Whatever happened to the anti-war movement?
The fall of George Galloway reveals that neither side is winning the battle over Iraq.
The commanders in chief of the Iraq war, President George W Bush and prime minister Tony Blair, are both suffering crises of authority at home as support for their Iraqi adventure haemorrhages. It might appear as if it ought to be a good moment for the anti-war movement. Yet in Britain, those leaders closely associated with the protests against the war in 2003 – Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats and George Galloway’s Respect – are also in crisis. Iraq looks more and more like the war that nobody has won.
The near-hysterical hounding of Galloway over his antics on Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother demonstrates the desperation of the pro-war lobby in Britain. We at spiked are no fans or defenders of Gorgeous George. But when such a minor politician becomes public enemy number one almost overnight, apparently on the strength of his performance in a reality TV show, it is clear that something else is going on – just as, when a stray whale suddenly becomes the focus of national emotion, you know the animal is not the only one to have lost its bearings.
Galloway the former boxer has been turned into an all-purpose political punchbag, so that anybody can whale on him to distract from their own shortcomings. Want to demonstrate that you are a serious politician in touch with the public? Just denounce Galloway for showing contempt for his constituents and parliament by messing about in the CBB house instead of attending the House of Commons. And most importantly, if you want to discredit the anti-war movement, publish the pictures of Galloway with Saddam Hussein or his son next to the one of him prancing about in a red leotard.
How the arguments of the mighty have fallen. The invasion of Iraq, we were told in the first place, was about the most high-minded of issues. It was to deal with the threat to the West posed by Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Then it was to counter the threat to civilisation posed by Saddam’s alleged sponsorship of al-Qaeda. Then it was to save the Iraqi people from the worst dictator in history, bringing democracy, peace and human rights to that blighted Gulf state.
As each of these moral arguments has crumbled in the face of reality, the war’s supporters have had to reach a little lower into the barrel to find a new one. Each time, the result has been further to expose the lack of a coherent case for the war. Now, after all the dodgy dossiers and dubious claims, they have touched the bottom. ‘Look at Galloway making an idiot of himself!’, they say. ‘How could he be right about Iraq?’ However, the fact that the self-styled leader of the anti-war movement is self-evidently a pillock is not in itself a justification for the invasion of a sovereign state. As I have pointed out elsewhere this week, whatever else he might be, a moustachioed middle-aged Stalinist smoking a cigar in a leotard is not a weapon of mass destruction.
The case for war has been worn thin, and Bush and Blair’s political authority has gone with it. Yet the striking thing is that, at precisely the same time, the leading anti-war voices in British politics are in disarray. Galloway’s Respect Party and Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats were among the most prominent opponents of the Iraq war. The speed and apparent ease with which both have been thrown into crisis exposes the myth of the powerful anti-war movement.
From the first, we observed on spiked that there was a lack of political coherence and consensus behind the attack on Iraq (see Gulf War meets Culture War, by Brendan O’Neill; It’s a propaganda war, but not as we know it, by Mick Hume). It was a war dogged by uncertainty with, perhaps uniquely, no powerful pro-war party to mobilise support for its cause. This strange, stumbling military adventure spawned an anti-war movement of a peculiar kind, one that seemed equally incoherent and lacking in political principles.
Indeed, under Kennedy the ‘anti-war’ Liberal Democrats were not even opposed to invading Iraq in principle. Their objection was to the timing and legal niceties of the war given the lack of support across the United Nations. But leading Lib Dems, such as Menzies Campbell for example, now favourite to become party leader, argued in the Commons that the government’s dodgy dossiers proved Saddam’s WMD were a threat that had to be dealt with.
Rather than a principled collective opposition to military intervention, the anti-war mood in Britain represented more of a personal statement of political disengagement by individuals. This opting-out was well captured by the slogan ‘Not In My Name’. It expressed an anti-political attitude rather than a political alternative, sullen dissent rather than active opposition. That was why so many people could come to make their statement at the mass demonstrations, then go home and let the political class get on with it. Soon enough, one eccentric man ranting outside parliament was the only visible remains of what was supposed to be a mass anti-war movement.
