The march that shook Blair: 10 years on

Ian Sinclair’s new book The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003 is published this week by Peace News Press.

The book tells the story of the more than million people who marched in London against the 2003 Iraq War – the biggest march in British history. Made up of over 110 original interviews with people who played a role in the anti-war movement and the wider historical period, the book argues that the anti-war movement came very close to derailing British participation in the invasion, and has had a number of important short and long-term influences on British society.

Below is Ian Sinclair’s complete interview with Tim Gee, activist and author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, whose edited interview appears in the book.

Sinclair: How did you get involved in the anti-war movement? 

Gee: I was 16. I’d never really been involved in campaigning before except for a bit of work against Section 28. I come from a Quaker family so peace and politics had always been dinner table conversation, but my main interest was playing and recording music. 2001 changed that. Since then, campaigning has been the main thing I do.

Like with so many people, 9/11 shook me. I couldn’t understand what could cause someone to cause that much death. Then the rumblings of war started and it became clear that our country could kill as many people –or more – in our name. That didn’t seem right.

I started going to meetings of the Stockport Peace Forum, which my mum was very involved in. We set up a vigil in central Stockport. We made a big sheet which said “Killing people is wrong in the USA and Afghanistan and held a vigil every night.

Being against the Afghanistan War was a very unpopular stand to take. People would shout at us, we were called unpatriotic, people said we didn’t care about 9/11, and we got a lot of Islamophobic remarks.

But there were moments that made it worth it. I remember a man arguing with us, and it turned out he thought Osama Bin laden was President of Afghanistan. When we put him right he asked “Why are we invading Afghanistan then?” Maybe we were helping change people’s views one at a time.

Did you have a formal role in the anti-war group?

Not really. I did help set up my college anti-war group though which had an unsurprisingly similar membership to the Amnesty International society. But we didn’t bother having any named positions because there were five or six of us who really drove it.

When it came to the Iraq invasion we got very active. It began with a propaganda war on the walls of the school. We started by putting up posters that said “War is Terrorism”. And then some pro-war people put up pictures of Halabja saying “Saddam Hussein needs to be removed”. We countered by talking about the arms trade and so on. Then we targeted the military recruiters when they came on campus and of course we organised people for going down to the big marches in London.

The same was happening in other schools and universities too and we went to big non-hierarchical meetings in one of the student union concert venues in Manchester. There we learnt about subvertising, stencilling, blockading and other new tactics. That definitely widened our horizons.

Did you go on the march on 15 February 2003? What do you remember about the day?

Of course. The Peace Forum helped organise the Stockport buses down to many of the marches in London. Usually we had one coach. But something seemed to happen as we approached the 15th February – a tidal wave of phone-calls and seat reservations. We could have filled many more than the three coaches that went in the end, but we were told every single other coach in the country had been booked.

On the morning of the march, I can’t remember what time we left but it was definitely dark. We met at the place we normally had our vigil and crossed the road to the buses. A while later the radio reported there had been a road block in Stockport early in the morning. They must have misinterpreted us crossing the road to get to the buses. But the news was so focused on demonstration that even us crossing the road had become a news story. That gave us a clue of how big it would be. Then we got more clues when we saw that every service station on the way was full of other busloads of demonstrators. And then there was the march.

It wasn’t much of a march really. More of a shuffle. Literally for half of the day I still thought we were still forming up. We made it to Hyde Park just in time to hear the end of Ms Dynamite but missed all of the speakers. By that point I’d been to a few marches and was used chanting and atmosphere. This was quiet. But it wasn’t dead. There was a kind of solemnity.

Except, that was, when the rumours passed about how many people were there. There would be this roar from far in front coming closer and closer until it was deafening, then off in to the distance behind. As it passed we would be like “What are we cheering about?” And someone would say “They just announced it is 1.5 million people here”. The numbers got higher and higher and on the news on the way back they said it was two million. That sent tingles down my spine and I hardly dared believe it.

Across the country though, it may well have been the case that there were 2 million. It wasn’t just London and Glasgow and Belfast whether there were demos but places across Britain – Stockport, Manchester, in my grandmother’s hometown of Skelmersdale (I don’t think they had had a demonstration about anything for years) countless town centres filled with people who couldn’t make it to London.

And in the days afterwards we saw our work paying off. I was an obsessive poll watcher. From having been in this tiny minority of people our opposition broke through that 50 percent mark. The boost of “Oh my God we are in the majority” – that had seemed such a crazy idea even a few months before. I think of that still when I’m working on unpopular issues. I know you can be in a minority and still be right. 

