Our big day out a decade on

by Jack Ferguson

The book that sparked this review

Ten years on, it’s hard not to see the long shadow of the anti-war movement of 2003 in events since, particularly the lessons that dissidents of all kinds have learned about what to do next.

While the whole experience is several years’ worth of memory that hundreds of thousands of us have to process, the most vivid moment in it all is the incredible achievement of February 15th 2003. This was the day that, in a more coordinated way than ever before, humans from every part of the planet demonstrated opposition to the imperial attack on Iraq.

In the days afterwards trying to take stock, reading the list of cities that had marched was like flipping through the timezones on your phone. There was even a demo on the Antarctic ice, meaning every continent of Earth took part.

It was a global event, and we were right that night (or in ten years later commemorative pieces) to feel euphoric. But how to feel about those emotions in hindsight is inseparable from what came next – the numbing endless footage of explosions interspersed with military media stunts. What the sub–Call of Duty TV diet concealed was the slaughter that our governments had unleashed. We now live in a world where quite how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died as a result of the invasion is a matter for academic debate. The figures they dispute are people who were living and breathing on that day we marched 10 years ago.

Antarctica for peace

In that context, for many people February 15th was a failure, and it means one thing – our failure to prevent the destruction of Iraq. But reducing the implications of such a mass event, and the many different experiences it generated among the incredibly diverse participants, means missing the lessons we need to learn. Now more than ever, with climate change and econopocalypse bringing civilisation to the brink, we need to be able to look at our efforts honestly and be brave enough to admit mistakes, as well as celebrate successes. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and not preventing the war doesn’t mean we achieved nothing.

Like most activist types of my generation, that time was an incredibly formative experience for me. I often feel the need for those of us shaped by those times to try and remember them – and collectively think about them – better.

That’s why ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15th February 2003’ is an important historical document. Author Ian Sinclair conducted hundreds of primary interviews with people involved in the London version of the big march, both at a central, leadership level, as well as many grassroots campaigners and people taking part in a demonstration for the first (and in some cases only) time. With a little help from crowdfunding, this was then published as a book earlier this year.

The book does make passing reference to the fact that there was a separate mobilisation in Glasgow in February 2003. While fascinating, the memories recorded in this book are not mine of that day. The London protest may have been relevant since it was against the same government, but they took place in a different country, with subtle differences in the character of the anti-war movement. There isn’t the space here to go into the details of the Scottish experience, but while there were differences, there were also enough similarities to make it very relevant to Scots readers as well.

The result to me is oral history at its best, with little text by the author to get in the way of people’s testimony. The body of the text is made up in short extracts of interviewees themselves telling their story. One of the advantages of interviewing people about their memories is that you can get what is never recorded in documents – the subjective experience, how it felt to be involved in historic events. Emotions are a decisive factor in how we relate to any campaign, but they never get entered in the minutes.

This is particularly important because as Sinclair notes, the undemocratic central leadership of Stop the War could often prove averse to writing things down:

“The Stop the War Coalition did have regular management meetings, but no record of these meetings seems to exist. In fact, according to some interviewees, some decisions were consciously taken by a small number of people, with other people in the supposed leadership deliberately excluded from these decision making processes.”

Although the author has put few of their own words into the book, their influence is felt through the editing, and the way short snippets from peoples interviews are made up into three broad sections. The first covers from 9-11 and the formation of Stop the War on to the immediate preparations before the march. This is well edited to break down many of the different efforts from a diverse group of people that, in the year following 9-11, briefly turned the anti-war movement into a powerful voice in UK politics.

There’s sections not just about the left, the mass meetings, getting trade unionists on board and committee manoeuvring, but also on the role of artists and celebrities in designing the profile of the movement, and how the alliance with the Daily Mirror came about. There’s even the previously unknown story of the anti-war Lib Dems who mounted an internal revolt in their party to force it to be part of the march.

