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How our anti-war protests rocked Blair

This article is over 18 years, 3 months old
Not since the 1970s has extra-parliamentary activity had such an impact on British politics
Issue 1870

TONY BLAIR likes to give the impression that widespread anti-war opposition across Britain has not swayed his government’s actions. The facts show this is a lie. The Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly has exposed how Blair’s obsession with undermining anti-war resistance has driven every twist and turn in recent British politics.

This has happened on three marked occasions in the past 12 months. Blair travelled to the US to meet George Bush on 8 September 2002. Blair secretly pledged to join Bush’s war on Iraq come what may. But the growing opposition to war posed a huge problem. Just two days later the TUC congress in Blackpool saw an electric debate. Union leaders and delegates slammed into Blair’s war plans. Opinion polls also showed most people were either against or had grave doubts over war on Iraq.

That opposition was finding a focus in the mobilisation for an anti-war demonstration on 28 September. ‘We can expect a torrent of lies from the government to try and win support for war,’ warned Socialist Worker in the week before that demonstration. That is exactly what happened.

Blair rushed out his dossier for 24 September. The wording and production of that document is what Hutton is now investigating. The Hutton inquiry has revealed that people at the heart of government had grave doubts about the dossier’s claims. Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, had written an e-mail on 17 September to Britain’s spy chief, John Scarlett, and Blair’s right hand man, Alastair Campbell.

Powell warned that the dossier’s first draft ‘did nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat’ from Iraq to its ‘neighbours, let alone the West’. He underlined the point, saying, ‘We do not have evidence that he [Saddam] is an imminent threat.’

Alastair Campbell e-mailed Powell, ‘Re dossier: substantial rewrite. Structure as per TB’s [Tony Blair’s] discussion.’ The final dossier contained all the now infamous lies. These include the claim that Iraq could launch biological and chemical weapons in 45 minutes, that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from an African country, and that Iraq had missiles which could hit British bases in Cyprus.

Blair desperately hoped the dossier would blunt opposition to war. But four days after the dossier was published 400,000 people joined the anti-war march through London on Saturday 28 September. Two days later delegates at Labour’s conference came close to backing a hard anti-war motion. They did pass one which called on Blair not to go to war without working through the United Nations.

Anti-war opposition in Britain, and across the world, forced Bush and Blair into a long winter of manoeuvring, bribes and bullying of other states at the United Nations into backing their planned war. The second clear example of Blair’s attempt to scupper resistance to the war came in January this year. Opinion polls showed the majority did not support Bush and Blair’s war on Iraq. One third of people were against a war on any basis, even if the UN backed it. The anti-war movement was mushrooming across Britain to mobilise for the 15 February anti-war march.

And on 18 January some 300,000 people joined an anti-war march in the US capital, Washington, and hundreds of thousands joined marches around the world. Blair was also forced to recall British ambassadors from across the world for what the press described as an ‘unprecedented’ crisis meeting to discuss tackling the anti-war opposition.

It came as little surprise that in early February US Secretary of State Colin Powell produced a series of tapes and photographs at the UN supposed to show Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Powell referred to Blair’s claim in the September dossier that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium. Yet at the time even the CIA said this claim was false and based on forged documents.

Blair produced yet another dossier in Britain claiming to show Iraq posed a threat. Within days it was revealed that whole chunks had simply been copied from a student’s thesis written over ten years ago. It quickly became known as the ‘dodgy dossier’ in the media, and government ministers were forced to distance themselves from it.

On 15 February the biggest demonstration in British history took place as two million marched in London against the war. It was also the biggest day of global protest in world history. That march, and the countless protests and rallies in towns and cities across Britain, stoked the rows inside the establishment. It lead to two big parliamentary rebellions, the resignation of Robin Cook, and to even Jack Straw questioning what the government was doing.

Even after the war started on 20 March the resistance continued. Thousands of school students walked out of school to join anti-war protests. On 22 March half a million people demonstrated through London in the biggest ever demonstration in Britain against a war that had started. Blair had assumed that the anti-war movement would disappear once Saddam Hussein was gone.

In reality the anti-war movement kept protesting, harassing and probing. This ensured that the questions about weapons of mass destruction kept coming up again and again. This is what lies behind the political explosion of the David Kelly case. On 29 May BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan made his now famous broadcast, based on talking to Dr Kelly, about the doubts over Blair’s dossier claims on Iraqi weapons. Blair thought salvation had come when the next day US forces seized two lorries with canvas sides in Iraq.

‘Those who say we haven’t found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons-they’re wrong. We found them!’ declared Bush. Blair seized on what he hoped would be the killer blow to the anti-war opposition. ‘We have already found two trailers, both of which we believe were used for the production of biological weapons,’ he said on the eve of a speech to British troops in Iraq.

The Observer reported that during his tour ‘Blair repeatedly briefed journalists that the trailers were germ production labs which proved that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.’ A week later the Observer blew the claim out of the water. The paper quoted ‘a British scientist and biological weapons expert who had examined the trailers in Iraq’.

The expert said, ‘They are not mobile germ warfare laboratories. You could not use them for making biological weapons. They do not even look like them.’ The expert was Dr David Kelly.

The government was incensed, and top Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office officials launched a witch-hunt to unearth the Observer’s expert. Anti-war opposition has torn into the government and establishment, fuelling and then exposing all their rows and splits. Now talk in the media from government sources is about how soon Blair will be forced out of Downing Street. The anti-war movement succeeded in hounding Blair at every turn.

Continuing to mobilise that opposition can challenge Bush’s war drive and make Blair pay for his loyal support.


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