Reconsidering the March that Failed

by Ian Sinclair, Alex Doherty

Typically viewed as a noble failure that revealed the impotence of public protest, the February 15th 2003 march came close to preventing British involvement in the Iraq invasion.

First published: 15 February, 2013 | Category: 

Ten years on from the largest public demonstration in British history NLP’s Alex Doherty spoke to Ian Sinclair, author of the new book The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003.

It is now a commonplace to describe the February 15th march as a total failure since it failed to derail the drive to war. However in your book you document how the anti-war movement came very close to detaching the UK from the invasion force. Could you describe how this occurred and the broader impact of the march?

I think the key period was the month between the march on 15 February 2003 and the invasion itself on the 19 March 2003 – what Gabriel Carlyle from Peace News calls “a special time in British politics: a brief window of opportunity.” A careful reading of news reports and recently published insider accounts shows a prime minister under intense political pressure, a government in continual crisis and, most importantly, a government close to falling.

“TB [Tony Blair] could barely be in a more exposed place now”, was Alastair Campbell’s diary entry on 10 February 2003. “PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] tricky. Massive march being planned.” By 7 March 2003 Campbell was writing about how the Cabinet Secretary “was quietly looking into how a JP [John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister] caretaker premiership would operate” should Blair be forced to resign.

On 9 March 2003 Development Secretary Clare Short threatened to resign, and there was a real concern within Blair’s inner circle that the Government might not win the parliamentary vote on the war. Receiving worrying reports from their embassy in London, Washington was so concerned about Blair’s position that on 9 March President Bush told his National Security Advisor Condeeleeza Rice “We can’t have the British Government fall because of this decision over war.” Bush then called Blair and suggested the UK could drop out of the initial invasion and find some other way to participate.

Two days later was what has become known as ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ - “the lowest point of the crisis for Mr Blair”, according to the Sunday Telegraph. The same report explained that 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.” The Sunday Mirror reported that Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon had phoned the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and “stressed the political problems the Government was having with both MPs and the public.” An hour later Rumsfeld held a press conference and explained that Britain might not be involved in the invasion. The Government was thrown into panic. Blair “went bonkers”, according to Alastair Campbell. In his book The End of the Party Andrew Rawnsley notes the Government’s predicament was so serious that “[Chief Foreign Policy Advisor David] Manning, [Aide Sally] Morgan and [Foreign Secretary Jack] Straw made further attempts to persuade Blair to pull back.”

All this remains one of the biggest secrets of the Iraq War – even among activists themselves. But I think if you want to seriously assess the effectiveness of the anti-war movement and, importantly, think about how you might go about stopping the next war then I think it’s important to be aware of just how close the anti-war movement came to derailing British participation in the Iraq invasion.

As everyone knows the anti-war movement didn’t stop the war but it arguably had some important impacts during the invasion and occupation. For example Milan Rai maintains that the increased public scrutiny provided by the UK and global anti-war movements reduced the destruction caused by US and UK forces. He points to the fact that the US-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War targeted and destroyed Iraq’s life-maintaining infrastructure – its electricity system, the water supply, sewage systems etc. However, in 2003 this didn’t happen. In addition, the relatively early withdrawal of UK forces from southern Iraq in April 2009 was arguably a response to the anti-war mood at home. “Their continued presence in Iraq was politically toxic” in the UK, Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Iraq, explained in a public lecture at the London School of Economics last year. “Gordon Brown was keen to get rid of them and say ‘that was a Blair problem.’”

The march is viewed as a complete failure even on the left - for instance at the start of the book you quote Eleanor Mae O'Hagen of UK Uncut describing the march as having achieved “absolutely nothing”. Why do you think this view of the march as an unalloyed defeat become so prevalent even on the far left?

I don’t have any definite answers on this but a few things come to mind. Firstly, I should point out in one sense I think it is perfectly reasonable to describe the march as a failure because the anti-war movement failed to achieve its central aim – to stop the war.

However, as I suggest above there is a lot more to say about the march than this. And, with a few exceptions, I don’t think the anti-war movement has done a great job articulating its own achievements to a wider audience. Milan Rai has been trying to draw attention to ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ since 2003 and the Stop the War Coalition’s official book also had some things to say about the anti-war movement’s legacy, but there seems to be a lot more to say on the subject if you bear in mind that 15 February 2003 was the biggest demonstration in British history. This gap in the debate is one of the reasons I wanted to write the book, which I hope will generate discussion on the subject.

Also, I think the shades of opinion about 15 February 2003 within the left, in so far as one can make generalisations, are interesting. From my research and interviews I found the young people, like Ellie Mae O'Hagan, involved in creative direct action groups like Plane Stupid, Climate Rush, UK Uncut and Occupy had a far more critical view of 15 February 2003 than older activists, such as the leadership of Stop the War Coalition or CND. I wonder if this is indicative of a different ethos when it comes to their respective involvement in activism? For example, I interviewed the radical US activist and organiser Michael Albert a couple of years ago for Peace News and when I asked him what kept him going over his 40 years of activism he replied “I want to win. I’m not in this to be able to look at myself in the mirror. I’m not in this to fight the good fight and lose. I want to win. I don’t see any other reason to do this.” This may have been an obvious statement to many but it really shook me. Up until that point I hadn’t really thought that activists should concern themselves with winning! No doubt many will disagree but I wonder if the older, what might be called ‘career activists’ in the Stop the War Coalition leadership are a little more happy to chug along fighting the good fight, whereas the younger activists now involved in UK Uncut, Occupy etc. are closer to Albert’s position, and therefore a little more impatient for change?

What were the historical roots of the protest? What laid the basis for a march on such an unprecedented scale?

It depends how far you want to go back. For example, many of the people centrally involved in the anti-war movement, such as the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, took part in many of the major activist campaigns of recent British history – the 1984-5 Miner’s Strike, the 1991 Gulf War, the war on Serbia in1999 etc. Also, in the book Rai argues the activism against the US-UK sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s assisted in the relatively quick growth of the anti-war movement because it had already “built up a considerable amount of knowledge about Iraq and had mobilized a certain amount of people”.

So I think all this activism unknowingly laid the groundwork for the huge anti-war movement that opposed the Iraq War, including the march on 15 February 2003. However, the key event in the birth of the anti-war movement was clearly 9/11. “The terrain evolved” on 9/11, according to Anas Altikriti, who was a spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Britain in 2003. Altikriti was referring to 9/11’s effect on the British Muslim community but I think his analysis can be applied to other parts of British society. Blair’s increasingly unpopular backing of the US on Afghanistan, the wider ‘war on terror’ and then Iraq was clearly the key driver of the growth of the anti-war movement. The Stop the War Coalition, arguably the leading organisation in the anti-Iraq War movement, was formed within weeks of 9/11 and by the end of 2002 had created a formal coalition with the Muslim Association of Britain and CND – the three organisations who organised the march on 15 February 2003.

To what extent can the anti-war movement take credit for the surge in anti-war feeling among the public? One answer in the book comes from Philip Steele, a peace activist from Bangor, Wales: “I would say that it was not down to any of us activists – the public had motivated themselves.”

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer living in London. He writes regular for a number of progressive publications such as Tribune, Peace News, the Morning Star and Red Pepper.

Alex Doherty is a co-editor of New Left Project and a graduate student in the war studies department of King’s College London.

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