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'.
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
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.
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'
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.
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.
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)
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).
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
new global peace movement vs the Bush juggernaut,
Jeremy Brecher, Foreign Policy in Focus,
28 May 2003
our anti-war protests rocked Blair, Socialist
Worker, 25 September 2003
Iraq: blood, oil and lies, Andrew Stone, Socialist
Review, October 2003
angry after all these marches, Observer,
28 September 2003
angry after all these marches, Observer,
28 September 2003
festival of frustration, by Brendan O'Neill
faces a wave of fury and resentment, Western
Morning News, 29 September 2003
lessons, Socialist Review, October 2003
with permission from the author. This article first
appeared in Spiked
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