Protest’s last stand?

The anti-war march on February 15 2003 brought up to 2m people on to the streets of London

On February 15 2003, like a million other Britons, Jane Elliston was marching through central London in protest at the imminent invasion of Iraq. Like a million other Britons, certain memories of the day remain for her. “I recall the alarmed face of the Cartier store doorman as I, my partner and four-year-old took a break from the march to collect my watch. I should add that I was a genuine protester at the time. But it was the only way you could get to New Bond Street. Two birds ... ”

Elliston’s story seems to sum up something about that day – not only that here was someone for whom direct action and running a Saturday errand with a young family in tow were compatible, but in its self-mocking good nature. This was not the usual crowd you find at a demo. Elliston and her partner both worked in the City and she had voted for Tony Blair in 1997. She hadn’t been on a march since anti-Thatcher protests in the 1980s, when she was a student. But here she was – “not exactly Swampified but not blinged-up either; clearly on a demo”.

In the event, the Stop the War movement, whose organising committee was stuffed with veterans of the Marxist/Leninist hard left (and which saw some Judaean People’s Front-style background infighting), ended up bringing anything up to 2m people of all political and social stripes on to the streets of London that day. There were also anti-war gatherings in Glasgow and Belfast as part of a worldwide protest.

The writer Ian McEwan was there taking notes for his novel Saturday, set on the day of the march: “I was sort of both a novelist and a marcher – slightly bad faith I suppose.” What he remembers, in particular, was “how everyone had a banner and a location. The Swaffham Women’s Choir, and so on. It had a school play quality – a sort of Englishness. I went down to Euston Road and watched the buses coming in, shipping people in. And many of them had banners and strong identity. You know: here was Gloucestershire; here was Stratford; all announcing themselves very cheerily ... ”

For a time, these cheery marchers caused panic at high levels of government. In the run-up to the march, defence secretary Geoff Hoon called his US opposite number Donald Rumsfeld to warn of “political difficulties ... real difficulties” about British involvement in the war, and Rumsfeld had subsequently gone public about the possibility of finding “workarounds” in case the UK wasn’t able to join the invasion.

It wasn’t as though the march invented modern street protest from nowhere. Anti-globalisation protests – which were street parties when they were not riots – had become a familiar feature in the 1990s. An element of prankishness, of the carnivalesque, seemed to have entered the culture of protest – as compared with the incendiary anger of the 1980s poll tax riots, the earnestness of Aldermaston, or the glum Jarrow marchers of the 1930s. Only a few months previously, in September 2002, a sideways sort of precedent had been set by the Countryside Alliance’s Liberty and Livelihood March, which had seen around 400,000 people take to the streets of London – most more likely to sport red trousers than the red flag. The left no longer had a monopoly on street protest; and, judging by turnout alone, it certainly didn’t have a monopoly on opposition to the intervention in Iraq.

As those with longer memories point out, there were also similarities with previous marches. “In social terms I don’t think the march was necessarily different from its predecessors – the Ban the Bomb Aldermaston marches of the late 1950s, or the CND protesters of the early 1980s,” says the historian Dominic Sandbrook. “The kind of people who go on marches are the people Michael Frayn called the herbivores: gentle, middle-class, Guardian-reading, Radio 4-listening, worthy, affluent, well-educated types. Obviously the Stop the War march was so big that the stereotype doesn’t quite hold true in this case but I would say that they made up most of the march and set the tone.”

Sandbrook says the lesson of history is that politicians generally “close their ears” to demonstrations – and that politicians with a habit, like Blair’s, of acting in the teeth of opposition “get used to seeing dissent as a sign they are right”.

“Anti-war protests rarely achieve anything because the government always sets the stakes so high that it can hardly be seen to back down. The natural parallel, I guess, is Vietnam in the US, where the protest movement didn’t really have an effect on government policy and was, in fact, counterproductive in that it provoked a fierce backlash from non-protesting blue-collar Americans. It’s interesting, though, that that’s not how it’s remembered; we are too attached to our romantic images of plucky protesters changing the course of history.”

As it became clear that the expected crowd of a few hundred thousand protesters was going to be north of a million, though, it looked for a moment as if the march might be a turning point. Even if it didn’t achieve its objective, could it give direct action a new visibility, a new force and a new demographic?

It didn’t, most seem to agree, happen like that. A protest born out of disaffection with the ordinary political process out of a growing reluctance to trust representative democracy to do its work representing us – may actually have ended up creating yet greater disaffection. It escaped nobody’s attention, after all, that the Stop the War march failed in its objective.

The writer Tariq Ali, one of the speakers that day, says, “there’s no doubt” that “the overwhelming mass” of demonstrators, among them many who had never demonstrated before, felt the march could achieve its objective. “These were citizens, marching, genuinely believing that what they did could affect politics,” he says, “and when they realised that it couldn’t, that was it ... It had very little effect on mainstream politics and I think it played a big part in alienating young people from politics.”

