The march that shook Blair

iraq_045

By Ian Sinclair

Ten years ago over one million people marched through a bitterly cold London to oppose the looming war in Iraq. It was the biggest demonstration in British history. Ken Livingstone told me that he had calculated the number of people on the march was the equivalent of the entire population of England circa 1200.

 However, a common argument today is that the march was “an absolute failure”, as a UK Uncut activist said in 2011. I wrote my new book, The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, to challenge this negative view of the march. As peace activist Milan Rai told me when I interviewed him: “If someone was to say the anti-war movement achieved nothing, I think that is plain, flat wrong. We achieved a lot, and a hell of a lot more than we realise.”

 Rai is particularly interested in drawing attention to what has become known as ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ – “the lowest point of the crisis for Mr Blair”, according to the Sunday Telegraph at the time. The same report explained that the panic and concern in Government was so great 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.” What had brought this crisis to a head? According to the Sunday Mirror 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.”

 Of course Blair didn’t pull back and British troops played a key role in the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. An attack, let’s not forget, that directly led to over one million Iraq dead, along with around four million refugees. But while the anti-war movement couldn’t stop the war, several people in the book argue that the anti-war movement, as a key driver of public opinion at the time, influenced how the war was fought and when British troops were withdrawn. In addition the peace march and anti-war movement has had a number of important and long-lasting influences on the British political landscape – from fatally wounding Blair, to having a profoundly positive effect on community relations in the UK and politicising and radicalising many of the young people now involved in groups such as UK Uncut and Occupy (I explore ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ and some of the march’s short and long-term influences in a little more detail in a recent Morning Star article and in a lot more depth in the book itself).

 Although the focus of my book is the march in London on 15 February 2003, I want to use the rest of the space I have here to think about the international anti-war movement because the achievements of the anti-war movements in several nations are largely unknown to most people in the UK, including many activists. The Guardian reported that on 15 February 2003:

 “Huge waves of demonstrations not seen since the Vietnam war jammed more than 600 cities around the world over the weekend as protestors from Tasmania to Iceland marched against war in Iraq. Up to 30 million people demonstrated worldwide, including around 6 million in Europe.”

 Edited by three American academics Public Opinion and International Intervention. Lessons from the Iraq War (Potomac Books, 2012) is an important assessment of the role of public opinion on policymakers around the world in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Of particular interest to anti-war activists in the UK are the chapters on Mexico and Turkey. (NB: All the unreferenced quotes that follow are taken from this book).

 In 2003 Mexico was occupying a non-permanent position on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It should be noted that despite the neo-conservatives public antipathy to the UN, polls suggest the blessing of the UN on Iraq was important to the American public. For example, a January 2003 Knight Ridder poll found 83 per cent of Americans supported going to war if this was in concert with major US allies and the full support of the UNSC. If the US went to war with just one or two of its major allies – without the support of the UN – this support fell to 47 per cent. Polls taken in the UK at the time showed a similar concern among the British public for UN support.

 Desperate for legal and diplomatic cover, in early 2003 the US and UK were pushing hard to gain support in the UNSC for a second resolution to authorise war on Iraq. Bush is reported to have plainly said to Mexican President Vicente Fox “I want your vote, the security of the United States is at stake.”

 Mexican public opinion was strongly opposed to the US-led invasion of Iraq, with a February 2003 poll finding 81 per cent of people did not support the US position. Even when those polled were made aware there could be significant costs to Mexico for not supporting the US, a majority of Mexicans still opposed the US on Iraq.

 Mexico’s leaders, then, were in a tight spot – caught between their own public and under intense pressure from the US to support the American position. However, while Mexico’s anti-war stance was not as strong as much of Latin America (presumably because of their close relationship to the US), it never backed the US position at the UN. The authors of the chapter on Mexico note that “the reluctance of Mexico, Chile and Germany to support the [US] initiative” at the UN was “especially noteworthy” as it meant the US was unable to negotiate a majority of votes from the non-permanent members to support their aggressive stance on Iraq. Public opinion was a key factor in this process, with a senior official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arguing Mexican public opinion “immensely influenced the decision not to support the US in the war against Iraq”.

 Turning to Turkey, the book quotes a 2008 interview with Yaser Yakis, the Turkish Foreign Minister in 2003, about the position of Turkey on the US-led invasion of Iraq:

 “From the very beginning, we were opposed to an invasion of Iraq and argued that this should not be the way. However, when it became clear that the invasion was inevitable and we could not prevent it, then we concluded we should participate in it and cooperate.”

 For the US, cooperation meant that US troops would be allowed to launch their attack on Iraq from Turkey. To this end the US was offering Turkey $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, the US and Turkish Governments did not count on the Turkish people, 86 per cent of whom were opposed to the invasion according to March 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll.

