Protesters at the 2003 Stop the War protest Hyde Park London 15 Feb 2003. Protesters at the 2003 Stop the War protest Hyde Park London 15 Feb 2003. Photo: Ben Sutherland / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The giant demonstrations against the Iraq War began a lasting challenge to Western imperialism, argues Chris Nineham

Just weeks before George Bush and Tony Blair’s planned attack on Iraq, thirty million people demonstrated around the world against impending war. The protests on that day, 15 February 2003, rolled around the globe in sync with the sun. In Britain, we woke to the news that Australia had had its biggest ever protests. Four were attended by more than 100,000, including between 300,000 and 500,000 in Sydney.

This set the pattern. Country after country had record turnouts. In Damascus, Syria, 200,000 marched. There were three million in Rome, one and a half million in Madrid, 45,000 marched in Switzerland, its biggest protests since 1945, more than 100,000 marched across Norway, more than at any time since 1917. There was a co-ordinated demonstration in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. Leading ANC activists joined tens of thousands marching in South Africa. In New York, hundreds of thousands clashed with the police, in Los Angeles 50 or 60,000 joined Hollywood celebrities to protest, there were huge demonstrations in Uruguay and Argentina and over 100 protests in Brazil. In Antarctica, a group of scientists at the US McMurdo station held a rally on the ice at the edge of the Ross Sea.

We knew London was going to be huge. Our demonstration the previous November had brought 350,000 into the streets. This time, coach numbers had reached 1,000 two weeks before the demo. The Labour government had tried to stop us marching to Hyde Park and this had only enraged people more. We had had to organise two start points to accommodate the numbers. Even then on the day, some people didn’t get to march for hours. People travelling down from the north to Euston found that the assembly had backed up from New Oxford Street way past the entrance to Euston station.

The demonstration ended up turning into a wave of humanity moving east to west across the city. Thousands confronted police on Oxford Street, a mile from the official route, and the police had to stand down or be overwhelmed. Hyde Park was fuller than it had ever been for the final rally, but there were still thousands of people pouring into the park chanting an hour after the speeches had ended. As darkness descended, thousands stayed in the park around fires they lit to keep themselves warm. Best estimates later put the turnout at two million.

After its size, it was the diversity of the demonstration that stood out. Labour party branches marched alongside groups of schoolchildren. Trade-union banners were dotted throughout the demonstration. There was a huge turnout from the Muslim communities and a big showing from the radical left. Peace groups marched next to Christian, Buddhist and Jewish groups, pensioners groups were well represented, devotees of East Anglian hardcore metal had made their own banner, as had a group of gardeners which announced, ‘Gardeners dig Peace’. And there were, of course, thousands and thousands of first-time marchers who earned the new tag ‘protest virgins’.

It was a good natured day – everyone was overjoyed at the turnout – but it was also angry. The Daily Mail’s Robert Hardman wrote disapprovingly of ‘Barbours and Burqas, monks and mullahs, Tories and Trots … “George Bush, terrorist! Tony Blair, terrorist!”, they chorused as they marched down Piccadilly. The last time I heard anyone shout that it was an angry mob in Pakistan. Now the same mantra was being chanted by Middle England outside Fortnum and Mason.’

On the Monday after the global protest, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece headlined ‘The Second Superpower’. It read: ‘There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.’ 

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

The making of a movement

The demonstration was the product of more than a year of relentless campaigning. The Stop the War Coalition was launched days after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon in 2001, in the knowledge that the West’s response would be disastrous. Thousands turned up to the launch meeting and a broad movement was rolled out around the country against the war in Afghanistan and the emerging plans to invade Iraq, a country that had absolutely no connection to the 9/11 attacks.

By the months running up to the war, there were Stop the War groups not just in every town and city but often multiple groups in individual boroughs. The left – particularly at the start, the revolutionaries – played a central organising role, but from the beginning the aim was to build outwards way beyond left-wing circles. The close relations developed with key Muslim organisations and individuals was a vital part of this process. Muslim activists played an absolutely outstanding mobilising role. Members of a new generation of left-wing trade-union leaders, dubbed ‘the awkward squad’, also made an important contribution. The tie up with CND helped to ensure anti-war unity. High-profile figures on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, John Pilger, Alice Mahon, Tariq Ali, George Galloway and Tony Benn, all helped to attract audiences.

The guiding principle was that this broad alliance should aim to mobilise a great mass of the population who were anxious about the war. In the process, we could shape popular opinion and potentially stop the war happening. This involved the deployment of the united-front strategy, organising the biggest possible campaign around a handful of specific slogans. ‘Stop the War’ was always the headline, with ‘no to racism’, ‘no attacks on civil liberties’ and ‘free Palestine’ as subsidiary demands. A relatively tight focus was important to attract the range of people concerned about the consequences of Bush and Blair’s war policy.

