Column17 February 2003

A march built on mistrust and fear

by Mick Hume

No matter whose estimate of the numbers you choose to believe (750,000, 1.5million, two million - any advance on two million?), Saturday's London march against a war on Iraq was big. In an age of political passivity, why were so many moved to march on this issue?

It seems unlikely to be solely out of concern for the Iraqi people. For more than a decade, the United Nations Security Council has imposed punitive sanctions on Iraq that have caused considerable suffering. Meanwhile, the US and British air forces have continued to bomb Iraqi targets on an almost weekly basis. None of this has excited much protest in Britain or elsewhere in the West.

Nor have many of those who marched on Saturday been opposed to foreign wars in the recent past. Far smaller numbers made a stand against the first war against Iraq in 1990-91. There were no significant demonstrations against NATO's war against the Serbs over Kosovo in 1999.

Indeed, the majority of those protesting against war are still not opposed to the principle of Western intervention in Iraq, or to the future of Iraq being decided in Western capitals. The Franco-German plan for a 'peaceful' military occupation and carve-up of Iraq, over the heads of the Iraqi people, is widely welcomed as an alternative to war.

No doubt many of Saturday's marchers will claim their own particular reasons for protesting this time. But there is always an overall political impetus behind such mass outbursts. It seems clear that this impetus comes, not from events in Iraq, but from the domestic political-cultural climate in Britain and the West.

The two biggest factors motivating Saturday's marchers were the growing atmosphere of mistrust towards government institutions, and the pervasive culture of fear and risk aversion.

In recent years, for a combination of historical and political reasons, the established institutions of state and society have suffered a worsening crisis of legitimacy. This has undermined the public standing of every body from the churches to the trades unions, from the monarchy to the media, from parliament to the police force. British governments and political parties have found it increasingly difficult to command public authority and respect.

Under the previous Tory government, it became accepted that politics was all about hypocrisy and corruption, otherwise known as sleaze. Under New Labour, it is widely perceived that the main aim of government policy is to dupe the public, otherwise known as spin. The resulting atmosphere of mistrust has now hit the government's 'war on terror' and plans for an attack on Iraq. Nobody believes what they are told about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. And the louder the government tells us it is true, the more convinced we become that it is a cover-up.

In this light it was striking that, after the prime minister ordered troops and tanks to surround Heathrow Airport last week, many people immediately dismissed the operation as an armed PR stunt designed to whip up support for an unpopular war. One is left with the impression that, even if Tony Blair and Colin Powell had aerial photographs of Hitler invading Poland, most people would refuse to believe them. And many would say it was all an American-led conspiracy to grab Polish coal reserves. Many of the London marchers expressed this sense of being lied to by our leaders.

The other major factor motivating the march was the powerful culture of fear and risk aversion that now has Britain and the West in its grip. The roots of this phenomenon go back much further than 11 September 2001. Ours is an insecure age where the old certainties about right and wrong have long disappeared, and people often look at events as vulnerable individuals rather than secure members of society. In these circumstances, the loudest demand seems always to be, not for change, but for caution and safety first.

In the field of politics as much as those of science and society, it is now seen as unwise to do anything too far-reaching or innovative, for fear of what the unknown side-effects might turn out to be. The general assumption is that decisive action is most likely to make matters worse. This is reflected in the anti-war lobby's argument that attacking Iraq is too risky because it might lead to more terrorism in the West.

The obsession with avoiding risk informs the position of just about every protest movement today, whether the object of their fears is the MMR triple vaccination, GM crops or whatever else. All exhibit a deeply conservative better-safe-than-sorry siege mentality. From this point of view, the new anti-war movement appears to be modelled on the anxious outlook of the anti-MMR lobby, projected on to the Middle East.

A spokesperson for the Stop the War Coalition announced on Saturday that, 'If Blair thinks this is it, he's wrong. This is only the beginning'. Since she is a veteran of the Socialist Workers Party, presumably she hopes that the huge march will spark some wider movement for radical change. Dream on, sister.

The numbers mobilised against war were certainly impressive. But the underlying factors which prompted many of them to march look more like symptoms of weakness than of strength. What brought so many together above all was a shared sense of anxiety and powerlessness. That is not a healthy basis on which to try to prevent war, far less build a new movement which, as some commentators now claim, will 'change the face of politics'.

However many marchers there were, the weakness of their political case still leaves plenty of scope for Bush and Blair to get away with it (see Is Blair really 'risking everything' over Iraq?). It also guarantees that, whatever the outcome of the great game the Western powers are presently playing among themselves, the fate of Iraq will not be in the hands of the Iraqi people.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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