I was at the biggest ever anti-war protest in London in 2003.
One of the more remarkable things about it was that the war hadn’t even started.
The protest was a reaction to the PR campaign that the UK government had been running in preparation of the attack on Iraq. This was, to my mind, unusual.
There were no mass demonstrations against the US attack on Vietnam until years after the initial US assault, when the draft compelled ordinary Americans to participate in the slaughter.
The numbers in attendance on the 15th of February 2003 were also impressive – whoever you believe, whether the (alleged) under-estimation of the police, or the (possible) over-estimation of some protestors. There was even a parliamentary “leader” there, Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats (a party name which, at the time, didn’t have quite the same bitter irony it does now).
There was a lot of cynicism around at the time, due to the fact that the protest failed in its stated aim: to prevent the war, or at least to compel the government not to take part in it.
One of the really important legacies – and, I argue – successes of the protest was seen in parliament yesterday.
Ten years on from that huge demonstration, a bullish prime minister, in thrall to a US president, was forced by parliament to withdraw UK support for military attacks in the Middle East.
Anybody who thought one protest in London, however massive, would force the
government to completely reverse decades of foreign policy was naïve, to say the least. The point of the protest was, as far I was concerned, to respond to the stated policy of the government by saying: “No. Fuck off.” If enough people did this, the government would have to respond. I personally had no illusions that they would respond by saying “Fair enough, you’re right and we’re wrong, we have been lying to you from the off, we’ll just get out of your way and you can run things. Here's a billion quid.”
However, the vehement opposition to the attack on Iraq is still fresh in the memories
of MPs, the government and their Public Relations and Press teams. They don’t want to risk that kind of unpopularity, however much shite they might talk about “doing the right thing” and “leadership”. If the protest/s against the Iraq war make governments pause and think harder about whether to use violence, I’m calling that a (small) victory.
We can dream as big as we like; it’s important to be realistic.
Another legacy of the Iraq war is that the idea that the British government would use violence in the aid of a humanitarian goal was finally (it took centuries) publicly discredited. The idea is not dead, but it seems to be taken a lot less seriously than it was ten years ago. Any government spokesperson invoking humanitarian motives for massive vioence can be rebuffed with a simple: “That’s what they/you said about Iraq”.
As some rapper once said:
Power is a child that as not learned its limits yet –
And growing children always do the same thing:
Whatever We let them get away with.
Even in totalitarian regimes, public opinion matters. In a democracy, it’s paramount.
No one wants you to know this, (hence the recently uncovered massive global spying orgy), but What We Think really is important. And history tells us that the general population is almost always a civilising influence on those in power.
Nothing worthwhile is handed down, it grows up.
“My” MP – a “Liberal” “Democrat” (there’s that hollow ring) voted in favour of attacking Syria. So, I’m off to draft a polite e-mail to remind him that there is a word for those who would use violence to coerce others into political action.
The word is terrorists.
I’ll also probably mention that the electorate seem, in general, to be against massive violence. And that the electorate decides how long he stays in a job.
It’s difficult to talk to terrorists, but it has to be done.
We can and will civilise them.
Increase The Peace