The Didn’t Stop the War Coalition – Ten Years on From Feb 15

It occurred to me earlier that yesterday was ten years since the global protests on February 15th 2003, when millions of people across the world took to the streets to demand a halt to the then-imminent invasion of Iraq. It was an expression of protest unprecedented in history. It also accomplished precisely nothing. In other words, it was a glorious failure.

If you’re interested, here’s a pic of me (I’m on the right) in the pub at Paddington station, after attending the London march. My face looks rather pink from the cold of that day.

Depends on whose estimates you believe, anywhere between 750,000 and two million people marched through London. Whatever number you call it, the one thing you can say with certainty is that it was a lot. My day started early in the morning, joining a large convoy of buses from my home city. When we stopped off at the motorway services, the car park was crowded with buses from other convoys all over Britain. It was as if the armies massing in the Kuwaiti desert were being matched by another, entirely unarmed, force, descending on London.

At times you couldn’t really call it a march. It was more of a shuffle, the sheer volume of people being too great for the streets they were passing through. It wasn’t just the numbers that were striking either. The people in attendance were not just the usual types one would find at a protest. Sure, there were the Trotskyists, the veteran, grey-haired Communists who’d forgotten the Cold War was over, the anarchists, the Greens. But the overwhelming majority of people were just concerned individuals, many of had never been on a protest march before.

The whole thing culminated in Hyde Park, where the Rev Jesse Jackson exhorted a vast crowd to “keep hope alive”. I then tried and failed to find my coach home, which was logjammed in somewhere among a massive fleet of other coaches. In the end I gave up and headed to Paddington to find a train.

For a very brief period it seemed as if something truly epoch-defining had happened. The Stop the War Coalition had become a genuine mass movement, representing large swathes of the population. Surely something had been changed.

In fact, nothing had changed. Just over a month later, troops surged across the Iraqi border. A million or so British people marching through London hadn’t stopped the British Army marching through Basra. You know the rest – a messy invasion followed by an even messier occupation. Another messy occupation in Afghanistan. A steady stream of civilian deaths in both those countries. Another stream of British lads coming home in Union Jack-draped coffins, or with limbs missing, or without a scratch but inwardly tormented by what they’d had to see and do. Plus all the nasty hangovers that we’re still left with – instability in the Middle East and North Africa, drone strikes in Pakistan and so on. Not to mention the ruined legacies of Bush and Blair, paving the way for the presidency of Barack Obama – the only Nobel Peace Prize winner in history to have a kill list.

As for the Stop the War Coalition, their time as a mass movement was short-lived. With the failure to achieve the goal they were named after, the number of people attending their protests shrank rapidly. The demographic also changed. For many of those who attended their first protest on February 15th, it was also their last. The STWC quickly shrivelled to its rump of the Trots and those scowling old men in red sweaters.

Two of its core organisations – the Socialist Workers Party and the Muslim Association of Britain – joined to form a political party, the Respect Coalition. The two groups shared an opposition to the war, a stance of support for Palestine and precious little else. They scored some minor electoral upsets before the coalition was torn apart by the differences between the two groups. Respect still exists, but mainly as a small fan club for George Galloway MP – a man whose main ideology tends to be George Galloway. Meanwhile, the SWP is currently deservedly imploding due to a rape scandal.

February 15 may have been a mass outpouring of the word “No”, but was it ultimately heard?

There was also another throwback to ten years ago this week. Real-terms wages have now fallen back to 2003 levels.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….



On Anger and Occupations

On Saturday my Twitter feed was buzzing with reports from some of my Twitter chums (Twums?) about the Occupy the London Stock Exchange protests. I must confess I didn’t go myself. Not because I have any objection to their aims, but because I don’t live anywhere near London and would have looked a bit forlorn occupying my local Tesco Express.

It remains to be seen whether this new protest will grow like the Occupy Wall Street movement that inspired it. Even so, OccupyLSX got me thinking about popular anger and protest movements.

Lord knows, there’s enough reasons to be angry at the financial sector right now. They created an unsustainable bubble, and we’re all now paying the price. Public services being flushed down the toilet, a whole generation of young people unable to find work…and the Hooray Henries in the Square Mile just carry on giving themselves pay rises. And don’t even think you’ll be able to join the moneyfight yourself. Not unless you’ve got parents willing to support you through a series of unpaid internships, effectively creating a new aristocracy in all but name.

The behaviour of some of those in the City hasn’t exactly assuaged our anger either. I’m not just referring to Fred Goodwin. This Comment is Free article, by a City trader arguing that the 50p top rate of income tax would result in all the financial whizkids leaving Britain for overseas, is glorious not so much for the article itself as for the stream of comments that were left in response. People didn’t become any more sympathetic when they realised he was the author of a book called – I kid you not – How I Caused the Credit Crunch.

(Incidentally, I was so intrigued by the book title that I actually bought a copy. Second-hand, naturally. I didn’t want him to have any of my money.)

All in all, the surprise isn’t that people are angry, more that people aren’t knocking together a guillotine on Paternoster Square.

But can that anger actually translate into meaningful change? There’s the question.

Like many people who are vaguely liberal but not given to waving a placard, my first time on a protest rally was at the giant anti-war march in London on Feb 15th 2003. Depending on whose figures you believe, anywhere between 500,000 and 2 million people stomped (and at times, shuffled, it really did get crowded) their way to Hyde Park, demanding that we don’t invade Iraq. It felt like some epochal moment in history had just taken place. Until the following month, of course, when we invaded Iraq.

I actually stuck around with the anti-war movement until a few weeks after the initial invasion, when the US troops were nearly at Baghdad. God, it was depressing, watching the Stop the War Coalition shrivel quickly from a brief period as a mass movement that genuinely represented public opinion, down to a narrow locus of the usual far-left suspects.

Before Saddam’s statue had even started to topple, I felt that the Stop the War Coalition no longer was something I could be a part of, and quietly departed. It was becoming something of a strain. Have you ever tried to hold a conversation with a member of the Socialist Workers Party while simultaneously trying not to look sarcastic? It’s really hard.

If the OccupyLSX movement is to genuinely represent the anger that people feel about the chaos we’ve been plunged into, then it will need to expand into something more than those usual suspects from the SWP et al. I suspect that may not be easy. Sunny Hundal over at Red Hot Liberal-On-Liberal Action seems to be having similar thoughts.

The problem, as anyone vaguely involved with UK left-activism will know, is that many hardcore left-activists will rather swallow a cyanide pill than work with people who are slightly less radical than them. They will spend their entire time actively trying to wreck pluralistic coalitions.

It happened during the anti-cuts protests and it will happen again. Some have even gone as far as trying to wreck UKuncut (one called UKuncut a ‘populist group no different to the EDL’). These people would much rather pretend they represent the 99% than ever come into contact with the varied opinions of that 99%.

That said, I do wish the Occupiers well, and may yet attend one of their events – because real change does need to happen. When we finally emerge from the ashes of the present crisis, it mustn’t be so that we can just go back to building the next bubble.