In the latest edition of Strike! magazine Chris Nineham remembers the power of protest
On Tuesday 11 March, 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 the fact that there was panic behind the scenes in Whitehall and Downing Street in the run up to the war. Blair himself later admitted that things were so bad that Bush offered him an out from the war. 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’.
All of this was largely a response to a wave of outrage around the country at the prospect of Britain participating in a war most thought would be a disaster. In his own account of the time, Blair admits to feeling isolated and desperate:
"The international community was split. The party was split, I was between numerous rocks and innumerable hard places. The strain on everyone around me was almost unbearable. At home in Downing Street, I was a bit like a zombie"
The demonstrations on February 15 were the biggest protest event in world history. No-one has been able to come up with anything like a historical precedent. Up to 30 million people protested around the world. The protests unfolded across the globe in sync with the sun. The Australian demonstrations set a precedent: around a million Australians marched in all - about 5% of the total population - making it their biggest ever demonstration. Country after country had their biggest protests in generations, or ever. There were major demonstrations in every continent, hundreds across Latin America, a huge protest in Damascus, Syria - many hundreds of thousands in New York and other US cities and millions on the streets of Madrid, Rome and London.
The London protest was more like a wave of humanity moving east-west across the capital than a straightforward march. London belonged to the people that day and no-one had seen anything quite like it. Thousands were still entering the park and chanting after the speeches had ended and the sun had gone down. To savour the moment people lit fires in Hyde Park and partied into the evening.
On the day of the demonstration Blair and his entourage escaped London by going up to speak at the Scottish Labour Party conference. This, according to a senior aide, “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”. Alistair Campbell accepts the mood in his camp was desperate, “every part of the strategy was in tatters – re the EU, re the US, re the US, re the country which was about to march against us”.
Blair was greeted with stony silence inside the conference hall, and outside was the biggest demonstration in Scotland since the 1920s, variously estimated at between fifty and a hundred thousand people.
Blair got through the day, but February 15 was not a one-off, merely the most focused moment of a period of popular rage. The then Home Secretary and loyal Blair supporter, David Blunkett, was shaken by it. 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 into.”
The movement used the demonstration on February 15 to launch a campaign of direct action and civil disobedience. The Monday after the demo the Guardian ran a story headlined ‘New Protest planned to bring Britain to a standstill’. It included a long quote from the Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey German, calling on people to ‘walk out of their offices, strike, sit down, occupy buildings, demonstrate, and do whatever they think fit the moment war starts”.
Many others joined in the attempt to make the country ungovernable. Stop the War organised a Peoples' Assembly in the weeks after the demonstration that called for action across the board if the government went ahead with its plans. One of the Assembly's most popular slogans was 'if they start a war, we must stop the country'. The day the war started turned out to be the biggest day of direct action the country has probably ever seen. Hundreds of schools were closed by striking students and tens of thousands of people occupied town halls or blocked roundabouts, motorways, tunnels and bridges across the country.
According to John Kampfner, who based his insider account on scores of interviews with senior civil servants and politicians, all this led to a state of paralysis in government at the time:
“The British government, in the normal sense of the word, had ground to a halt. A small group of cabinet members met several times a day. Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, and John Reid, the Party Chairman, spent their entire time trying to work out the extent of the forthcoming rebellion in the commons”.
Blair, of course, got away with it – just. Despite the fact that even David Milliband estimated that there were no more than ten Labour backbenchers who actually believed in the war, enough ignored their constituent’s wishes and voted for war, saving Blair’s skin and condemning the Iraqis to years of carnage and mayhem. 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.
But Blair wasn't out of the woods. The pressure against him mounted again in the second half of the year as 300,000 people took to the streets - on a weekday - when George Bush visited London. The failure of the Iraq strategy and his growing unpopularity led him to try and resign in November 2003. He was persuaded to stay, but he never managed to move the agenda on, and he was eventually hounded out of office, in disgrace over Iraq.
The great demonstrations of 2003 narrowly failed to stop Britain going to war in Iraq. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the movement's impact. 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 sixty, seventy or even eighty per cent of the population. They have to worry about the votes and they know they may face massive protests.
Cameron's government is still enthusiastic about foreign wars. Libya, Mali and the threats against Iran all attest to that. But don't let them tell you marching makes no difference - they're only saying it so that you will stay at home...
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War Coalition, and currently a vice-chair. His book The People vs Tony Blair is out now on Zero Books.
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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