All quiet on the protesting front

Last Friday marked the tenth anniversary of the London demonstration against the Iraq War. Whichever figure you believe about the numbers of people attending - take your pick from 750,000 to two million people - it was certainly an enormous turnout. It was much bigger, for example, than the mass demonstrations against Cruise missiles in the early Eighties and the anti-poll tax march in 1990.

Yet, for all that, those other marches seemed to have much more of an impact because the political class at the time was significantly split on both issues - in the case of the poll tax, even within the government. The march in 2003, by contrast, occurred at a time when there was little dissent in Westminster to the idea of invading Iraq. At most, there were quibbles about getting UN authorisation to ensure that the assault would be 'legal'.

The thing I remember most of all was how quickly people I talked to switched the topic of the conversation. There was little that could be described as 'anti-imperialist' about the mood. Instead, the biggest topic of conversation was UK prime minister Tony Blair. All those banners christening him 'Bliar' certainly resonated with the people I spoke to. It wasn't the war, but the fact that Blair was seen to have lied about the need for it, which really angered people.

This was not a march about war but about the loss of any sense of being able to influence the political process, something confirmed by the fact that the march had no impact on the decision to go to war. The march was not angry, but sullen. It wasn't a demonstration of opposition but impotence, one still keenly felt today.

Far from being the start of a new movement, as many activists and commentators asserted, it was a sombre wake to mark the death of politics as we knew it.

All quiet on the protesting front

Republished from spiked, 18 February 2003

Saturday’s march in London was striking - not just for its size, but also for the absence of noise.

Walking into Hyde Park, I was confronted by lots of people but very little sound. Only the occasional samba band disturbed the birds. My friend thought that if you removed the placards, you could easily believe the Ramblers’ Association were having a get-together.

‘It is quite quiet. People have been starting chants and people have been quietly ignoring them’, a woman from London said. Two students from Derry, studying in Lincoln, were struck by how quiet their coach journey had been. ‘We thought there’d be a lot of chanting, but everyone was low-key. I think it was because we left so early in the morning - 7.30.’

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Another group of students, from Turkey, France and the UK, were much less generous. ‘It’s like they’re about to say, “Would like some tea?”.’ They had all been in Paris recently, on an unrelated march, which they said had been far noisier and more militant.

Perhaps the chanting didn’t take off because there seemed to be little political unity on the demo. ‘We’re here to do what we can, stand up and be counted. That’s why everybody’s here, to try to get the message across’, said an Oxford graduate, holding up a traffic-light banner saying ‘Stop, Look, Listen…Think’.

So, what was the message? Some said that there ‘shouldn’t be a war without UN support’. Others claimed that ‘there’s no reason for it - we’re not being invaded by Hitler charging across Europe’.

A woman with a pushchair said, ‘I’ve got my child to think about, I want her to live in a peaceful world, yeah?’. For some, the war was ‘just about oil’, and not worthy of Britons’ support.

‘I think every person can make a difference, every individual, just by turning up. It starts with us as individuals’, said one protester. I’d like to think that a vibrant anti-war movement could emerge from Saturday’s events. But I didn’t see one unified march; I saw a million individuals in one place. A demonstrator summed it up when she said: ‘It’s lots of people saying “No” for lots of different reasons.’

As I left Hyde Park and made my way to Victoria, the roads had been closed so there was no traffic. And it was quiet.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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