Of particular interest are the memories of the different Muslim interviewees, which includes founders of the Muslim Association of Britain talking about their involvement at a leadership level of the three-part coalition (Stop the War, CND and the MAB) that called the demo and whose placards were an omnipresent feature of those couple of years.

They talk about the political experience of Muslims in the UK since the ‘80s, with radicalisation of many that took place around the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’, and then watching the war in Muslim Bosnia in the ‘90s. While some on the left couldn’t countenance an alliance with organisations that saw a political role for Islam, what’s most interesting about these interviewees is their feeling that involvement in the anti-war movement directly undermined support for parties like Hizb ut-Tahrir that simply want an Islamic state based on exactly what (they say) it says in the Koran. During the Bosnian and other wars of the ‘90s, these groups argued that non-Muslims didn’t care what happened to them. Being part of a mass movement with millions of other sections of society went a long way to undermine that idea.

The other (perhaps more powerful) tendency that the participants report in the Muslim community at the time was a powerful conservatism and fear, an instinct that told people to keep their heads down, in some cases literally not even to leave the house unless necessary. Many older people feared a backlash from the public and the state. This traditional view, that argued against any kind of political involvement, was swept away by a wave of radicalisation. For many, this meant the articulation of a distinctly Muslim voice in British politics for the first time.

For me the standout story of the book is Salma Yaqoob. At the time of 9-11 she was someone with no political involvement, a normal person concerned mainly with her own family. However, the racism and demonisation that followed the attacks meant, in her words:

“Suddenly I was not Salma any more, but a terrorist somehow connected with these despicable events. My fear was very real, and I felt isolated and a stranger for the first time. Returning to my home I was spat on in the street. I was shaking with anger. I had my three year old son with me and feared for his safety. Nobody said or did anything – they just looked and passed by. I felt helpless, and the indifference of the witnesses was the greatest shock. It was clear that I was not being seen as a person any more. I clutched my son closer and from that moment on I would never be passive again. I would never be like those people that saw but just walked on by.”

Salma herself sees her experience as emblematic of what happened to many Muslims, transformed from private people into political activists and organisers by force of circumstance. In her case the response she has made has been spectacular, and she has been one of the most welcome new public faces of the left to have emerged among the sea of grey haired white guys we usually get to listen to droning on.

Salma Yaqoob

Then in the middle section there’s a great collage of different people giving their impressions of the spectacle of the big march itself. Some of these are activists and the usual suspects, but many are also people who were marching for the first time, came from different backgrounds and had diverse experiences of a historic event. A good illustration is the respectable middle class town planner who insisted that he and his wife dress in suits and Sunday best to show that there were people of his class position, who basically were not smelly hippies, who opposed the war. There’s the experience of exiled Iraqis who took part and some of their ambivalent feelings about it all. There’s also the comic celebrity tantrums thrown by Jesse Jackson (“how could he possibly speak without a lectern” he and his entourage were apparently insisting), and failure of the Stop the War leadership to recognise the power of celebrity photos when they refused to let Tim Robbins speak because they hadn’t heard of him and he wasn’t on the pre-arranged speakers list.

But the most controversial part of the book is the final section, which tries to assess whether the march was a failure and the long term lessons of the movement. The first key finding here is that we shouldn’t do ourselves down too much. Governments need to always project like they don’t give a shit what you think – it’s a function of power. But in fact, as included second hand evidence from Alistair Campbell’s diaries and other sources, Tony Blair was haunted by the spectre of the anti-war movement. He lost weight, became pale and gaunt and stopped sleeping at night.

They did all kinds of desperate things to win people over, including famously plagiarising an academic essay to produce the dodgy dossier; deploying tanks and troops at Heathrow to try and conjure up a phantom terrorist threat (I’d forgotten they stooped that low) and even trying to get the Royal Parks Police say there was no way there could be a rally because it would upset the Queen’s grass!

