The missing million

Whatever happened to the anti-war movement?

Jennie Bristow

Topics World

Once upon a time, between one million and two million people (depending upon whose figures you believe) marched through London to oppose the war on Iraq. Throughout the world, similarly large numbers took to the streets.

Excitable commentators and left-wing groups heralded a new era of mass political action; the rebirth of an international peace movement last seen 30 years ago protesting against America’s Vietnam War. Then the war started, they all went home, and they lived happily ever after. The End.

Or is it? Just two months after its celebrated birth, the anti-war movement seems to have melted away. But the sense of disengagement that it encapsulated lives on.

On the surface, it does seem remarkable that a wave of protests attracting so many people could diminish so quickly once the war started. The London march on 15 February attracted one million people (the organisers claimed two million); its re-run on 22 March, two days after the first coalition air-strikes, attracted 200,000 (the organisers claimed half a million). The turnout figures for 12 April vary wildly between 200,000 (the organisers) and 20,000 (the police).

However you choose to play the numbers game, these protests clearly did not represent a movement of people committed to a cause. They can better be understood as a series of gesture politics – go there, see it, do it, wear the t-shirt and go home, secure in the knowledge that you have made your point. The fact that the enduring image quickly became, not the centrally organised national demonstrations, but the breakaway protests by truanting schoolchildren, is a stark illustration of the anti-war movement’s lack of coherence, leadership and power.

By 12 April, the UK’s national demonstrations were looking less like the anti-war protests against the Vietnam War than the funeral of Princess Diana. ‘People brought flowers, cards, wreaths to lay outside 10 Downing Street as we walked past there’, states a report on the Stop the War Coalition website, under whose banner the protests have taken place. ‘We also stopped both demonstrations as they arrived at Parliament and held a minute’s silence in memory of all those who have died so far in Iraq.’ (1)

By bringing individuals together in a sentimental commemoration of victimhood, Diana’s funeral wrote the script for today’s anti-war protests far more effectively than the political demonstrations of the past.

If the anti-war movement was not a movement, nor was it anti-war. As we have argued on spiked, the dominant mood of the protests was not a principled opposition to wars of intervention, or even a political opposition to war against Iraq, but a fear of the consequences of decisive action. The concern was that, if something should happen, it should be a safe war conducted according to the principles of diplomacy under the auspices of the United Nations (UN).

So back in February 2003, protestors argued that the UN inspectors should have more time, and that the military campaign should only happen with the sanction of the UN Security Council. Now, they argue that the presence of US and UK forces in Iraq looks dangerously like occupation, and that an Iraqi government should be set up instead (one can only assume, by the UN).

Over the brief course of this war, many of the so-called anti-war arguments have come full circle. No sooner had coalition forces invaded Iraq than international development secretary Clare Short, now best known for her infamous threat to resign from the Cabinet if war started and her decision to join the War Cabinet when it did start, expressed her concern that the war should be won (by Britain and America) as quickly as possible, so as to avert a humanitarian crisis. When Baghdad fell and the looting broke out, she effectively demanded a return to proper colonialism, with the troops policing the Iraqi cities to bring about order.

On 14 April, the UK Stop the War Coalition issued a press release castigating the US/UK coalition for committing ‘war crimes’ by breaking international law. How? Because, as chaos reigns on the streets of Baghdad, ‘US and UK forces have allowed the systematic looting and destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage’. Andrew Murray, chairman of the Stop the War Coalition, said: ‘It is clear that the invading US and UK forces had few if any plans to protect the civilian population after the fall of Saddam and maintain civil order.’ (2) The latest anti-war argument, it seems, is to demand that the occupying forces shoot the looters.

In opposing the war, the anti-war movement failed on all counts. The logic of its argument was always for more intervention, not less – for the world (ie, the UN) to gang up against Saddam and others like him; for the running of Iraq to be a matter for all the Western powers, not just the USA. The fact that this argument is now explicit should come as no surprise.

And even in its own, unprincipled terms, the anti-war movement managed to make remarkably little impact on the course of the war, and the reaction to its end. Back in February, opposition to this war was apparently going to galvanise the British people and bring down the prime minister. In fact, it excited a few schoolchildren, and gave the handful of minor ministers and civil servants who did resign five minutes of fame before consigning them to the dustbin of history.

Tony Blair has come out of it all rather well, and New Labour has gone back up in the poll ratings – according to a new poll taken for The Times (London), rising seven points since early last month to 41 percent, while the Tories have slipped five points to 29 percent (3). This poll also finds that now, two-thirds of people think that taking military action was the right thing to do; while a Guardian/ICM poll finds that 67 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds – the age group most associated with the anti-war movement – now say that they approve of military action (4). This represents a rise of 17 points in the past week.

Given that opposition to the war was motivated by fear of its consequences, such dramatic shifts in public opinion are not really surprising. Contrary to the nightmare scenarios dreamt up before and during the invasion, the war caused no terrorist attacks or massacres, and it was over rather quickly. In retrospect, then, it is seen as all right.

But this also indicates that, contrary to the hype about the anti-war movement, what is striking is not how much of an impact the war has had on British politics, but how little. Far from spawning a new political engagement, it has merely catalysed the trends towards cynicism and disengagement.

Blair, and New Labour, have got away with the war – but they can expect no ‘Falklands factor’ to bring them large turnouts and massive popularity at the local May elections. Their ability to get away with it is largely down to the degenerate state of the opposition, particularly within Parliament.

The Tories manifestly failed to make political capital out of the war, choosing instead to play cheerleader – now it’s all over, they are back to simply being unelectable. The Liberal Democrats scored a few cheap anti-war points in the beginning, and ran out of things to say once the war started.

The so-called wave of New Labour ‘rebels’ balked as soon as it looked like they might cause real problems for the Blair regime, and that was the end of that. Like the public protests, these rebellions were gesture politics – MPs making a point where they stood before sitting right back down again. What Blair lacks in the way of Falklands factors he made up with the absence of parliamentary opposition.

So far as the public goes, the recent polls express dissatisfied acquiescence to the status quo. The shift in approval for military action is no shift in principle, merely a sigh of relief that it is over, and that it was not worse – even though levels of apprehension about the consequences of the war are still pretty high.

So a YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph finds that 67 percent of people say that their feelings now are ‘mainly ones of relief’ – but that 48 percent are still ‘fairly worried’ about the consequences of the war, 69 percent feel there is a danger that Arabs throughout the Middle East will feel humiliated and ‘become more hostile towards the West as a result’, and only 15 percent of people think they will be safer at the end of the war than before it began. Thirty percent say they will be less safe, and 52 percent say that it will ‘not make much difference’ (5).

Whatever happened to the anti-war movement? It said ‘Not in my name’, and it got what it asked for: a shoulder-shrugging detachment from politics, and the forward march of the culture of fear.

Read on:

Nameless, blameless, shameless, by Jennie Bristow

Hiding behind the children, by Jennie Bristow

The Sixties, and the cynics

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) See the Stop the War Coalition website

(2) WAR CRIME: Iraq’s National Heritage Being Destroyed, Stop the War Coalition, 14 April 2003

(3) Baghdad bounce gives Blair commanding lead in poll, The Times (London), 14 April 2003

(4) Surge in war support confirms dramatic shift in public opinion, Guardian, 15 April 2003. See the results in full (.pdf)

(5) War worth fighting but doubts and fears linger, Daily Telegraph, 14 April 2003. See the results in full (.gif)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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