The argument the 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq War protest in London was a failure is a common one on the British Left. “The Stop the War march in 2003 was so huge and monumental and it did absolutely nothing”, noted left-wing activist Ellie Mae O’Hagan in 2011 about the biggest demonstration in British history. Two years later on the 10th anniversary of the march author Tariq Ali – who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park on 15 February 2003 – said “It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”.
My recent book The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003 is an attempt to counter this popular perception. For example, if you combine a careful reading of newspaper reports from early 2003 with recently published insider accounts a clear picture emerges of a prime minister under intense political pressure, a government in crisis and, most importantly, a government close to falling. The key date was 11 March 2003 – just over a week before the invasion. According to the Sunday Telegraph on this day the Ministry of Defence “was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” A report in the Daily Mirror explained that the crisis had been triggered by a phone conversation between the then Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and his counterpart in the United States, Donald Rumsfeld, in which Hoon “stressed the political problems the Government was having with both MPs and the public.”
One Peace News columnist called this argument “delusional”, while some of the people attending the talks I’ve given have been sceptical that the march came close to stopping British participation in the invasion in 2003. In contrast, many people in the audiences I have spoken to have pointed to the long-term effects of the march – its influence on public opinion, in particular.
This chimes with what the former Chair of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) Andrew Murray told me: “I think what we can say Stop the War has done is helped foreshorten the war in Iraq and raised the bar enormously for any such war ever being undertaken in the future. Sometimes if people ask ‘What war did you manage to stop?’ I say ‘The next one.’” Murray’s assertion was confirmed by the Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP writing in the New Statesman earlier this year: “Iraq has permanently raised the bar of public legitimacy for future interventions, whichever government puts them before Parliament. Today, the British public are more sceptical of the principle of committing British troops abroad, because they are more critical of the circumstances in which it could be justified.” A June 2013 Opinium/Observer poll adds further weight to this line of thinking, with 69% of those polled answering the UK should restrict the military to protecting UK territory and providing humanitarian aid in times of crisis.
This shift in public opinion was underlined last week, with the Guardian noting “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq War hung over the Commons” during the Syria debate.” 2003’s legacy was also prominent during Ed Miliband’s much discussed face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Downing Street that preceded the Parliamentary vote, with a source reporting “Ed said to the Prime Minister: ‘You have to realize that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us’”.
What is missing from this coverage, unsurprisingly, is the role of the anti-Iraq War movement. Unsurprising because, as the former Respect leader Salma Yaqoob explained in my book, “We have to remind ourselves we are up against some very powerful interests and the last thing they want to admit is that they have been shaken by the anti-war movement. Don’t look for validation from the very people you are opposing.” While the elite has every interest in minimising and dismissing popular protest, it is important to remember it was the anti-Iraq War movement – headed by STWC, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain – that played the crucial role in highlighting the Government’s deceit in the run up to the invasion and helped to mobilize so many people on to the streets. As former STWC Press Officer Mike Marqusee told me: “Although it [the march] didn’t stop the war, it placed it under a degree of scrutiny that very few wars in British or US history have been”.
With the Government losing last week’s parliamentary vote proposing an attack on Syria by thirteen votes, at the weekend William Hague seemed to rule out any UK involvement in any future military action. “Parliament has spoken”, said the Foreign Secretary. “I don't think it is realistic to think that we can go back to parliament every week with the same question having received no for an answer.”
In addition, David Cameron’s parliamentary defeat has played a key role in President Obama’s decision to give the US Congress a vote on military action. Congress returns from recess on 9 September, so any US military action will now be delayed until after this date – no small thing if you are living in Syria and preparing for, or trying to escape from, the so-called precision bombing. According to the New York Times Obama told his senior aides that one of the reasons he was seeking Congressional approval was “a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British parliament.” The report goes on to note “the lack of a British blessing removed another layer of legitimacy” for Obama.
It is clear, then that a direct line can be drawn from the massive anti-Iraq War protests in 2002/03 to the Government being forced to back down from military action against Syria ten years later. This in turn has led to a delay in the US timetable for war. And if Congress votes against military action and makes it politically impossible for Obama to undertake military action the influence of the British anti-Iraq War movement will have stretched very far indeed.
Make no mistake, the Government’s failure to win parliamentary support for a military attack on Syria is a huge victory for anti-war activism. Not so much for the anti-war protests that have been happening in the last few weeks regarding the proposed attack on Syria – important and essential though these are – but for the more than one million people who marched through London on that cold Saturday in February 2003.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. [email protected] and https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair.