The biggest anti-war demonstration ever in Britain. One of the largest demonstrations in Britain ever. The largest multiracial demonstration ever in Europe. The superlatives have mounted up for the massive protest march against war on Iraq and for a free Palestine on 28 September in London. Despite early police estimates of 40,000, around ten times that figure turned up, exceeding the expectations of even the most optimistic organisers. There was much anecdotal evidence of its size: people who never left the Embankment because they had only scheduled in two or three hours for demonstrating and had to leave before it began; the demo organiser who was phoned by a friend in the Embankment asking when the march was going to start moving–there were already tens of thousands in Hyde Park; the couple who had last been on a demo in 1968; the very large number who had never been on such a protest before.
The immediate issue motivating most people was, above all, to stop Tony Blair’s drive to war alongside George Bush. The TUC earlier in September had demonstrated widespread anger within the working class movement. On the eve of Labour’s conference many wanted to underline this anger, and to give concrete support to those who were to challenge Blair at the conference itself. A number of mainly Labour MPs were on the march, as were several general secretaries of trade unions, along with their national union banners. Most importantly, however, there were people from every town and city across Britain, from a variety of backgrounds, races and nationalities, young and old, gay and straight, all united in their opposition to the war.
A matter of honour
Why did they turn out in such huge numbers? Obviously the immediate issue galvanised people who were sufficiently worried about war in Iraq to turn out on the streets. We were also helped in a contrary way by the Countryside Alliance march the previous week. Anti-war protesters who might once have stayed at home felt it a matter of honour to turn out in greater numbers than the foxhunters. It was a huge achievement of the anti-war movement that we organised a march of comparable size with only a fraction of the resources in terms of money, transport or full time apparatus. The massive media coverage given to the countryside marchers also forced a shamefaced media to give us a fraction of the previous week’s column inches.
However, none of these elements on its own would have been sufficient to bring 400,000 onto the streets. The demonstration was the result of a year’s work which has succeeded in building a coalition capable of mobilising through the roots it has locally, through its democratic and open approach to involving as many different forces as possible, and through consistently campaigning against the ‘war on terror’ over the space of a year. The Stop the War Coalition has been able to build a mass movement because it took a number of important decisions at its outset or in the course of the past year which helped to increase its strength.
* It has built a broad and diverse grouping bringing together various key elements–the left and the peace movement, the trade union movement and the Muslim community. It has therefore been able to become a genuinely multiracial mass force, which had made it easier for each grouping to go beyond its traditional constituencies.
* It always understood that the main enemy for those fighting the war against terrorism in Britain had to be the British and US governments. Therefore calls to equally condemn the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, etc, have always been rejected–not because of any support for, or illusions in, such regimes, but because it was felt that such demands could only play into the hands of pro-war elements here.
* It rejected a specifically anti-imperialist programme, arguing that all those who opposed the war, racist attacks and attacks on civil liberties were welcome to join. To limit membership of the coalition to those who had an understanding of imperialism would be to cut it off from a genuinely broad level of support.
* At the same time, much of the leadership of the Coalition was comprised of people who defined themselves in some way as anti-imperialists. This meant they had a strategic understanding of what was happening with US imperialism, and that they could link up the various wars of the past decade as part of an overall onslaught.
* The Coalition always tried to keep focused on what it was possible to do and what was the next step in the campaign.
The Stop the War Coalition was formed after the events of 11 September last year. It was launched at a meeting in London’s Friends Meeting House which attracted so many people that there were two overflow meetings, including one in the street. Its first organising meeting the following week attracted 500 people and voted to adopt policy against racism and in defence of civil liberties, as well as to oppose the ‘war against terrorism’. The Coalition mobilised large numbers for a CND demo shortly afterwards, which had the bombing of Afghanistan as its focus . The Coalition demo against the Afghan war on 18 November attracted 100,000–even more remarkable given that the war looked like it was drawing to a close. Perhaps the most striking element of this protest was its multiracial nature. It was held during Ramadan, and when the time came for Muslims to break their fast this took place in Trafalgar Square, with Muslims and non-Muslims alike sharing food and drink.
People coming together
The demonstration attracted many black and Asian people who were non-Muslims as well. There were people of all nationalities and ages coming together to protest at war. It was a landmark in protests in Britain and throughout the world, and was the beginning of Britain being seen as one of the centres of the anti-war movement internationally. Muslim involvement created major arguments with some on the left in Britain, who echoed much of the European left in believing that any Muslim who defended their clothing, culture or religion could not be an ally but must in some way be ‘fundamentalist’. The Coalition always welcomed and valued Muslim involvement, which in many areas has been the backbone of Coalition activity. Time and again, young Muslim women have played key roles of organising and political leadership, belying the conventional view.
With any campaign it is important to assess its ups and downs, and why it is possible to mobilise on issues at any one time. Clearly, after the Taliban regime was overthrown and a pro-western regime installed, the government and media declared that there were no problems left and that peace had broken out. Although these views were strongly contested by most anti-war activists, there was little possibility of mobilising the huge numbers who had turned out while the bombing was still taking place on a daily basis. At the same time, the war was still continuing in a more general sense–in Afghanistan itself, possibly exploding into Kashmir or Palestine, and of course the main thrust of US military might was increasingly aimed at Iraq. How could we keep the Coalition going when we didn’t know the speed or scale of where the war would strike next?
