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

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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.