The impact of mass opposition to the Iraq war still reverberates today argues Chris Nineham

School Students protest at Labour conference in 2007The Iraq war was the most politically contested war in modern history. Governments of the self-styled ‘coalition of the willing’ went to war in the teeth of domestic opposition so massive and mobilised the New York Times dubbed it “the second superpower”.

The global demonstrations on February 15th 2003 constituted the biggest protest event in history. The British demonstration was followed by a series of record-breaking marches, school strikes, sit-down protests and assorted direct action.

The war went ahead, but we shouldn’t allow the current round of polite studio discussions to obscure the mayhem it has caused or to underestimate the crisis it set off. We are still dealing with the consequences today.

The anti war-movement’s dire predictions about the impact of the war proved, if anything, underestimates. They were mocked at the time. The Pentagon’s Ken Adelman told us the war would be a “cakewalk”. Dick Cheney promised that western soldiers would be welcomed as liberators.

In fact, just as the movement’s spokespeople warned it would, the invasion turned into a savage war of occupation against a population that was in open and organised revolt in many parts of the country by the spring of 2004. The occupiers only contained the revolt by unleashing a toxic cocktail of violence and sectarian division that probably killed one million Iraqis and forced four million to flee their homes.

Iraq’s suffering is far from over. As well as continuing sectarian killings and chronic instability there is still a dreadful physical legacy. In 2012, US medical research in Fallujah provided a grim snapshot of the long-term damage done. Researchers discovered that increased exposure to depleted uranium, mercury and lead from bullets had caused a “staggering rise” of deformities in the city. More than half of all babies are now born with birth defects.

Fallujah serves as a symbol of the war’s poisonous legacy in Iraq. But the war continues to reverberate widely.

In particular it marked the beginning of a new, more dangerous and contested struggle by the West for control of the Middle East. Generally, following on from the occupation of Afghanistan, it led an era of spreading western military intervention that threatens huge populations in a 3,000-mile arc from Pakistan to West Africa.

Panic in Whitehall

United as our political elites are in their attachment to the decidedly one-way special relationship, they inevitably downplay the domestic turbulence caused by the decision to go to war, but the truth has trickled out in the last few years of how close the anti-war movement came to stopping the war and bringing Blair down.

On Tuesday March 11th 2003, just nine days before the attack on Iraq, British defence secretary Geoff Hoon phoned Donald Rumsfeld in Washington and told him that Britain might not be able to participate in the war.

“We have real political difficulties,” he is reported to have told his opposite number, “real difficulties, more than you might realise”.

The phone call reflected panic behind the scenes in Whitehall and Downing Street.  Blair himself later admitted that things got so bad that Bush offered him an out. Cabinet ministers, including foreign secretary Jack Straw, spent the next few days begging Blair to accept the offer and stand the troops down.

Straw told Blair that if there was no official UN backing for the invasion “the only regime change that will be taking place will be in this room”. Civil servants were looking into the constitutional issues should the vote over the war go against the government. Blair admits he thought “these might be the last days in office”.

The cycle of protest was a main cause of this pandemonium. Alastair Campbell remembers the morning of the two million demonstration itself as especially bleak: “Every part of the strategy was in tatters – re the UN, re the US, re the party, re the country which was about to march against us.”

The Blair team escaped London to go to the Scottish Labour party conference but up to 100,000 people gathered to protest outside the conference hall in Glasgow. A Blair aide confided to a journalist: “This really was the moment of maximum pressure on him. As he travelled up there, we just didn’t know whether the event would turn in to a fiasco.”

The home secretary and loyal Blair supporter David Blunkett was shaken by the opposition. He complained of protests “everywhere” around his constituency, even at his surgery sessions.

“Everything was dominated by Iraq, and it was really hard to win the audience round. The issue is obsessing everyone and permeating everything. It is affecting the world economy and creating a degree of uncertainty and tension that everything else is feeding in to.”

Democratic malfunction

Blair, of course, got away with it – just. Despite the fact that even David Miliband estimated that there were no more than ten Labour backbenchers who actually believed in the war, enough ignored their constituents’ wishes and any residual principals and voted ‘yes’, simultaneously saving Blair’s skin and condemning the Iraqis to years of carnage and chaos.

Partly this democratic malfunction can be put down to the culture of careerism and favour that poisons Westminster politics. Partly it reflected the fact that defying Bush felt too much like a challenge to the ‘special relationship’ that dominates foreign policy thinking across the political spectrum.

The political elite haven’t recovered from this debacle. It marked a steep change in a pre-existing trend of increasing contempt for politicians and disengagement with official politics.

But it was also an accelerator in a process of political radicalisation and street mobilisation. By 2003 12% of the population said they had been on any anti-government demonstration, compared to two per cent in 1982.

The trend has continued into the age of austerity. In the last few years, actions by Occupy, UK uncut, big local hospital protests and so on have been accompanied by some of the biggest trade union marches in British history.

The difference we make

In this context it would be a real mistake to underestimate the impact of the anti-war movement.

If the great demonstrations of 2003 narrowly failed to stop Britain going to war in Iraq, those demonstrations, and the massive protests that have followed – over Lebanon and Palestine as well as Afghanistan and Iraq – have caused a massive swing in public opinion and helped change the calculus of war.

In the 1980s Thatcher won an election as a result of fighting a war. Nowadays our politicians know that new foreign interventions are likely to be opposed by 60, 70 or even 80% of the population. They have to worry about the votes and they know they may face massive protests.

Cameron’s government is not just set on a collision course with the British public over austerity. It is still enthusiastic about foreign wars. Libya, Mali and the threats against Iran all attest to that. For all these reasons it would be wrong to let anyone tell you marching makes no difference. They are only saying it so that you will stay at home.

Chris Nineham is a vice chair of the Stop the War Coalition and author of ‘The People V Tony Blair, Politics, the Media and the Anti-War Movement’.


Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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