Three years on, the Liberal Democrat Party that rode the anti-war wave to prominence has been plunged into crisis; Kennedy resigned after confessing to alcoholism, and two of the candidates to replace him have been caught up in media furores about their sexuality and alleged hypocrisy. The Lib Dems’ deeper problem, however, is that these rather minor scandals have exposed their lack of political substance. They won support not because of their policies, but as an empty receptacle for other people’s disgruntlement with politics and the political class, most clearly over Iraq. Indeed, they played the anti-political card, presenting themselves as clean, decent characters in contrast to the old dirty-handed parties.
When that blew up in their faces with the recent revelations, it quickly became evident that the Lib Dems had nothing to fall back on. They had become a front for an anti-war ‘movement’ that did not really exist, other than as a momentary meeting of assorted disgruntled individuals. When it came time to fight their own battles, they had no army behind them.
In his own way, Galloway has suffered a similar fate. The MP who claimed that he spoke for the downtrodden of the Earth, most notably millions of Muslims, has now been reduced to a figure of widespread ridicule by a few (admittedly very) embarrassing moments on a TV gameshow. Many people are now asking why he would do such a thing, blaming his famous ego for getting the better of him, as it has before.
But egotists are hardly a new arrival in politics. What is different now is that, in the absence of substantial political causes and ideologies, personality and ego can matter much more. Galloway could run riot in the CBB house because he is not accountable to any constituency. He might have introduced himself to the other housemates as ‘leader of the British anti-war movement’. But his surprise arrival there only demonstrated that he has no movement to lead – and so, like Tony Blair before him, he sought other media platforms from which to make an impact.
At the start of Galloway’s stay in the CBB house, Respect weakly tried to claim that the programme was helping him to connect with real people by ‘coming across as a human being’ (although some might say that was not difficult in such a freak show). In fact the CBB circus only confirmed that Galloway is as disconnected from reality, and especially from the young people he craves contact with, as any politician today.
Now he has emerged from the CBB house to find that there is little to defend him from the wrath of a vengeful media. This is not only, as many have suggested, because his Muslim voters are suddenly disenchanted by his personal behaviour. It is because the support for Galloway and Respect was always illusory, more a cynical ‘no to everything’ vote than a committed endorsement of their programme. Just as the Lib Dems won support from disaffected students in university towns at the 2005 General Election, so Respect won support from disaffected Muslims and others in inner-city constituencies (and little elsewhere). The fragility of such negative support helps explain why both of them could have been so badly and suddenly battered by non-political events.
We are left with a situation where the anti-war movement is revealed as an empty shell, at a time when enthusiasm for the Iraq war is almost impossible to find outside the zealots of the Blogosphere. Raise the issue of Iraq and it can still stir strong feelings, prompting many to declare that they ‘hate Bush and Blair’ because of it. But this is less a political position than an emotional spasm. Being viscerally against the Iraq war has become a substitute for politics, rarely informed by any wider perspective. Thus many will say they are opposed to it who were for previous similar wars, particularly the Kosovo conflict of 1999. Striking a pose against the Iraq conflict and its ‘hated’ leaders has become a substitute for confronting the hard political questions about war and peace in the twenty-first century.
With little sign in Britain and the West of either a staunch pro-war party or a strong anti-war movement, the disastrous Iraq war drifts on. On one side, it is a running advertisement for the inability of the political class to exercise power with purpose today. But on the other, it offers a stark lesson that you cannot build a movement for change on the basis of cynicism and anti-politics. As the problems of the Lib Dems and Galloway show, marching behind such a disengaged, dropout slogan as ‘Not In My Name’ will not offer much protection when your name is in the frame.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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