The despised US president comes to Britain for a state visit. But people get organised. Mass protests are planned. Hundreds turn out to public meetings and rallies up and down Britain.
The press get excited. The cops get nervous. The president is forced to change his plans. Hundreds of thousands of people descend on London to greet him with a message—you’re not welcome.
That’s not 2017—it’s 2003, when former US president George W. Bush visited Britain six months after launching the disastrous war on Iraq.
There are similarities with Donald Trump’s planned state visit later this year. The story of how people resisted Bush’s visit shows us what’s possible as we prepare to resist Trump.
The visit lasted three days—each day saw thousands take to the streets on protests organised by the Stop the War coalition to disrupt his plans.
On the first day thousands turned out to protests and rallies in cities across Britain—including 7,000 in Edinburgh and 5,000 in Manchester. Smaller towns saw rallies of several hundred.
The second day 300,000 people from all over Britain marched in central London. It was the biggest weekday demonstration Britain had ever seen. School students walked out to march alongside delegations of post workers, Tube workers, firefighters, health workers, council workers and more.
One student from Fortismere School in north London said, “We’ve been wanting to send a message to George Bush for some time.
“We’re not here to bunk off. We’re standing up for what we believe in.”
Thousands-strong feeder marches from different London universities joined the march too. Over 1,000 students from London School of Economics (LSE) burst through police lines to join the demo.
People leaving work that evening swelled the ranks of thousands already in Trafalgar Square.
At the rally, protesters pulled down a giant statue of Bush. They mocked the stage-managed toppling of a statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that was meant to symbolise US victory in Iraq.
It was picked up by the world’s media but the most powerful symbol was the demo itself.
As Stop the War convenor Lindsey German told the rally, “We have confined Bush to house arrest in Buckingham Palace. There have been no cheering crowds, no processions.
“That’s the power of the movement. The streets of London are ours, not George Bush’s.”
All these huge protests cast a large shadow on—if not completely ruined—Bush’s visit. He was only the second US president ever to be invited on a full state visit—a pompous ceremonial affair seen as prestigious by those at the top.
For prime minister and Labour Party leader Tony Blair the invite was a way of sucking up even closer to Bush after backing his occupation of Iraq. As for Bush, he hoped the prestige and honour of the state visit would help his image in the US.
But this wasn’t to be. There was still huge anger in Britain over the invasion of Iraq that year, which was already turning out to be a disaster.
Aside from the famous two million demonstration in London in February, before the war started, hundreds of thousands of people had kept protesting after the invasion.
And preparations for Bush’s visit gave new life to Stop the War groups across Britain.
Everywhere rallies and public meetings brought hundreds on board. A meeting of 600 people at the LSE, spilling out onto the street outside, was an early sign of what was to come. Soon people began to take their own initiatives.
There were “Bush bonfire nights” on 5 November, where effigies of Bush were set alight. School students promised walkouts and trade unionists signed up their workmates.
One trade unionist in Manchester said at the time, “I left a copy of the petition on my desk at work. When I came back five minutes later, it had been passed round and filled in.”
Activists found themselves “mobbed” by people queuing up to sign petitions against Bush’s visit wherever they set up street stalls. “People didn’t just want to sign,” said one. “They wanted copies to take away and use with their friends and workmates”.
The cops and the spooks began to get jittery as the protests built up a head of steam.
The Metropolitan Police cancelled all leave for coppers during the visit for a policing operation that cost £7 million. That was on top of hundreds of armed US security forces put on the streets at the demand of the White House.
The US also wanted the protesters kept as far from central London—and Bush—as possible.
But the march was set to be so big the cops had to agree to a rally in Trafalgar Square, right in between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street where Bush’s cavalcade was to pass.
The protest meant his speech to parliament had to be relocated.
Downing Street, anxious about possible anti-war protests from the start, has now decided to pull the plugBuckingham Palace official
An even bigger blow to Bush was cancelling the parade from Buckingham Palace in a horse-drawn carriage with the queen.
A palace official said this was because “Downing Street, anxious about possible anti-war protests from the start, has now decided to pull the plug on it.
