British Blackshirts

Commemorate the 75th anniversary of East Enders blocking Mosley's fascists at Cable Street.

During the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936, a group of people including Jewish families, Irish dockers, Communists and trade unionists united to stop Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists from marching through London's East End. The BUF's plan was clearly provocative given the area's high Jewish population. The BUF were widely seen as un-British; their black uniforms looked sinister, particularly as Mussolini's paramilitary organisations wore the same attire. And they also used the fascist salute on marches and at rallies.

The resistance to their presence in the East End was a remarkable instance of a community rallying in defence of tolerance. Tomorrow is the event's 75th anniversary.

Here is a selection of some of the best walks, talks, film and theatre events held to commemorate this significant in British history. Also, check out some books which deal with the battle on the streets of Whitechapel.


East End Walks, London, Anti-Fascist footprints Check website for dates

An East End walk from Gardiners Corner to Cable Street organised by teacher, educationalist and writer David Rosenberg. Born in London, Rosenberg's parents were Jewish immigrants from the Tsarist Russian Empire. Rosenberg will take you to the site where East Enders blocked Mosley's BUF and important sites on the route of the BUF's march on 4 October 1936. Rosenberg evokes the unfolding of events, including the role of individuals such as Phil Piratin and Joe Jacobs, who helped to mobilise the anti-fascist response. See below for the publication of Rosenberg's upcoming book on Cable Street.


Jewish Museum London, London NW1, Fighting Together for a Better Past: The Story of Cable Street 10 October

Cable Street has been interpreted as both a victory for the Jews or as a working class triumph. Professor Tony Kushner, Dr Nadia Valman and David Rosenberg will debate the significance of Cable Street in the contemporary mindset, and how it has a mythical status in public memory. Kushner and Valman are the co-editors of the book Remembering Cable Street. Professor David Feldman will chair the event.

Jewish Museum London, London NW1, Bernard Kops' Battle of Cable Street 16 October

Kops grew up in the East End and witnessed the Battle of Cable Street aged ten. He will talk about his experience of the fascinating battle with publisher Ross Bardshaw from Five Leaves Publications. Kops will read extracts of his short play, his memoir and other work on Cable Street.


Wilton's Music Hall, London E1, From Cable Street to Brick Lane 4 October

Catch the preview of a new independent feature-length documentary about Cable Street by Phil Maxwell and Hazuan Hashim. Ken Loach and Ken Livingstone, among others, support the project. The film focuses mainly on the way that different communities united against racism and intolerance in the 1930s, 1970s and 1990s. The film uses interviews with veterans of the Battle of Cable Street, as well as with people involved with more recent struggles around Brick Lane.


Jewish Museum London, London NW1, Goodbye Barcelona - A Musical 27 October

Directed by Karen Rabinowitz, this musical is set during the Spanish Civil War. Inspired by the true stories of the Brigaders, Goodbye Barcelona is about Sam, a young Jewish man, who leaves London to join the men fighting against General Franco's Fascists. Sam's mother follows her son to Spain to try to find him. Alongside this, the show is about Sam's war experience and his love for Pilar, a young Catalan woman whose life has been severely disrupted by the conflict.


Alexander Baron

Well-worth a read is the novelist Alexander Baron, who was a a bohemian communist living in the East End. Many of his novels have recently come back into print, and give fascinating insights into postwar Jewish and working-class life in Britain. Find out more about Baron's works in Ken Worpole's piece, here.

October Day by Frank Griffin

October Day is a lively eye-witness account of the Battle of Cable Street. Although it has been out of print for seventy years, the novel became very popular after being published in 1939. Frank Griffin was a participant in the events, and later became a journalist and author. This highly readable book tells the story of 4 October 1936 through the eyes of seven people, including a young woman just of prison, a policeman and two young Communists.

Everything Happens in Cable Street by Roger Mills

Roger Mills has written extensively about London history, and has participated in activities around Cable Street since the 1970s. This book sheds light on a range of other things Cable Street is known for, such as when Maltese gangsters tried to run the streets and the filming of To Sir, With Love. Mills is an engaging excavator of the area's neglected stories.

Battle for the East End by David Rosenberg

The organiser of guided walks around the East End (see above), teacher and educationalist David Rosenberg records the changes in the BUF's attitude towards Jews. He also looks at the rifts which opened up in the Jewish community about how active resistance to the BUF should have been.

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood