Whatever happened to the anti-war movement?

Saturday's London march looked exhausted before it started.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

‘We’re back!’ So said a homemade placard at the London demo against Britain and America’s occupation of Iraq on Saturday 27 September, in a sea of placards and banners accusing Blair (or Bliar) of telling ‘war lies’ and ‘spinning death’. But placard-maker David from Cornwall had to admit that the anti-war movement wasn’t quite back with a bang. ‘It is quieter than I thought it would be’, he said, though that could be ‘out of respect’, because ‘we have to remember how many people were killed by Bush and Blair’.

What happened to Britain’s anti-war movement? In February 2003, a million-odd people marched to Hyde Park, and the global anti-war movement was described as the world’s ‘second superpower’ that could potentially halt the ‘inexorable advance of the Bush juggernaut’ (1). Yet on Saturday, 15,000 of the British left’s usual suspects barely filled Trafalgar Square, as they offered ‘sorrow and solidarity’ to Iraqis, sold their newspapers to each other, and got funny looks from Americans popping into the National Gallery.

The strange disappearance of the peace movement exposes the myth that it represented a new radical moment in British politics. Of course anti-war demos shrink once the fighting has officially ended. Yet the rapid shrinkage of Britain’s anti-war brigade indicates that this was not a movement of people committed to a specific cause, but a collection of individuals expressing their frustration with politics and politicians. The big anti-war marches encapsulated a cynical mood and a sense of disengagement – and these are hardly ideal sentiments on which to build a mass movement.

Some of the organisers of Saturday’s demo had a novel explanation as to why it was so much smaller than February’s gathering. ‘The anti-war movement has had its impact’, said a Stop the War official. ‘It has made a mark beyond the demonstrations’, meaning that it is no longer necessary ‘for everyone to turn up all of the time’. According to Socialist Worker – the newspaper of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), which is part of the Stop the War Coalition – ‘not since the 1970s has extra-parliamentary activity had such an impact on [Britain]’; indeed, anti-war resistance has apparently ‘driven every twist and turn in recent British politics’ (2).

SWP member and Stop the War convenor Lindsey German claims that the Hutton Inquiry into the suicide of Ministry of Defence scientist David Kelly is itself a consequence of the anti-war movement. ‘If there had been no demos, there would be no Hutton Inquiry’, she says. German says the anti-war movement helped to foster a climate in which ‘the number of people who believe what Blair says is just six per cent’ (3). When I asked one of Saturday’s marchers whether she was disappointed by the turnout she said, ‘Not at all. Hutton has exposed Blair’s lies, and now the media is refusing to believe a word he says’. Listening to the protesters, you could be forgiven for thinking that the anti-war movement was the activities wing of the Hutton Inquiry.

The notion that the anti-war movement was the driving force behind Hutton, media coverage or Blair’s dip in the polls turns reality on its head. Far from shaping a new critical political climate, the anti-war movement was itself shaped by today’s anti-political climate.

The mass marches earlier this year consisted of a variety of groups and individuals projecting their sense of isolation from mainstream politics on to the canvas of the anti-war debate. These same feelings were expressed by some who attended Saturday’s demo. One young protester told the Observer, ‘I’m not really against the occupation. I’m here because Tony Blair sneered at us after the February march. This is more an expression of muted anger.’ (4) Another said: ‘I’m not in shouting mood; I don’t have anything specific to say other than, “Damn you Blair, damn you for this mess”.’ (5)

Far from attempting to transform this sentiment into a singular anti-war mission, the Stop the War organisers have merely tapped into it, celebrating their movement as being ‘out of anyone’s control’. ‘The people organising it are not in control’, they say, excitedly, ‘it has its own momentum’ (6).

The anti-war movement’s penchant for feeding off (and into) the anti-political mood, rather than putting forward convincing arguments against the Iraq war and occupation, was much in evidence on Saturday’s demo. The gathering was ostensibly against Britain and America’s continuing occupation – yet the majority of placards focused on Bush and Blair’s ‘lies’ instead. There was ‘No more lies’, ‘No more war lies’, the infamous ‘Bliar’ banner, and ‘45 minutes and counting’. One homemade placard said ‘Enough war – enough lies’. The most political placard was the SWP’s – ‘US and UK troops out of Iraq’ – but even this was outnumbered by another, apparently last-minute SWP placard: ‘Blair must go.’