 With the Turkish Constitution requiring a parliamentary vote for the deployment of foreign troops on Turkish soil, the policy decision was open to the influence of public opinion: “To block passage of the motion, there were many demonstrations, campaigns, messages by citizens to MPs, and visits to MPs’ offices by NGO representatives and private individuals.” With “MPs and ministers… under a strong pressure from the grassroots” on 1 March 2003 parliament voted against the motion to station US troops in Turkey by three votes. According to the authors of the chapter on Turkey: “Our case study provides support for the argument that in democracies public opinion plays a major role in constraining the decision of policymakers. With regard to the Iraq War, the disapproval of the Turkish public was quite strong, and it served as a major constraining factor for the government.”

 So Mexican public opinion was a contributory factor in the US and UK not getting UN authorisation for their invasion of Iraq. This outcome has had a long-lasting negative effect on the global public perception of the invasion and occupation. Meanwhile, by pressuring their government to reject the US request to use Turkey as a staging post for the invasion the Turkish public forced the US to invade Iraq from just one front in the south, meaning Iraq could safely deploy more forces south of Baghdad. They may not have stopped the war but the Mexican and Turkish populations had significant constraining effects on the ability of the US to act as it wished in 2003.

 More importantly the Mexican and Turkish experiences present an awkward question for the UK anti-Iraq War movement: If public opinion in Mexico and Turkey was able to force their government to resist strong pressure from the US over Iraq why couldn’t the UK anti-war movement force the British Government to do likewise?

 The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003 is published by Peace News Press, priced £11.50 inc.p+p for UK delivery. Copies can be purchased from www.peacenews.info

picture credit: http://totallycoolpix.com/2011/03/the-iraq-war-2003-2011/

19 comments on “The march that shook Blair

  1. Ian raises interesting points here about why the strengthof the anti-war movement failed to prevent UK involvement.

    With the benefir of hindsight we made two errors:

    i) after Feb 15th, we should have intensified lobbying of Labour MPs much more than we did, using much more “behing the scenes” influencing

    ii) We were building for mass civil disobedience when war broke out, which by and large we deleivred, but it was too late. We should have triggered that when parliament voted for war on March 18th

  2. Andy, I honestly don’t believe that anything would have prevented Blair from entering that war, could have been 3,4,5 million people protesting against the war, we all would have been ignored, which makes you wonder who is calling the shots in the end?

  3. : i) after Feb 15th, we should have intensified lobbying of Labour MPs much more than we did, using much more “behing the scenes” influencing

    I think a major mistake has been the near pathological focus on Blair as the bete noire of the antiwar left since 2003.

    What this has done is let the members of his Cabinet at the time of the war off the hook in the years since. If two or three of them had resigned in the weeks leading up to March 20 it would have likely triggered a political crisis, and who knows what would have happened then.

    It does irk me to see the likes of Jack Straw, John Reid, John Prescott, and others being let off the hook when it comes to the ensuing fallout over the war.

    Don’t get me wrong, Tony Blair is an execrable human being and should face an international criminal court, but the rest of them had it in their gift at the time to do the right thing and resign. They chose not to and should forever be damned as a consequence.

  4. Never under estimate the power of reformism in these cases. Many who marched against the war were happy to go along with one under the control of the UN, they were not opposed in all circumstances. Further, union leaders who initially opposed the war were backing occupation not long after.

  5. John: It does irk me to see the likes of Jack Straw, John Reid, John Prescott, and others being let off the hook when it comes to the ensuing fallout over the war.

    Yes an excellent point and one often overlooked.

  6. Point 2 may be fair enough, but re point 1 there were big lobbies of labour mps. The mps were resilient to this. Why? There is a more profound question to ask regarding the labour party’s position on empire and intervention going back to Ruskin. The key issues regarding the failure of the movement to stop the war are surely that 1) the Labour Party was established as a pressure cooker, there is no sovereign conference so no clear democratic method to change policy 2) in the UKs case the social Democratic Party was already in power and could therefore could not easily become an opposition vehicle 3) labour mps had a choice between bringing their party down and political principal (not a difficult choice for most of them).

    There is no easy answer to this, there was no political vehicle to express anti war sentiment, respect had a go but the left did not unite around it. There was no network of political trade unionists able to win significant anti war tu action. The anarchist/lib/Quaker/autonomist movement was not big enough cause significant disruption through direct action.

  7. Andy Newman: i) after Feb 15th, we should have intensified lobbying of Labour MPs much more than we did, using much more “behing the scenes” influencing

    ii) We were building for mass civil disobedience when war broke out, which by and large we deleivred, but it was too late. We should have triggered that when parliament voted for war on March 18th

    Excellent points, Andy. Those of us who were being proactive were purged by the STWC who then put a lid on it. Presumably because they didn’t want it slipping out of their control.

