February 15th 2003 anti Iraq war protest, London. Photo: Youtube February 15th 2003 anti Iraq war protest, London. Photo: Youtube

Lindsey German looks back at the day in 2003 that millions took to the streets to protest the Iraq war

There had never been a moment like it in protest history. Millions of people around the world joined in public demonstrations on every continent.

Across different time zones, protests were taking place over two days around February 15 2003, involving an estimated 30 million.

In Britain, the Stop the War Coalition, with its partners in CND and the Muslim Association of Britain, organised the biggest protest in British history.

The focus was the upcoming war against Iraq, enthusiastically demanded by president George W Bush, aided and abetted by his partner in crime, Tony Blair.

The movement against the Iraq war was a unique phenomenon. It was an international protest movement, co-ordinated by grassroots organisations from below.

Unlike most anti-war movements, it developed to a mass size before the war and invasion. For those who demonstrated, it was often a very strong personal statement of opposition to the war, coupled with a real belief that sufficient numbers on the streets would be enough to stop it.

In any genuine democracy that would and should have been enough. An opinion poll carried in the Guardian showed that at least one person from one out of every 25 households in Britain marched on that day — that puts the number at 1.5 to two million.

A YouGov poll in the Telegraph calculated that 4 per cent of the population had marched on that day — around two million people.

An urban geographer calculated that well over two million marched. Whatever the exact numbers, it was unprecedented in British history.

It reflected a well of opposition throughout society — school students walked out on strike, the Muslim community mobilised, retired army officers turned up at anti-war meetings, actors performed the anti-war play Lysistrata, and two Aslef train drivers refused to move equipment connected with the war.

But Blair was determined to go to invade Iraq. And so he set in train a series of events which continue to have grave and destructive consequences today.

He was not the only one. Bush, Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar and the Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi were all determined to press ahead with the war, despite the misgivings of other European governments including France and Germany, and the opposition of the UN.

The response of protesters, especially in Italy, Spain and Britain, was spectacular. These countries hosted the largest demonstrations. Britain particularly stands out, however, since it had a Labour government promoting the war, whereas in Spain and Italy the main left parties were in opposition to it and to their right-wing governments. It was a remarkable achievement to mobilise such numbers when Labour was divided on this issue.

It was done by a combination of mass grassroots campaigning through the Stop the War Coalition — involving, school students, trade unionists, community and faith groups and political organisations which managed to unite a wide-ranging movement.

It comprised the left and the trade unions, the traditional peace movement around CND, and the Muslim community. While Labour was divided, its left figures, notably Tony Benn, George Galloway MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP did everything that they could to oppose war.

The different sections of the movement all managed to mobilise constituencies some of which had never worked with one another before.

This movement was well under way from the summer of 2002, as it became clear that Bush and Blair were determined to use any excuse to overthrow Saddam Hussein and launch a war and invasion.

The main justification for the planned attack was that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction which he was hiding from international weapons inspectors.

Blair’s government issued a dossier in September 2002 which was lapped up by the right-wing press but did nothing to sway the growing numbers of opponents of the war.

Instead they became more determined to oppose a path which was clearly not justified given the paucity of evidence and the alternatives to war which existed.

The Stop the War Coalition delegation to a mass European Social Forum in Florence in November 2002 took the historic decision to organise an international day of demonstrations across the continent and this initiative spread.

By February 2003 the whole world was seeing demonstrations in opposition to this war.

It was a tragedy for the world that these calls were ignored. Iraq has suffered devastating losses and destruction, wars have spread across the Middle East, terrorism has grown.

The world is a much more dangerous place because of the actions of Bush and Blair 15 years ago.

Looking back after all this time, what conclusions can we draw?

First, the movement was massive but to stop an imperialist war machine would have required even higher forms of action, particularly strike action to hit the government where it hurt.

While many of us argued for this sort of action — and while there were many instances of strikes and walkouts on the day war broke out, as well as the courageous stand of the school students — we were not capable of winning this on the mass scale which would have been required.

The second point is that the movement has had long-term consequences in terms of British politics. While the movement failed to stop the war, to the bitter regret of millions, it did change public opinion in this country, with growing numbers of people opposing interventions, culminating in David Cameron being defeated in Parliament in August 2013 over the proposed bombing of Syria.

The movement was also a major contributing factor to the election of one of its major figures, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the opposition.

It is a great source of pride to those of us who organised the demonstration that it will go down as a historic moment. But it also makes us more determined to continue organising. Many of those who demonstrated for the first time then have gone on to demonstrate over other wars, over Palestine, and a range of other issues.

Many have made the connections between war, neoliberal economics and the system of imperialism which dominates the globe.

Donald Trump’s special relationship with Theresa May has come under some strain in recent months, but never forget this is a desperately close military and political alliance which is a threat to the world.

Governments strain every sinew to dress their interventions up as humanitarian, as helping the poor and beleaguered of the world.

They are anything but, with these decades-long wars contributing to worsening the lives of the people they are supposed to help.

With the war in Syria threatening to turn into a much bigger inter-imperialist conflict, with growing numbers of deaths in Afghanistan, and with the Saudi war in Yemen aided by British arms and military trainers, there is more reason to protest against war than ever.

That’s why the Stop the War Coalition is campaigning for an anti-war government, as the beginning of developing a foreign policy which isn’t based on occupation and war.

Lindsey German is convenor of the Stop the War Coalition and was one of the main organisers of the march against the Iraq war on February 15 2003.

The Stop the War Coalition is organising a national tour of meetings on Why We Need an Anti-War Government. Tonight, February 15, it has meetings in London and Cardiff. See its website for details www.stopwar.org.uk.

Lindsey German

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’.