British war planners were forced to create contingency plans for the resignation of Tony Blair and the non-participation of British forces in the war. Donald Rumsfeld famously said that it might have to go ahead without Britain. At the time this was spun as a potential hypothetical, but in fact he was telling the truth as it had been communicated to him by UK government ministers.

As it was, many interviewees are convinced that the unprecedented scale of the anti-war movement put constraints on the way the war was fought. For example, one suggests that this is responsible for the fact that the imperial coalition didn’t attack Iraq’s electrical infrastructure, as they did in 1991. This makes things much easier for invading forces, but obviously also costs civilian lives and makes the survivors miserable.

Perhaps on a grander historical scale, the resistance to what happened in Iraq, both in terms of the movement at home and the scale of violence and opposition in Iraq, might have failed to prevent that war but prevent or delay others. Just take a look at what retired US General Wesley Clark has to say for example about American plans in 2001.

In articles separately, Ian Sinclair has pointed to academic studies that also show that viewing the international anti-war movement as a total failure might be a little Euro-centric. In both Turkey and Mexico, gigantic grassroots mass mobilisations put massive pressure on their governments, forcing the latter not to support the US on the UN Security Council. In Turkey’s case, people power was stronger than billions of dollars’ worth of American bribery in the form of investment and aid, meaning the imperial forces lost a significant strategic advantage by not being able to attack through Turkish territory.

But despite these insights, it can’t be ignored that, amazing as it was, the Stop the War movement did fail in its eponymous aim. It mobilised the biggest crowd in the history of British street politics, but the government endured it and attacked Iraq anyway. This leads many to the (fatalistic?) view that literally nothing could have derailed Tony Blair.

However, many – myself and Sarah Connor included – feel there is no fate but what we make, and that it’s worth examining what else we might have been able to do. I tend to the view that if there’s one lesson that we need to learn from the years 2001-4, it’s that a little tactical flexibility can go a long way. Following the triumph of February 15th, it was going to be hard to sustain that kind of mobilising. The Stop the War strategy, which in my experience was pushed relentlessly at a local level, was that everyone had to keep marching on London (or in Scotland, if they were feeling charitable, Glasgow).

For many of us the anti-war demo became a ritualistic routine. But the problem was we were the minority – the vast majority of people cannot and will not make a commitment to getting on a bus and travelling across the country for hours weekend after weekend for a political cause. That doesn’t mean they weren’t against the war in Iraq. It means they were people with lives and kids and jobs and budgets that they couldn’t put on hold. For those of us that remained, the increasingly desperate chants of ‘Bush and Blair, terrorist’ and ‘We all live in a terrorist regime’ were the unwelcome repetitive soundtrack of the movement’s decline.

There was a desperate need to go local, and make the anti-war movement something that primarily happened in the communities that people lived in. This of course happened to some extent, with isolated actions of train drivers refusing to load arms for Iraq, and the truly exceptional national movement of school strikes. But it should have been a strategic decision we made after 15th February to change the level of focus. Influencing national government in that way wasn’t working, and in the end didn’t work.

Allied to this view is that there should have been a move towards taking more direct action, and physically putting ourselves in the way of the war drive; making the country ungovernable. This was something that the leadership of Stop the War said was elitist, instead insisting on the ever dwindling days out to London. The point is that after February 2003 there were many very big and impressive demos. But they were never as big as the big one, and once we’d hit that peak it was time to mix it up. As Saul Alinksy puts it in ‘Rules for Radicals’:

“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag . . . If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, then there’s something very wrong with the tactic.”

As the book documents, there were elements of the peace movement that tried to steer even a few of the numbers on the big marches towards things like blockades of RAF Fairford. This was met with hostility at the top level of the Stop the War leadership, according to many. Demos were called in London on the same day as mobilisations at military bases, Stop the War pointedly refused to publicise actions that were not approved by its central leadership, and the coalition also repeatedly tried to claim sole responsibility for actions, with no reference to its partners in CND and MAB.

