By Andrew MurrayLindsey German
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New Book: History in the Making

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Leading figures in the Stop the War Coalition Andrew Murray and Lindsey German have just written a compelling account of this unique movement. Here we print extracts from their book.
Issue 294


This is not just another book about the Iraq war and its military, diplomatic and political history. Of those, there are plenty already. Instead, it is the story of a remarkable mass movement.

Mass movements appear to come from nowhere and they take a direction which is often unpredictable. They gather a momentum which sometimes appears unstoppable and they can change the face of politics for a generation.

The Stop the War Coalition did this and more. Stop the War began as a grassroots movement and its strength has remained at its roots. It started with no office, no bank account, and just one full-time volunteer. Its organisers were from a range of backgrounds and were for the most part not known to each other when the movement began. Its only major resource was the energy, vitality and commitment of the tens of thousands who flocked to the meetings and protests which it organised around the country. Yet these people built and sustained the biggest mass movement ever seen in Britain and one which has created a series of political landmarks. It was thwarted in achieving its objective of stopping the attack on Iraq, but the government has been paying a political price ever since.

Over the past three years, the Stop the War Coalition has organised:

  • The biggest demonstration in British history, when up to 2 million marched on 15 February 2003 on the eve of the war on Iraq.
  • The biggest-ever weekday demonstration, when in excess of 300,000 people marched through London in protest at the state visit of George W Bush in November 2003.
  • The largest-ever strike by school students, when tens of thousands of walked out of school and gathered in town and city centres across the country on the day the war was launched.
  • One of the greatest-ever days of direct action, when people across Britain demonstrated, sat down in roads and stopped traffic, stopped work, occupied colleges and walked out of school.
  • The biggest-ever anti-war demonstration held in wartime, on 22 March 2003, attended by hundreds of thousands.
  • The People’s Assembly in March 2003, when more than 1,000 elected representatives spoke for the British people against war.
  • Help in coordinating the unprecedented movement of military families against the war.
  • A campaign which has mobilised British Muslims alongside the rest of the community as never before.

But the anti-war movement has not just been big. It has been right.

Almost every significant argument advanced by the Stop the War Coalition against the attack on Iraq has been conceded by the most authoritative sources among the pro-war party. The argument is over…

Taken from the introduction

Britain in the New World Order

British imperialism is habitually referred to in the past tense, as if it had gone the way of the empire. Hence, while everyone would accept the description of Britain as a capitalist country, many would jib at the idea of it being ‘imperialist’ – at least in Britain itself.

In fact, the same financial interests which drove the expansion of empire have retained their commanding position in Britain ever since Harold Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ speech. The City concerns which funded and profited from the trade monopoly, the colonies on every continent, the ‘informal empire’ of debt bondage from Turkey to Latin America, the naval building programme which sustained it all, remain at the heart of the British economy, and thus of domestic and foreign policy alike. Their position was immeasurably strengthened by the Thatcher government, which as almost its first act removed the restrictions on the export of capital, allowing the City to once again strive towards pre-eminence in global finance. Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown made appeasement of the City interests one of their top priorities after they took control of the Labour Party in the aftermath of John Smith’s death in 1994.

What does the City want? Above all else, a world made safe for profit-making in every part. This flows from the City’s role as a global centre of finance, and from the fact that the British capitalist class draws a far greater proportion of its profit from external sources than any other ruling class in the world. Even the US, which derives larger gross profits from overseas business operations, is not so proportionately dependent on a flow of revenue from sources beyond the formal control of the domestic state.

This strongly predisposes the British banker and big businessman to support the sort of world order outlined in the national security doctrines of the Bush administration. And it is all too apparent that the British state cannot maintain and police such a system on its own, as it did in the pomp of its Victorian power. Some things really have gone beyond recall. So the logic of tying British policy close to that of the one power that could play global cop, or can at least plausibly aspire to, is compelling. It is this commonality of interest which underlies the ‘special relationship’ as much as the dewy-eyed talk of history, culture, language and traditions. The increasingly close fusion of Wall Street and City banks and commercial concerns over the last decade or so only underscores the point. It only finally needs to be noted that those sectors of the industrial economy which loom so large in the counsels of the Bush administration – big oil and the military-industrial corporations – also dominate British big business and are deeply involved in the Middle East.

Not coincidentally, firms like BP and British Aerospace also developed very close ties to the Labour government from its election in 1997 (or even earlier). Indeed, the head of BP, David Simon, was appointed to the government as soon as Blair took office as prime minister. Blair’s most intimate aide-de-camp, Anji Hunter, eventually left Downing Street for a PR job at the oil company. And the influence and access of BAe boss Dick Evans under ‘New Labour’ is legendary. Support for the arms industry and the arms trade was a central Blairite policy from the beginning, early bluster about an ‘ethical foreign policy’ notwithstanding.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that these elements have helped shaped Labour’s foreign policy from the start. It is now widely recognised that New Labour’s social, economic, fiscal and industrial policies have been tailored more closely to the interests of the ‘business community’ than those of any preceding Labour government. Only those who can convince themselves that domestic and international policies exist in separate sealed chambers would be shocked to find that the Blair-Brown team determined to act in the world as they did at home.