The involvement of some of us in the global anti-capitalist movement had, however, taught some important lessons. The series of massive, militant protests at meetings of the World Trade Organisation, the EU, and the G8 in Seattle, Nice and then Genoa had shown that it was possible to mobilise tens or even hundreds of thousands against corporate power, militarism and imperialism. Millions of people around the world were making connections between these issues, and it was clear that having a radical approach to them was not a block to mobilising.

The anti-capitalist movement also provided us with a platform to co-ordinate internationally. Anti-war activists went to massive anti-capitalist Social Forums at Florence in November 2002 and Port Alegre in Brazil in January 2003, and called on the tens of thousands of assembled activists to turn 15 February into a global day of protest. The response was overwhelming. Chants of ‘Don’t attack Iraq’ echoed around the enormous halls and stadiums that had been taken over by the movement. Demonstrations were put together and announced on the spot. Within days of the 150,000 strong World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, it was clear that the biggest protest movement in world history was taking shape.

The difference we make

The 15 February was an extraordinarily inspiring event at a moment of extreme danger. People in thousands of towns and cities worldwide had demonstrated in huge numbers against imperialist war. The impulse for the protests, and the biggest demonstrations, were in the heartlands of colonial power. Millions had seen through their governments’ attempts to justify aggression on humanitarian grounds as a war for democracy and liberation.

The movement had shown the capacity to bring together an unprecedented alliance of workers, oppressed minorities, whole sections of the middle classes and more without for a moment compromising its core message. It is often forgotten that the main slogans for the London demonstration were ‘Don’t attack Iraq’ and ‘Freedom for Palestine’.

Palestinian flags at the 2003 Stop the War protest Hyde Park London 15 Feb 2003
Palestinian flags at the 2003 Stop the War protest Hyde Park London 15 Feb 2003. Photo: Ben Sutherland / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The movement failed to stop the war on Iraq, with tragic consequences. But we came closer than we knew at the time. Subsequent insider accounts have revealed that the Blair government was on its knees. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon spoke to his opposite number Donald Rumsfeld eight days before the war and told him it was possible that Britain wouldn’t be able to participate in the attack on Iraq. In his own memoir Tony Blair admitted, ‘I thought: these really could be my last days in office’. He went on:

‘The international community was split. UK public opinion was split. The party was split. I was between numerous rocks and hard places. The strain on everyone around me was unbearable. At home at Downing Street, I was a bit like a zombie.’

Blair was saved and the fate of the Iraqi people was sealed when the bulk of his party’s MPs overcame their misgivings – if they had any – ignored their constituents, and voted for war. Nevertheless the demonstration and the huge marches and days of direct action that followed have had a massive impact on society.

Polls showed in the days after the demonstration that the majority of British people had come to oppose the war on Iraq and disapproved of the US’s self-appointed role as world policeman. Majority anti-war opinion in the historic centre of imperialism is an important development, and it survived the immediate context. Polling in 2012 after the bombing of Libya and during the push to intervene in Syria showed continued opposition to British involvement in foreign wars. It showed that only 12% believed the US was committed to respect for human rights, and a whopping 40% of British people selected the word ‘bullying’ to describe the US’s international behaviour.

The demonstration of 15 February continues to reverberate. The issue of foreign wars continues to play out in British politics and beyond. Jeremy Corbyn would never have become leader of the Labour Party if it hadn’t been for his principled anti-war stance and the fact that he was one of the key speakers on 15 February. The establishment’s push back against him centred around issues of foreign policy, his refusal to contemplate nuclear war, support for the Palestinians and so on.

In candid moments, politicians and military commanders on both sides of the Atlantic admit that domestic public opinion makes it very hard to put tens of thousands of boots on the ground again as they did in Iraq. This is one of the factors shaping post-Iraq-war imperial policy, with its emphasis on drone wars, air wars, secret operations and war by proxy. We shouldn’t, however, underestimate our rulers’ urge to rehabilitate foreign war and get back to a situation in which they can deploy troops abroad at will.

This is part of the significance of the West’s Ukraine policy. Despite the fact that the eastern expansion of Nato and Western meddling in Ukraine have both played an important role in precipitating the war, it is a conflict that can be presented as a simple response to a brutal Russian invasion.

The anti-war movement condemned the Russian invasion from the start. But we have also pointed out that the West’s massive military support for Ukraine is not driven by concern for the right of Ukrainian self-determination. How could it be given the Western powers recent brutal history of bombing and brutalising a series of sovereign states? Nato has turned the war in Ukraine into a proxy war to pursue the global interests of the US.

As the Tories and the Biden administration ramp up the rhetoric, the West pumps more and more lethal hardware into a war theatre and Russia prepares a new offensive, the anti-war movement is needed more than ever. We have to be clear that once again a Western war policy that is dressed up in the language of liberation is really about power projection and that it is taking us to the brink of disaster.

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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.