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15 February 2003: the day we said no to war

This article is over 14 years, 4 months old
Five years ago tens of millions of people across the world marched against war. Lindsey German recalls how that day saw the biggest demo in British history
Issue 2088
Two million take to the streets of London.  (Pic:» Jess Hurd/ )
Two million take to the streets of London. (Pic: » Jess Hurd/

It was about a week before the demonstration when I think I realised it was going to be big – at least a million.

Up until then that had simply seemed impossible but now it was clear from the non-stop calls to our offices, the coaches being booked, the calls from the press, the requests for speakers and thousands of leaflets being handed out every day that this was in a different league from most demos.

It looked like it would make history as the largest street protest in British history.

Tessa Jowell, then culture secretary, tried to ban the march from its rallying point in Hyde Park. She claimed she was worried about what might happen to the grass.

The Stop the War Coalition insisted on Hyde Park and former Labour leader Michael Foot threatened to join those defying any ban. Jowell caved in.

On the day, we exceeded even the million we expected. The police revised their numbers from 750,000 to one million by the end of the day (although the Murdoch press stubbornly reported the earlier figure), but from different sources (an opinion poll and an urban geographer among others) we put ours the size of the demo closer to two million.

There were two assembly points for the march which then merged in Piccadilly. People just kept coming. Many didn’t even get to Hyde Park, such was the crush of crowds.

Impromptu marches broke off to find back street routes to the end of the march. Those who forgot to make sandwiches and bring flasks went hungry and thirsty. Every age was represented, as was every race and nationality, and probably every religion.


The day began very early for me with press interviews. The night before I had rowed with the editor of BBC Radio 4 Today programme, who refused to have a march organiser interviewed on the day. It showed how the BBC bent over backwards to please the government long before the Hutton Inquiry.

Tony Blair spoke that day at the Scottish Labour Party conference in Glasgow – greeted by a huge demo there as well – and spun the line that even if one million march that’s less than the people killed by Saddam Hussein.

Five years on, we could retort that it’s also less than the Iraqis who have been killed since the occupation began – a terrible indictment of this government’s policy.

Marches were taking place on every continent and, because of time differences, went on from Friday to Sunday. I spoke to radio stations from New Zealand to the US.

When a demonstration is that size you are swept along with it. Incredibly our stewards managed to get both marches to their destination without major incident. That was helped by the mood of the march, which was optimistic and determined.

It was extremely diverse but there was little if any tension. People cooperated and helped one another, as they have done on all our marches.

To speak to that number of people in Hyde Park was an honour and a great experience. At the end I remember feeling exhilarated but also very cold as the day closed.

Some people who didn’t want to go home started fires in the park which lit up the night. I did a final interview then walked out into Marble Arch and Edgware Road, where there was hardly any traffic expect coaches full of weary demonstrators and pedestrians carrying placards home.

We had stopped London and made history – but we still had to stop the war. Troops were gathering to invade, and government spin and arm-twisting now went into overdrive.

Just weeks after our march, and despite continued protests, parliament voted for war. Both main parties supported it and cabinet ministers, plus Cherie Blair, bullied and cajoled doubting Labour MPs to vote for war. There were many honourable exceptions, but not enough.

I think that vote will be remembered in history as one of the most shameful ever in the British parliament. There really was no excuse. When two million knew enough and were committed enough to march, how could a few hundred MPs plead ignorance and defy democratic opinion?


We carried on protesting. School students and some workers walked out on the day war broke out and we blocked roads and demonstrated everywhere. There were two more national demos while the initial phase of the war was on – the first of half a million.

Some people say we marched, but we didn’t stop the war. But that misses the point of what we achieved. We created a movement and a consciousness against the war. We informed and educated and mobilised to such an extent that the anti-war movement remains, nearly five years after George Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, the largest political protest movement in Britain.

We have ensured that the war remains a central issue in British politics. And we did get rid of Tony Blair, two years before he intended to go. Now we have to deal with Gordon Brown’s government.

When a march takes place that mobilises over two million (and let’s not forget the many local protests of those who could not make it to London, plus the mass march in Glasgow), it has a profound impact on society.

Most of those who marched have not been convinced by the warmongers. Many will mobilise again, as was shown when George Bush came to London later in 2003 or when Israel attacked Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

Meetings, vigils, stalls and protests continue throughout Britain, and a new generation of students and young people is joining the campaign. Many of them weren’t on the march five years ago – but they can still see the importance of protesting over the war.

I am struck by the numbers of young women who began their political activism by getting involved in the anti-war movement, but have branched out into standing up for women’s ­liberation and against the appalling sexism which marks much of campus life today.

We have also helped achieve something entirely new in Britain, starting with Rose Gentle’s brave stand after the death of her son Gordon in Iraq.

We have seen a growing campaign among military families against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the 1970s there was a mass campaign among US service personnel against the Vietnam War. But that was in a conscript army. In Britain we still have a professional army.

The “war on terror” is a defining feature of the early 21st century, just as the Cold War was in the second half of the 20th. The stain of the war is spreading, creating even greater problems for the imperialist powers.

Afghanistan, supposedly settled over six years ago, has now emerged as a great crisis for Britain and the US, and Britain has been defeated in Iraq. The US is making noises about attacking Iran.

For all those reasons, the anniversary of the march this week is not about the past, but about the present and the future. We have to keep campaigning. That’s what we’ll be doing on 15 March, to mark the fifth anniversary of the war, when we demand an end to the brutal “war on terror”.

Lindsey German is the convenor of the Stop The War Coalition. She writes in a personal capacity. Stop the War: The story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement by Lindsey German and Andrew Murray is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone: 020 7637 1848 or go to »

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