The Iraq war protest march: how hope was lost

Contrary to what subsequent reports would have you believe, the march wasn't a complete failure.

There had always been a degree of unease about the prospect of any war with Iraq. In late 2002 and early 2003, as the Iraqi crisis rapidly rose up the agenda, most political debate and news coverage was restricted to questions about the progress or otherwise of the UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and his team, and to what this or that UN resolution actually meant.

By the time the war began on 20 March 2003, the legitimacy of US foreign policy was at stake, there was an awareness of the double standards in our own UK foreign policy and, to a lesser extent, debates about imperialism were on the agenda for the first time in a generation. We have, to a certain extent, the 15 February protest to thank for that. It was one of those rare moments in British history when the radical left had some palpable impact on the course of political debate.

That is not to say that all of us who went on the march (yes, I was there) would identify with the radical left, or that all the marchers thought of their opposition in anti-imperialist terms. But it is no secret that the hub of the movement, in the form of the Stop the War Coalition, hailed from that end of the political spectrum.

The success of the march, in terms of the number and diversity of people on it, led to some surprisingly positive press coverage. In contrast to most demos, these marchers could not all be dismissed as a bunch of Trots and Sixties throwbacks. It also allowed leading figures from the movement, such as Tony Benn, George Galloway and Lindsey German, the national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, to appear on Question Time and Newsnight, and appeared to embolden the left of the Labour Party to speak out more vigorously against the war.

Looking back, I can distinctly recall the sense of celebratory optimism on the day. “They can’t ignore us now” was a common refrain. In fact, the march did more than that: it had leading figures of the government seriously worried, right up to the prime minister. If Alastair Campbell’s Diaries are to be believed, Tony Blair confessed to having slept uneasily that night.

Yet if they couldn’t ignore us, they could still override us. The bonhomie in the anti-war movement disappeared once the war began. Many who marched on 15 February have probably never been on another march since. “What would be the point?” they might reasonably ask. That, however, does not mean that the movement should be dismissed as a flash in the pan. The preparations and promotion began months beforehand and in some sense the movement carries on until this day. But when 20 March came around and it became apparent that we had not succeeded in stopping Blair from sending British forces into battle, the debate – and, indeed, argument – turned inwards: what could and should we have done differently?

Some people, many of whom identified themselves as anarchists, argued that we had picked the wrong tactics and that rather than relying exclusively on a peaceful march we should have engaged in far more civil dis­obedience. In reality, anything beyond the occasional publicity stunt would have been a disaster for the movement. To have blocked off all the bridges across the Thames in London, as proposed by the “autonomous” strand of the movement, would have caused nothing more than huge inconvenience for the public and would have alienated Britain from the anti-war cause.

In my opinion, what we needed more than anything else was an answer to the dilemma of what should have been done about Saddam Hussein and the appalling human rights abuses that were undoubtedly going on inside Iraq. Questions about this came up a great deal at public meetings, when leafleting the high street and in letters to local and national newspapers from supporters of the war. When asked about Iraq now, Blair always plays this card because he knows that opponents of the war don’t have an answer to it. If being on the left means anything, it ought to mean standing up for the oppressed. It shouldn’t have been beyond the wits of those speaking for the movement to have woven an answer to the problems of human rights abuses by non-western regimes into the fabric of their anti-imperialist principles. My view is that, just as we had weapons inspectors in Iraq, we should also have had human rights inspectors there. That would have done a lot to wrong-foot Blair et al.

If the march fell a long way short of achieving what so many of us desperately wanted, it wasn’t a complete failure either. This was the day when the message finally got through to Blair and the Conservative opposition that their war was going to be profoundly unpopular. The decades-old assumption that the British public was instinctively hawkish and suspicious of any politician who doubted the efficacy of going to war came to an end on that day.

Blair failed to realise this in time (if he ever came to realise it). His reputation has never recovered. David Cameron would be wise to take that on board as he ponders his options over Syria and Iran and in North Africa.

Ian Taylor is a lecturer in media and communication at the University of Leicester

Anti-war demonstrators pass by the cenotaph on Whitehall on 15 February 2003. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.