It’s Wednesday afternoon, and I’m at the Stop the War Coalition’s demonstration in Whitehall against Western intervention in Syria. Having read the statement released by StWC in advance of the demo, I am hopeful that the event will provide an opportunity to make a principled stand against war with Syria. But I’m quickly disappointed. Instead, I meet a collection of conspiracy theorists, each with their own weird idea about what lies behind the UK government’s eagerness to strike the Syrian regime. The primary concern of most of the protesters I talk to is that such an attack would be bad for Britain.
For a hastily arranged protest, there’s a pretty impressive crowd - a few thousand, perhaps. Most of the demonstrators are either elderly veteran activists or students, with a few falling somewhere in the middle. I bump into some of the pseudo-anarchist fracktivists I met at Balcombe a few weeks ago; they greet me in a less-than-polite fashion.
Many of the protestors evidently don’t keep up with contemporary politics. A large group chants, ‘Arrest Tony Blair!’. Others, realising that demand is an anachronism, start chanting ‘Arrest Cameron!’. The resulting cacophony makes it difficult to work out what exactly is being said. ‘Why are they saying “Arrest Tony Benn?”’, one protester asks me.
As with the protests over Iraq and Afghanistan, many of the demonstrators are using the issue of intervention as a way of venting anger about domestic issues. The most common chant is, ‘One, two, three, four / We don’t want your fucking war! / Five, six, seven, eight / Spend it on the welfare state!’. The main sentiment, expressed both on placards and in speeches, seems to be that we just can’t afford a new foreign venture in these times of austerity. This obsession with how a potential conflict will effect us speaks volumes. It seems that some of the narcissism driving Britain towards war has leaked into the anti-war camp, too.
When I ask demonstrators why the West might want to bomb Syria, I’m treated to an array of muddled conspiracy theories, pointing the finger of blame at some combination of big oil companies, big banks and Israel.