Taken from chapter two, ‘Tony Blair’s empire’

Regime change by the people

Could Saddam’s regime have been changed in any other way? History would suggest that not only would this have been possible, it would have been inevitable. It would have taken longer, and delay would have left Iraqis longer at the mercy of the peculiarly brutal Saddam dictatorship (although the suffering could hardly have been greater than that caused by the Bush-Blair war), but the result would have been a new regime emerging from the struggles and the will of the Iraqi peoples themselves, rather than imposed from outside. It is that prospect which the US government was trying to avoid. Saddam had survived in power with active US support until around 1990, and thereafter because the US still preferred a weakened and bankrupt Ba’ath dictatorship to any other realistic alternative, at least until 1998 or so.

By 2002 Saddam was no longer a plausible threat to the region or the world. Defeated in the Gulf War, largely disarmed thereafter and with an economy crippled by years of punitive sanctions, the regime lacked the muscle to intimidate anyone. Additionally, the regime’s domestic base of support, which may have been fairly considerable in the 1970s, had shrunk enormously. The Kurdish north, about 20 percent of the country, was no longer under Baghdad’s control. The broad middle class had been driven into despair and near destitution. International isolation was intense – undermined only by the cruel sanctions policy imposed by the US and Britain through the United Nations and by the credit that Israeli oppression of the Palestinians afforded to the most vociferous critic of that policy.

Still, the regime possessed formidable means of domestic oppression. Some have described it as ‘fascist’ in a fairly undiscriminating way. Even were we to accept the term (and no one contests the brutality of Saddam’s dictatorship), it would not be an argument for the necessity of invasion. On the contrary, the history of the struggle against fascist and similar regimes since the Second World War has been a history of their successful overthrow (or transformation) by the efforts of the people oppressed. The methods and outcomes have differed, but in no case has the means been foreign military invasion.

The Portuguese fascist dictatorship was overthrown by the people, allied to sections of the army, in 1974. The Greek people dealt with the junta of the colonels in the same way in the same year. Fascist Spain was buried shortly after Franco through internal struggle. The regime of the Argentinian military went the same way. The bestial dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile, the product of that other bloody 9/11, in 1973, yielded to democracy through the endeavours of the broad mass of the Chilean people. And apartheid South Africa, among the bloodiest of all these blots on history, was overturned by the efforts of the peoples led by the African National Congress. Of course, international solidarity played an important part in most of these cases. So too did armed struggle by the peoples oppressed, although that did not stop them being dubbed ‘terrorists’ in London and Washington at the time.

But in no case was the overthrow of these regimes the result of foreign armed invasion. Moreover, in no case did the peoples suffering from the dictatorships advocate or call for such invasion. And in each and every case democracy has sunk deeper roots than it looks like doing in Iraq today, because it is the product of the struggles of the peoples themselves.

Those in Iraq who advocated invasion by the US and Britain were a small group of long-term exiles who had no hope of coming to power by any other means in a post-Ba’ath Iraq. They had no potential support other than that of imperialist bayonets. Once invasion seemed all-but inevitable, others acquiesced in the plan to get on the right side of the incoming regime.

It might have taken longer, and there would probably have been suffering along the way (although it would have been small compared to that imposed by the three-headed Anglo-US monster of sanctions, war and occupation) but there is no reason to believe the outcome in Saddam’s Iraq would have been different from that in Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile or apartheid South Africa. The people would have prevailed.

Taken from chapter three, ‘Why attack Iraq?’

The trade unions

Winning the support of the unions was of great importance to the anti-war movement. Trade unions had been at the centre of almost every progressive political campaign in Britain for the past century or more and could provide a degree of logistical support not easily found elsewhere. More important, they could be a major source of pressure on the government in two respects: first through their influence within the Labour Party, and second through their potential for mobilising mass action including, possibly, industrial action.

The latter was not a mere fantasy, as shown in January 2003 when two train drivers based at Motherwell in Scotland declined to move trains taking armaments to the coast for dispatch to the Gulf. There was no precedent for such direct action against a war in which British soldiers were going to fight, at least in living memory. The action breached Britain’s draconian employment laws in several respects, but the drivers’ employer, rail freight company EWS, decided on discretion and avoided the escalation of the dispute which would have resulted from any disciplinary action. In practical terms, the refusal to drive the trains had only a symbolic impact, but it was a symbolism noted around the world, as the flood of supportive emails which came into the Aslef office from all points of the compass testified.

Any sense that such action could be replicated elsewhere would have had the government in a panic. The major problem confronting trade unionists wanting to take direct action was the law – any suggestion of official union support for stoppages would leave the union open to legal action, the sequestration of its funds. Workers would also be open to dismissal without legal protection. These factors made any large-scale industrial action unlikely, although several trade union leaders did, at the 15 February rally, pledge to work to that end.

However, it is noteworthy that, at the time of the 15 February protest, none of the largest unions were affiliated to the Stop the War Coalition. This vast mobilisation, in which hundreds of thousands of trade unionists participated, was built and sustained independently of most of the unions. This may in itself mark a shift in the balance of importance between trade unions and other social movements in terms of political struggle.

