Picture: 15 Feb 2003 protest against the war in Iraq taken from Hungerford Bridge, London, courtesy Simon Rutherford/Wikimedia Commons.
The global demonstrations on 15 February 2003 formed the biggest protest event in history. Researchers have estimated that up to 30 million people marched in around 800 cities. The day evokes an unusual mix of emotions in those who remember it. On the one hand hope and pride in the spectacular turnout and the magnificent feat of global co-ordination involved, on the other, a heavy heart that it failed to stop the Iraq catastrophe.
However, there is a history that can now be pieced together that suggests we came far closer than we thought at the time to toppling Blair and keeping Britain out of the war. Just nine days before the war began, British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon phoned Donald Rumsfeld in Washington and told him that Britain might not be able to participate in the war. ‘We have real political difficulties,’ he is reported to have told his opposite number, ‘real difficulties, more than you might realise’.
Blair himself later admitted that Bush offered him an out from the war. Cabinet ministers, including Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, spent the next few days begging Blair to accept the offer and stand the troops down. Straw told Blair that if there was no official UN backing for the invasion ‘the only regime change that will be taking place will be in this room’. Civil servants were looking in to the constitutional issues should the vote over the war go against the Government. Blair admits he thought ‘these might be the last days in office’.
All of this was a response to a country in uproar. February 15 was not a one-off, but the most focussed moment of a period of popular rage. The then Home Secretary and loyal Blair supporter, David Blunkett, was shaken by it. He complained of protests ‘everywhere’ around his constituency, even at his surgery sessions:
Everything was dominated by Iraq, and it was really hard to win the audience round. The issue is obsessing everyone and permeating everything. It is affecting the world economy and creating a degree of uncertainty and tension that everything else is feeding in to.
On the day of the demonstration Blair and his entourage escaped London by going up to speak at the Scottish Labour Party conference. This, according to a senior aide, ‘really was the moment of maximum pressure on him. As he travelled up there, we just didn’t know whether the event would turn in to a fiasco.’ Alastair Campbell accepts the mood in his camp was desperate, ‘every part of the strategy was in tatters – re the EU, re the US, re the US, re the country which was about to march against us’.
Blair was greeted with stony silence inside the conference hall and outside was the biggest demonstration in Scotland since the 1920s, variously estimated at between fifty and a hundred thousand people.
Blair got through the day, but the movement used the demonstration to launch a campaign of direct action and civil disobedience. In a good example of the way the media was forced to treat the mass movement as a major political player in the events of the time, the Monday after the demo the Guardian ran a story headlined ‘New Protest planned to bring Britain to a standstill’. The story included a long quote from the Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey German, calling on people to ‘walk out of their offices, strike, sit down, occupy buildings, demonstrate, and do whatever they think fit the moment war starts’.
This call found an immediate echo. Unexpectedly, it was school students who led what turned out to be the biggest wave of direct action in British history. Over the next few weeks hundreds of thousands of schools students walked out of class all over the country, culminating in a day of mass civil disobedience on ‘day X’, the day the war started.
Many others joined in the attempt to make the country ungovernable. Some trade unions encouraged their members to join protests if war started, and there were indeed hundreds of union-led walkouts. People were taking every opportunity to make their voices heard. Blair was hounded by protest. When he appeared on the popular discussion show Tonight with Trevor MacDonald early in March, the women guests heckled him and slow handclapped him as the credits came up.
According to John Kampfner, who based his insider account on scores of interviews with senior civil servants and politicians, all this led to a state of paralysis in government at the time:
The British government, in the normal sense of the word, had ground to a halt. A small group of cabinet members met several times a day. Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, and John Reid, the Party Chairman spent their entire time trying to work out the extent of the forthcoming rebellion in the commons.
Blair, of course, got away with it – just. Despite the fact that even David Milliband estimated that there were no more than ten Labour backbenchers who actually believed in the war, enough ignored their constituent’s wishes and voted for war, saving Blair’s skin and condemning the Iraqis to years of carnage and mayhem. Partly this democratic malfunction can be put down to the culture of careerism and favour that poisons Westminster politics. Partly it reflected the fact that defying Bush felt too much like a challenge to the ‘special relationship’ that dominates foreign policy ‘thinking’ across the political spectrum.
It is important though that we grasp the extent of the crisis that the protests caused, because the story of political arrogance, democratic deficit and slavish support for Washington’s foreign policy is not yet over. In the end the anti-war movement hounded Blair out of office in disgrace. Whereas for Thatcher in the 1980s launching a war could be an electoral strategy, now most western politicians know that wars can be a political disaster. But the bombing of Libya, David Cameron’s calls for regime change in Syria and his enthusiastic support for the French adventure in Mali are all testimony to our rulers’ continued addiction to overseas intervention. We need to stay mobilised if we are to cure it.