On the anniversary of the massive anti-war protests of 15 February 2003 Alex Snowdon argues socialists and anti-cuts activists have much to gain from assessing the record of the biggest and most politically significant mass movement we have had in recent history.

Protesters in Hyde Park London Feb 15 2003

In the wake of large-scale student demonstrations – with the broader anti-cuts movement growing – it is helpful for activists to learn from previous experiences of building mass movements.

In recent years the pre-eminent example is the anti-war movement, which most prominently mobilised massive numbers in active opposition to the invasion of Iraq – both prior to it and after war commenced. It has also organised against war in Afghanistan, rising Islamophobia and Israeli invasions of Lebanon and Gaza. The recent rallies in solidarity with the Egyptian uprising, while relatively small, are one reminder of the continuing relevance of the Stop the War Coalition.

In sheer scale the anti-war movement dwarfs anything else in the last decade. Indeed the largest demonstrations in British history were in 2002/03. Most famously, an estimated 2 million people marched in London on 15 February 2003, but there had previously been a demonstration of 400,000 in September 2002. There was a similar number again – at very short notice – on the Saturday following the outbreak of war in March 2003.

These demonstrations, and many others, were principally organised by the Stop the War Coalition – founded in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 – with the involvement of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Muslim organisations. The coalition was initiated by the radical left, but increasingly involved broader forces.

The protests were part of global movement unprecedented in scale: the mega turnouts of 15 February built on existing campaigning, co-ordinated to make a huge worldwide impact on that day (and all without assistance from Twitter and Facebook).

Most movements vary enormously in scale and reach over time, with peaks and troughs. This is true of the anti-war movement. But it has, in this country, been sustained over a long period. Some people suggest that UK participation in war on Iraq means the movement was basically a failure. Yet, while the primary aim of the movement in 2002/03 remained beyond reach, its achievements are considerable.

The movement played a central role in changing public opinion. It’s easy to forget now that UK involvement in wars and occupations has traditionally gained majority support in domestic public opinion: the Falklands war in 1982 was supported by a large majority and helped Margaret Thatcher’s Tories to re-election the following year. The wars in the Gulf and the Balkans during the 1990s drew more opposition, but still just minorities.

The threatened invasion of Iraq, however, was opposed by a majority of the British public; opinion polls have repeatedly indicated a large majority opposed to the occupation of Afghanistan. Every protest, rally and public meeting helped towards turning the tide against the propagandists for war and occupation. They emboldened anti-war opinion while putting pro-war arguments and myths under increasingly intense scrutiny.

Although the movement has always been broad – and has benefited from that – there has been a constant core of anti-imperialist politics. It has, over time, demonstrated the capacity for being big and broad but also radical and militant. The idea of imperialism was re-introduced to mainstream discourse for the first time for generations. Most strikingly, there has been a profound shift in public attitudes to Israel, with such widespread support for the Palestinians unknown previously.

The movement in this country forced Tony Blair from office earlier than he’d planned or wanted, just as the anti-poll tax movement catalysed Thatcher’s exit nearly two decades earlier. This was heavily influenced by the mobilisations over Iraq and the powerful challenge they posed to Blair’s foreign policy.

The turning point was in the summer of 2006. Israel attacked Lebanon. Blair refused to call for a ceasefire – the movement responded by mobilising 100,000 people at a week’s notice. Just days later, six government aides resigned and wrote to Blair saying he had to promise to be gone within a year. And so he was.

Anti-war mobilisations strengthened a political environment in which the UK was forced to quit Iraq before the US. That is why there are no British troops in Iraq now. Furthermore, as Tony Blair has made clear – in his memoirs and at the Chilcot inquiry – he has consistently had a belligerent attitude to Iran. Similar sentiments can still be found in US elite circles. The risk of facing a popular backlash, including mass demonstrations, has surely inhibited any attack on Iran.