It was immediately after the 15 February demonstration that the TUC general council finally came out against the war, with a unanimous vote in support of more or less firm opposition to the war. While leaving open the faint possibility of backing for a UN-sanctioned war, the general council made it clear that the war could not be justified. It was the first time organised labour had come out united against British involvement in a war since Suez in 1956.

Taken from chapter six, ‘The February 15th Movement’

The movement stays mobilised

Winning the argument is not always enough. The war continues. Did the movement described here in the end make a difference? One sympathetic commentator thinks not: ‘Millions of citizens have marched in protest at the immoral war in Iraq – white, brown and black, left and right wing, worshippers and atheists, men, women and children – and all we have to show for it are memorable images, reflecting our hopelessness. The warmongering government didn’t give a toss about the biggest marches on the eve of the invasion, and cared even less about the continuing, although diminished, protests this year.’

Let us put the opposite case:

  • The strength of the opposition to the Iraq war has made the further wars inherent in George Bush’s foreign policy less likely, and a comparable level of involvement in them by the British government almost impossible to envisage.
  • The actual conduct of the war and occupation by the aggressors has been in some measure constrained by the arousal of public opinion here at home.
  • The workings of the government in relation to the war have been exposed to public scrutiny as never before, which is a small step forward for accountability.
  • British Muslims have been brought into a politically united campaign with the broader community on an unprecedented scale. Score one for integration.
  • The unthinking alliance of most of the British establishment with the US has been shaken as it has not been for 20 years. This will have long-term consequences in world politics.
  • Army recruitment has dropped off sharply as a consequence of anti-war campaigning.

These are not just the result of the war itself, but of the conduct and character of the movement against the war.

There is also a somewhat narrower case to be made concerning the future of progressive politics:

  • Anti-imperialism has been put at the heart of left wing politics in Britain for the first time. ‘Humanitarian’ imperialism and liberal elitism have been ideologically routed.
  • Tony Blair’s hope to remake the European left around his own agenda – which looked plausible enough in 2001 – has been completely shipwrecked.
  • Young people have been engaged on a mass scale in political activity for the first time in more than a generation. This too will likely tell in years to come.
  • The left itself has been united in struggle – no small achievement, given its fractious history, and essential for it to make any progress in future.

Still it is not enough: 100,000 Iraqis and over 1,000 US and British soldiers are dead. Bush has been returned by a frightened electorate in the world’s most powerful country for a second term – promising further unilateral aggression if the mood takes him. The struggle over the future of British politics, and Britain’s role in the world, is still engaged.

The movement stays mobilised.

Taken from chapter nine, ‘Opposing the occupation’

‘You never expect you will get the chance to speak to a million people. The day I spoke at the rally on 15 February 2003, at which I was proud to represent the TGWU, is a memory I will hold forever.

The tragedy is, of course, that it took a war, a war which we now know has cost 100,000 lives and untold chaos and disruption in Iraq, a war which has vindicated everything the anti-war movement said at the time.

The failure of our government to listen to those warnings has haunted British politics to this day. I am as loyal a Labour Party member as any, but I remain ashamed of what the government, the party of our movement, did in backing George Bush’s immoral and unnecessary war.

I am pleased that my own union has given strong support to the Stop the War Coalition and CND. I only regret that the TUC stood aloof from the anti-war movement at the time. Trade unions have to learn how to work constructively alongside the mass movements that arise for progressive causes in society. We also have to relearn how to campaign publicly and vibrantly. In this respect, the Stop the War Coalition has helped us relearn some of our own finest traditions…’

Tony Woodley
General Secretary, TGWU

‘On the day that war broke out I helped organise a demonstration in Stratford, east London. Suddenly at lunchtime the streets were filled with hundreds of schoolchildren who had come to show their opposition to the war. The mainly Bangladeshi and Pakistani school pupils poured onto the roads, blocking traffic on Stratford Broadway, shouting an amalgam of political chants ranging from anti-war slogans, to the odd ‘La illaha illallah’ (There is no god but Allah) and followed by various obscenities in Urdu at the police.

The schoolchildren were mainly between the ages of 11 and 15. One boy had his keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf) confiscated and I saw at least two boys arrested and handcuffed. As I tried to intervene I was arrested. The police even went as far as to step on schoolgirls who were sitting in the road and each child was filmed individually by a pig with a camera. It was one of the most inspiring examples of rebellion I have seen from any Muslim youth, let alone young people in general. I could see that protesting in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Iraq meant more to them than simply having a bit of fun or bunking off school. Nevertheless the latter was a bonus and teachers failed miserably to get them back in school. Many of the rebellious pupils decided to march to Tower Hamlets to join other protesters. At Forest Gate police station I was accused of being a ringleader. It was the schoolchildren who had taken it upon themselves to lead us “organisers” and show us how to protest. They learnt more about society in that one day of political action than they would ever learn at school.’

Adam Riaz Khan

Stop the War: The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement is available from Bookmarks at the special reduced price of £12.99 (normally £15.99). Phone 020 7637 1848.

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