Tag Archives: Anti-war movement

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.