    One example: in the course of my work as the STWC/MWAW press officer (when no-one else apart from Mike Marqusee thought this important as it was the “bourgeois press” and “they never take any notice of us”) I took on the problem of under-reporting demo attendance by the BBC. After 2001, as well as smartly sending our press release notifications to BBC head of news Richard Sambrook, I was also writing to him whenever we had a march (including pre 911 demos), challenging the figures they gave which were the same as the police’s 15,000. He’d ignore me.

    When, after one MWAW meeting, I and one other person (RM) drafted a letter then signed by Lindsey and Pilger among others, the BBC’s response was to not only ignore us, but to report an even lower 10,000 for the next demo.

    Because I then pursued another line (Rees always did say he liked my creative and lateral thinking) I finally got Sambrook on the back foot and received my first reply from him, a defensive missive that showed he was stung. After being belligerent for so long, it was a huge turnaround. He even wrote: “The relevant pages on BBC News Online were also updated. I accept we ought to have known your higher figure a little earlier.”

    It goes on in the same vein.

    I forwarded this to Lindsey and other esteemed leaders, asking them who would like to respond? No answer.

    23/11/01
    “STOP THE WAR LETTER TO ED — Reply from Richard Sambrook
    OK, here’s the biggie from the BBC.
    Re Sunday’s TV bulletins, I believe Lindsey tried to correct them after the six and yet they reported us as claiming vaguely “far higher” on the ten, not 100,000.
    Also, two press releases beforehand stated that we expected more than last month’s 50,000. Plus they had our contact numbers for Sunday and could have checked with us. And where were the journos when the announcement was made at 4pm?
    Who’d like to respond?”

    I then wrote to them again asking whether they wanted me to pursue this or if they would deal with it. Again, nothing, which is when I realised that all their bleating about the awful way the media and BBC in particular was covering the anti-war movement was hot air.

    The SWP brand of left is too stupid to look after their assets and our achievements. The blokey blokes who write the history of the movement only skate on the surface and recoil from digging deeper. In general, a complete shower. With serious consequences.

  8. Ian Sinclair on said:

    Hi Anna

    As the author of the piece above and the book about 15 February 2003, I would be interested to hear from you about being purged by STWC. Would you be able to email me on ian_js@hotmail.com?

    Thanks

    Ian

  9. Mark Victorystooge on said:

    I am inclined to think even a bigger march would have been ignored. What might have given the government pause for thought is if it had felt there was likely to be severe civil unrest if it went to war, but the overwhelmingly pacific, reformist character of the marchers reassured them. When war happened anyway, most of the marchers stayed at home.

    Of course, if a huge march is not enough, some might come to the conclusion that other methods are needed. And I think 7/7 was in part about that.

  10. Mark Victorystooge on said:

    Andy Newman,

    True. But the bombers cited Iraq as one of their motivations in a video left behind. Also, if marching does not work, then what does? Vote Tory? Screw that.

    I was in continental Europe at the time, where I attended anti-war protests. A friend who went on the London one told me later it was huge but in his view, very “soft” politically, and the fading of demos to the Usual Suspects size when war broke out was quite predictable.

  11. Ten years ago over one million people marched through a bitterly cold London to oppose the looming war in Iraq.

    It wasn’t that cold. I wasn’t even wearing a hat.

    Zaid,

    FORTHCOMING MEETINGS

    Date Time Event
    14/2/13 19:30 No saviour from on high: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

    ???

    If it were any another day, I would be sorely tempted to come along to this. :D

    Will there be free tin-foil hats?

  12. Manzil: Will there be free tin-foil hats?

    Sorry, no. Anyway, I’m not convinced they are as effective as you might think.

    Feel free to come along anyway – it’s something a bit different for February 14th ;)

  13. Zaid: Sorry, no. Anyway, I’m not convinced they are as effective as you might think.

    Feel free to come along anyway – it’s something a bit different for February 14th

    Haha. That’s what the Greys told me you’d say! :)

    You’d regret it if I turned up wearing this. But yeah, bravo. Something a bit different!

  14. Blair was already counting his money, and did not care if the whole country came out, he was on a promise.

  15. An Duine Gruamach on said:

    I was on the march in Glasgow on the same day – my first experience of political activism in any form. We failed to stop the war, but the effects of that war and the movement against it are still a defining factor on the Scottish left – especially, perhaps, in the decoupling of the far(ish) left from Labour. Even though the SSP couldn’t sustain that breakthrough, that section of the left hasn’t returned to Labour, and neither has radical sentiment.

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