Tag Archives: 15 February 2003

The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq

The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
4 April 2013

In the last few weeks I have been doing a number of talks around England to promote my new book ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’. At a couple of talks a few people have raised objections to some of the criticisms of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) that I make. Below, I attempt to address these objections by summarising my findings about STWC and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) from the more than 110 interviews and research I conducted for the book.

STWC has been the leading organisation in the UK anti-war movement since its establishment in 2001. In particular, it was the most significant member of the tripartite coalition that led the movement against the Iraq War – the other members of which were the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Given the importance of the STWC, then, it’s worth considering one of the main debates that surrounded it – the role of the SWP.

According to many people I interviewed, STWC started out as a broad-based coalition. However, the SWP gradually came to dominate its leadership and effectively took control after 2003. Senior members of the SWP Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and John Rees (all of whom left the party in 2010) organised STWC’s founding meeting, and have made up the core leadership ever since. Importantly, many of the other senior members of STWC such as Andrew Murray, Andrew Burgin and CND’s Kate Hudson are close allies of German, Nineham and Rees.

As the chief architects (along with CND and MAB) of the 15 February 2003 anti-war march in London – the largest demonstration in British history – I applaud and am thankful to the STWC leadership for their extraordinary level of work. However, many of the people I interviewed were often frustrated and/or angry about the SWP’s dominating role in STWC. As peace activist Gabriel Carlyle told me: “I would put it this way: the SWP were probably the anti-war movement’s best asset and, in some respects, its greatest liability as well.” The SWP were the movement’s “best asset” because, as many people agreed, they were excellent organisers and extremely dedicated activists who helped to quickly build one of the largest social movements in our nation’s history. As Carlyle amusingly put it: “If it had been up to the traditional peace movement to organise the response [to the impending invasion of Iraq], they might have had a candlelit vigil with 200 people.”

In terms of the SWP being the anti-war movement’s “greatest liability”, many people I interviewed, including people previously centrally involved in STWC, criticised the SWP’s centralised style of working and methods which were felt to be controlling, aggressive and bullying. This destructive behaviour, according to activist Yasmin Khan, “played a part in the downfall of the movement.” Carol Naughton, the Chair of CND from 2001-3, noted in a ‘Strictly Confidential’ June 2003 memo that STWC “did not seem to understand or accept the culture of working in partnership once we had agreement to go ahead with joint events.” More concerning, Naughton reported that she “was on the end of some very unpleasant, aggressive and abusive phone calls from the Coalition” and that she “was lied to and misled by [STW] Coalition leadership” who she found “to be duplicitous and manipulative in trying to get my agreement when I had given them a decision that they disliked.”

STWC had a Steering Group, made up of representatives from different organisations, which met regularly. However, according to Mike Podmore, who was on the Steering Group himself in 2003, the SWP “orchestrated these meetings completely” with dissenting views “argued or shouted down.” James O’Nions, a former member of the SWP and member of the Steering Group, agrees with Podmore. For O’Nions, the Steering Group:

Was run a bit like any Socialist Workers Party conference. You had a member of the SWP central committee give a spiel about what we should think about a certain thing, and then there would be a discussion.  But there was no common attempt to find a solution. Rather the solution had already been agreed, and the session was about the officers of the Stop the War Coalition winning over everyone else to what they wanted and trying to get people to mobilise them around it. That is how the SWP operate basically.

Mike Marqusee, a veteran activist and press officer with STWC from 2001-3, goes further:

They [the SWP] used methods to isolate or exclude people or discredit people who were questioning their leadership that are not acceptable, including smearing people, misrepresenting them and whispering things about them that weren’t true. There was a fear of what they considered to be mavericks or loose cannons. What is an anti-war movement without mavericks and loose cannons? I mean please. The anti-Vietnam War movement wouldn’t have got anywhere if it had excluded those people because they were doing the whole show from the beginning.

