Opposing imperialism through the movement on the streets is imperative, argues Lindsey German
I was recently involved in a discussion on Facebook triggered by someone who had just seen the brilliant film We Are Many, directed by Amir Amirani. He was 11 when 2 million of us marched against the Iraq war, and wanted to know why the biggest demo in history didn’t stop the war, and what did people think could have been done differently, if anything?
It is a crucial question but as he suggested has no one off answers. Much of the history and detail of the movement is contained in the book 'Stop the War: the story of a mass movement' which Andrew Murray and I wrote over 10 years ago. It contains our analysis and many contributions from a range of individuals. It also lists actions taken on the day war broke out, most of them direct actions involving strikes and walkouts, blocking of roads, bridges and motorways, and various other protests. Central to these was the huge strike of school students from hundreds of schools across the country. The book obviously doesn't have the benefit of 13 years’ hindsight but is a good starting point.
Just to recap: Stop the War was founded in 2001 after the events of 9/11 and opposed the war on terror: its first theatre of war was Afghanistan, where we mobilised large numbers to demonstrate, including from the Muslim community. The first phase of that war rapidly ended with the overthrow of the Taliban, and it became clear that George Bush was determined to invade what he regarded as the main enemy, Iraq.
As awareness of this grew in 2002, Stop the War developed into a mass campaign, holding huge rallies in cities and towns across the country, and organising a major demo in September 2002 and a day of direct action on Halloween. Most of the major trade unions came on board as did campaigning, political and faith organisations. School students developed their own organisation and held strikes against the war.
At the Florence Social Forum in November 2002, we agreed to coordinate February 15th 2003 as an international day of protest against the war. Everything took off from there and there were demos on every continent on that day. In Britain we had the biggest demo in history, at 2 million. This figure is disputed by some but we base it on the following. An opinion poll in the Guardian said at least one person from 1.25 million households went on march. Given so many families and groups of friends did so that must put it close to 2 million. Another poll for the Daily Telegraph said 4% of the population marched. That made it slightly over 2 million. And an urban geographer contacted us to say he estimated 2.3 million marched.
The size was phenomenal. Organised outside a mainstream organisation, and against a Labour government, was a huge achievement. Never forget that in virtually every other country with big demos there were right wing governments. The equivalents of Labour tended to be part of the anti-war movement, with at least some sections of the mainstream left parties mobilised for these demos.
In Britain the two main parliamentary parties supported the war, despite the very large rebellion from Labour MPs, led by George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn. It was this simple fact that allowed Tony Blair to go to war despite the huge protests.
In my view, only one thing at this stage could have stopped the war: industrial action against it. On industrial action. There was the action of two train drivers who refused to move war-related goods. ASLEF members, they were fully backed by the union. Then there were the walkouts on the day war broke out, tiny as a proportion of the working class, but brave and symbolic, and more widespread than we knew. Certainly there was a lot of sympathy for the anti-war movement among working people, but taking part in strike action is obviously a very big call. It’s worth recalling, even 13 years on, how much unofficial action have we seen over anything on this scale? On pensions, jobs or wages? According to last year's figures strikes plummeted to a remarkable low, even on 2014. So strike action might have stopped the war machine in its tracks, but it was very hard to make happen.
There are also criticisms that more direct action would have stopped the war, but I don’t think this case has ever been made. There were many direct action events called by Stop the War, especially with the various days of action, and many others that we supported. But we had mass mobilisation as our main priority, I think rightly. And to be honest, direct actions were important but there is absolutely no evidence they would have stopped the war either. The main barriers to our success were lack of industrial action and Blair dragooning many of his MPs into voting for war despite the obvious opposition of large swathes of Labour members and voters, in a breathtaking denial of democracy for which we are still paying the price.
The present support for Jeremy Corbyn owes a lot to the anti-war movement, something we can see by the way the right constantly try to attack him over issues of war and peace.
We did a great thing collectively with Stop the War. We have maintained it as an organisation and in the past year have seen a considerable increase in support, despite (or perhaps because of) the attacks on Corbyn. We are, I think, the major anti-war movement in any Nato country. The attacks from the right over the Syria bombing vote in 2013 showed the legacy of the movement and what damage we did. Ditto the Syria vote last year, used as a vicious attack on Jeremy Corbyn (and joined in by the pro-intervention left). There are many issues to debate about our history, and still a job to combat interventions in the Middle East and through Nato expansion.
Our conference next month marks the 15th anniversary of our movement. A time to say no to all the wars arising from the war on terror. And to continue our commitment to opposing the system our government is at the heart of, imperialism.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.