The People V Tony Blair is a refreshing and stimulating account of how mass movements and demonstrations have the power to neutralise the mainstream media and challenge governments, finds Adam Tomes
Chris Nineham, The People v. Tony Blair: Politics, the Media and the Anti-War Movement (Zero Books 2013), 100pp.
This sharp, pithy and powerful book is exactly the right one to be reading now. It is a critical and thought provoking evaluation of the role of power, the media and the mass movement in relation to the Iraq war. In direct contrast to the popular wisdom of the mainstream propaganda machine, Chris Nineham, using interviews and insider accounts, argues that the mass movement against the war neutralised a hostile media, eventually forced Blair from office and almost kept the United Kingdom out of the war.
The author very clearly lays out his aim for this book and it is against this therefore that we must judge both the author and his work. Chris Nineham states that the ‘aim is to remind ourselves of the sheer criminality of Bush and Blair’s conduct, to try and explain what was behind it and how they got away with it, but also to underline, in very dangerous times, the power of mass, popular protest’ (p.5). This book definitely meets its purpose and in many ways, due to the time in which it is published, it actually does more. In light of the tenth anniversary of the war and David Cameron’s incredibly Blairite speech on closing down the ‘ungoverned space’ in North Africa and the ‘large existential threat’ it apparently poses, it is critical that the reasons for the war and how they got away with it are understood. At the same time, its examination of mass, popular protest is critical in the continued struggle against war and the imperialism. Lastly this examination demonstrates the crucial role that can be played by a mass, popular movement in defeating the coalition government’s policies of austerity and cuts.
In the first chapter, Chris Nineham explores the thinking behind the neo-conservative project in US foreign policy. He clearly illustrates the arrogance of the neocon project that believed in unilateral action based on the idea that the US could manufacture its own reality (p.12), and which viewed 9/11 as an ‘opportunity’ (p.6) to do just that. Importantly, he links the post-9/11 war on terrorism with imperialism. In the twenty-first century, the US retains huge military superiority, with military spending per annum equalling that of the next ten countries in the arms spending league table taken together (p.14). At the same time, the US has been suffering an economic decline in a contested world where countries such as China are becoming serious economic threats. In order to maintain its informal, economic imperialism, the US has had to resort to using military power. This point resonates when applied to British history and as we look forward to predict US foreign policy behaviour in the future.
At the same time, the author explains the reasons behind Britain entering the war. It is not enough to pin the war on the fervour of that convert to neocon fantasies, Tony Blair, emboldened by his perceived success in Kosovo. The fact remains that the elites, although hugely divided on this issue, failed to challenge Blair’s chosen path. Chris Nineham argues that the elites simply could not contemplate breaking from the foreign policy mantra of the special relationship and so could not effectively oppose Blair. This left one obstacle and that was public opinion.
The threat of public opinion left the US and the UK governments with the ‘Hard Sell’, the title of the second chapter. Here the author explores the problems that both governments faced in selling the war to public, despite the ‘abysmal record of the modern media in wartime’ in challenging received wisdom (p.18). Indeed, opposition to the war grew to between 80% and 90% in the UK in early 2003 before the commencement of war. The problem here for the western powers was how to present this intervention when ‘anti-colonial struggles had delegitimated naked intervention and the kind of openly racist ideas that had traditionally underpinned European colonialism’ (p.20).
The options explored included Islamophobia as a form of cultural critique to justify intervention, but whilst this had terrible consequences for the position of Muslims in western societies, it was a weak justification given the US and UK’s close allies in the Middle East. Next the author destroys the lies that Blair and Bush tried on weapons of mass destruction, which may have swung some in the press and in political circles but were rejected by both the US and UK publics. Indeed only days after the ‘sexed-up’ dossier war released, over 350,000 people took to the streets to protest against the war. The last line of defence was the argument about democracy. In the end, this argument was finally discredited when Paul Bremer cancelled elections in June 2003 whilst later that year launching a full scale programme of privatisation and asset-stripping. It is hard to sell a war based on naked power politics and economic imperialism, even with a sympathetic mass media.
The third chapter is the part of the book that perhaps will resonate on the most personal level with the reader as it recalls the 15th February 2003, a day which was without historical precedent, as there were demonstrations in at least eight hundred cities, with somewhere between eight and thirty million people marching (p.29). The chapter explores in depth the demonstration in the UK, with an estimated two million people marching, and relives both the build-up and the day itself. The essence of the investigation here is to explain how with falling voting figures, party membership figures and decreasing faith in politicians fits with this mass demonstration. It demonstrates, using British Social Attitudes surveys, how the anti-war movement has actually been part of and an accelerator of the growing trend of involvement in street protest. It shows how the 15th February was ‘part of a process of popular radicalisation’ (p.38), which can provide the building blocks for mass protest against future wars and the savage programme of austerity.
