Mo Mowlam talks to a disabled protester at the Stop the War march on 15 February 2003. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on Iraq: Ten years ago we marched against the Iraq war and I learned a lesson in betrayal

In the end, it was in our name.

Ten years ago this month, millions of people all over the world marched against the war in Iraq – and were ignored. I was one of them. For me, at the age of 16, there were a lot of firsts on 15 February 2003: first truancy, first solo trip to London, first time seeing democracy rudely circumvented.

Tony Blair’s decision to take Britain into the Americans’ war in Iraq was an immediate, material calamity for millions of people in the Middle East. I’m writing here, though, about the effect of that decision on the generation in the west who were children then and are adults now. For us, the sense of betrayal was life-changing. We had thought that millions of people making their voices heard would be enough and we were wrong.

I wasn’t an activist at the time. I was just a schoolgirl overawed by the sheer scale of my own powerlessnesss. The bus to London from the centre of town left early in the morning and I bagged a seat at the back alongside some older students who chatted about the first Gulf war and the international oil lobby. One of them, I remember, was carrying a handmade placard with a picture of a woman’s pubic triangle luxuriously adorned with real, glued-on human hair and the legend “The Only Bush I’d Trust Is My Own”. Upon being asked the obvious question, she indicated the shy, smiling young man beside her and told us: “Armpit hair.”

As London began to materialise out of its dowdy, drawn-out suburbs, we had no conception of the scale of the organisation and planning involved to get two million people on to the streets. When we got off the bus at Embankment, the roadsides were crammed with buses, people surging along the pavement, joining the hundreds pouring into the road, the whistle-sellers and the newspaper hawkers directing us. Under the bridges by the river, the people moved like a flood. I shinned up a set of traffic lights to get a better look. Tens of thousands of banners and placards, most of them churned out of the same Stop the War press and bearing the legends “No” and “Not in My Name”, moving with slow certainty towards Westminster. From above, all of those cardboard squares seemed to tessellate and resolve into a larger picture – No. No. No. No. No.

It was the first time I remember feeling part of something larger than myself. It was only later, after the war and the next six years of progressive assault on civil liberties had broken any faith I or my schoolmates might have had in the Labour Party, that I learned about the endless arguments that went on behind the scenes. At the time I had no idea of the factional squabbling that prevented that march from becoming the powerful people’s movement it might have been. I don’t remember the presence of union members and socialist parties as vividly as I remember the performance artists with their creepy, bloodypaint- spattered masks, the kids strapped on their parents’ backs, the elderly couples with their Thermos flasks and sandwiches wrapped in foil.

It was a very British protest: polite, resentful and passive-aggressive. One got the sense that if Tony Blair had shown up, he’d have been subject to a mass blanking. There was a muted menace to the mood, chants that would flare up and then die down, some of them endearingly altered versions of current chart hits (“Who let the bombs drop? Bush, Bush and Blair!”). Most of all, there were the whistles, shrill and incoherent and frustrated, like 10,000 PE teachers on the move, a notion that still crops up in my nightmares.

What changed in 2003 was that millions of ordinary citizens around the world finally understood that the game was rigged, because only a few weeks after that march the US and its allies went to war anyway. The people had withdrawn their consent, loudly and peacefully and in numbers too big to ignore, and they had been rebuffed with hardly a second thought. Representative democracy had failed to represent.

“Not in My Name” felt, even at the time, like a slogan of last resort, as if we had already accepted, on some level, that war was going to happen and the most we could do was tut disapprovingly. The terrible thing about protest is that when it remains satisfied with expressing distaste for the status quo, the status quo is quite happy to proceed as planned. Two million people went home that day feeling they’d at least made their objections felt, but it turned out not to be enough. In the end, it was in our name.

I have no doubt that, a decade from now, people in their mid-twenties will speak of the student riots of 2010-2011 with the same sad sense of lessons learned. At Millbank, when 4,000 students and schoolchildren smashed up the entrance to the Conservative Party headquarters and held an impromptu rave in the lobby, several young people mentioned the Stop the War march of 2003, how all that passive, peaceful shuffling from one rally point to another had failed to achieve anything concrete.

My generation’s lack of faith in the political process has often been mistaken for apathy. It is only now, with ordinary people across the world putting their energies into movements that bypass mainstream politics, that the betrayal of Bush and Blair’s wars is beginning to be understood. We have known since we were at school that it’s not enough simply to make our voices heard. We have to make sure that we are listened to – and we’re still working out how to do that.

Editor's note: This piece originally stated that Nato went to war in Iraq. The error has been corrected. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia