On a Saturday 10 years ago, the largest demonstration in modern British political history wound its way through the streets of London. And where was I? Watching it at home, unfortunately. No, I couldn't make the celebrated and historic February 15th, 2003 march, but that isn't to say I wasn't caught up in the buzz and excitement before it. The Stop the War meetings, the wall-to-wall coverage as the drive to war built up, even my mum broke her lifetime habit of taking her cue from The Sun to disclaim the coming war. And, crucially, in the workplace where I was the T&G shop steward the impending conflict was a hot topic of conversation on the tills, in the cafe, and down the pet food aisle. Everyone was talking about it. There was a real sense of momentum in the air, that finally, not only was people power on the verge of stopping a destructive and unnecessary war, but that we were on the cusp of a profound political change.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.
Watching the masses of people take to the streets, there appeared to be something poignant, almost solemn about the occasion. If some were expecting the radical violence of the anti-Vietnam War protests chances are they went home disappointed. And I know this wasn’t just an affect of the media coverage, which, in fairness, did do a good job of representing its scale. The comrades and friends I spoke to afterwards all noted the strange respectfulness of the march. Leaflets and papers were politely accepted or declined. Protesters headed the instructions of the stewards. There were no confrontations with the police, no flag burning. For all the bad press it received, Ian McEwan's Saturday appeared to capture the sobriety of the occasion as I had it filtered back to me through acquaintances and the media.
But apart from allowing activists and the commentariat an opportunity to turn in nostalgic copy, for all its scale and celebration what impact did the anti-war march (and the anti-war movement) have on our politics? There are several things that spring to mind.
The September 11th terror attacks provoked a welling up of Islamophobia, and the war drive did little except reinforce it. Under attack by the media and right-wing politicians, this climate had a radicalising effect among young Muslims. For most it politicised a generation around the geopolitics of the Middle East and, particularly, the vexed issue of Israel/Palestine. Unfortunately, it was also a shot in the arm for fringe outfits like Hizb ut-Tahrir and Al-Muhajiroun, for British jihadism generally, and compounded the carefully contrived and assiduously cultivated discourse around terrorist attack. The Islamic panic certainly helped the BNP on its road to two MEPs and a London Assembly member as well.
Iraq has also raised the bar for future military intervention. Excluding the continuous and unceasing state of permanent war in Afghanistan, since 2003 British involvement in Libya and Mali has been tightly circumscribed compared to Blair's adventurism. The idea of the UK piling into a military confrontation with Iran over its nuclear programme is remote precisely because the government - any government - would not be able to sell another Iraq-style war on either humanitarian grounds or for enforced disarmament.
But most importantly for labour movement activists, the point is well made by Andrew Murray in his look-back for Stop the War. He suggests:
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.I believe the crisis of legitimacy of mainstream politics began before that, but nevertheless the observation is sound. Labour may have won the general election two years later, but in many ways Iraq broke the party for the remainder of its time in government. Labour voters by the million turned to the left-posing LibDems, or simply abstained. Constituency parties took a massive hammering. For example, it is my understanding that our CLP was 700-strong before the war. And despite having a relatively prominent anti-war MP, it lost somewhere in the region of 500 members.
This process of disenchantment and disillusion sped up and as it did so, as the main parties suffered what you might call a 'civic contraction', so mainstream politics became more dysfunctional, more cut off, and more obsessed with bubble issues. It has left a legacy politics has not really grappled with, much less overcome. There's a lesson there for parties who might defy the popular will.