Fascism was highly fashionable throughout Europe and North America in the 1930s, and Britain too was affected. Antisemitism and a desire to keep the “lower orders” in check were widespread beliefs among the British aristocracy, the media, the police, the Conservative Party and large sections of the population. My Jewish grandfather and his family, living in the ghetto in the East End of London, faced discrimination and the threat of violence on a frequent basis. The far-right was strong and confident, and the British Union of Fascists (BUF), led by Oswald Mosley, commanded a membership of up to 50,000, and the support of the ever-moronic Daily Mail.
On Sunday 4th October, 1936, Mosley decided to flex the BUF’s muscles by marching his “blackshirt” street thugs through the East End, the most Jewish area of England. The local Jewish population, including my grandfather, came into their streets to stop the blackshirts marching. They battled the fascists, and the London police who joined the blackshirts in fighting the Jews. But that’s not the full picture: the Jews alone couldn’t have stopped the blackshirts (and their police friends) from marching. The Jews were joined by other immigrants – largely Irish – along with socialists, communists, trade unionists and ordinary Londoners. Local women leaned out of their windows and dropped pots and pans on the blackshirts. The fascists were beaten off London’s streets.
The Battle of Cable Street was a turning point in British history. The BUF never recovered from their physical beating and humiliation. The British people had given their verdict on fascism – unlike in much of mainland Europe or the USA, British fascism was in retreat by the start of the Second World War in 1939. Mosley attempted a come-back in the 1950s and 60s, this time choosing black immigrants instead of Jews as his target, but he was largely irrelevant by then. His fascist mantle was picked up in the 1970s by a new group, the National Front, which targeted blacks, Jews and the latest arrivals: Asians (meaning primarily Indians and Pakistanis). The growth of the NF coincided with the Skinhead cultural movement among young working class whites, and the skinheads were (often unfairly) labelled as fascists and racists.
When I reached my teens, the NF was at its peak, and my black friends would run on sight of a skinhead. But then, in the early-80s, support for the NF collapsed. But why? It wasn’t through official state action: the British police were incredibly racist, and often took the side of the NF in street confrontations. The Thatcher government was riddled with racists who had little understanding of the situation on the streets, and showed no interest in clamping down on street racism.
The answer was culture; or specifically working class culture as expressed through music. In the 60s, while middle class Brits were joining the hippie movement, the young, white working class had discovered Soul music, imported from the US. In the 1970s, the young black British population, with close links to the West Indies, was listening to reggae, the huge new trend from Jamaica. Young white people in the cities, who already had a taste for black music, were discovering reggae, which required going to black concerts and mixing with black people. In the late-1970s, the two-tone movement appeared, blending white skinhead and punk music with reggae and ska from the West Indies. The two-tone movement (including groups like The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter) saw concerts bringing enemy gangs together in the same venues. Rastas and skinheads shared music, danced together and smoked weed together. The National Front lost its constituency of angry, white, racist young men. This didn’t happen because government wanted it to – it happened largely without the knowledge of Britain’s rulers. It happened because of some X-factor in the British population; a natural ability to accept, integrate and mix with immigrant cultures that seems lacking elsewhere in Europe or in the United States.
If two-tone was the first, crude blend of white and black music, it was just the beginning. By the 1990s, mixed couples and mixed music scenes were becoming more frequent. Mixed-race children were becoming a common sight. The Jamaican Dub sound was adopted by musical pioneers in Bristol, who created a new set of genres such as Trip Hop. Jungle music, a London creation, took Jamaican ragga and European dance music and blended them. From this emerged Drum and Bass, and in the late-90s, UK Garage. UK Hip Hop began as a copy of the American version, but was quickly adapted to British styles, from which emerged a truly British poetry form, Grime. Asian sounds joined the mix of Jamaican and European influences. The blender ran ever faster, creating new musical styles that were ever more intertwined, and ever more British.
Outside the cities, most people were oblivious to this. As always, British urban youth were decades ahead of the establishment and the middle class mainstream in integrating their cultures together. The only time the urban scene ever made mainstream news was if a gun was waved at a Garage concert or a stabbing occurred at a Hip Hop rave.
