In September 1933, the people of Stockton-on-Tees had a famous anti-fascist victory when around 100 members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists attempted to march and rally there, but they were chased out of town by socialists and communists in a violent physical confrontation. Last year a plaque was unveiled to honor this battle. I spoke at last year’s event and returned today. This is what I said:
I’m honoured to be here, and so honoured to follow Laura (Pidcock MP), who I have heard speak on several platforms but not had the privilege to share a platform with yet.
Last year’s event where the plaque was unveiled was a truly memorable occasion – and a testament to the fact that the struggle against fascism was won by the collective efforts of people all around the country. Here in Stockton, you were ahead of the curve. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were barely in existence for 11 months when you showed that you understood the threat that fascism posed to the working class and to the country. I know they were not in a hurry to come back here.
I bring greetings to this rally as the convenor of Cable Street 80 – the campaign that organised a celebration three years ago of the iconic battle against fascism that took place in London in 1936, a battle that involved hundreds of thousands of people.
I also bring greetings on behalf of my MP. I am lucky to be a Labour Party member in Islington North. My MP is Jeremy Corbyn. He sent me this message last night:
“The Battle Stockton was one of many heroic efforts to prevent the rise of fascism in our society. Their fight brought people together to achieve progress and not allow racists to divide them by use of antisemitism or any other form of racism. Today we need that same unity as racists promote division and hatred and attack asylum seekers looking for safety. Thank you to all commemorating The Battle of Stockton. From our history we equip ourselves for the future.” Jeremy Corbyn
My final greetings are on behalf of the Jewish Socialists’ Group – an organisation I joined as an 18 year old in 1976, but which had been formed earlier by older working-class Jewish activists in Manchester, who had cut their teeth politically in the fight against poverty and fascism in Manchester in the 1930s.
And I placed “poverty and fascism” together deliberately, because in our history, and in the history of other countries, the only time the fascists can get a hearing at the base of society is when that base – the working people, the wealth creators – suffer pernicious social inequality, subsist on starvation wages, are frequently unemployed, when they struggle to pay the rent, and are disparaged, ignored and neglected by those with power and wealth. People who lose their self-worth, their hope, and their identity, become prey to demagogues who offer to make the country great again, who speak a language of national salvation and redemption. Mosley presented his Fascist movement as a movement, in his own words, that would “mobilise energy and manhood, to save and rebuild the nation”, that, as he put it, “offered young people the chance to serve their country in times of peace not just in times of war.”
And those who speak that language of national salvation today, whether it is Johnson or Farage here, Bolsanaro in Brazil, Orban in Hungary, or Trump in America, are also those who have never, and will never, know hardship.
A few months after the fascists were battered and chased out of Stockton in 1933, when they tried to exploit the suffering of ordinary working people in the North East, Mosley made his first big push in London with a series of huge indoor rallies, their largest one being in Olympia Exhibition Centre, filled with 15,000 people.
That number included 1,000 stewards in Blackshirt uniforms some of them armed with knuckle dusters. It also included 150 MPs – mainly Tories – who went there looking for political inspiration. A few members of the House of Lords turned up wearing Blackshirt uniforms. You needed a ticket to get in – the cheapest ones were snapped up by workers and the pricier ones were bought up by those arriving in evening dress in Rolls Royces, Daimlers and Jaguars.
The anti-fascists understood who was in charge. One of their slogans then was “Mosley has the millionaires, but we have the millions”. It’s a slogan worth updating today. You only need to change the name.
At that time, though, the anti-fascists here had thousands rather than millions but they were used very effectively. In Britain in 1934, the most organised political groups active in anti-fascist work were the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party. Despite their differences they held a noisy united demonstration outside Olympia all evening. Mosley knew that would happen. What he hadn’t counted on was anti-fascists getting inside the hall. But they did that with the accidental help of a strong Mosley supporter – Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail. Rothermere had offered to give £1 and a ticket to a Mosley rally to a certain number of people who got their letters published in the Mail. The caveat was – they had to begin: “Why I like the Blackshirts”. (the competition is closed now by the way.) Some clever anti-fascists sent spoof letters about why they liked the Blackshirts, got tickets, forged more and dozens of anti-fascists were dotted around the hall.
It was dark in the hall with only a spotlight trained on Mosley as he mounted the podium. He was three minutes into his speech when a heckler stood up and shouted “Down with Mosley, Down with Mussolini, down with Hitler. Fascism means hunger and war” – and sat down again. Mosley was thrown off his stride, but he picked himself up again. Other hecklers stood up at three minute intervals making similar interventions. Eventually Mosley gave a signal and the next hecklers were pulled out of their seats by stewards and viciously beaten up inside the hall in front of everyone Mosley wanted to impress, taken outside into a corridor for further beatings then thrown down the stairs and shoved out the building. Around 80 anti-fascists, who showed the same courage that your community had shown here in Stockton, needed medical treatment that night.
