Fred Leplat reviews “The People v Tony Blair”, an account of the anti-war movement in Britain by Chris Nineham, one of its main organisers.
The People v Tony Blair (politics, the media and the anti-war movement)
by Chris Nineham, publisher Zero Books, 2013
Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, it is certainly time to reflect on the achievements of the anti-war movement in Britain. This short book, at just under 100 pages, by Chris Nineham one of main organisers of the Stop the War Coalition is a useful reminder of the scope, breadth and impact of the anti-war movement in Britain. The opposition to that war, which many thought to be illegal, is enduring with a poll in February revealing that 55% believe the marchers to be right, and only 28% that they were wrong. This continuing opposition originates from the defeat that the US and British forces suffered in Iraq: Saddam Hussein may have been toppled, but he has been replaced by a regime which is no close friend of imperialism: there are no US bases in the country, there is little democracy, and the economic and social situation is arguably worse than under Hussein. Furthermore, the justification for the war, that is the existence of weapons of mass destructions, was found to be a lie deliberately spread by Bush and Blair.
The shock of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre on the 11 September 2001 was an opportunity seized upon by right wing circles in the US political establishment to carry out the “Project for a New American Century” project. Developed in 2000 by close allies to Bush, the Project aimed at establishing the domination of US neoliberal capitalism by military means backed by vigorous diplomacy. The invasion later in 2001of Afghanistan occurred so rapidly that it did not give time for an anti-war movement to develop. It was also given a gloss of legitimacy when it was given the name of “Operation Enduring Freedom” and obtained the backing of the UN and NATO.
But the invasion of Iraq required a longer preparation, both militarily and politically. The speech by Bush in January 2002 introduced the Axis of Evil of Iraq, Iran and North Korea all with weapons of mass destruction prepared the ground for lining up a coalition of states willing to intervene into Iraq because of the inability to obtain UN backing for the invasion. The country had already been softened up by ten years of sanctions which had caused its infrastructure to be incapacitated and the death of possibly 500,000 children through lack of medical care, something which US Secretary of State Madeleine Allbright described as a price worth paying. The lie about WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) ready to be launched against the west was pursued and embellished vigorously to win popular support in Britain for the intervention. The real motivation for the invasion of Iraq was because it suited US imperialist geo-strategic interests in the Middle East to have a compliant state, which the Hussein dictatorship no longer was.
The time needed to assemble an invasion force by the US with British participation and the need to attempt to gain support from the UN allowed a mass anti-war movement to be developed throughout 2002. The StWC (Stop the War Coalition) was launched ten days after the 9/11 attack at a meeting in Friends Meeting House in London where two thousand people filled the main hall and several overflow rooms. From this event, the StWC went on to organise some of the biggest demonstrations in British history: the September 2002 march with 350,000 making it the largest anti-war demonstration; the 15 February 2003 march with 1.5 – 2 million making it the largest demonstration in British history; the 22 March 2003 march with 500,000 when the invasion took place, making it the largest anti-war demonstration in time of war; the 20 November 2003 protest when Bush came to London with 300,000 making it the largest ever week-day evening demonstration.
The size and breadth of the anti-war mobilisation under the umbrella of the StWC certainly did help shape the political agenda and created a sense of crisis in the Blair government. Chris Nineham quotes from Blair’s memoirs that “The party was split. I was between numerous rocks and hard places. The strain on everyone around me was almost unbearable”. Ministers were met everywhere with demonstrations. Some members of the cabinet such as Robin Cook, Clare Short, and Jack Straw all to varying degrees were opposed to the invasion and then reluctantly supported it. The Liberal Democrats were also opposed to the war – at least before it started – with Charles Kennedy speaking at the 15 February 2003 demonstration. Blair eventually got his way with a vote in Parliament with a 122 Labour MPs rebelling. The Labour Party’s historical support for colonial adventures and imperialist wars, such as in the Falklands and the Balkans, combined with the party and in particular Blair’s support for Britain’s “Atlanticist”, i.e. pro-US, foreign policy always made it likely that in Parliament there would be enough Labour MPs who would vote with the Tories to back the war.
The brevity of the book does not allow space for a more thorough description of the breadth of the mobilisation, with every town and city having anti-war groups, with every major faith participating in the mobilisation, and an impressive organisation amongst school-students who staged walk-outs. More should also have been included about the Military Families Against the War, which at one time included a majority of families who had lost one of theirs in the war. The Military Families, along with the anti-war movement had a direct impact on the drop in recruitment to the army and was giving serious concerns to the Ministry of Defence.
Chris Nineham does record some of the enduring positive legacies of the movement against the war which we can agree upon. This includes the distrust of the USA amongst ordinary people across the Middle East and North Africa which in part laid the conditions for the Arab Uprisings of spring 2012, the increased solidarity with Palestinians with the biggest demonstrations against Israel and energising the Boycott Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign. The anti-war movement and the defeat of the USA and Britain in Iraq has curtailed their ability to intervene directly militarily elsewhere. Blair is pursued everywhere in public by individuals who shout at him that he is a liar and war criminal. And of course, many of the activists who organised the anti-war movement are now organising the movement against austerity. These are achievement that the movement should be proud of.
But it is also important to be sober and note that imperialism and the capitalist elites have, despite the strength of the anti-war movement, been able to shift the public to the right on some issues in particular on racism and democracy. Chris Nineham certainly does mention the rise of islamophobia and describes it as racism masquerading as a cultural critique. But this deserves much greater space as it has fuelled racism and xenophobia across Europe and North America on a dangerous scale. These are powerful weapons in the hands of the ruling class in a period of economic crisis. Organisations such Golden Dawn in Greece and UKIP in Britain have been able to shift the debate to right on immigration and on Europe by walking on the ground prepared with justification for the war on terror, such as Bush’s speech about the clash of civilisations which encouraged the rise of islamophobia. Another consequence of the war on terror that the book does not develop is the attacks on democracy and how this has been tolerated and even in some cases accepted by large parts of the population. Extensive and intrusive surveillance of many aspects of individuals’ lives is widespread and worthy of Orwell’s1984. Certain ethnic minority communities are routinely harassed for possible sympathies with islamic fundamentalism and therefore, in the eyes of the security services, with terrorism. Guantanamo Bay is still open with prisoners having spent 12 years in detention without being charged and with no prospect of release. Torture to extract information for terror suspects does not attract the opposition it should and the British government is trying to extradite people to countries where it is still practiced openly. The “targeted killing” of terrorists is backed by 54% of Britons in a recent poll.
Finally the consequences of the war for politics in Britain ought to have been discussed much more extensively. The further shift to the right of the Labour Party because of its support for the illegal war in Iraq, and now its support for austerity, have opened up a huge gap in politics. The two general elections following the invasion of Iraq saw lowest turn-outs on record since the introduction of gen George Galloway was elected as a Respect MP in Bethnal Green in 2005 and then again in Bradford in 2012 and previously. This reveals the potential for a left political project to oppose austerity and war and which can give hope to people that their future will be better than that of the previous generation.
The book is nevertheless a fascinating account from one of the main organisers of the Stop the War Coalition of a powerful movement which shook the Blair government. The Coalition was able to develop a very broad front which effectively challenged the media and the establishment in their attempt to win support for an illegal war, and the book is a contribution to recording a popular movement which influenced the course of events.