Today I attended a very special event – the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. For anyone who is not sure what this means, it commemorates the famous street battle between East End Jews, Irish dockers and Communists on the one hand and Mosley’s Blackshirts and the police on the other hand. The fascists wanted to walk through Cable Street – a predominately Jewish area and on the 4th October 1936 they were stopped. The Jews kicked stood their ground, chanting the Spanish Civil War slogan ‘They shall not pass’ (no pasaran) and this marked a symbolic defeat for Mosley and his followers.
So why should we care today? After all, this is pretty much ancient history and there are very few Jews left in the East End – the area is now home to the Bangladeshi community, who in turn are being priced out by hipsters and more lately bankers wanting a piece of the action. Why all the fuss about a minor skirmish that took place 80 years ago?
On a general level, Cable Street is important as it shows that it is possible to stand up to hatred and that London does have a proud tradition of radical direct action. It also shows that London has been a multicultural society long before that word even existed – Jews (including some distant relations) came to the East End from the end of the nineteenth century, escaping from Pogroms in Russia. As they became wealthier, they moved out into suburban London, but until the 1960s, the East End was a very Jewish area.
But I think Cable Street means much more today than it did ten or five years ago. It means more today that it did last year. We live in a world where the far right is much stronger than it should be – a world of UKIP, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. We live in a country where Amber Rudd wants to expose companies with high numbers of foreign workers. We live in a country where the government is asking schools to collect data on which of their pupils were born abroad. We live in a country where an MP was shot for supporting immigrants. The struggles are far from over. Maybe a few years ago we could laugh at expressions like ‘fascism’, but I don’t find the word very funny at the moment.
In other words, although 2016 may seem light years away from 1936, there are parallels to be drawn. During the 1930s, politics became more extreme and the disenfranchised looked to demagogues to provide them with simplistic solutions. Are we really so different? Today Trump’s flagrant misogyny appears to have dented his unstoppable rise but I have a gut feeling that his fuck you attitude may get more voters on side than any liberal could dare to contemplate. I see Trump as the ultimate product of a society reared on reality TV – just as Reagan was the product of a society reared on cowboy films. The worse he is, the more he is seen as ‘real’, whereas Hillary’s measured comments merely make her seem fake. I also think it is a mistake for the Clinton camp to attack Trump for his sexual behaviour – for rather obvious reasons.
We could speculate endlessly about Trump – the truth is none of us really knows what will happen. We can’t predict the future, tempting as it is to think we can. But we can look back to the past and look at the lessons that can be learnt. If Cable Street teaches us anything, it is that it is possible to stand up to and face off hatred. It is possible to join together with your friends and neighbours and make a change. It is incredibly inspiring to all of us. It makes me proud to be a Londoner.