler. Jewish people in the East End certainly did anyway. I think the fear of Hitler meant that people said: "We're not going to have it here". The anti-semitism in Britain produced the followers of Mosley, but the other side of that was that it produced people that opposed the followers of Mosley. It was a sort of continuing battlefield. Cable Street was only the high point.
There was Long Lane in Bermondsey in 1937. There were skirmishes and fighting in the street for hours. I remember taking part in that. I never saw the fascists and we ended up fighting with the police. We were looking for the fascists and trying to see what was going on and we saw five policemen battering this anti-fascist on the pavement. The police always tended to defend the fascists on the grounds that we were causing the disturbance.
When we saw the police knocking this guy about we got some bricks and paving and picked them up and threw them at the police. They promptly ran, and frankly I can't blame them. Long Lane was a series of guerrilla warfares for hours all over Bermondsey.
There was a rumour that someone had been killed that was quite untrue. We didn't know what was going on except that we had to be there and they had to be stopped.
There were other things. I heard William Joyce speak in Finsbury Park once. A good speaker, abusive in his rasping voice. He just came to annoy and taunt the crowd. I heard Mosley speak at the Alexander Hall when he was a Labour MP and the next time I heard him speak he was a fascist at the Albert Hall. The platform was empty, very dramatic and stage-managed with flags and lights. The meetings he held were fierce and violent. There were pitched battles at some meetings. In the end the war came and he never really came back.
I would say to young people today, never give up, the power is in your hands. To paraphrase a famous dictum: "All that is required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing".

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