There is little of which I am truly proud in terms of my participation in this world, (my children being the principle exception to this) but the fact that I stood up 10 years ago and said “Enough, this has to end now” is something with which I may hold my head a little higher and feel that there was a reason for being here at this time. For those who say the Stop The War marches in 2003 did not change anything I would say this, ten years on, I still remember them and I know many of the others do and if necessary I and they are prepared to go and speak up again. I still believe I was right to do so the first time and as my children are older now I can tell them why I did it and why a part of the country’s parliamentary democracy died that day, where a smaller part of the grassroots democracy was truly born. Did it lead to anything long-lasting – only history can tell that story but it did come at a time when people had been silent and suddenly many found their voice.
StW 2003 was the largest peacetime march in the country’s history, I’m not sure it wasn’t the largest in any time but people have always referred to it as the largest in peacetime. Even the police figures said well over half a million (which itself was larger than the Countryside Alliance march some weeks before of whom 300-400,000 had marched in 2002 to protest about fox hunting and urban encroachment into rural values). The BBC put the figure at over a million and generally on these occasions the real figure would be regarded as higher than that. (My figures of the Countryside Alliance march are going on the car bumper stickers the organisers had printed after the event in their claim to be the largest demo at that time.)
To remind people of the context, in the lead up to the march in 2003 the US and UK were already in Afghanistan on a somewhat questionable pretext and their aim was now to go into Iraq. The writing had been on the wall for Saddam Hussein for some time and an aide, I think it was Paul Bremmer, has since told of George W. Bush’s statement for them to get him something, anything that they could use to go and get Saddam on. He wanted to finish the job started by his Pappy a decade earlier and remove the man the US had formerly propped up for years in the fight against Iran. The US administration didn’t find anything concrete, and they ought to know since most of the hardware Iraq had would have gone through them, so they invented the WMD fiction and went in anyway. Many innocents died on the pretext of liberation, the West claiming that they were doing this in the interests of the Iraqi people, presumably the interests the Iraqi people may not have known they had yet. I saw one interview done by John Simpson, I believe, where he interviewed some Iraqis after Saddam’s forces had been defeated and asked them if they did not now feel that things were better after Saddam. “George Bush, Saddam, we don’t care we just want peace” was the honest reply. People will be divided on their opinions as to where Iraq post-Saddam is, in these polarised times many opinions will be made up mostly by the prevailing news channel that gives you all your “facts” but I think few would consider it truly a united or stable country even a decade later. And as for Afghanistan…!
This may therefore seem like our effects were a futile and hollow gesture meriting record only of the current statistic of greatest size of action of its type. However a Professor of Chemistry at Cairo University came and spoke at a meeting I attended sometime in late 2003, at the time we were indeed feeling a little deflated since we couldn’t help but start to feel the march had accomplished little of long-standing significance, given US intervention in Iraq anyway, people were dying and we had wanted to stop that happening but it was going on and we were being forced to witness it every night on the news. Whilst we were able to tell ourselves that if nothing else we had stood up to be counted it was difficult to really convince the detractors that we had done something more than moral actions and plastic sabre-rattling. The Professor though told us to look on things from a different angle as they had been marching on the same day in the Arab world and our efforts had not been in vain.
“We were being given updates that there were 1.5 million on the streets in London, over 1 million in Barcelona, nearly 2 million in Madrid, 500,000 in Berlin, 200,000 in Paris millions in Rome etc.* and it told us that this war was not a Western war, it was not leaders acting with the support of their people but in spite of it. It broke the glass facia that suggested a polarisation between the peoples of the West and the East. The myth of a clash of civilisations.” He went on to say that whilst we might not have stopped the US going into Iraq it was likely that they would not have the mandate or the inclination now to go into Syria which had certainly been mooted at various points both before and after the Iraq invasion. (I intend to write more on Syria given its current relevance but since it has taken me sol ong to write even the one post this year I will publish this one before moving on).
I wish that all the people who had been on the march could have overheard the Professor and could have felt the strength and the vindication that they had done a good thing, a significant thing. They would certainly not learn such things from the mainstream media who barely made reference to it at the time and certainly do not now. It was important, it was genuine grass roots democracy, not just the usual dissenting suspects, not just an attempt to railroad people into a specific dogma, the participants came from too broad a spectrum for that.
What is difficult to refute by the detractors is the enormous global scale on which the march took place, the level of coordination was immense it was a different kind of globalisation and one which encompassed a pan-ideological base. An unprecedented number of people across the planet mobilised in spite of their governments and gave an unequivocal message that what was happening was wrong. In terms of the total figures worldwide it will always be impossible to get anywhere near the actual number with any degree of certainty or proof, indeed the ranges I have seen go from 6 million people to 30 million people in around 60 countries. In Canada over 100,000 took the the streets of Montréal in temperatures of -30 (with wind chill), a group of Scientists from the McMurdo Station stood on the shore of the Ross Sea in Antarctica and a town in New South Wales had a march 2,500 strong which was the size of the town’s own population.
Some cite Canada’s reluctance to send troops to Iraq then as having been a consequence of the strength of feeling across the country, it may well have stopped others, Michael Moore has already pointed out the somewhat ridiculous claim that the coalition was anything more than the United States, a couple of its Western allies and a large amount of dependencies and military bases around the world. The consequences of the march may in fact be felt for years to come, perhaps into the next decades. I heard somebody speculate that in the UK almost every work place with more than 100 people in it was likely to have had someone who had attended the march on that weekend and that this meant news would be transferred in the old fashioned way by word of mouth and not a politically motivated sanitisation. One might wonder whether 10 years later the reluctance of the British Parliament to write a blank cheque of British lives to the illegal action in Syria may stem from the actions of 2003 and aftermath, either by the involvement of some, or the memory of others. What is clear is that there are cracks in that supposedly impenetrable ‘special relationship.’
Did we stop the action in Iraq happening in 2003 no we did not but I along with millions of others across the globe made it quite clear that this was not in our name, we did not support the action and that betrayal by our governments will sit long in the memory for some of us. And it is reawakened now.
*The 2004 Guinness Book Of Records listed the march in Rome on the 15th February 2003 as having been attended by around 3 million and was the largest anti-war rally in history. Wikipedia breakdown of figures by country
Song Of The Day ~ Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Cursed Sleep