We have witnessed – around not only Afghanistan and Iraq but Palestine – the largest ever political mobilisations of the Muslim community in alliance with the left, trade unionists and peace campaigners. We have seen a series of mass multi-racial demonstrations – from thousands of Muslims joining the 50,000-strong demo in October 2001 against war in Afghanistan to the mass protests in solidarity with Gaza in January 2009 (and again in June 2010, following Israel’s deadly assault on the Mavi Marmara).

This has helped create a counterweight to the Islamophobia which is promoted as a vital ideological component of the ‘war on terror’, a ‘respectable’ ideology which has, in turn, fed the BNP and particularly the EDL. The movement has also consistently opposed attacks on civil liberties, undermining or helping defeat the Prevent scheme (targeting Muslim communities), the use of control orders, attempts to lengthen detension without trial, and more.

The 35 student occupations in universities in January-March 2009 – in response to the 3-week Israeli assualt on Gaza – were mostly smaller and more short-lived than the occupations last term against cuts and increased fees. But many of them won concessions from university administrations and collectively they marked a return of the occupation tactic to the student movement, prefiguring the larger movement of recent months.

Stop the War is sometimes misrepresented as having always been solely preoccupied with what are sometimes dubbed ‘A to B marches’. This phrase is strangely condescending – what it describes is mass national demonstrations, which most anti-war activists correctly regard as more powerful than typically extremely small-scale (but arguably more militant) ‘direct actions’.

These demonstrations have consistently served as unifying events which publicly displayed the scale and depth of anti-war opinion. The biggest of them, from autumn 2002 through to the massive weekday demo which greeted George Bush’s visit to London in 2003, exerted intense pressure on the government and political class. One reflection of this was the unprecedented scale of the Labour backbench rebellion on the eve of war in Iraq.

But these mass protests were never the sum total of the movement. They built on and magnified the efforts of campaigners – in cities and towns throughout the country – running stalls, arranging fundraising events, organising big public meetings, circulating anti-war materials and holding often very large local marches and rallies.

There was also mass civil disobedience, endorsed and encouraged by Stop the War. A major national day of action at Halloween 2002 followed the huge demonstration just a few weeks previous. The day of action helped, in turn, build towards the mass action in the early months of 2003.

On an even more impressive scale was the militant response to the launch of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. There were school student walkouts, university teach-ins and sit-ins, lunchtime walkouts by groups of workers; in many cities hundreds of protestors blocked city centre streets in mass direct action. To a large extent the confidence to do this, and the high levels of participation, were the result of the scale of the earlier marches, especially on 15 February.

The movement didn’t fail to achieve its main objective – stopping the war – because it wasn’t ‘militant’ enough, or due to a mythical unwillingness on the part of Stop the War to embrace civil disobedience. There were a number of factors, including the sheer depth of determination in the Blair government to prosecute the war and the fact the Labour leadership had a thumping majority in the Commons behind it (helped also by Tory support).

Perhaps the most influential obstacle to the movement, though, was the weakness of the trade unions. The actions in communities, schools and universities had only a dim echo in the workplaces – not because of any indifference on the part of workers, but as a result of the continuing demoralisation and lack of combativity in the labour movement. This was still largely shaped by a long period of defeats and setbacks, especially in the 1980s, and reluctance to challenge draconian anti-union laws.

It was also significant that the war was being fought by a Labour government. The emphasis placed by many union officials on not upsetting a Labour government – exemplified by the TUC, which eventually adopted an anti-war position but was extremely reluctant to in any way act on it – made it harder to mobilise the power of the mass organisations of the working class. Stop the War – whatever its achievements in relation to the unions, and however many workers it helped mobilise as individuals – was in no position to compensate for the longstanding weaknesses of the trade union movement.

There are differences between the experiences of the anti-war movement thus far (over almost a decade) and our current tasks in confronting the government’s savage cuts to public services, welfare and public sector workers’ pay and pensions. But there are also similarities, with many political and tactical issues re-emerging in a changed context.

It has become clear we need broad-based mass coalitions, using a range of campaigning tactics, to mobilise to stop the cuts. Socialists and anti-cuts activists have much to gain from assessing the record of the biggest and most politically significant mass movement we have had in recent history.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).