“We are liaising with the White House and they have made no attempt to hide their disappointment. They saw it, obviously, as a great photo opportunity.”
Even on the final day, when Bush was flown to prime minister Tony Blair’s constituency in the small Durham town of Sedgefield, around 1,000 people protested on the village green. Students from Sedgefield Community College, where Bush visited, were sent home for wearing anti-Bush badges.
It meant that instead of the headlines he hoped for, coverage was dominated by the massive protests that greeted him.
Even the right wing US Fox News network admitted the protests had “support from a large section of the British public, feeding on widespread discontent with the war and its aftermath, and low regard for the president”.
What’s more, the protests fed into anger against Blair’s right wing Labour government. Blair wasn’t just facing a revolt against the war.
Students protested over tuition fees and there were militant strikes in the post, fire brigade and civil service. Many of those on the protests were angry Labour Party members.
Barry Chambers who joined the protest in Blair’s own constituency, was the chair of nearby Blackhall Labour Party. He said, “Bush and Blair are the enemies of democracy. I am very disillusioned with the Labour Party. When New Labour finally comes to an end we’ll see these last few years as wasted.”
But most importantly it showed that our rulers don’t always have the whip hand. The anti-war movement had a lasting legacy and inhibited our rulers’ ability to gain support for future wars.
And the significant numbers of Muslims active and helping to lead the movement gave the lie to politicians’ myth that people in Britain are inherently racist and incapable of cooperating together.
Bush’s state visit should have been his chance to parade his victory. Massive opposition hadn’t stopped his war, and he had overthrown the Iraqi regime.
Yet instead of swaggering triumphantly about London, he scuttled from one ceremony to another behind lines of thousands of police.
Months after the invasion, he still had to use his speech to MPs to defend launching the war in the first place.
Today we have the chance to do the same to Donald Trump. The date for his visit hasn’t been set but already there’s talk of moving his visit to Birmingham to escape mass protests.
Just as Blair was eventually finished off by anger at the Iraq war, we can use protests at Trump to cause a crisis for Theresa May.
And just as Blair tried to suck up to Bush, May wants to tie herself to Trump. But a mass revolt against Trump could be the end for her too.
London docker defies brutal dictator
When Portuguese dictator Marcelo Caetano visited Britain in 1973, he was met with angry protests wherever he went.
Police had to hold back demonstrators outside Downing Street when Caetano met the prime minister.
The idea of the visit was to set up trade deals and get support for his colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique.
Yet the day before he arrived about 10,000 people marched on Downing Street against the visit.
The Portuguese government tried to pay skint students to hand out leaflets supporting Caetano.
But trade unionist and docker Tom Delaney struck a deal with the students—he would get their wages doubled if they refused to deliver the leaflets.
Amazingly, he did. Employment agency Alfred Marks, embarrassed by the publicity, quickly agreed to pay the higher wages. The students collected their pay up front, then chucked the leaflets in the bin.
The protests in Britain fed into a growing revolt against Caetano across the world. A year later, a revolution ended his regime.
Theatre trip turns tragic for pro-Nazi Greek king
In 1963, a visit by king Paul and queen Frederika of Greece was met with riots.
The pair were hate figures—sympathetic to the Nazis—and their own right wing government had locked up thousands of political prisoners.
As the Greek king and queen dined in Buckingham Palace, thousands of demonstrators clashed with police along the road in Trafalgar Square.
The two couldn’t even manage a trip to the theatre without being confronted.
The foreign office was forced to buy every single ticket to a play just to make sure the royal family could visit safely fand undisturbed.
And even then thousands of people gathered outside the theatre to boo them, and clashed with police again.
General can’t organise visit to a brewery
Austrian general Haynau, dictator of Hungary, was known for brutally putting down revolutions in Italy and Hungary in 1848-9.
Yet on a visit to a London brewery in 1850 he had to flee from workers who chased him with stones and brooms shouting “down with the Austrian butcher”.
Haynau is said to have hid in a coal cellar before being rescued by police.