LONDON (Reuters) - Max Levitas recalls the electricity in the air as more than 100,000 Jews, Irish workers, communists and residents battled police to stop fascists marching through a Jewish area of east London in 1936.
The protesters threw marbles under the hooves of police horses and residents dumped garbage and chamber pots from their windows in what became known as the “Battle of Cable Street.” Dozens were injured in the violent clashes as baton-wielding officers unsuccessfully tried to break their lines.
Seventy-five years later, the sprightly 96-year-old is still out on the streets. To Levitas and his fellow anti-fascist campaigners, Cable Street stands as a still-relevant warning for Britain today.
“Look what’s happening again. It’s a recurrence of the fight which we had against racism,” Levitas told Reuters.
With Britain’s economy in a downturn and unemployment rising, academics and experts say Britain is witnessing the rise of a new “far right,” with the grass-roots English Defence League (EDL) as its more publicly acceptable face.
The group, which describes itself as a nationalist movement that aims to stop Islam overwhelming British culture, says it rejects hate theories and disassociates itself with extremist far-right, neo-Nazi organisations.
But for Levitas and others, there are uncomfortable echoes of the past in the EDL’s ideology, followers and its protests that frequently turn violent.
John Denham, a former cabinet minister, has directly compared the EDL’s activities to the fascists’ moves of the 1930s.
The crowd that Levitas joined on October 4, 1936, aimed to thwart a march by fascist leader Oswald Mosley and 5,000 uniformed followers by barricading the streets under the Spanish Civil War slogan “No Pasaran” (they shall not pass).
Six thousand police officers and London’s entire mounted division were sent in to clear the road but ended up battling the protesters until the authorities instructed Mosley to call off his march.
The conflict helped end Mosley’s dream of fostering fascism in Britain and led directly to a law banning paramilitary activities and the use of uniforms by political parties.
Fast forward to 2011, when the EDL tried to organise a march through a now-predominantly Muslim area barely a stone’s throw from Cable Street. This time the government took the rare step of banning the march.
The group held a static protest instead. Levitas was at a counter rally.
“We’ve got to join together to ensure that on the various issues which affect the Muslim population, whatever colour you are, there’s got to be unity in the fight against racism,” Levitas said.
As many as 12,000 people have attended the numerous marches and demonstrations across England organised by the EDL, formed in 2009 after a group of radical Muslims shouted slogans at British soldiers during a homecoming parade.
EDL leader Stephen Lennon, 28, says that no-one is addressing the discontent many Britons feel about Muslim extremists and their impact on local communities, and adds it’s dangerous to take away people’s right to express their anger.
“The whole country’s pissed off, a lot of people are pissed off, and when you’re pissed off and you’re angry like a lot people are, through democracy you protest,” he told Reuters.
”Now they are trying to take that right away from us, they’re trying to tell us we can’t protest over these issues.
“Then what are you going to get? You’re going to get people going to blow things up. They will create monsters by doing that.”
Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who killed 77 people in July as part of what he claimed was an international mission to counter Islam, claimed to have had regular contact with EDL members and leaders.
Lennon has denied any formal links to Breivik and rejects the description of his group as far-right. He argues that real extremists hate him, among other things because of the group’s support for Israel. The group also has a Jewish division.
Matthew Feldman, a leading authority on the British far right from the University of Northampton, says the EDL acts as a focal point.
“I see the EDL as the big whale in the right-wing movement. Even if you don’t agree with them you might still, like the small barnacles of the Aryan Strike Force, attach yourself to them,” he told Reuters.
Experts believe the group, which has about 17,000 Facebook friends, has a core membership of about 1,000.
“There’s the football hooligan element which really shouldn’t be overlooked and dismissed,” Feldman said.
Lennon himself was convicted this year over a street brawl involving soccer fans. And just last week he was found guilty of assault during an altercation at an EDL rally in April and could face a ban from future rallies.
“These guys like getting out on a Saturday, having some beers and having their chants,” Feldman said.
In that respect, the EDL’s members would appear to share some qualities with the white supremacist, neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic organisations they distance themselves from, like the National Front, Blood and Honour or Stormfront.
Former far-right activist Matthew Collins joined the National Front when he was just 15.
But he began to question his beliefs and started informing on the group’s activities for the anti-fascist Searchlight organisation after taking part in an attack on a public meeting at a library where “little old ladies got their heads stamped on.”
“I came to the realisation that actually these people are really, really evil,” said Collins, who has written of his experiences in “Hate: My Life in the British Far Right.”
“I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my life stuck in tiny little rooms with these lunatics,” he told Reuters.
Collins, who fled Britain for 10 years in the early 90s after receiving death threats, said many in the far right would readily use violence to defend their beliefs.
“It’s very, very difficult to pick amongst all those extremists, some of whom are very violent, very, very dangerous, who is capable of going over the line.”
Senior police officers have warned Britain faces a growing threat from far-right “lone wolves” as Breivik appears to be.
About 40 individuals who hold extremist right-wing views have been convicted in Britain for violent or terrorist offences in recent years.
They include David Copeland, who killed three in a 13-day bombing campaign in 1999 aimed at ethnic communities and homosexuals, and Ian Davison, described as a leading member of the now defunct Aryan Strike Force (ASF), who last year was the first person in Britain to be convicted of manufacturing a deadly chemical weapon, the poison ricin.
For the time being, right-wing groups remain on the fringes politically, although they are more visible in society than at any time since Mosley in the 1930s.
The British National Party, which campaigns on an anti-immigration agenda but says it is not racist, won two seats for the European parliament in 2009, its first success at such a level.
It fared less well in national elections the following year, although its support remains strong in some parts of the country.
Lennon revealed that the EDL was in discussions with similar groups across Europe about forming a political party.
“There will be an anti-Islamist political party forming his year,” he said with confidence. “Britain’s primed for it.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall