15 February 2003: the myth of a mass uprising
The aim of that million-strong demo 10 years ago was not to stop the invasion of Iraq but merely to advertise decent people’s distaste for it.
Saturday 15 February 2003. It is a very cold day, the kind that gets into your bones - usually, it seems, starting with your toes. But that hasn’t stopped an unfeasibly large number of people from turning out in London to protest against the US and the UK’s potential invasion of Iraq. The police reckon that there’s 750,000 hardy souls, shuffling slowly through the city chill. The Stop the War Coalition, organisers of the protest, place the figure closer to two million. No matter. It’s comfortably the largest public demonstration in British history. This fact is told to us repeatedly.
Over the following few days, commentators, pundits and activists excite themselves over the sheer size and significance of what has just happened. The years of slackerdom, of apolitical complacency, are over; protest is back. In the Observer, Mary Riddell declaims: ‘The age of apathy stops here, between a Thomas Cook branch and the Bloomsbury Diner, where the bodies are jammed together too tightly to move… Some of these twenty-first-century Chartists with mobile phones are veterans of the Vietnam demonstrations. Some are too young to remember the Cold War. What unites them is anger against [President George W] Bush and [Prime Minister Tony] Blair, but mainly Blair. Everyone I talk to says that he will not have their vote again.’
Monday’s Guardian follows suit: ‘The weekend saw the kind of global protest that few arguments can inspire. This at a time when disengagement from politics was supposed to be one of the inevitable trends of the modern era and when globalisation had reduced voting to parochial concerns.’ A couple of weeks later, a Labour Lord, Kenneth Morgan, is similarly in little doubt that the political landscape has been altered by what is believed to have been a seismic event: ‘[Blair’s case for war] has been elucidated; the spinners have spun; the plagiarists have plagiarised; and the people are more hostile than ever… The opposition to war was reflected on 15 February in a great and moving protest, comparable to the Chartists or the Suffragettes.’
But despite the hype, on 18 March, 412 MPs vote in favour of invading Iraq; only 149 vote against. Blair doesn’t actually need parliamentary support to go to war - the Royal Prerogative effectively grants him the executive power to do so alone. But still, the fact that the vast majority of MPs support the invasion of Iraq reveals the extent to which they were unpersuaded by the anti-war protests. Two days later, with UK and US armed forces – or the Coalition of the Willing, as they are calling themselves – shocking and awing the embedded media, the Iraq War had begun.
10 years on
Now, on the tenth anniversary of that supposedly era-defining protest, an unmistakable melancholy clings to the recollections of those involved. Which is hardly surprising; the war was not stopped. And the energy, the protesting verve, that was so seemingly evident on that cold February day, ebbed very quickly.
In the Huffington Post, film director Ken Loach, who addressed the original protest at its Hyde Park culmination, reflected on the anti-war movement’s evanescence: ‘Once people had walked away we had no way of reaching them again, no way of getting back in touch with them. I think that could have been the basis for a whole new political organisation which never was. It was a great demonstration, but it stayed a demonstration. My strongest feeling is one of great regret.’ Likewise, veteran left-winger Tariq Ali bemoaned the protest’s lack of consequence: ‘It had very little effect on mainstream politics and I think it played a big part in alienating young people from politics.’ Andrew Murray, a senior member of the Stop the War Coalition, may not have been as critical, but he was no less regretful: ‘There is disappointment and anger, of course. We were completely ignored.’
In the short, sharp words of broadcaster Michael Goldfarb, that voluminous, loud protest, which possessed the nation’s media for a few weeks, ‘changed absolutely nothing’. The British government still declared war. British forces, in alliance with their American colleagues, still invaded Iraq. As one contemporary columnist puts it, ‘the greatest mass of demonstrators to have ever swarmed through Britain’s streets’ was ‘tossed aside’. In its own terms, the anti-Iraq War march should only be judged a failure.
Or should it? Of course, if the protest was about stopping the British state from interfering in the affairs of another country, then yes, it was obviously a failure. If it was an attempt to defeat an imperialist venture, then, again, yes, it was a failure. But that wasn’t really what the protest was about. For one thing, many on that slow trudge through central London would have been quite happy for British troops to trot into Baghdad if the UN had given it the thumbs up. That is, if the war had qualified as a legal war, if it had been given a UN stamp of approval, if weapons inspector Hans Blix had discovered a stash of WMD, then many on that march would have been happily pro-war. The objections of many that day weren’t based on principle, but on legal cretinism.