By 2000, it seemed the far-right could never re-establish itself in such a mixed society, so at peace with itself, but 9/11 changed that. The new kid on the fascist block, the British National Party (BNP) quickly rewrote its literature, replacing the word Asian with the word Muslim. Anti-Muslim ideas began to gain traction, especially after 52 people died in the London bombings of 2005. Then the English Defence League (EDL) was born; while the BNP had tried to create a respectable, suited version of fascism, the EDL went back to NF ways, building a street army of angry young white men. The EDL grew fast, but then in the past year or so seemed to have peaked. The EDL’s apparent association with far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik doesn’t seem to have helped them.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen regular tweets about the EDL and its idiot supporters, and especially its moronic leader, Tommy Robinson. EDL supporters on Twitter output a regular drip-feed of hateful misinformation about Muslims, which has been hard to tackle. Until yesterday, that is. Tommy Robinson had tweeted one of his standard pieces of anti-Muslim nonsense. Seeing a picture of a “mosque” on the Twitter home page (it was, in fact, the Taj Mahal), Robinson sent the following tweet:
Welcome to twitter homepage has a picture of a mosque What a joke #creepingsharia
The idea being, of course, to convince the British public that Islam is encroaching on every aspect of our daily lives. There have been many such tweets from Robinson and his supporters. But this time, some Twitter users decided to respond, and take the piss out of (to use a British expression) the #CreepingSharia hashtag. By yesterday afternoon, the trickle of tweets was growing into a flood, and by evening it was a tsunami. The British people, in their many thousands, had finally been given their chance to react, in a truly British fashion, to the cancer of the EDL. The response wasn’t anger, threats or hatred. It was a flood of laughter. The EDL was turned within a few hours into a national and international laughing-stock. It was more than a chance to let off steam – it was a turning point. It was a chance for the majority to demonstrate to British Muslims that the EDL is a small, unrepresentative and unliked group of people. The atmosphere on Twitter yesterday can be described as a carnival. I don’t think my grandfather, or other veterans of the Battle of Cable Street, would mind me comparing the two events. Yesterday, 16th April 2012, the British people hounded and humiliated the EDL just as they had the BUF on 4th October 1936.
Here’s a small selection of #creepingsharia tweets (sorry if they’re wrongly attributed – many were retweeted many times):
@DestinyofL: ‘Star Wars’ makes a ‘hero’ of a youth who is radicalised by a bearded old man who lives in the desert wearing robes #creepingsharia
@amna_kaleem: The weather in Britain is always Sunni or Shi’ite. #CreepingSharia
@lacatchat: If you look really carefully, a packet of iced gems looks like lots & lots of little Mosques. #creepingsharia
@stanyalplatford: All the fantastic and clever #creepingsharia tweets utterly nailed @EDLTrobinson . What a fucking prick.
@BristolAF: Fell asleep on the sofa again last night. My lovely Muslim housemate tried not to wake me when she got back from work. #creepingsharia
@ZiaQureshi11: I once had a go at my housemate for cooking bacon in my frying pan and not cleaning it properly #creepingsharia
@KarmaUnc: Marvelous to see the Twittersphere overwhelmingly handing @EDLTrobinson his #creepingsharia arse back to him on a plate today #EDL
@ammaarrahim: RT if the #creepingsharia trend made your day today… certainly made mine
It was a reminder to me that, whatever the downside of living on this cold, wet island among a people who enjoy moaning about most things on most days, there’s a huge reason to be proud of this country. As race hate strengthens in Hungary, The Netherlands and the USA, the British can again be an example to the rest of the western world. While patriotism grows in popularity elsewhere, the British don’t do patriotism. We don’t fly flags on our homes or on public buildings. It’s our contempt for those who label themselves British or English Patriots that is quintessentially British or English.
As for my great love, British urban music, this has continued to evolve over the past decade. For those of you who can’t be here in London to experience our mixture first-hand, here’s a taste of what young white, black and brown Londoners are dancing to, together, in 2012. It contains flavours of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and the USA, but it’s uniquely British, and it unites young people from all backgrounds. The far-right doesn’t stand a chance.