Arguably the SWP’s domination of STWC led to organised direct action and civil disobedience not being pursued fully by the anti-war movement in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. What the interviews I conducted show was that after 15 February 2003 there was an attempt to have a serious debate in STWC about how to move the movement forward, and whether direct action should be pursued. However, according to Marqusee an open discussion “was not favoured by the SWP or a number of the other leaders of the Coalition.” Instead, according to Marqusee “they began labelling people who were saying they wanted a different [tactical] emphasis as divisive.” Not only did STWC not support groups looking to carry out organised direct action, according to Naughton they actually tried to undermine it. In her ‘Strictly Confidential’ CND memo she notes:

Incidents happened that were actively countering the work that CND was doing such as the office of the [Stop the War] Coalition telling callers that the CND [direct action] event[s] in Whitehall and the Fairford and Menwith demos were all cancelled when in fact all of these were well and truly going ahead. I have personal experience of this as I received the emails and phoned myself to check it out.

Interestingly, despite multiple defections from the SWP since 2003, there seems to be agreement between current and former senior members, in that they all see the role of the party in STWC as an unqualified success. For example, Alex Callinicos, a current member of the SWP’s Central Committee, recently amused himself by noting journalist Owen Jones agreed with him that the SWP played a vital role in STWC. Despite strongly challenging the SWP leadership over the party’s on-going rape scandal, influential former member Richard Seymour broadly agrees with Callinicos on STWC. Replying to journalist Laurie Penny’s assertion that the SWP “has been at the forefront of every attempt to scupper cohesion on the left over the past decade” the Lenin’s Tomb blogger praised the SWP’s role in STWC, which he described as “perhaps the most high profile campaign of the last decade… which brought together Labour party members, CNDers, members of various far left groups, and – once again – SWP members in a leading role.” Finally there are German, Rees and Nineham and their supporters, who left the SWP in 2010 to form Counterfire. As noted these people were the senior members of the SWP in STWC, and still effectively control STWC. The two books they produced on the anti-war movement – Chris Nineham’s ‘The People v Tony Blair’ and Stop the War. The Story of Britain’s Mass Movement, the official STWC history of the anti-Iraq War movement written by Andrew Murray and Lindesay German – are both uncritically positive about SWP’s role in STWC. The latter book bears mentioning for another reason as well. One interviewee told me they considered this book a “joke” because it “looks like something from Soviet USSR – just like Lenin was airbrushed out of history by Stalin, key figures in the Stop the War movement were eroded out of history by the SWP.” Thus, except for one passing mention, the important role played by Marqusee who fell out with the leadership in 2003, is missing from the book.

Lastly, as far as I can tell*, there was no serious attempt to reflect critically on the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-Iraq War movement at the ‘Confronting War 10 Years On’ conference organised by STWC in London on 9 February 2013.

These considerations support the judgement of Marqusee, made after he parted company with STWC, that “the SWP by and large will not engage in critical examination of their own history or current analysis and practice. When events embarrass them, the error is buried in silence. There is a fear of looking harsh realities or awkward questions in the face and a reluctance to spend time addressing them.”

I would like to reiterate I think the STWC leadership did a brilliant job in growing and leading the largest social movement in recent British history. However, we cannot escape the fact that while the anti-Iraq war movement had many important achievements, it was unable to exert enough pressure on the Government at the crucial time. We will never know, but it is worth noting the possibility that different organisational and tactical approaches could have led to a different political outcome regarding the Iraq war – a sobering thought.

Two on-going trends make the critical perspectives I present above all the more important. Firstly, the Government’s increasingly bellicose foreign policy means we desperately need an active and effective anti-war movement. And secondly, the same people who dominated – and continue to dominate – STWC are now leading the Coalition of Resistance, the group which seems to be taking a lead role in the movement against the Government’s austerity agenda. Surely, then, if we want to have the broadest, most effective anti-war and anti-cuts movements, we need to be aware of, and have an honest and open discussion about, the problems within STWC in the early 2000s?
*I didn’t attend the conference but have watched many of the videos of the talks from the day.

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Review: We Are Many documentary

Review: We Are Many. Directed by Amir Amirani
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 May 2015

Four stars

15 February 2003 “was the single largest mobilisation of people in the history of humanity – bar none”, notes US analyst Phyllis Bennis in We Are Many, Amir Amirani’s brilliant new documentary about the global anti-war movement against the Iraq War.