Why did a demo against the postwar occupation of Iraq make Blair and his prewar lies the central focus? Because the anti-war movement cynically milks current political obsessions in an attempt to make an impact – and British politics and media are currently obsessing over whether Blair lied, why he lied and who helped him lie. Alongside the anti-lying placards on Saturday’s demo, many of the speakers namechecked the Hutton Inquiry and how it has apparently ‘exposed the government’, while one attendee said, ‘We now know that the 45-minutes claim was untrue and that New Labour sexed up its dossier’.

What kind of independent anti-war movement relies on the authority of Lord Hutton of Bresagh – who as Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland played a central role in another of Britain’s war efforts, in Ireland in the 1980s – and the questionable reporting of Andrew Gilligan for its arguments against the government? Far from challenging Blair over the occupation, or, for that matter, the war, Saturday’s demo merely jumped on the current anti-government, anti-Blair bandwagon, repeating the ‘Blair lied’ script in a desperate bid to connect with an audience. Even from the speakers’ platform, the occupation of Iraq (remember that? The supposed focus of the demo?) barely merited a mention.

It is the same climate that means Saturday’s demo was blown out of proportion, and turned into something it wasn’t. Many in the media latched on to the demo as a further blow for Blair, in the wake of Hutton, Brent East and predictions of dissent at Bournemouth. ‘Blair faces a wave of fury and resentment’, said one newspaper report on the demo, while TV reports claimed that ‘thousands shame Blair’ (7). Some of the TV coverage seemed to employ the same trick that was used after the fall of Baghdad, when close-up camera angles of fairly small crowds of Iraqis pulling down Saddam’s statue made it appear as if there were mass turnouts. In truth, there was little ‘fury’ on Saturday’s demo, and it was the smallest Stop the War march this year. But for journalists picking over Blair’s crisis, the demo became yet further ammunition, more evidence that the government is losing its grip.

Looking around Trafalgar Square, the most numerous placards were Stop the War’s ‘Bliar’ and the SWP’s ‘Blair must go’. The old guard had gathered supposedly to oppose the war in Iraq, but it looked more like a radical extension of the Labour left’s own disillusionment with Blair. As Labour members were gathering in Bournemouth and expressing their concern with Blair’s leadership, while the weekend’s papers were putting the finishing touches to their polls claiming that Blair is less popular than ever, so the hard left held up placards in Trafalgar Square accusing Blair of being a liar and calling for him to resign. It may have had anti-war undertones, but this was yet another left expression of frustration with Blair and his coterie.

So the SWP’s Lindsey German lambasted ‘Blair and his advisers, an increasingly fanatical and cliquish group of people with no real roots in the Labour Party’, while a CND member declared ‘Blair is not Labour’ (8). For these left groups – who, for all their claims to independence, have remained in Labour’s orbit, considering it in many ways to be ‘our party’ (and certainly not Blair’s) – Saturday’s demo was a chance to express their concern with New Labour and their sense of exclusion from the present Labour machine. Surveying the placards and listening to the speakers, it became clear that this was less a political protest against the occupation of Iraq, than a frustrated tantrum born of the left’s own sense of isolation and powerlessness.

Accusing Blair of being a liar, heralding the findings of an unelected law lord, expressing their own disappointment with Blair and New Labour – what ever happened to offering solidarity with the people of Iraq?

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) The new global peace movement vs the Bush juggernaut, Jeremy Brecher, Foreign Policy in Focus, 28 May 2003

(2) How our anti-war protests rocked Blair, Socialist Worker, 25 September 2003

(3) Occupied Iraq: blood, oil and lies, Andrew Stone, Socialist Review, October 2003

(4) Still angry after all these marches, Observer, 28 September 2003

(5) Still angry after all these marches, Observer, 28 September 2003

(6) See A festival of frustration, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Blair faces a wave of fury and resentment, Western Morning News, 29 September 2003

(8) Learning lessons, Socialist Review, October 2003

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

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