The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ on 4 October 1936 has long been annually commemorated as one of the most significant moment in the fight against fascism in Britain. Yet three years before Cable Street – the British Union of Fascists’ provocative attempt to dominate the streets of East London, with its large Jewish population – what was perhaps the first major organised anti-fascist demonstration in the UK took place in Stockton-on-Tees. Stockton, a town in the northeast of England that had been badly hit by the Great Depression and had high levels of unemployment, typified the BUF’s attempt to break out of London in order to gain support in the provinces. Oswald Mosley and his supporters had been interrupted before outside of London, notably at a speech in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in March 1933, when communists disrupted the proceedings. In Stockton, where the BUF membership was small, local fascists tried to bolster their numbers by bussing in activists from Manchester and Tyneside. As they gathered in Stockton’s Market Square on 10 September 1933, and as the fascist speakers tried to address their followers, they were interrupted and heckled by noisy anti-fascist demonstrators. After the Manchester clash, the BUF established a ‘Defence Force’ with the aim of forcibly ejecting opponents – oftentimes violently. It was now put to action and, unsurprisingly, a fight ensued that resulted in several injuries. The police intervened and escorted the fascists to buses, with some 1,000 protestors in pursuit.
The local press, perhaps understandably, chose to stress that most of the troublemakers were from outside Stockton. Although it ended with at least one serious injury (a fascist struck by an iron bar) the fighting, as reported in the North-Eastern Daily Gazette, was nevertheless ‘admirably handled by seven police officers’ (see image below). Nonetheless, the newspaper bemoaned the presence of both fascists and communists, while the way the event played out indicated that the BUF had, as historian Nigel Copsey puts it, a ‘predilection to violence.’ The anti-fascists’ strategy of provoking the BUF had worked in Stockton and, although there is no doubt that many of the anti-fascist activists who were prepared to take the street were ready for a fight, it was the BUF’s use of a private ‘defence force’ to cause violence in public that was so notable – especially from a movement that stressed the need for ‘order’ and respectability on the streets.
What happened in Stockton – whatever the precise course of events – has been largely forgotten. But this year a group of local activists have sought to revive its memory. Bringing together art and music, as well as political involvement from trades unions and other groups, the Battle of Stockton Campaign has raised awareness of the ‘battle’ significantly amongst locals. And now, on 9 September 2018, 85 years after the event, a plaque will be unveiled in Stockton. Local children have made a quilt which will be shown at the event and a small book, The Battle of Stockton, has also been prepared.
The event is noteworthy in itself but, more importantly, it reminds us of the ongoing attempts by the radical right to infiltrate and divide local communities, to sow discontent, and to offer simplistic explanations for complex economic and social problems. Stockton stands in for hundreds of similar towns not just in Britain but across Europe, the US and elsewhere. Fascism is not just the articulation of hatred towards ‘others’; it is a form of discontent and anger that breeds in times of crisis or fear. In tough times, ordinary people are those who are preyed on by the fascist activists, as they hope the mainstream majority will turn a blind eye to those who, as they claim, are willing to articulate sentiments that have long been socially unacceptable. Recent events in Chemnitz have shown the danger of this way of thinking – with the AfD spearheading an attack on migrants in the German town – and many reports have stressed how the shock is not that the radical right has voiced their views but that ‘ordinary’ people have marched alongside them – and, more hearteningly, the fact that so many more people, when mobilised, are ready and willing to speak out against them. The Battle of Stockton deserves to be commemorated both as a significant event in its own right, as a crucial moment in the history of anti-fascism in Britain, and, vitally, as a reminder of battles perhaps yet to come in these febrile times.
Professor Dan Stone is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Professor of Modern History at the University of London. See his profile here:
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The plaque commemorating the Battle of Stockton was unveiled on 9 September 2018.