Beginning with the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Amirani uses tons of stirring archive news footage and original interviews with key figures like Tony Benn, Clare Short, Jesse Jackson and Noam Chomsky to tell the story of that momentous day. Around 30 million people marched in 789 major cities in over 72 countries across the world. A small rally even took place at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica.

With over a million people marching through London in the biggest protest in British history, in one sense the story will be familiar to many Morning Star readers. However, the film includes many important and interesting snippets of information.

US Air Force veteran Tim Goodrich blows apart the fiction that war was a last resort, noting that the US bombing of Iraq increased by over 500 percent in autumn 2002 “with the purpose of trying to goad Saddam Hussein into retaliating to give us a reason to go to war.” Elsewhere, Hans Blix, the Chief UN weapons inspector from 2000-3, amusingly explains the US and UK “were 100 percent sure that there were weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq though “they had zero percent of knowledge where they were.” And who knew Virgin boss Richard Branson had made an unsuccessful attempt to stop the war by flying Nelson Mandela to Baghdad on the eve of the invasion?

The film ends by exploring the long-lasting impact of 15 February 2003, including its role in shifting British public opinion so much that it made it impossible for the Coalition Government to go to war against Syria in August 2013. Amirani also tells the unknown story of how the global movement against the Iraq War inspired Egyptians to start protesting against President Hosni Mubarak. “That’s exactly when I was thinking, and others, that if we were triple that number, or four times that number, we could take down Mubarak”, notes one Egyptian activist about the 20 March 2003 protest that occurred in Tahrir Square against the war.

Writing in the New York Times, journalist Patrick Tyler commented that the global demonstrations were “reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” Taking its name from the last line of Shelley’s 1819 poem Mask of Anarchy, We Are Many is itself a moving and timely reminder of the power of activism and protest – the perfect antidote to the despair created by the new Tory majority government.

Was marching on 15 February 2003 a waste of time?

Was marching on 15 February 2003 a waste of time?
by Ian Sinclair
20 December 2014

Was it a waste of time marching on 15 February 2003? Did the march have no effect on British politics? Many people believe so. This account from Maajid Nawaz of speaking to a bomb-maker in an Egyptian prison suggests the march had one very important, far-reaching influence:

‘So when I was in prison in Egypt as a political prisoner there… one of the things I did was have a conversation with a convicted, professional bomb-maker… He was from Dagestan. He came to Egypt to train Egyptians to cross the border into the Gaza Strip to train Palestinians to kill Israelis. He was caught, thankfully, and he was put in prison. The conversation I had with him was after the mass protest movement in Britain against the [2003] Iraq War. I said to him the following, I said “Look, the majority of these people protesting – first of all the largest protest against the Iraq War wasn’t in Pakistan, it wasn’t in Saudi Arabia, it wasn’t in Turkey, it was in Britain, this country you want to blow up. Second fact, most of the protesters were non-Muslims. So what does that tell you about the people you define as your enemy? In fact, Turkey is a member of NATO that is part of this alliance, so surely you should be trying to blow-up Turkish Muslims instead of the Brits who are opposed to the Iraq War.” First of all I got a look from him that kind of told me he wanted to kill me. That conversation lasted over a couple of weeks and one day I was in my cell and he came knocking on the door and he said “Maajid you know I’ve been thinking”. This is a guy who knows how to make bombs and kill people. He says “You know I’ve been thinking” because we had a lengthy conversation about it. He said “You are right”. After seeing the photographs I showed him from the newspapers of the mass protests against the Iraq War, he said “You are right, these people aren’t my enemy”. He was still a terrorist, he was still an Islamist, he was still an extremist, but he no longer believed in targeting Britain.’ – Maajid Nawaz, former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir and co-founder and Executive Director of Quilliam, Overtime with Bill Maher, October 25, 2013

This account concurs with an interview Moazzam Begg gave in 2008 about being a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay:

‘The Stop the War movement has become a buffer between people who may want to carry out acts of violence on innocent Westerners, and the government itself that does carry out acts of violence against people in the Middle East. I had a conversation with the only self-described member of Al Qaida I’ve met, in Guantanamo. He said that people in the West are not innocent because they vote in their leaders and therefore must share part of the blame. I explained that most people vote on domestic issues like the health service and roads. I said that you’ll probably find a great number of them don’t support the war, but when you strike you don’t discriminate. Then he started thinking about it a little bit. The Stop the War movement is a buffer which helps prevent terrorism in a way that the government would never conceive; when they see people demonstrating against the war it helps to pacify some of the radical elements who would otherwise have said, “They’re all the same – go and bomb the whole lot of them.”’

