Letters to the Editor - December 2011
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
Share your thoughts with the readers of History Today.
Email email@example.com, or post to
25 Bedford Avenue
Daniel Tilles’ argument (‘The Myth of Cable Street’, October 2011) might have had credibility at the time of the event but, with 75 years of hindsight, it is not supported by the facts he presents. Antisemitism had been rife in Britain from the time of the first Jewish immigration waves at the end of the 19th century, giving rise to the Alien’s Act of 1905 and continuing after the defeat of Germany and Italy in the Second World War and the revelations of the Holocaust.
Tilles quotes a figure of 100,000 protesters barring the passage of the Blackshirts. The majority of these would not have been Jewish. The threat of Fascism had already been recognised by the British working class and opposition to the movement already expressed – Tilles himself quotes the 1934 Olympia event. This threat was realised by the events of 1936 when British volunteers went to Spain to support the Republic, while the West’s establishment pursued a policy of malevolent neutrality as Germany and Italy were allowed to rehearse the Second World War.
The opposition to the march by the Blackshirts was far from counter-productive. It demonstrated that Fascism could be opposed successfully, at least within Britain, a valuable lesson for subsequent events. As Edmund Burke said: ‘For evil to flourish, all that is needed is for good men to do nothing.’ Any political advantage gained by the British Union of Fascists (BUF) was short lived and owed more to publicity than to any real increase in the level of antisemitism.
The result of the ‘do nothing’ philosophy widespread in the western world was the carnage of the Second World War, the devastation of Europe, the occupation of the territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, dismantled at the end of the previous war, and the Middle East destabilised by the reaction of the victors wracked with guilt over the Holocaust.
Seventy-five years on, a different ethnic minority is being demonised to advance a similar political agenda.
Daniel Tilles said that ‘hecklers’ were ejected by Mosley’s stewards at Olympia.
Following Comintern advice on resisting Fascism by ‘all means’, the Communist Party had organised major disruption. On June 7th, 1934 the Daily Worker promised that a huge counter-demonstration inside the hall would make the Blackshirts ‘tremble’.
This attempt to disrupt the meeting was frustrated, though not without stewards being treated for ‘injuries caused by blunt and sharp instruments’ at one dressing station, according to a hospital-trained paramedic.
One need not be a committed counter-factualist to envisage the triumphalism of Mosley and the BUF had they succeeded in marching along Cable Street. But would any surge in support for Fascism have been limited?
Daniel Tilles did not refer to British Fascism’s core problem – the shallowness of its roots in British political life. By contrast, its most hated opponent, the Communist Party, found sustenance and support among rank and file trade unionists, in trades councils and in the co-operative movement. Combatting the Mosleyites was integrally linked with support for Republican Spain and promoting the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and kindred causes. The BUF could not rival this vigour.
By 1936 Mosley was a one-trick pony, promoting antisemitism in East London at the expense of other parts of the UK, such as Scotland. There, BUF strategy failed to tap into issues such as the growth of of Scottish nationalism or Protestant extremism. Further, the use of physical force by its opponents such as the Communist Party in Aberdeen drove it from the streets of Scotland’s towns and cities. Disillusioned and often literally battered, the BUF’s leaders in Scotland had, by 1939, lost heart. It was a movement, in Stephen M. Cullen’s judgement, ‘in terminal decline’.
Manners Maketh Man
Tim Stanley may be right to argue against the exclusion of David Starkey (The Contrarian, November 2011) from the community of historians, but Starkey appears intent on excluding himself.
Leaving aside his excessive and gratuitous rudeness, of which there are many examples, he demonstrates a strange lack of proportion. He once said that Thomas Cromwell was superior to Alistair Darling as a chancellor of the exchequer. How can a serious historian make intertemporal comparisons like that? It is like comparing Genghis Khan with Montgomery in terms of generalship.
Starkey gives an impression of intolerance and single-mindedness. Though he has quoted Edmund Burke with approval on the matter of ‘little platoons’, what does he make of Burke’s comment on manners? ‘Manners are more important than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barabarise or refine us by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.’
Dunbar, East Lothian
The missing piece in Tim Stanley’s ‘North-South Divide’ (The Contrarian, September, 2011) is the careful dance that Lincoln and his party had to perform in order to retain the middle states that allowed slavery. Without Maryland, for example, Washington DC would have been surrounded by rebel slave states. Lincoln, no matter his personal feelings, had to move towards full emancipation in careful steps. Even in the South there was division (western Virginia broke off into the separate, non-rebel state of West Virginia). Without considering the political context it is easy to judge that ‘slavery was rarely the issue at hand’.
The best evidence might be how those in the Union army felt (most of whom were, presumably, Republican) at the time of the full emancipation proclamation in January 1863. From what I have read, they thought the war turned at that point and took on a moral purpose.
The two major political parties in the US really contain a number of smaller parties, often at deep disagreement within themselves, who coalesce for political power. That should be considered before making a simplified statement about the Republicans in 1860.
Santa Rosa, California