“Maybe, collectively a voice just sounds in the national consciousness,” is how McEwan puts it. “We put the biggest show on earth on the streets and nobody listened.”

In fact, more protests did follow. On March 22, the Saturday after bombing in Iraq started, between a quarter of a million and half a million took to the streets in what was claimed to be the largest demo during wartime in British history. George W. Bush’s visit to Downing Street later that year saw another protest – with between 100,000 (police estimate) and 300,000 (Stop the War estimate) coming out on a weekday. Whether you see these numbers as an impressive follow-up or a regrettable falling-away depends a little on whose figures you buy and how you read them.

Anna Chen, an activist who was working for the Socialist Alliance at the time, tends towards the latter view. “If you’re claiming between one and two million people came on this march, where did they go to? What came out of it?” Asked if she sees it as a lost opportunity, she says: “Totally.

“At the time someone said that it’s all very well this being an outburst of emotion, an expression of disgust with the war. But emotions die off very quickly. And if you don’t have any theory or understanding of the politics, then you’re really left with nothing.”

For Chen, the problem lies with the sidelining of the trade union movement and traditional structures of socialist organisation. “I think we’ve lost the organisation because we’ve lost the heart that drove that sort of movement. We are rabbits caught in the headlights at the moment.

“The Occupy movement,” she adds, “was a great little burst of energy but a lot of us knew nothing was going to come from that because it was formless; it was the expression of emotion.”

Her point is echoed in the ambivalence many still feel towards the widely touted slogan “Not In My Name”. The writer and historian Francis Wheen says the phrase “gives me toothache”, and McEwan agrees: “I hated that. Damp teddy-bear syndrome: there was something rather self-loving and consumerist about it.”

“I don’t think it was intended as self-absorbed,” Tariq Ali counters. “It is the world we live in – especially young people. The entire system encourages individualism and often of the most grotesque sort in consumerism. Those placards were carried largely by young people and it was an expression of individualism, that’s true, but would it have made any difference if there'd been one huge banner saying, ‘Not In Our Name’? It would certainly have been harder to carry.”

Both the marchers and those they were marching against were hoping the moment would be a watershed. On the very day of the march, Tony Blair told Labour’s spring conference that facing down opposition would change the game. “This is the testing time, the difficult, the tough time, but if we come through it the prize is not just a government able to carry on; it is far more important than that. It is a signal that we will have changed politics for good.” The sour truth for supporters of the march may be that Blair was more nearly right than they were.

In retrospect, even those sympathetic seem to agree that the Stop the War march was less of a turning point and more of a last hurrah: not the beginning of a long era of mass protest but the end of a short one. It came, after all, before the explosion of digital activism or “clicktivism” that made a click on a website a possible alternative to boots and placards on a street: in 2003, Avaaz, an online activist network, and Twitter were still three or four years away.

Yet even if the march didn’t usher in a new era, its supporters point to a more subtle legacy. Chris Nineham, a founder member of Stop the War who has written a book about the anti-war movement, says: “I think we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the march very, very nearly took us out of the war, and terminally damaged Blair. OK, he survived another four years but he went in disgrace. He never recovered. He never managed to move the agenda on.”

Anthony Barnett, founder of the website Open Democracy, sees the march as having given the lie to the assumption underlying the British tradition of government by consent – that the political class knows better than the people it governs – and that as such it represents a “historic turning point”.

Almost certainly, it played a part in hardening public opinion against the war. Though the anti-war movement in the other countries where it made a noise – Italy, Spain and the US – has more or less collapsed, British feeling against this and subsequent expeditionary wars has remained strong.

As Lindsey German, convener of the Stop the War Coalition, says: “All the politicians have to say now, ‘Libya isn’t Iraq, Iran isn’t Iraq.’ And in a way that’s a tacit admission that we were right and they were wrong. It has made it harder for a government to take us into future wars – though David Cameron is trying his best to prove us wrong ... ”

There also seems to be evidence that it was a formative experience for some of the younger protesters that day. The activist/journalist Laurie Penny, one of the most prominent voices around the Occupy movement, said the Stop the War march was a “really important day for me, my first big political memory as a participant”. A generation that was in its early teens or younger in 2003 came on to the streets in 2010s student protests.

When I ask German for her abiding memory of the march, what she lights on, surprisingly, is not the hurly-burly at the height of the march, the speeches and placards, but the chill of the evening after it ended.

“It was a very, very cold day,” she says. “I can remember that people had lit bonfires in Hyde Park. It was very dark by then, and the rally was over and people were waiting for their coaches to go home – and I can remember all these fires across Hyde Park, and people sitting round these campfires – no doubt to the annoyance of the park people who were very worried about the grass.

“Then I walked out on to Park Lane and, of course, it was totally deserted. It was a Saturday evening, and ... all you saw was, occasionally, a coach taking demonstrators away. Funnily enough, I suppose of all the things that stick in my mind, that does. It really transformed London on that day.”

I also ask Jane Elliston whether she has been on any demonstrations since. “Let me think,” she says. Then: “No.”

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