The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ and the Origins of ‘No Platform’

Tomorrow (October 4) is the anniversary of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’. This post, adapted from my book, looks at how this event in 1936 influenced anti-fascists and the student left in the 1970s in their adoption of the ‘no platform’ policy and tactic.

‘No platform’ emerged out of a much longer anti-fascist tradition in Britain of denying a platform to fascists during the inter-war period. In the early days of anti-fascism in Britain, especially against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, militant anti-fascist activism often meant the physical denial of a platform for fascists by anti-fascist protestors. Anti-fascists in Britain looked to what was occurring in Italy, Germany and other parts of continental Europe and many came to the conclusion that fascists should not be given the space to organise, parade or espouse their ideology at any cost. Much of this militant anti-fascism was led by rank-and-file members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, alongside some from the Independent Labour Party and Jewish activists, which often involved combating the more moderate sections of the left and labour movement, as well as fighting Mosley’s fascists.

From the very beginning, the BUF presented themselves as the defenders of free speech and that communists wanted to deny them a platform, which, to the BUF, meant using violence to counter the censorious ‘Reds’. Those who opposed Mosley and the BUF pointed to what was occurring in Germany and Italy, arguing that fascism was the antithesis to free speech. The only way to protect free speech for all was to actively prevent the fascists from organising, recruiting and speaking in public. The militant anti-fascists who proposed this course of action used several tactics to deny the BUF a platform and the use of public space.

Throughout the BUF years, those who opposed Mosley would heckle the speakers and seek to be a disruptive element in the crowd, which would often lead to confrontations with Mosley supporters and bodyguards who were employed to ‘protect’ Mosley’s speakers. This would sometimes escalate to involve the police. An example of this tactic was in June 1934 at the Olympia Stadium in London, when around 500 communists entered a crowd of an estimated 10,000 BUF supporters and sought to disrupt the night’s events, with large crowd of anti-fascist protestors also on the outside of the venue.

Alongside the disruption of BUF meetings, another tactic used by anti-fascists in the 1930s was holding large counter-demonstrations and pickets to prevent fascists access to a particular space. The quintessential example of this was ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936, which become central to the narrative of anti-fascist history in Britain. ‘Cable Street’ was used at the time and since then as a rousing story of anti-fascist resistance and an episode in which the BUF were physically denied their platform – a march through the East End of London. Over 100,000 people flocked the streets to stop Mosley from holding a provocative march through the area where a large Jewish population. Although historians and activists have debated the effectiveness of the protest (particularly in long term), the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ was a demonstration of the popular resistance to fascism in Britain in the 1930s and has since served as an inspiration to anti-fascists. In the era of ‘no platform’ in the 1970s, the slogan of the protest, ‘They Shall Not Pass’, was evoked time and time again to draw an analogy between the fight against the BUF and the fight against the National Front.

In 1936, Mosley and the BUF had shifted tactics towards a more explicit anti-Semitism and attempted to attract more working class supporters in the East End of London. This created a number of confrontations between anti-fascists and fascists, as well as with the police. Richard Thurlow has shown that this also revitalised the anti-fascist movement. In the lead up to Cable Street in October of that year, anti-fascist activists had attempted to disrupt a number of BUF meetings.[1] The most infamous incident was in March 1936 when anti-fascist activists had attempted to disrupt a meeting at the Royal Albert Hall, but were prevented by police from being in the vicinity of the venue. A crowd of around 3-5,000 amassed at the nearby Thurloe Square, which was subject to baton charges by the police, resulting in 46 allegations of police brutality.[2]

Increasing confrontation between fascists and anti-fascists, as well as between anti-fascists and the police, set the stage for the clashes at Cable Street. Over 100,000 anti-fascist protestors blocked the East End of London and were confronted by around 6,000 police, with clashes leading to 79 arrests.[3] Around 3,000 fascists had assembled nearby, but surveying the anti-fascist crowds, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Philip Game, requested that Mosley cancel the march, which he did so.[4] For the Communist Party, it was a demonstration of the Popular Front in action, when a Party that had around only 11,500 members in October 1936, [5] could mobilise over 100,000 people in anti-fascist action.

Although its legacy has been contested, the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ was central to the legacy of British anti-fascism and helped sustain the Communist Party as a figure of anti-fascist resistance well into the post-war period, combined with the Communist Party’s support for the Soviet Union in the Second World War and the role that Jewish Communists played in the anti-fascist campaign against Mosley’s Union Movement in the late 1940s. When the National Front began to gain a public presence in the early 1970s, left-wing activists, from both the Communist and Trotskyist currents, harked back to the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ for inspiration.

The policy of ‘no platform’ was formally adopted by the National Union of Students at its conference in April 1974, initiated by students linked to the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists, and also supported broadly by the Communist Party and sections of the Labour left. The ‘no platform’ resolution in 1974 attempted to co-ordinate anti-fascist and anti-racist actions against undesirable speakers that had been much more ad hoc and localised in the past. The resolution encouraged student unions to be proactive in this area and deny controversial speakers the opportunity to speak on campus, by disinvitation, denial of funds for groups that invited these speakers and by physical protest (if required). Tapping into a longer history of militant and left-wing anti-fascism that had been developed since the 1930s, the  ‘no platform’ policy was a marker of the hardening of left-wing student attitudes towards the NF and attempts to build the anti-fascist movement in Britain at a national level, throwing down the gauntlet to more moderate students regarding how to fight fascism and racism as Britain slipped into the crises of the mid-1970s.

For example, Steve Parry, as both NUS Secretary and member of the Communist Party, argued at the NUS conference:

Did reasoned argument stop the fascists led by Mosley in the East End in the 1930s? Of course, it did not. Had reasoned argument stopped Colin Jordan and his cronies in the Union movement having armed camps in Britain and working with ex-Nazis in Germany? Had reasoned argument stopped the junta in Chile killing thousands of people?[6]

When the students debated the recent introduction of the ‘no platform’ policy again at the emergency conference of the National Union of Students in June 1974, John McGeown, a Trotskyist activist with the International Marxist Group at the University of Kent, conjured up the past deeds of anti-fascists in order to provide a narrative for ‘no platform’ policy of the present. McGeown proposed a resolution declaring:

Conference believes that no restrictions should be made in the fight against racialism and fascism, a tradition established by working people against the British Union of Fascists in the Battle of Cable Street.[7]

After two NUS conferences in 1974, ‘no platform’ had become enshrined as policy for Britain’s peak student body, with the student left, inspired by the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ and other actions from the 1930s, pushing for a hard line to be taken against the National Front. Within a few years, this principle of ‘no platform’ had been taken up by many others, with the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977 and the formation of the Anti-Nazi League soon after. First proclaimed more than forty years beforehand, the slogan ‘They Shall Not Pass’ was revived in the fight against the National Front and declared alongside the phrase, ‘no platform for fascists’, with anti-fascists looking to draw a line between the anti-fascism of the two eras.

[1] Richard Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back Public Order, Civil Liberties and the Battle of Cable Street’, in Tony Kushner & Nadia Valman, Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society (London: Valentine Mitchell, 2000) p. 88.

[2] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain (London: Routledge, 2016) p. 39.

[3] Ibid., pp. 51-52.

[4] Ibid., p. 52.

[5] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1922) p. 218.

[6] NUS, April Conference: Minutes and Summary of Proceedings (London: NUS, 1974) p. 80.

[7] NUS, Minutes of Extraordinary Conference (London: NUS, 1974) p. 35.

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