In the next chapter, ‘The Making of a Movement’, the author unpicks how the movement organised and mobilised. The real lesson here, and it is a lesson that is very important for the anti-cuts movements, is that mass popular protest can fuse ‘massive mobilisations with radical, generalised politics’. This challenges the traditional left view that ‘campaigns can only be mobilised around single issues’ (p.39). The structure was built around a coalition of groups such as trade unions, socialist groups, peace groups, anti-capitalists, and Muslim organisations. The structure also had a national organisation linked to both international coalitions on the one side, and importantly neighbourhood groups that acted as centres of radical opposition within communities on the other.
This coalition approach produced a mass mobilisation on the 15th February and allowed for the movement to keep up the pressure on the government through further demonstrations, including the day of direct action on the very start of the war, and the biggest demonstration in war time on 22nd March. Indeed, large scale demonstrations persisted throughout the Iraq war and had become such a humiliation and liability that Gordon Brown was led to end active operations within two months of coming to power (p.51).
The fifth chapter, based on insider accounts and interviews, reveals, contrary to the mass media view of history, just how close Blair came to losing office in 2003 due to the power of popular protest. This is an uplifting and revitalising chapter. There appears to be little doubt that the mass movement created a paralysis at the heart of government with the Cabinet Secretary exploring on behalf of the civil service what the Labour party rules would mean for the government if Blair was deposed (p.54). Blair’s survival, according to Nineham, was due to the failure of parliament. Only Robin Cook resigned from Cabinet upfront and the rebellion of 122 Labour MPs on the vote on war was just small enough to allow the government to plough on. The problem here is that whilst David Miliband maintains that only about ten backbenchers supported the war (p.55), most Cabinet Ministers and MPs did not challenge Blair due to the lack of democracy within cabinet and parliament. The MPs were more concerned with ‘career and favour’ (p.56) in the party than their own or the public sense of right or wrong. Blair may have survived 2003 but the war and its opposition became the ‘elephant in the room’ and forced his resignation in the end (p.59).
The role of the media in marginalising, ignoring, criminalising and disparaging mass movements and protest is ‘frustratingly familiar to most activists and recognisable to many occasional protesters’ (p.61). Yet the anti-war movement appeared to neutralise the mass media machine in part in 2003. Much of the press, with the exclusion of the Murdoch brands, widely reported on the 15th February. Landmarks included a twelve page souvenir supplement in the Mirror and a BBC One weatherman advising protestors to ‘wrap up warm’ in his broadcast on 14th February (p.60). Indeed, in the weeks following the protest, the media had to accept that ‘the demonstration had played a crucial part in making Iraq into a crisis’ (p.64). This neutralisation of the media is explained partly by the internal divisions amongst the elites about the war, but above all underlines the fact that the anti-war movement had power, and the media are interested in power over everything else. If future mass mobilisations are to achieve the same effect, they too must prove through sheer weight of numbers and strength of feeling that they too have the power to shape events.
The final two chapters see Chris Nineham explore the lessons that we can learn from the anti-war story and what it can tell us about its key actors. Despite the mass media machine, and the attempt by the British government to win ‘hearts and minds’ (p.74), opposition to war has hardened in the UK and US. Opposition to the war in Afghanistan remains above 75%, more people in Britain opposed intervention in Syria than in any other country, and for the first time more British people now believe that the Israelis are a greater threat to peace than the Palestinians. This radical critique of western foreign policy has developed as a result of the anti-war movement. It has therefore reduced this government and future governments’ room for manoeuvre in foreign policy for fear of the public backlash. Yet the movement must remain alert and ready as the leaders of the West are ‘like wounded beasts, and they are still hungry for power’ (p.87). This judgment seems incredibly prescient as we are facing a repackaged and revitalised war on terror in North Africa.
Chris Nineham definitely lives up to the aims he sets himself in this book. It is a short, sharp read that really clarifies an understanding of modern western imperialism and why and how to oppose it. It debunks the modern political and media myth that mobilised public opinion cannot destabilise the media and political elites. The core of its argument is that ‘when a movement becomes powerful and broad, when it coincides with and exploits divisions within the establishment, it has the potential not just to neutralise the mass media and win arguments, but to challenge governments’ (p.78). This is an intellectually refreshing and stimulating lesson that can inspire all activists whether they are opposing war or austerity.
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