There were a number of suggestions and competing calls on the Coalition’s resources. We held a 1,000 strong demonstration over Palestine outside the Israeli embassy at the end of January, and also decided to organise a national demonstration over the war for early March. This was somewhat controversial. Many on the left claimed that few would mobilise for it, and there was obviously less interest among the Muslim community and peace campaigners than there had been the previous November. However, those of us organising the Coalition felt it was important to show that we were still there, to rally our supporters and, most crucially, to tap into an anti-war mood within wider society. This we did very successfully, with 20,000 demonstrating, and with a strong anti-imperialist core. The trade union conference season brought some real successes for the Stop the War Coalition, which held a number of important fringe meetings and won union support.
Events in Palestine erupted in the spring, when the Coalition gave its support to two very substantial demonstrations which took place within a month of one another. It was soon after these that we took the decision to mobilise for a demonstration around the theme of ‘Don’t Attack Iraq’ in the run-up to the Labour Party conference. The organisers of the April demonstration on Palestine, the Muslim Association of Britain, had called a demonstration on the second anniversary of the Al Aqsa Intifada, and both sides felt that rather than have two competing demonstrations, the events were sufficiently connected to be able to mobilise one large protest. The demonstration therefore became about two issues: Iraq and Palestine. There was some scepticism in the early summer that Iraq would be an issue. We were as certain as it is possible to be given that we can’t see into the minds of Tony Blair or George Bush (thankfully) that invasion of Iraq was very much on the agenda. This had been the key aim of the Bush administration following 11 September and there was a fairly rigid timetable worked out in Washington. Although the situation in Palestine, especially the events round Jenin, deflected the US administration for a time, they clearly did not alter its basic trajectory.
Our analysis was borne out over the summer, as Iraq became the main political question of the day and it became clear that the British government was prepared to act alongside George Bush, regardless of the wishes of the people in Britian or indeed the rest of the world. The drive to war provoked opposition here, at the TUC where a large minority opposed any war against Iraq; at meetings up and down the country, where speakers such as the Labour MP George Galloway attracted huge audiences; in schools and colleges where we are seeing the beginning of a mass protest movement among young people. All this came together in our amazing and historic demonstration, which has had reverberations around the world. Ron Kovic, Vietnam veteran and author of ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, e-mailed us the following day to say ‘you have inspired the world’. We have been inundated with requests and messages from anti-war campaigners as far away as Japan and the US.
In Britain the demo gave a new impetus to existing activists and pulled in new ones. In many towns and cities around the country, activists are meeting weekly to discuss how they take the campaign forward. The ‘Don’t Attack Iraq day’ on Halloween looks like being a success in bringing the anti-war protests home. School assemblies, workplace meetings and student occupations will all draw attention to the heightened war drive. But the Coalition cannot rest until we have stopped the war. A Europe-wide demo in Florence in November, a conference to pool the experience of the past year, and a big national demo in February are all on the agenda–as well as joint action with CND when war breaks out.
Our movement has also avoided the trap of elitism. Many different parties, MPs and celebrities have now sponsored it, but it does not simply rely on those at the top–it is a genuinely grassroots movement whose strength lies in unity in action across the different components of the movement. The astonishing claim by Robert Taylor in Tribune that the movement had to become a mass movement–as if 400,000 is somehow not mass enough–might just be ignorant. But it also reveals that he and those like him only want the sort of mass movement of which they approve and which is firmly controlled from the top. The Stop the War Coalition has shown that not only can it match anyone in the size if its demonstrations, but that they are also the most multiracial and mixed in every sense.
Nor does it rely on a small and self appointed elite to carry out the protests. One tradition of the peace movement has been moral protests carried out by the few to represent the views of the masses. When we talk about direct action and civil disobedience we mean mass direct action which can involve large numbers of trade unionists, students and peace campaigners. If small groups of people want to go off and do their own thing, or spend time training in non violent direct action techniques, that is fine, but they should not try to impose this elitism on the rest of us. Instead we should be building the movement outwards, by establishing groups round workplaces and unions, organisations such as ‘Out Against the War’ which aims to organise gays and lesbians, ‘Artists Against the War’ and much more.
As we go to press, a UN resolution phrased in terms acceptable to the US looks on the cards. Some people will no doubt believe that this gives any war an authority which US and British involvement alone does not give it. However, a war which is wrong in every respect before a UN resolution does not suddenly become right because the US bribes and bullies the other members of the security council–including Vladimir Putin, who has just used chemical weapons against his own people. We have the potential to stop war. Bush and Blair have set a determined course and they will not allow one demonstration to stop them. But we have shaken them, and we have the power to keep shaking them until they are forced to retreat, as they did over Vietnam. That will take a deepening of the movement here, and a determination to keep going until we win.
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