The Cable Street Mural — Photo by Jo-Marshall (was Jo-h), CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

80 years on from The Battle of Cable Street, how far have we truly come…?

Surveying the new political landscape following a tumultuous period in British politics, we appear to be entering a dangerous time, one far from escaping the divisive discourse of the EU referendum.

A few months ago, I wrote of how I felt British Politics had somehow sped up in the approach to the EU referendum vote and, indeed, in its aftermath. How things were moving so rapidly in terms of the revolving door of individuals presented to us as potentially leading the country forwards that it was hard to understand exactly what the final repercussions would be, nor where the country would find itself once the dust had settled.

Since then, we’ve had a new Prime Minister (Theresa May and not Boris Johnson as at one point looked possible – although there he is, risibly ensconced as Foreign Secretary) and the first annual conference of the ‘post-Cameron’ Tory Party.

Unfortunately, for liberals of any stripe, the picture painted of our nation is far from a pretty one. The early effects of the decision to leave the EU have not been economical as first thought – although as I write this the pound sits at a 31 year low against the US dollar, Article 50 confirmed to be triggered in March 2017 – but cultural and, more significantly still, political.

Cameron’s so-called ‘compassionate conservatism’ is dead. The ‘enfant terribles’, far from being cowed, are emboldened.

Reports of a rise in hate crime are to be deplored, yet it’s the effects of the Brexit decision on our sitting Government that are most worrying for those, like me, who care about the compassionate, bleeding heart of our nation.

David Cameron’s ill-fated decision to hold a referendum, brought about by first the desire to appease the right of his party and then silence them for the foreseeable future, has, in fact, had precisely the opposite effect. Cameron’s so-called ‘compassionate conservatism’ is dead. The ‘enfant terribles’, far from being cowed, are emboldened.

A recent politics.co.uk article carried the headline ‘The Tories have finally become Ukip’. Sensationalist yes, but borne of a kernel of truth. The already fine line between Conservatism and UKipism has become even more blurred. Those in the Tory Party once sidelined now believe they have the mandate to pursue xenophobic and divisive policies that once would have been seen as electorally toxic but now feel like viable vote winners.

Theresa May has been calculating in her approach to these first few months as Prime Minister. As her main opposition re-affirm their position as the Party of the left, she has played the pragmatic card, claiming the Tories have now become the common sense choice of the centre ground.

Those in the Tory Party once sidelined now believe they have the mandate to pursue xenophobic and divisive policies that once would have been seen as electorally toxic but now feel like viable vote winners.

Yet the rhetoric used by May and her minsters proves this to be the most gauze like of thin veils. Let’s be very clear, the suggestion British companies should be ‘shamed’ for employing foreigners is neither a fair nor common sense approach to the socio-economic problems that have given rise to a fear of immigration. The idea that we would send foreigners back, abhorrent. The dexterous positioning of British nationals and foreign migrants as ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the lexicon of political discourse is now explicit, no longer merely implied.

I think it’s fair to surmise, in peeling away the sheep’s clothing, we expose a lupine Britain that has taken a vicious and significant lurch to the right. Liberal commentators are justified in by-passing Thatcher’s era for suitable comparison and returning to the 1930’s — a period when Oswald Moseley’s ‘blackshirts’ represented a particularly vehement seam of British fascism. It would take the looming shadow of the Second World War to subdue their persuasion.

It does feel particularly apt to raise the timely 80th anniversary of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, which if not the defining moment in that period’s rejection of extreme nationalism has at least become symbolic of it. In contemporary times we again find ourselves slaves to the vagaries of public opinion, that which has been once more too easily moulded by the flamboyance of a lone wily and manipulative voice.

In contemporary times we again find ourselves slaves to the vagaries of public opinion, that which has been once more too easily moulded by the flamboyant sound of a lone, if wily and manipulative voice.

Now, and with a growing sense of unease, the foundations of the European Union, primarily conceived to prevent catastrophic failings of diplomacy from ever again leading a continent into conflict, have been almost unknowingly rejected. The very existence of the EU is now being brought into question. Unfairly so, for the blame laid at its door is misplaced. The underlying dissatisfaction not a result of the EU’s own failings primarily but the failings of the UK Government to address problems it has brought upon itself, problems it has allowed to be blamed on Brussels and the myth of the undermining migrant.

The thought, no matter how unlikely, of the EU’s demise is a horrifying one, only trumped by the potential cloaked rise of a once unimaginable xenophobia in nations, such as this one, that reject the EU’s fundamental values. Those of us voicing opposition, dismissed farcically as a disconnected ‘liberal elite’, surely have a duty to see our own selves in the actions of those who stood against Moseley in Cable Street some 80 years ago. We must fight, with words and peaceful actions, to reveal the truth of Theresa May’s disingenuous grandstanding. Expose the thin end of a wedge that leads us into isolation, ignorance and insularity.

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