Ten years ago this week Britain’s biggest ever political protest took to the streets of London to try to stop the war on Iraq, or at least British participation in it. There were many things at the centre of debate then that scarcely need consideration now – did Saddam have weapons of mass destruction? Would the United Nations give the attack a patina of legality? Would war make the world safer from terrorism? Would the Iraqi people welcome invaders as liberators? On all this, the jury has long since come in.
Nor can there be any doubt that Tony Blair was motivated solely by his secret pledges to stand by President Bush come what may, and that considerations of legality and British public opinion scarcely registered with him. It may be small consolation, but let it be said once more: on every point, those who marched were right.
The Iraqi people have paid a staggering price for the Bush-Blair war of choice – not least those families now learning details of the bestial abuse and murder of their loved ones by soldiers who at least knew well enough that the killing and torturing was not being carried out “in our name”.
But British democracy took a body blow too. The shadow of the largest demonstration in British history – an estimated attendance of 2 million was supported by two independent opinion polls taken the following week – still hangs over democratic politics.
If our politicians wonder why they are held in such low esteem, it is not just their fiddling of expenses, nor their prolonged bipartisan infatuation with bankers and Rupert Murdoch. The rot began with the dodgy dossier, the “45-minute” Iraqi missile threat, the duplicitous diplomacy, and the decision to ignore the wishes of their own voters in preference to those of George Bush. Mainstream politics bought public contempt with the blood of millions.
There is a broader issue, of course. Is marching and protesting a waste of time? If 2 million people can be disregarded like this, then what price democratic politics? In fact, the enormous strength of the anti-war movement of 2003 and beyond has shaped politics in many ways.
First, British troops pulled out of Iraq in 2009 with their tails between their legs, militarily and politically humiliated. That was surely due to the reluctance of the Iraqi people to offer them the exuberant welcome Blair had banked on – but it also owes something to the sustained opposition of the British people to the war and Gordon Brown’s reluctance to go to the electorate with British soldiers still dying in a war that millions had opposed from the outset.
Second, the bar has been raised for further wars of aggression. Not high enough, as David Cameron’s scratching of the imperialist itch in Libya and now Mali shows. But the fact that the prime minister has to pledge “this is not like Iraq” every time, and the reluctance to move to overt war in Syria or Iran, shows that a lesson has been learned. It will surely be a long time before British boots are put on the ground to secure US foreign policy aims again.
Third, the New Labour warmongers have in some measure been held to account. Blair was bundled out of office by an eventually exasperated party ahead of his desired schedule, largely as a result of his unrepentant neoconservatism and Bushophilia. And the Chilcot inquiry, meandering as it may be, owes something to that march. It is not the war criminals’ dock at The Hague, which would surely be more appropriate – but it is a start.
Finally, 15 February 2003 established a political coalition that cut across almost every political, social, ethnic or cultural category in society. It only divided imperialists from the rest. In particular, it united hundreds of thousands of British Muslims with their neighbours in a joint project of peace. Years later a senior police officer told me that the anti-war movement had done more for community relations than any government initiative. This alliance will endure, much as it continues to frighten neoconservative pundits to this day.
Add in the students walking out of school to oppose their country’s aggression; the unprecedented emergence of Military Families Against the War, people like Rose Gentle and Reg Keys, brave enough to say their sons were killed for politicians’ lies; and the millions of people who could be classified only as “none of the above”– and it is clear that the movement against the Iraq war created something unique in British political history.
That coalition is still needed today, not only to finally terminate the misbegotten “war on terror” – now in its 12th year, with results that range from the barbaric to the merely disastrous and have touched almost every country from Mali to Pakistan – but also to renew our own democracy and society.
So we can be sure that demonstrations do not change everything; but equally it is wrong to say that they do not change anything. It is in that margin that political struggle is conducted. It is my view that when the campaigning zeal and broad progressive politics of the anti-war movement are allied to a resurgent labour movement – the missing ingredient in 2003 – then we will be on the threshold of that world of peace and social justice that got 2 million people out on the streets on a freezing February morning.
The Guardian, Thursday 14 February 2013