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So the anti-war protest wasn’t anti-war in any strong, coherent political sense. Indeed, the protesters were not a coherent group at all. As many observed at the time, it was an incredibly eclectic mix of people: ‘There were nuns. Toddlers. Women barristers. The Eton George Orwell Society. Archaeologists Against War. Walthamstow Catholic Church, the Swaffham Women’s… country folk and lecturers, dentists and poulterers, a hairdresser from Cardiff and a poet from Cheltenham.’ Beyond a general aversion to Blair and Bush Go To War, nothing strongly political united these people. It was an agglomeration of individuals and interest groups, not a politically articulate collective.
And this is key to understanding why the protest should in fact be judged a success, not a failure. Its de facto objective was not really to stop the war; it was to allow a great mass of concerned individuals to say ‘I opt out’, to disassociate themselves from the actions of the then Labour government and its political supporters. And this it did to spectacular, voluminous effect. This is why the infamous and ubiquitous slogan, ‘Not in my name’, was so resonant: it captured the principal dynamic that drove so many to turn out that day - a desire to express one’s political isolation, to turn it, in effect, into a virtue. Little wonder that one then 16-year-old protester now recalls the ‘pride’ he felt that day: ‘I still remember the feeling of pride as I poured over the pictures, that sense that we belonged, not to the most “politically apathetic generation” ever to live after all, but to the most engaged, the most righteous.’
The author Ian McEwan, whose novel Saturday centres upon the march, clearly discerned something of this proud individualistic, opting-out quality, when he recalled ‘how everyone had a banner and a location. The Swaffham Women’s Choir, and so on. [The protest] had a school-play quality – a sort of Englishness. I went down to Euston Road and watched the buses coming in, shipping people in. And many of them had banners and strong identity. You know: here was Gloucestershire; here was Stratford; all announcing themselves very cheerily.’ And no wonder these separate, disparate groups and individuals asserted their identities so ‘cheerily’. That was the point of being there: it was a chance for thousands upon thousands of individuals each to say ‘not in my name’. Saturday 15 February 2003 did not mark a mass protest, so much as a mass opt-out.
Looking back, many rightly identify the Iraq War protests as a turning point for New Labour. But not because of the war itself. Rather, the disillusionment that had been building among many Labour supporters as the petty reality of Blair’s PR-heavy, substance-lite regime became apparent, merely found its clearest expression, its easiest vent, in the form of opposition to the Iraq War. All the grievances that had been building up, all the objections towards the spin obsession of New Labour, came to a head in February 2003. Many people that day were more keen to talk of their anger towards Blair and his ‘lies’, and their sense of betrayal, than they were about Iraq itself.
In the years that followed, the Iraq War, from the dodgy dossier to the death of David Kelly, has continued to serve this scapegoating function for Labour’s disillusioned followers, as the embodiment of New Labour’s spinning and sinning ways. So much so, in fact, that Labour’s soaking blanket of a leader, Ed Miliband, made a big thing of his regret about the Iraq War during his debut conference speech in 2010: ‘I do believe we were wrong… to take Britain to war’, he lisped to general applause, some of which came from people who, in 2003, thought they were right to take Britain to war.
But the disillusion runs deeper than a falling-out among Labourish types. Rather, the February march represented a more general disillusionment with politics as a means of realising change, of achieving something. Hence the strange strain of futility underpinning that day: no one really believed that the war was not going to take place. In that fatalistic moment, politics was being re-conceived. As the amassed ‘Not in my name’ placards suggested, politics was now a means to simply say ‘I don’t want any involvement’. Politics became, in effect, a narcissistic gesture, a way of asserting one’s non-identity with the general course of things, one’s opposition to the prevailing wind.
In this sense, the pundits and activists keen to identify such protest phenomena as Plane Stupid and Occupy as the successors to the mid-Noughties anti-war ‘movement’ are right to do so. Not because Plane Stupid or Occupy are heirs to some tradition of radical protest, but because, in their self-indulgent displays of opting out, be it from cheap, mass transport or just from the economy itself, these groupings merely repackaged the self-aggrandising, not-in-my-name sentiment which emerged so dramatically on that day, 10 years ago. Sadly, it is a legacy as shabby as the tents that encrusted St Paul’s in 2011.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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