‘Nobody listened to me’: Blair’s dismissal of the anti-war movement has fuelled violent extremism

‘Nobody listened to me’: Blair’s dismissal of the anti-war movement has fuelled violent extremism
by Ian Sinclair
Ceasefire Magazine
9 June 2014

We Are Many, the forthcoming documentary on the 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq War march in London, is further proof that the day was one of the most important in recent British history. However, one aspect of the UK anti-Iraq War movement that is rarely discussed is its influence on home-grown Islamist extremism. In an attempt to think through this relationship, I devoted a chapter to the subject in my 2013 book ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’.

Broadly, the huge protests that occurred before and during the Iraq War, of which the 15 February 2003 was the largest, seem to have had two contradictory influences on violent extremism in this country.

First, the good news. With the ‘war on terror’ creating an upsurge in terrorism directed against the West, Milan Rai, co-editor of Peace News, argues “the February 15 demonstration was one of the most effective anti-terrorist actions of the last ten years” as “it convinced a whole bunch of people that Muslim concerns and Muslims as people in the Middle East were of value to large numbers of people in the West.”

Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Moazzam Begg concurs with Rai’s analysis. Speaking in 2008, he noted “The Stop the War movement is a buffer which helps prevent terrorism in a way that the government would never conceive; when they see people demonstrating against the war it helps to pacify some of the radical elements who would otherwise have said ‘They’re all the same – go and bomb the lot of them.’”

This was the experience of Hadiya Masieh, a former Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) activist, who told me the 15 February 2003 protest “did overthrow some of the arguments of HT – that they [the non-Muslim population] hate Muslims, that they demonise Islam. If so, then why is everyone out there [on the march]?”

However, we cannot escape the fact 7/7 and other atrocities did take place. And although it’s clear the bombers’ anger was primarily about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is an important link to the anti-war movement. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 bombers, met his wife at an anti-war rally. Raffaello Pantucci, author of the forthcoming ‘Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen’, told me three of the 21/7 failed suicide bombers – Muktar Said Ibrahim, Yassin Omar and Hussain Osman – attended anti-war protests. When he was captured in Rome, Osman said “I am against war. I’ve marched in peace rallies and nobody listened to me.”

Speaking to me in 2009, author and activist Mike Marqusee provided a possible explanation for this move from non-violent protest to suicide bombings. “It is definitely true that the more you reject a community’s legal, lawful and non-violent expressions and aspirations the more some of them are going to turn to illegal and violent responses”, he noted. “That was as true in the American Civil Rights movement as it is now.”

Anas Altikriti, spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Britain in 2003, told me that the 15 February 2003 protest showed many British Muslims that “Democracy, politics, engagement – don’t work.” Altikriti explained, “What the Abu Hamzas and the Anjem Choudarys of this world say when they argue with me is: ‘You can shake the hand of the infidels until the cows come home. Nothing will happen. You will be their servant, and you will do as they wish. You will be no one.’ That is what they say. I’m trying to disprove them. Now you tell me, who has won the argument? They have won the argument!” In short, Altikriti believes the perceived failure of the anti-war movement to stop the march to war pushed some elements within the UK Muslim community towards adopting more extremist positions.

When I put these points to Pantucci, he urged caution about making any sweeping claims. “The link between the non-violent protest, subsequent frustration and action is not as linear as you might suggest”, he told me. “I would say that in both the 21/7 and 7/7 lot, there is considerable evidence that they were very radical before the invasion of Iraq. Iraq seems to have acted as an accelerator, but I would say that they were headed down that path long before the 2003 rally.”

