The Battle of Cable Street it wasn’t

Dancing around to music while 3,000 policemen prevent right-wingers from marching does not echo the events of 1936.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

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‘In 1936 they did exactly what we have done today here. Where are the EDL? They did not come in. They did not pass, they didn’t come into Tower Hamlets. That’s [also] what my parents did in 1936 in Cable Street… they stopped Mosley from coming into the East End.’

Has there ever been a demonstration so deluded as the anti-English Defence League (EDL) protest that took place in Tower Hamlets in London on Saturday? The above comment, delivered from the stage by poet Michael Rosen, is a perfect example of the self-aggrandising fantasies that were flying around.

Rosen, alongside numerous others who took to the stage, seemed to be under the impression that he and his friends had single-handedly fought back a 1930s-style fascist tide. Really? Did a few hundred Unite Against Fascism supporters in a pen by Whitechapel station, bopping along to music pumping out of a sound system, really stop the nationalistic, anti-immigrant EDL from marching to Tower Hamlets?

No. It wasn’t fear of any awesome display of anti-fascist ‘unity’ and ‘solidarity’ that kept the EDL cowering at Aldgate station, too scared to march into Tower Hamlets. What was really responsible for keeping the EDL at bay was a police presence along Whitechapel High Street that significantly outnumbered the protesters on both demonstrations. This veritable sea of 3,000 cops from all over Britain, including Fife and Strathclyde, some on horseback, some with Alsatians, was the real force keeping the two sides apart and herding EDL members around town.

Despite claims to the contrary, the anti-fascist protesters had some help keeping the EDL out of Tower Hamlets

The huge police presence was not a surprise. Following requests from assorted Labour MPs and councillors to ban the EDL’s demo, on the basis that it would be too expensive to police, alongside a petition by the anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate, the EDL gathering had already been ruled out by home secretary Theresa May. She used draconian laws that haven’t been put into practice since the Brixton Riots 30 years ago to ban the EDL from marching in six London boroughs.

This proved to be a pyrrhic victory for the anti-EDL protesters, however, as they quickly found that placing their faith in the state to deal with the EDL came at a high price. Because not only did May ban the EDL from marching for 30 days – she also banned any other organisation from doing so, prompting a furious reaction from anti-fascist groups, who claimed that May’s ban was a breach of their ‘human rights’. (As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out elsewhere, are the EDL not also human and thus due some ‘human rights’?) Banned from marching, both the EDL and its left-wing opponents could only carry out ‘static protests’.

So, yes, the EDL did not pass into Tower Hamlets, but only because the state used a phenomenal amount of resources to stop it. This was palpably not a case of working-class communities fighting back against a ‘fascist’ parade.

Just as the left on Saturday’s demonstrations had little in common with the streetfighters of Cable Street 75 years ago, so the EDL is nothing like Oswald Mosley’s old blackshirts. The EDL is not a fascist group, and, while some of its members may well be racist, it is not an explicitly racist group, either. Instead it is obsessed, myopically so, with the rise of radical Islam. This obsession means the EDL has a weird tendency to blame Muslims for the corrosion of freedom that is actually carried out by the British state. It looks at everything from restrictions on freedom of speech to politically correct bans on the flying of the St George’s cross as examples of pro-Islam censoriousness. One popular placard on Saturday’s demo declared: ‘Sharia Free Zone: you are free to play music, smoke, eat what you want, wear what you want, drink and be merry.’ This wrongly assumes that the greatest threat to those freedoms comes from extreme Islam, when of course it is the illiberal nanniers and nudgers in government who increasingly seek to control what we smoke, eat, drink and how we choose to have fun.

Its singular obsession with extreme Islam means the EDL is quite different to far-right groups like the National Front or the British National Party. However, this doesn’t stop many on the left from crudely painting the EDL as ‘Nazis’, a characterisation that (almost) makes the EDL’s portrayal of extreme Islam seem subtle by comparison. One left-wing commentator conceded that there is one difference between the EDL and the blackshirts – but it is only that EDL members are too thuggish to have ever gained the approval of someone like Mosley: ‘Oswald Mosley would not have approved of the bedraggled, sweaty rabble that bunches and yells as the police divert them towards the river: some of them aren’t wearing any shirts at all.’

Anti-EDL protesters were quick to
paint the EDL as Nazis

The questions of what the EDL really believes and why it has come into existence are not important to left-wing protesters, because for them, in the words of one speaker at Saturday’s demo, the EDL is simply the ‘Evil Devil League’. These white hooligans are the devil incarnate and should only be engaged with using force, preferably the force of the protective state. The EDL embodies ‘hate’, an amorphous emotion that anti-EDL protesters claim to be uniting against. The fact that there is only a relatively small number of them – the EDL’s largest demo to date only mustered 3,000 supporters and Saturday’s demo only managed 800 – is irrelevant to the EDL’s opponents. As far as they’re concerned, it only takes one Breivik-type mad man to turn ‘hate’ into murder.

The Breivik comparisons were everywhere on the anti-EDL demo. Unite Against Fascism printed hundreds of placards with images of EDL leader Tommy Robinson photoshopped next to Anders Breivik, with the slogan, ‘different faces, same hatred’. Speakers pointed out that Breivik was Facebook friends with EDL members. Tommy Robinson himself stoked controversy by prophesising that a Breivik-style attack could take place in Britain within the next five to 10 years.

The left is scared not just of the EDL, but of the white working classes as a whole

But it is not just another Breivik that the left is afraid of. It is the white working classes as a whole. The commentariat and radical activists’ fear of the EDL is driven by a concern that ordinary, isolated working-class folk, everyday white people in places like Tower Hamlets or Bermondsey, might easily be won over to the EDL’s hateful outlook. That is why anti-EDL campaigners talk about the stirring up of hatred and provocation of violence – they seem to believe that one EDL march is enough to make gruff working-class people go out and beat up a Muslim. Monkey hear, monkey do.

The truth is that the EDL is not a major force, and yet in left-wing circles it has become a huge issue. The reason for this will not be found by looking at the EDL itself, but by examining the current state of left-wing politics. Devoid of a meaningful, historic purpose, the left has turned the EDL into a kind of rallying point, something they can at least be against at a time when they don’t really know what they are for. The left projects all its angst and fears on to the EDL, hoping to gain a modicum of momentum through being ‘united against hate’. And this strange state/left war against the EDL has the effect of distracting people from the real problems they face in their communities while encouraging more state intervention into our right to protest.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

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Topics Politics


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