What did you do next?

Well, we went home. The vote happened, there was a back-bench rebellion but it wasn’t big enough, then the war began. We called the day war began ‘Day X’. In fact there were two Day X’s, both characterised by big school walk-outs. There’s some great footage. But it didn’t happen like that in my school.

We perhaps had the most polite Day X anywhere, in that those of us who were committed to it went round to all of our teachers, we explained to them that we were going to be missing some lessons, we found out what they were going to be teaching in those lessons, we got our homework and then went out at lunchtime. We heard a rumour later that the authorities had demanded our names from the teachers but the teachers showed their solidarity with us. That was another indication that things were changing.

On the day we joined up with Manchester Stop the War Coalition, heard a few speeches, blocked some roads and had an impromptu rally in the evening at Piccadilly Gardens. Then someone announced we were going to march down Market Street – the shopping district. It turned into a game of cat and mouse with the police. That was the first experience for a few of us of outright disobedience.

Do you consider the march, and the wider Iraq anti-war movement, to be a success or failure?

There were many successes of the Stop the War movement. I know it gets said often, and history is increasingly speaking against us, but I think it did make another big invasion more difficult. I know Libya has been invaded relatively recently but there was so much sabre-rattling against so many countries that didn’t turn into invasions. I also think it meant there was a great deal more scrutiny of how the war happened. I know there were great, awful atrocities that happened through the war. I think it is likely that the anti-war movement made it more possible for people to speak out about those atrocities. It didn’t stop them from happening but who knows, perhaps it stopped even worse things from happening.

Of course it gave a great boost to wider peace campaigning. It helped a lot of people join the dots with the anti-globalization movement that preceded it. The power shift was also reflected in the unprecedented numbers of radicals elected soon afterwards – in Scotland there were seven Greens MSPs and six from the Scottish Socialist Party, then in England RESPECT became the first left of Labour party get an MP in to Westminster for decades. But it seemed like a small consolation.

More personally, for me and others of my generation, it was a profound learning experience. We were just coming into politics and our first experience was of a government lying to a country in order to kill first 3,000 people [in Afghanistan] and what has turned out to be 100,000 people [in Iraq] by some estimates. The idea that a government would do that for any reason but especially in pursuit of selfish economic oil interests, I think created a great sense of distrust in politicians, in the mainstream parties, and the party-political route to change in general – reflected in the movements that followed.

But it didn’t stop the war. We won the argument but lost the campaign. We didn’t use physical or economic tactics enough at all, and tied ourselves too much to the tactic of the mass demonstration. I think too many of us were taken in by the popular fallacy that politicians will listen if a persuasive case is made by enough people. I was absolutely guilty of answering the question “What do you think this march will do?” with the answer “Well it might contribute to stopping the war” but I wasn’t the only one. We had a wrong analysis. And now I see that analysis changing.

Amongst many other movements you have been part of since is Occupy. Do you think there is a relationship between the Occupy and the Iraq war protests?

To some extent yes – although at its roots Occupy grew out of the long-standing, anarchist-influenced anti-corporate movement – manifested in Britain variously as Reclaim the Streets, ‘the anti-globalization movement’ and Climate Camp. There was a big influx of young people politicised by the Iraq war shortly before the formation of Climate Camp. In turn many one-time Climate Campers played a facilitative role in Occupy. So yes – allowing for caveats I think it there is certainly a relationship.  
Was the experience of the anti-Iraq War movement discussed at Occupy LSX? In what ways was the Occupy movement different from a group like Stop the War Coalition?

The discussion started long before. Almost soon as the Conservatives were elected and the cuts announced it came up in all sorts of forums. For some of us it felt very familiar: Spontaneously, and independently, new community alliances were emerging to oppose the government’s programme, just like they did in the early days of Stop the War. In addition a new organisation including some familiar faces appeared to be putting together another coalition.

But the experience of Stop the War influenced us and we didn’t want make the same mistakes. This time the older campaigners were saying ‘let’s not let the government off the hook by only marching like we did with Iraq, lets prevent them from doing it like we did with the poll tax’. It was that attitude along with the fact some younger participants had recent experience of non-hierarchy and civil disobedience which set the context for UKUNCUT and the student protests, and then for Occupy. If we’re going to learn from the past, let’s hope it informs whatever comes next.

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen [], shortlisted for the Bread and Roses Prize for radical nonfiction. His essay collection You Can’t Evict an Idea [] is available to download from Housmans. 

The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003 is published this week by Peace News Press.

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