Colonial war has now brought Tony Blair and, by extension, the entire New Labour project, to the edge of a richly deserved political abyss. If the most reactionary prime minister ever associated with a democratic labour movement is indeed brought down it will be because of the fall out from the illegal and aggressive Iraq war, of which Ministry of Defence scientist Dr Kelly is just the latest, and particularly poignant, victim.
It is not hyperbole to say that the words ‘killed by the anti-war movement’ could be inscribed on the tombstone of Blair’s premiership. Without the unprecedented mass mobilisation against the politics of war earlier this year, the Downing Street team would not be feeling the heat they are now.
Every revelation about the prewar manipulation of information, every tragedy which has attended its exposure, occurs in a context defined by one fact – that this was a war the British people never wanted. We know this is so because the action led by the anti-war movement made it clear. What did this movement, centred on the Stop the War Coalition, achieve?
The short answer is the biggest and broadest mobilisation for a progressive cause in British history. This was reflected above all in the size of the demonstrations organised against the Iraq war – not just the overwhelming numbers on 15 February, but the marches in September 2002 and March this year as well.
It engaged the Muslim community in Britain in a broad political campaign for the first time, somewhat to the discomfort of those on that section of the left which welcomes the participation of anyone who shares exactly their culture and traditions and nobody else.
It awoke a generation of school students to an active political engagement, scattering the argument that the rising generation is apathetic concerning anything other than consumer culture.
It marshalled organised labour against a war involving British participation for the first time since Suez, ultimately winning the united support of the TUC general council. It organised more direct action in communities, workplaces and colleges than any previous campaign.
It stood behind the biggest backbench rebellion against a government in modern parliamentary history.
And it came – we have US hawk Donald Rumsfeld’s word for this – within political inches of forcing British disengagement from the aggression against Iraq, against the will of the Blair government but in line with the wishes of most British people.
While failing in its ultimate objective of stopping the war, it was nearer to success than any left-led movement about anything so important for generations. It has helped awaken the broadest sections of the country to not only a determination to secure a world of peace, but also to a deeper sense of social justice and the limitations of democracy as it is presently practised here.
But there are some on the left who just cannot stand it. They include those like Nick Cohen, John Lloyd and David Aaronovitch who supported this war (and all Blair’s previous wars for that matter), and a few of those who opposed the war but appear personally embittered by one thing or another. The latter seems to be the inspiration behind Mike Marqusee’s return to the political arena with a widely circulated attack on the coalition after nearly a year during which he has played no part in the anti-war movement’s work.
They are a marginal minority on the left, amplified however by the willingness of the New Statesman, in particular, to give ample space for their campaign to be prosecuted.
The Stop the War Coalition, far from being in the ‘crisis’ declared without any evidence by Cohen (New Statesman, 21 July) is going from strength to strength. It recently held a 600-strong conference which agreed a campaign to expose the Blair government’s lies over the reasons for the Iraq war, and to secure an end to the colonial occupation regime in Baghdad. The conference season has seen almost every major trade union agree to support the coalition.
Despite sustained attacks from the right wing media, the coalition remains open, democratic and inclusive. There should be nothing but praise for the work of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) within the coalition, without which it could not have achieved much of what is indicated here – but it should be pointed out that SWP members account for just six of the nearly 60 members of the coalition’s steering committee and three of its 11 officers.
On 30 August it is convening a representative People’s Assembly to address the weapons of mass destruction controversy and the defects in our democracy which it exposes – an initiative agreed some time ago, which makes a nonsense of Marqusee’s silly allegation that the coalition is ‘keeping quiet’ about the issue.
And the coalition will be back on the streets on 27 September with a demonstration, on the eve of the Labour conference, against the occupation of Iraq and demanding ‘No more war lies’. We will be joined once again by both CND and the Muslim Association of Britain in organising this – an alliance the coalition is proud of, despite Cohen’s attacks on both bodies.
When Cohen writes that ‘Marxist-Leninists and the rest’ are arguing in CND about whether it should ‘abandon its political neutrality’ and work with the Stop the War Coalition he recalls nothing so much as the anti-CND red-baiting of Lord Chalfont in the 1980s. For the record, CND, which has never been remotely ‘politically neutral’, except in the same party-alignment sense as the coalition itself, has mobilised alongside the Stop the War Coalition throughout the anti-war movement of the last two years. Its national council has just unanimously voted to continue doing so.
Cohen’s disintegrating politics are not helping his prose. Describing those who disagree with his pro-war policies as ‘creeps’ and ‘dim children’ owes more to the rantings of US right wing shock jocks than the traditions of the New Statesman. His arithmetic is little better – the coalition’s estimate of the 15 February turnout as around 2 million has been sustained by opinion polling conducted the week following for both the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. But even the Cohen/police estimate of 750,000 would make it nearly twice as large as the next biggest political demonstration recorded in Britain. What he obviously finds difficult to concede is that he has completely lost the argument on the left over the question.
In every country without exception the left – social democratic, revolutionary, green and libertarian – is overwhelmingly against the war policy of Bush and Blair. Indeed, opposition to the new US doctrine of ‘pre-emption’ and its logic of endless war stretches far beyond the left and into liberal and even conservative opinion. That is not because anyone is less opposed to Saddam’s atrocities than Cohen, despite the latter’s belief that he has a unique franchise on moral outrage. It is because it is widely appreciated that a return to neo-colonialism, the rejection of the authority of the United Nations, and granting licence to Washington’s neo-conservatives to impose their own interests at will and by force, present greater dangers to the world than the depredations of even the worst Third World despot.
In Britain the opposition has been fortified by the sense that Blair’s decision to support the war also constituted an affront to democracy. This is now underlined by the growing appreciation that the public was systematically misled by the government as to the reasons for going to war. The sole reason offered for attacking Iraq was Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, which the country was repeatedly told he possessed in a state of battle-readiness. The prime minister now acknowledges that they may not exist at all.
Cohen’s response – in the course of a wretched piece of vilification of Robin Cook in the Observer on 13 July – is ‘So what?’ So the hitherto crusader for open government and against political mendacity now thinks it is fine for a government to lie to parliament and the public about going to war.
But the most disturbing aspect of Cohen’s polemics is not his loathing of the left, nor his naive delusion that Blair’s domestic and foreign policy exist in separate universes, nor even his smearing of Muslim anti-war activists as reactionary (perhaps murderous) fundamentalists.
No, the worst of Cohen is revealed when he writes of the 15 February demonstration that ‘the masses… can’t work out why they’re not being addressed by someone they’ve seen on the telly’. There is the authentic contempt for the ordinary people of this country, the dismissal of the views and hopes of the millions by a ‘democratic socialist’ snob. Cohen joins a dismal line of literati who would be keen on a better organised society if only the common folk would stay at home watching telly and stop getting in the way.
The Stop the War Coalition has already helped accomplish a considerable transformation of British politics. More than anything else in the post-Thatcher years, it represents the potential for a new and dynamic form of left politics, both broad and militant. It is small surprise that those who have plumped instead for a place in the sun of George Bush’s ‘new world order’ hate it so.
Andrew Murray and Lindsey German are chair and convenor of the Stop the War Coalition respectively.
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