Why did all this happen? Unavoidably, many of the interviewees have no choice but to talk about the SWP and their dominant influence over Stop the War. One calls them “perhaps the movement’s greatest asset and its greatest liability.” Of course, there are many (including SWP and ex-SWP figures) who defend their role in the book, and correctly point to how broad the steering committee meetings were. Nevertheless, many other report anti-democratic practices, caucusing before the meetings, which themselves contained little real discussion and saw opponents shouted down. Carol Naughton’s (the chair of CND) diaries of the time report facing serious emotional abuse and heavy handed treatment, as well as being lied to and misled. Another person describes the SWP as “absolutely ruthless” in packing meetings and rigging elections to the committee of Stop the War Birmingham. The point is, obviously many of us know these things go on, but now we have a referencable book that demonstrates it.

All critics have taken pains to praise the organisational competence of the SWP that helped pull off the big march, and indeed their ongoing commitment to keeping anti-war work alive. Yasmin Khan, an anti-war student organiser at LSE, has been at pains to make these balanced points:

“The SWP did dominate the Stop the War Coalition and it’s only fair to say they put a hell of a lot into it and played a very important and valued role in building STWC – for this I congratulate them. But their centralised style of working, their power and control obsession, and hierarchies and aggressiveness, also played a part in the downfall of the movement.  I’m sure they think this is justified as a style of working but it’s not the kind of movement I believe will bring about proper social change. Ultimately they bottled it on the big questions of taking more direct action on the day war broke out, they totally side-lined the direct action movement as well as taking credit for a coalition which was a movement of people, not just SWP hacks.”

I think perhaps the most powerful and perceptive analysis of why the SWP acted as they did during this time comes from the comedian Mark Thomas, who wrote the devastating article, ‘Crap Comrades about the SWP in Stop the War:

“The SWP’s main priority is recruitment. Why else did they continually call demonstrations week after week during the conflict? This was a massive tactical error for the anti-war movement. When the bombing started many felt dispirited and tired, many were organising and carrying out other actions and protests. More importantly the SWP had not registered with the fact that many people on the massive February demonstration where there because they felt they had been denied a democratic voice. These demonstrations were bound to result in diminishing numbers and to be judged by many as the collapse of the anti-war movement. However, if recruitment to your party is the priority the demos were a success. Even if you get only 20,000 people out, they are what market researchers might term a pure market group. They are prime targets for recruitment and who cares if the peace movement breaks in the process.”

Although the examination of the SWP is only a minority of the book’s contents, discussion of it has obviously proved row-inducing online. Over at New Left Project, Sinclair tried to summarise a lot of the points that had been made in a piece called ‘The Stop the War Coalition, the Socialist Workers’ Party and Iraq.’ It’s been met with an indignant responses from the likes of Andrew Murray, who was chair of Stop the War and is now a leading official in Unite, as well as the pompous and predictably unenlightening response from John Rees (who was a leader of the SWP at the time and has since been purged) called ‘Stop the War, Leninism and the United Front: a Defence.’ This article, after protesting that ‘some of my best friends are not in the SWP!’ then descends into typical quoting of old Marxist tomes as if they were religious prophecies. It contains the following sentence, which I include not for how interesting it is but just for how spectacularly inward-looking the “revolutionary left” in Britain is:

“The origins of the far left in Britain lie in the Revolutionary Communist Party of the 1940s from which the Socialist Labour League (which became the Workers Revolutionary Party), The Militant Tendency, and the International Socialists (who became the Socialist Workers’ Party) all emerged.”

Who the fuck cares?