But remember that heckle: “Fascism means hunger and war”. It did then. It does now. The ingredients of fascism often include ultra-nationalism, racism, misogyny, eugenics, authoritarianism, militarism, scapegoating… We have to recongise the signs, expose them and fight back on all these fronts, but we must always be aware of where fascism leads to if it succeeds – hunger, oppression, destruction.
The love affair between Mosley and the Daily Mail peaked in 1934, and cooled a bit after the violence at Olympia. As much as Rothermere loved the ideology – he did not want to be publicly associated here with violence.
I emphasise here, because he was a dedicated fan of Adolf Hitler right through the 1930s, knowing full well not just the vicious abuse and discrimination that Jews suffered in Nazi Germany but also the brutal physical violence meted out to them. In the wake of Kristallnacht in 1938, Britain reluctantly took in just under 10,000 Jewish child refugees, looked after not by the state, but by voluntary oprganisations, and that was in the face of the most horrendous newspaper campaigns by papers like Rothermere’s Daily Mail, and the Sunday Express that had headlines claiming that “Alien Jews” were “pouring in the the country” that “Refugees get jobs while Britons get dole”. And when Hitler invaded the Sudetenland, Rothermere sent him a telegram congratulating him and saying he looked forward to the day when “Adolf the Great” was recognised as such in Britain.
The Rothermere family remain in charge of the Daily Mail. They and other titles of the right wing press continue to scapegoat immigrants and refugees – vulnerable minorities – who pay with their blood on our streets for the racist incitement in newspaper headline. That same right-wing press also tries to divide anti-racists, by posing, for example, as friends of the Jewish community and trying to link modern antisemitism with the left rather than the right, where it has traditionally flourished.
They might fool some people but they don’t fool me. You only have to look at the bigger picture around the world to see where antisemitism lives and where it is thriving. It is thriving within the populist right and far right in central and eastern Europe where Holocaust revisionism is increasing and conspiracy theories about the Hungarian Jew George Soros are spreading. Antisemitism rides in tandem with Islamophobia and anti-Roma prejudice. It is thriving among the more deeply ideological members of the populist right wing groups in Germany, France and Sweden, and among our very splintered far right forces here in Britain. We have also seen its murderous impacts from ultra-nationalist, white supremacists in America. Trump has emboldened these well-funded fringe white supremacist forces.
Last October 2018, Just a few weeks after our commemoration here in Stockton, I was at an equally moving event in front of a huge mural in East London celebrating the Battle of Cable Street. That seemed to be the most appropriate place to gather to enact an act of solidarity with a Jewish community in Pittsburgh America where a neo-Nazi gunman, inspired by theories of world Jewish conspiracy had just massacred Jews in a synagogue. Within 24 hours we mobilised 250 people there. There are of course, many synagogues in America, but the location for the massacre was not random. It was a synagogue that was known for the support it gives to projects that defend and assist beleaguered refugees. It was one of several armed attacks that far right gunmen have perpetrated in different countries since we last met in Stockton. Even more people were killed in the massacre at a mosque in Christchurch New Zealand where the same far right ideology was present.
So what do we do? We remember our history, not only to honour those who fought before us, but to learn from their determination, sense of purpose, and the principles and practice of earlier generations of anti-racists and anti-fascists. Those key principles were unconditional solidarity with victims of racism, and striving to build an anti-fascist majority in every locality to show that fascists were not welcome and make it impossible for them to organise.
I want to finish around 10 years and 1,000 miles from Stockton in 1933. Here, because of the efforts of local people, the fascists were defeated. That was eventually replicated in other towns and cities, in Britain. Both physical resistance and ideological struggle. It was also about practical solidarity patiently building unity among disparate communities, to not allow racist divisions to flourish. But in other part so Europe the fascists were victorious.
In April this year, 12 of us from the Jewish Socialists’ Group went to Warsaw, in Poland, for a week. We timed our visit to coincide with the commemoration of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943. We visited museums and memorials, and the death camp at Treblinka. We also took part in a very moving ceremony and march organised by today’s anti-racists and anti-fascists, leftists, trade unionists, socialists in Poland across different generations, and came away so uplifted. The anti-racist and anti-fascist values we encountered there were the very same ones we are expressing here today. Our struggle must be local and it must be global, and we must believe in a better world. Solidarity!