The Battle of Cable Street has become symbolic for resistance to racism, political extremism and standing up to intimidation. The events in East London on the 4th of October 1936 still resonate today, possibly even more now than in the recent past.
On Thursday 29th of September the University of Sheffield History Department, in collaboration with the Sheffield Students’ Union History Society, held a film screening and panel discussion to mark the 80th anniversary of the ‘battle’. Chaired by Dr Julie Gottlieb, the event was attended by leading scholars: Professor Tom Buchanan, Professor Nigel Copsey, Professor Anne Kershen, Dr Daniel Lee and Professor Mary Vincent, as well as filmmaker Yoav Segal and PhD student Liam Liburd, who all contributed to a panel discussion. There was also special exhibition curated by Liam Liburd highlighting material in the University of Sheffield Library’s special collections and archives relating to the events.
The great advantage of the panel format was to bring various viewpoints and methodologies to bear on the narrative and memory of the ‘battle’. These ranged from Nigel Copsey’s examination of the East End and its history as a target for extreme-right political groups, to Mary Vincent’s exploration of the role the ‘battle’ played in Europe’s political civil war. The History Society were especially keen to co-organise the event because this was a moment in history, a flashpoint in political and ethnic tensions in the 1930s, that resonates very strongly with our current moment in history.
The 80th anniversary of the Cable Street falls at a time when division is growing in Britain and across Europe, especially between those on the left and right of the political spectrum. The EU Referendum is in danger of leaving a legacy of fear and intimidation of which Mosley might have been proud.
Nothing highlights this better than the intensifying debate over immigration. The recent Times headline declaring ‘Firms must list foreign workers’ lead to a forceful backlash informed by Cable St, illustrated well by a tweet from political activist and musician Billy Bragg:
80 years after the Battle of Cable Street, the ghost of Oswald Mosely stalks Brexit Britain pic.twitter.com/p4ZXLf4hvT
— Billy Bragg (@billybragg) October 5, 2016
Whilst this view is clearly driven by Bragg’s own political opinion, it is hard to avoid the thought of an angered left-wing clashing ever more publicly with the country’s right-wing of politics. Indeed, marches renewing the event’s political meanings are becoming more common, which this year included a march and rally in London against modern fascism on the 9th of October, held by Unite Against Fascism.
That the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was one of the leading speakers at this event shows the the issues that caused Cable St are still relevant to politics today. The event’s intent was to evoke the emotions and memories of the Battle of Cable Street, but such marches are bound to attract opposition as well.
While the rally this year was a peaceful affair, one wonders if the atmosphere of tension and antogaonism will cause future rallies to turn violent. In light of these recent events, we can ask whether much has changed in the mind-set of the British people over the last 80 years, or indeed if political opinion has actually become even more divided.
As a student of modern history, it is alarming how much the Battle of Cable Street resonates with the world that we live in. I am a firm believer that it is important to study history with a view to learn from the past and direct the future towards a better path, yet it is not clear that we have learned much from Battle of Cable Street, even 80 years on.
Hopefully events such as the one hosted at Sheffield can help spread the word about the ‘battle’ to a new generation and help them towards more peaceful and productive activism, as opposed to violent clashes like the one that took place on the 4th of October 1936.
Joe Bear is studying History at the University of Sheffield. His research interests include the history of the USA and the Cold War, with a special focus on culture and society during the atomic age.
Image: The Cable Street mural, courtesy of Liam Liburd.