Saturday 16 February 2013

February 15th, 2003

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.


Alex Dawson said...

I left the Labour Party over Iraq. It led to 8 years of my political enthusiasm being spent on paper sales in shopping centres and set piece public meetings, but I certainly learnt a great deal and do not regret tearing up my card at all.

Having rejoined Labour in 2010, I would tear up my card again at the drop of a hat if any future Labour Prime Minister attempted to start a war in the name of humanitarian intervention or whatever else they try and call it these days.

I think you are right to an extent that Iraq reigned in Blair - and therefore the US - from going on on Iran or anywhere else. That said, Iraq was always the prize he wanted right back from when he started bombing it seriously with Clinton back in 1999.

But with Libya and now Mali, and the increasing number of voices on the "left" excitedly egging on this kind of military intervention, I have to say I sense a real and worrying move towards preferring major military confrontation.

One fairly prominent left blogger told me the other day (presumably not joking) he ideally wanted some kind of massive leftist International Brigade to go to war against all these evil regimes across the planet. He is one of not a small group of ostensibly left commentators who are triumphalist about the Mali intervention and openly long for the bombs to start falling on Syria and the inevitable and potentially suicidal military confrontation with the Russians and Chinese.

A large part of me hopes these characters do take up arms and go abroad, preferably with their loved ones, to fight their noble wars, rather than rely on ordering the economic conscripts of our own beleaguered armed forces to do their bidding.

In the meantime, I think whilst its scale and size alarmed the establishment in the short term, and probably reigned in the worst of the warmongering, in the final analysis the anti-war march demonstrated the impotence of peaceful and "civilised" protest against the raw power of the state.

Look at the numerous TUC big marches recently. They have achieved very little other than, in my view, to distract union activists and divert their organising power away from decisive industrial action. As with "Stop the War", it is much easier to get a load of people to go for a daytrip to London than it is to build for actual struggle and sacrifice - unless the two things are carefully linked together.

As for political progress, since the 2003 Iraq war demo the Leninist left has lost pretty much all of the remaining elected representatives they had at the time. Vehicles and fronts have come and gone and Labour is now the only game in town (in England at least) for leftists wanting a shot at winning some kind of election.

The only winner from all of it, that I can see, is Gorgeous George who has carved out quite an angle for himself as the authentic voice of protest with his communalist/conspiracy theory populist-left positioning.

The fact he is so hated by so much of the left comes, I think, from raw jealousy at the fact he manages to get into parliament - a feat that will elude many of the laptop bombardiers who profess to loathe him so.

Phil said...

I'm sure an International Brigade of lightly-armed North London liberals and lefties would have the likes of the Saudi and Qatari Royal Families, and Kim Jong Un quaking in their boots.

Of course, there's nothing stopping them from going to Syria *right now*. After all, British Jihadis are making their way there.

Ken said...

Hi Phil,
The House of Commons Library has an interesting article on party size. For Labour
2003 215,000 members
2009 156,000 members
So, it lost 59,000 members after the Iraq war. Divide by 650 constituencies that is about 90 members per constituency on average. If my arithmetic is correct, the current 193,000 members over 650 constituencies (ignoring the peculiarities of labour in N.I.) is only 125 members per constituency at the moment. I know this ignore affiliated organisations but this seems a very attenuated basis to launch an attack on the power of capital.
The article is quite sanguine about the loss which all major parties have sustained, arguing that there are other ways to reach the electorate, and apart from some exceptions as Spain, all European countries have seen memberships shrink.
To put it in perspective, they include the national Trust with 4 million members.


Phil said...

Thanks for taking the trouble of doing that, Ken. I think dating it from the overt start of the war drive would yield a more accurate picture - but nevertheless a very useful set of observations.

As the former secretary of my CLP is a regular hereabouts, perhaps he can shed some light on the local picture.

Gary Elsby said...

I doubt that Iraq is the sole or main reason for a slide away from membership within Labour.

In the early 1980's Stoke Central had around 1200 members and was on the increase.CLP meetings were packed and full of students(girls going nuts about men).AGMs were held on Sunday's at big venues.
Thatcher, the recruiting seargeant was our life-blood and the 3 GE electoral losses didn't seem to alter the fact.
When Kinnock undeertook the dreadful 'policy review', he set the party on course for power but killed the soul of the member.
The slide was on.
The iraq episode put member against member and it has to be conceded that heartfelt loyalties were holowed out.
The further slide bought those that stayed to the fore and they became the focus.
Each branch in Stoke Central had more members that the CLP does now but the fall in members made branches more concentrated in opinion and power.
Chemical Ali could gas women and children to his hearts content, but some Labour members didn't like Bush more than him, so the discussio became more of a CIA set up Vs humanitarian intervention.
Nuclear power, Kuwait, Gassings, no fly zones, Al-Qaeda (alleged and proven but rejected by many)added to the mayhem.

In my view, to select one issue for the demise of political participation from grassroots people is too simplistic.
My personal view is the more politics the better, but that is not the view of joe soap.
Party members felt helpless during the journey from Kinnock to Brown. They felt worthless in the big picture. They couldn't and still can't alter things or do anything useful other than fight intrusions.
In Stoke,our fight for independence was won and lost on day one in 1997.
Power secretly given to Chief Executives and onto Mayors (still the CE)and sychophants to a WM office.
The culprits of Stoke's current mess is easy.
1 MP (south) and his brought in helpers and one Mayor and his various cabinets.
The MP, a Mayor and helpers all worked together in an office in the WM and came with a mission to undermine democracy.
The power source behind the scenes never failed them and was used to identify and ultimately destroy those who fought Thatcher and won.

The Dimessions scandal can be laid out at their door.
The only recourse we have is to destroy Labour (them) and rebuild from the ruins.

Phil said...

Thanks for the clarification, Gary. You're right about it being more than just Iraq, but it was definitely a catalyst for some. As for your other reasons, well, we'll leave that to debate another time ;)

Gary Elsby said...

On the point of big marches in London, I attended the Miner's march way back in 1984 or 5.
It was massive and I actually got onto the stage and stood beside Scargill and Benn as they delivered their speeches.
I'll bet it's on youtube or somewhere.
It was one of the most enjoyable marches and days, ever.
Everyone, as you'd expect, was of one mind.
It should also be noted that everyone was of one politics.
Ok, there may have been a contingent of ultra left by so what,we had one aim and one cause.

Imagine my disamy, when arriving back home late at night and going into the pubs in S-o-T with all the lads off the coaches and seeing the News put out stories of 'hardly anyone turned up'.

That was one of the first experiences of political life where the media completely and deliberately, misrepresented what really happened.

The Orgreave video on the web put out recently by a North Tv station is well worth looking at.
It covers the story of who actually started the riot.

Gary Elsby said...

Found it in daily motion.

Miners Orgreave BBC.