Of course, this is not science. The impact of social movements is always difficult to quantify.  The evidence is messy, sometimes contradictory. And I should point out that this is dynamic does not necessarily apply to British Muslims only. Speaking to members of the Black Bloc on the day of the 26 March 2011 anti-cuts march in London, the Guardian noted “All of them said the failure of the peaceful anti-Iraq war march to overturn government policy was formative in their decision to turn to violence.”

What we can say is although it did not stop the war, the continuing influence and impact of the anti-Iraq War movement has been far wider and more far-reaching than many people appreciate. Those that marched against the war were very far from wasting their time. As Abjol Miah, a community activist in Tower Hamlets, told me: “If it wasn’t for the anti-war movement I think the Muslim youth would have been radicalised physically more.”

Reconsidering the March that Failed

Reconsidering the March that Failed
by Alex Doherty and Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
15 February 2013

Ten years on from the largest public demonstration in British history NLP’s Alex Doherty spoke to Ian Sinclair, author of the new book The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003.

AD: It is now a commonplace to describe the February 15th march as a total failure since it failed to derail the drive to war. However in your book you document how the anti-war movement came very close to detaching the UK from the invasion force. Could you describe how this occurred and the broader impact of the march?

IS: I think the key period was the month between the march on 15 February 2003 and the invasion itself on the 19 March 2003 – what Gabriel Carlyle from Peace News calls “a special time in British politics: a brief window of opportunity.” A careful reading of news reports and recently published insider accounts shows a prime minister under intense political pressure, a government in continual crisis and, most importantly, a government close to falling.

“TB [Tony Blair] could barely be in a more exposed place now”, was Alastair Campbell’s diary entry on 10 February 2003. “PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] tricky. Massive march being planned.” By 7 March 2003 Campbell was writing about how the Cabinet Secretary “was quietly looking into how a JP [John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister] caretaker premiership would operate” should Blair be forced to resign.

On 9 March 2003 Development Secretary Clare Short threatened to resign, and there was a real concern within Blair’s inner circle that the Government might not win the parliamentary vote on the war. Receiving worrying reports from their embassy in London, Washington was so concerned about Blair’s position that on 9 March President Bush told his National Security Advisor Condeeleeza Rice “We can’t have the British Government fall because of this decision over war.” Bush then called Blair and suggested the UK could drop out of the initial invasion and find some other way to participate.

Two days later was what has become known as ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ – “the lowest point of the crisis for Mr Blair”, according to the Sunday Telegraph. The same report explained that the Ministry of Defence “was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” The Sunday Mirror reported that Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon had phoned the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and “stressed the political problems the Government was having with both MPs and the public.” An hour later Rumsfeld held a press conference and explained that Britain might not be involved in the invasion. The Government was thrown into panic. Blair “went bonkers”, according to Alastair Campbell. In his book The End of the Party Andrew Rawnsley notes the Government’s predicament was so serious that “[Chief Foreign Policy Advisor David] Manning, [Aide Sally] Morgan and [Foreign Secretary Jack] Straw made further attempts to persuade Blair to pull back.”

All this remains one of the biggest secrets of the Iraq War – even among activists themselves. But I think if you want to seriously assess the effectiveness of the anti-war movement and, importantly, think about how you might go about stopping the next war then I think it’s important to be aware of just how close the anti-war movement came to derailing British participation in the Iraq invasion.

As everyone knows the anti-war movement didn’t stop the war but it arguably had some important impacts during the invasion and occupation. For example Milan Rai maintains that the increased public scrutiny provided by the UK and global anti-war movements reduced the destruction caused by US and UK forces. He points to the fact that the US-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War targeted and destroyed Iraq’s life-maintaining infrastructure – its electricity system, the water supply, sewage systems etc. However, in 2003 this didn’t happen. In addition, the relatively early withdrawal of UK forces from southern Iraq in April 2009 was arguably a response to the anti-war mood at home. “Their continued presence in Iraq was politically toxic” in the UK, Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Iraq, explained in a public lecture at the London School of Economics last year. “Gordon Brown was keen to get rid of them and say ‘that was a Blair problem.’”

AD: The march is viewed as a complete failure even on the left – for instance at the start of the book you quote Eleanor Mae O’Hagen of UK Uncut describing the march as having achieved “absolutely nothing”. Why do you think this view of the march as an unalloyed defeat become so prevalent even on the far left?

