Stop the war in Iraq London protest 15 Feb 2003 Stop the war in Iraq London protest 15 Feb 2003. Photos: W. M. Connolley (cropped) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Katherine Connelly, one of the school students who went on strike against war on Iraq in 2003, offers a personal reflection on the twentieth anniversary of Britain’s biggest protest

The school strikes in March 2003 against the war on Iraq were inspired by the mass movement that took to the streets a month earlier on 15 February.

Sometimes people counterpose direct action and big demonstrations. But the school strikes would perhaps not have taken place at all, or certainly not on the scale they did, nor would they have had the impact they did, without the mass mobilisation of global resistance to war on 15 February.

The school strikes themselves combined all kinds of direct action with street protests. And those school strikes, the largest of which took place on the day Britain and the USA attacked Iraq, inspired others in turn to take to the streets.

The day war started – we called it ‘Day X’ – was a devastating blow, but the school students seized the initiative, we refused to bow our heads and go away. By going on strike we gave a signal to everyone else in the movement that the only place to be was back on the streets. Now the war had started, we weren’t going to be blackmailed into silence: instead we were going to intensify our campaign.

15 February

I was a sixth-form student in Cambridge in 2003. I was part of my local Stop the War group, and threw all my energy into building the biggest turnout from our city to the 15 February demonstration in London.

We hired coaches to take us to the demonstration and sold tickets at public meetings, on street stalls we held every Saturday, at rallies in the market square, and to friends at college. We were always running out of coaches, and soon we started running out of coach companies. When we had filled up all the coaches, we organised huge groups to travel to the demonstration together on the trains. The demonstration was so large that we could not get anywhere near the starting point. We were dropped off anywhere the coaches could stop and just joined the people on the streets.

Even before we knew this was the biggest demonstration in British history, we could sense that together we had changed everything. There was no way Tony Blair could claim any democratic legitimacy for this war after 15 February. And it showed that the formal justifications for war were utterly unconvincing, ill-fitting masks for a cynical, updated form of Western imperialism.

When it was clear Blair was determined to join the war, and parliament was going to let him, school students began planning more action.

School Students Against the War

There were Stop the War groups in schools and colleges all across the country, and we formed a national organisation: School Students Against the War. We held meetings in London and sent delegates from our schools so we could co-ordinate action. We had heard that American school students were planning to strike. We decided we would too.

This did not come out of nowhere: 15 February helped give us the confidence that we were right, that we could pull off something like this, that movements could spread across national boundaries, that people would join us and support us.

We actually organised two strikes, the first before military action took place. We knew it was never going to work if we just relied on a small group (and we’d probably all get expelled!). At my sixth form, we produced a pledge for people to sign saying they would join the strike if we got over 200 signatures (we thought that was a high enough threshold to prevent expulsions). That gave people the confidence to sign, knowing they wouldn’t have to take action with only a few others. We got 200 signatures just in time. Posters went up. We divided up the phone numbers of everyone who had signed and began calling round.

We learnt from the 2003 firefighters’ strike too. We knew we needed a picket line to spread the word. Hundreds of us picketed the gates, arguing with other students about why they should join us. One excellent teacher told students who came into her class not to ‘scab’ and to get on the protest!

We tried marching into town, some of us were arrested, others organised a sit-down protest outside the police station and then held a big rally in the market square. The Grafton shopping centre locked its doors in panic (no one ever really understood why).

Day X

On Day X, we didn’t need a pledge in advance. Everyone knew we were going to walk out. We went into college, chalked slogans on the pavements and chalked around our bodies on the floor – anything to get the message across about why it was so important to resist. Paint was procured from the art department, banners were made, peace signs hung from the trees.

We held a rally inside the college and then we marched, joining up with other strikers from other schools. It felt like everyone had come out that day. At a major junction in the town, we organised a sit-down protest that lasted for hours. The police responded very violently, dragging protestors roughly across the street, many of whom were clearly in school uniform. I remember someone’s nose ring being torn out.

We didn’t know then that the same scenes were being repeated up and down the country. School students marched out, blocked motorways, stormed the gates of Downing Street, converged on parliament, and marched miles with homemade banners and placards. The police violence was repeated elsewhere too, particularly in London around parliament.

Don’t be fooled: we made a difference

It is sometimes said that the 15 February demonstration did not stop the war on Iraq. That is true, and neither did the school strikes. But none of these things should be seen in isolation – we certainly didn’t see it that way at the time.

We knew that the demonstration was a crucial part of building resistance to war. The demonstration on 15 February was the proof of the war’s illegitimacy, something almost everyone now accepts. Blair’s reputation never recovered and he was eventually forced out after further aggression in the Middle East became politically damaging.

Amir Amirani has argued that the 15 February demonstration helped inspire the democracy movement in Egypt. In Britain, it made the anti-war movement a significant force in British politics, raised widespread awareness about Palestine, and helped kick back against some of the Islamophobic policies the government was considering introducing. In had profound effects inside the Labour Party. And in 2013, parliament voted not to back a war on Syria, citing the popular opposition to war.

It is fair to say that we are still finding out the effects of marching on 15 February.

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Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.