In the years following the big march in February 2003, a generation of activists has tried to apply the lessons that we learned the hard way when the government ignored us. The book does a good job of documenting how these people went on to form groups like Plane Stupid and Climate Camp. This then fed into the new wave of young opposition to the Tories and austerity that came after UK Uncut and the student movement. As Joss Garman, a founder of Plane Stupid, puts it:

“The events of that time strengthened my support for direct action as a tactic, because I still think that a greater scale of direct action could potentially have stopped British involvement in the war. In retrospect I think the anti-war movement was poorly led, and could have been more effective and more imaginative had it not relied pretty much solely on A to B marches and speeches from Tony Benn . . . I think we’re a generation who are pretty cynical and won’t take political action unless we’re pretty sure it will be effective.”

Another member of the group, Richard George, argues:

“We were so angry, partly because we felt lied to by the government, but also because we felt betrayed by the organisations that had stepped up to mobilise. There was a sense that we either did what they wanted – mass pointless marches followed by even larger marches – or we did nothing at all. Out of this depression emerged a cohesive network of activists. We knew what didn’t work, mass demos, but we also knew that, to be effective, action needs to have a focus.”

It’s not that nobody tried anything else during the movement against the war. There was the work of Iraq Occupation Focus for example, that helped spark the absolutely vital solidarity work of supporting Iraqi trade unionists. But as one of the founders of that group, Mike Marqusee, aptly puts it:

“Here I go back to my experience of the Vietnam War movement and the civil rights movement. In both those cases there was a plethora of national and local and international organisations. There was never a single dominant organising group. Of course, they fought like cats and dogs very often, but they often collaborated as well. And they changed – constantly. Every six months or so you had new leaders and constituencies getting involved. That really is the sign of a healthy movement. And the sign of an unhealthy one is on which has the same leaders for 8 years.”

So, one of the key lessons is that there isn’t an alternative to real democracy, openly debating the best way forward and being prepared to be wrong. Marqusee vividly describes the early days of the anti-war movement, as the SWP also took part alongside thousands of others in open discussion to find their way and educate themselves. But as time wore on and they became more politically dominant, they shut down and isolated anyone they saw as an opponent, brutally silencing them. The fact that in the student movement of 2010-11 we were at such pains to institute direct democracy and spend hours having meetings has got to be at least in part a reaction to this experience. Honesty with each other and ourselves is required in order to properly think through our next step. Marqusee argues:

“The SWP by and large will not engage in critical examination of their own history or current analyses 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.”

The other vital lesson that so many have taken away from 2001-4 is the need to go beyond endless pointless marches, and develop new tactics with a willingness to be flexible. The Communist Corresponding Society put it best when they said:

“There is a historical parallel with events in the mid-19th century. Before that time, the traditional way of trying to influence government policy was through petitions. The Chartists organised several enormous petitions, with millions of signatures. These were ignored—showing that petitions didn’t work. Since then petitions have retained a place in the armoury of political campaigning, but are no longer the main form of activity. Subsequently, the primary method of trying to exert pressure on authority has been the demonstration. The anti-war movement organised a series of enormous demonstrations, which were ultimately ignored—showing that, if the issue is something of sufficient importance to the ruling class, demonstrations don’t work. This is unpalatable but in practice widely—although not always consciously—acknowledged. Before 15 February 2003, it was always possible for us to kid ourselves that if only we’d managed to get more people on a particular demonstration, if only we’d worked a bit harder, that would have made the difference. We now have no excuse for this particular belief: all the more so because the Establishment will also have noted the same fact. It could not have known for certain that it could hold firm in the face of demonstrations of millions of people. Now it knows it can, and in future it will be a lot more confident in the face of similar—or bigger—mobilisations.

As for the future, we will have to come up with new forms of organisation and new forms of struggle, which go beyond demonstrations in the same way demonstrations go beyond petitions. A demonstration is a more advanced form of struggle than a petition—firstly because it involves more active involvement of the participants and secondly because people have to be physically mobilised for a demonstration, giving it a dynamic which is potentially unpredictable. The new organisational forms we need have to involve even more active participation and to have an even more unpredictable dynamic.”

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