IS: I don’t have any definite answers on this but a few things come to mind. Firstly, I should point out in one sense I think it is perfectly reasonable to describe the march as a failure because the anti-war movement failed to achieve its central aim – to stop the war.

However, as I suggest above there is a lot more to say about the march than this. And, with a few exceptions, I don’t think the anti-war movement has done a great job articulating its own achievements to a wider audience. Milan Rai has been trying to draw attention to ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ since 2003 and the Stop the War Coalition’s official book also had some things to say about the anti-war movement’s legacy, but there seems to be a lot more to say on the subject if you bear in mind that 15 February 2003 was the biggest demonstration in British history. This gap in the debate is one of the reasons I wanted to write the book, which I hope will generate discussion on the subject.

Also, I think the shades of opinion about 15 February 2003 within the left, in so far as one can make generalisations, are interesting. From my research and interviews I found the young people, like Ellie Mae O’Hagan, involved in creative direct action groups like Plane Stupid, Climate Rush, UK Uncut and Occupy had a far more critical view of 15 February 2003 than older activists, such as the leadership of Stop the War Coalition or CND. I wonder if this is indicative of a different ethos when it comes to their respective involvement in activism? For example, I interviewed the radical US activist and organiser Michael Albert a couple of years ago for Peace News and when I asked him what kept him going over his 40 years of activism he replied “I want to win. I’m not in this to be able to look at myself in the mirror. I’m not in this to fight the good fight and lose. I want to win. I don’t see any other reason to do this.” This may have been an obvious statement to many but it really shook me. Up until that point I hadn’t really thought that activists should concern themselves with winning! No doubt many will disagree but I wonder if the older, what might be called ‘career activists’ in the Stop the War Coalition leadership are a little more happy to chug along fighting the good fight, whereas the younger activists now involved in UK Uncut, Occupy etc. are closer to Albert’s position, and therefore a little more impatient for change?

AD: What were the historical roots of the protest? What laid the basis for a march on such an unprecedented scale?

IS: It depends how far you want to go back. For example, many of the people centrally involved in the anti-war movement, such as the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, took part in many of the major activist campaigns of recent British history – the 1984-5 Miner’s Strike, the 1991 Gulf War, the war on Serbia in1999 etc. Also, in the book Rai argues the activism against the US-UK sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s assisted in the relatively quick growth of the anti-war movement because it had already “built up a considerable amount of knowledge about Iraq and had mobilized a certain amount of people”.

So I think all this activism unknowingly laid the groundwork for the huge anti-war movement that opposed the Iraq War, including the march on 15 February 2003. However, the key event in the birth of the anti-war movement was clearly 9/11. “The terrain evolved” on 9/11, according to Anas Altikriti, who was a spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Britain in 2003. Altikriti was referring to 9/11’s effect on the British Muslim community but I think his analysis can be applied to other parts of British society. Blair’s increasingly unpopular backing of the US on Afghanistan, the wider ‘war on terror’ and then Iraq was clearly the key driver of the growth of the anti-war movement. The Stop the War Coalition, arguably the leading organisation in the anti-Iraq War movement, was formed within weeks of 9/11 and by the end of 2002 had created a formal coalition with the Muslim Association of Britain and CND – the three organisations who organised the march on 15 February 2003.

To what extent can the anti-war movement take credit for the surge in anti-war feeling among the public? One answer in the book comes from Philip Steele, a peace activist from Bangor, Wales: “I would say that it was not down to any of us activists – the public had motivated themselves.”

Alex Doherty is a co-editor of New Left Project and a graduate student in the war studies department of King’s College London.

Protest works (often frustratingly slowly): The anti-Iraq War movement and Syria

Protest works (often frustratingly slowly): The anti-Iraq War movement and Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Huffington Post
14 February 2014

The argument the 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq War protest in London was a failure is a common one on the British Left. “The Stop the War march in 2003 was so huge and monumental and it did absolutely nothing”, noted left-wing activist Ellie Mae O’Hagan in 2011 about the biggest demonstration in British history. Two years later on the 10th anniversary of the march author Tariq Ali – who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park on 15 February 2003 – said “It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”.

My recent book The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003 is an attempt to counter this popular perception. For example, if you combine a careful reading of newspaper reports from early 2003 with recently published insider accounts a clear picture emerges of a prime minister under intense political pressure, a government in crisis and, most importantly, a government close to falling. The key date was 11 March 2003 – just over a week before the invasion. According to the Sunday Telegraph on this day the Ministry of Defence “was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” A report in the Daily Mirror explained that the crisis had been triggered by a phone conversation between the then Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and his counterpart in the United States, Donald Rumsfeld, in which Hoon “stressed the political problems the Government was having with both MPs and the public.”

One Peace News columnist called this argument “delusional”, while some of the people attending the talks I’ve given have been sceptical that the march came close to stopping British participation in the invasion in 2003. In contrast, many people in the audiences I have spoken to have pointed to the long-term effects of the march – its influence on public opinion, in particular.

This chimes with what the former Chair of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) Andrew Murray told me: “I think what we can say Stop the War has done is helped foreshorten the war in Iraq and raised the bar enormously for any such war ever being undertaken in the future. Sometimes if people ask ‘What war did you manage to stop?’ I say ‘The next one.’” Murray’s assertion was confirmed by the Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP writing in the New Statesman earlier this year: “Iraq has permanently raised the bar of public legitimacy for future interventions, whichever government puts them before Parliament. Today, the British public are more sceptical of the principle of committing British troops abroad, because they are more critical of the circumstances in which it could be justified.” A June 2013 Opinium/Observer poll adds further weight to this line of thinking, with 69% of those polled answering the UK should restrict the military to protecting UK territory and providing humanitarian aid in times of crisis.

This shift in public opinion was underlined last week, with the Guardian noting “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq War hung over the Commons” during the Syria debate.” 2003’s legacy was also prominent during Ed Miliband’s much discussed face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Downing Street that preceded the Parliamentary vote, with a source reporting “Ed said to the Prime Minister: ‘You have to realize that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us’”.

What is missing from this coverage, unsurprisingly, is the role of the anti-Iraq War movement. Unsurprising because, as the former Respect leader Salma Yaqoob explained in my book, “We have to remind ourselves we are up against some very powerful interests and the last thing they want to admit is that they have been shaken by the anti-war movement. Don’t look for validation from the very people you are opposing.” While the elite has every interest in minimising and dismissing popular protest, it is important to remember it was the anti-Iraq War movement – headed by STWC, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain – that played the crucial role in highlighting the Government’s deceit in the run up to the invasion and helped to mobilize so many people on to the streets. As former STWC Press Officer Mike Marqusee told me: “Although it [the march] didn’t stop the war, it placed it under a degree of scrutiny that very few wars in British or US history have been”.

With the Government losing last week’s parliamentary vote proposing an attack on Syria by thirteen votes, at the weekend William Hague seemed to rule out any UK involvement in any future military action. “Parliament has spoken”, said the Foreign Secretary. “I don’t think it is realistic to think that we can go back to parliament every week with the same question having received no for an answer.”

In addition, David Cameron’s parliamentary defeat has played a key role in President Obama’s decision to give the US Congress a vote on military action. Congress returns from recess on 9 September, so any US military action will now be delayed until after this date – no small thing if you are living in Syria and preparing for, or trying to escape from, the so-called precision bombing. According to the New York Times Obama told his senior aides that one of the reasons he was seeking Congressional approval was “a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British parliament.” The report goes on to note “the lack of a British blessing removed another layer of legitimacy” for Obama.

It is clear, then that a direct line can be drawn from the massive anti-Iraq War protests in 2002/03 to the Government being forced to back down from military action against Syria ten years later. This in turn has led to a delay in the US timetable for war. And if Congress votes against military action and makes it politically impossible for Obama to undertake military action the influence of the British anti-Iraq War movement will have stretched very far indeed.

Make no mistake, the Government’s failure to win parliamentary support for a military attack on Syria is a huge victory for anti-war activism. Not so much for the anti-war protests that have been happening in the last few weeks regarding the proposed attack on Syria – important and essential though these are – but for the more than one million people who marched through London on that cold Saturday in February 2003.