As for the former, there is little enough to tell. It took me a while to dig out my personal journal covering that period, but once I’d blown off the dust and cobwebs what I found was an account of a “prolonged shuffle” to Hyde Park and my total failure to find anyone I knew. Both of which, I suppose, were features of the day for very many people, and in themselves a sign of that demonstration’s sheer scale – the biggest protest march in British political history.
But looking back from this vantage point, ten years later, it has to be said that the experience of the anti-war movement in Britain, ever since, has been much the same. That is, for all the energy and inspiration that came from 15th February 2003, it’s turned into a prolonged shuffle, and a general failure to find again the mass of people who came with us to central London that day.
I’d put it down to a couple of key factors.
The first one is an objective reality. There is a continuing succession of imperialist wars – Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Mali, to name the most obvious ones – but none of them are really on the same sort of scale as, say, the Vietnam War, let alone a really major conflict.
In Vietnam, the US military involvement was massive, the draft meant that it directly impacted on millions of US citizens, and by the time of US withdrawal there had been 58,220 American military deaths. In contrast, there were 4,486 US military deaths throughout the war and direct occupation of Iraq. In Afghanistan (at the time of writing), there have been a total of 3257 military personnel, from combined Coalition forces, killed since 2001.
Without wanting to reduce the very real trauma that accompanies these figures to just cold statistics, it’s a harsh fact that with fewer coffins coming home the emotional shock of war is lessened for the general population.
The imperialist wars since the beginning of the 21st Century have arguably been closer in scope and scale to the small colonial wars fought in the Victorian era. As then, there is the occasional military disaster (Isandlwana, anyone?) but in general the casualties suffered by the Western powers are a gradual drip, drip on the margins of popular awareness.
The state and the media have played their part, of course, in the reification of the military, in the relative militarisation of contemporary British culture (in the mainstream, at least), and in encouraging a racialisation of attitudes to these small wars (“we” are supposedly fighting brown-skinned people, Muslim terrorists, and so on in order to civilise these distant places).
However, it’s harder to generate opposition to a war that somehow doesn’t feel so very much like a bad war…
The other key factor, in my opinion, was an entirely subjective one. It comes down to the inability of the prevailing forces on the Left to relate to a mass audience.
Back to my journals again. A local Stop the War group had been launched a little while before the big 15th February demonstration, and we sent three filled coaches to London on the day. But by mid-March, all the organisational roles in the local group had fallen into the hands of established activists from the SWP. This was rapidly whittled down, under pressure from the SWP Centre, to a single self-appointed SWP “convenor” who ensured the focus of the group’s activity was almost entirely upon mobilising for a series of local demonstrations. Numbers, as well as engagement with the campaign, dwindled as we were marched up and down in the finest tradition of the Grand Old Duke of York.
Here’s an extract from my journal accounts of the time:
“I’ve been talking with quite a few of the anti-capitalist activists, over the weekend. They’re very aware of the situation in the local SWP, having experienced ‘Comrade Mainwaring’[i] in action for themselves they’ve figured it out – around the anti-war movement in particular, it was noticed by most of them that he seemed to do all he could to keep control of the local campaign in his own hands alone, and to undermine efforts to structure the thing democratically or to spread the activity across a broader base. There’s a big problem for us in that they’re generalising from this experience…”
The anti-war group was treated as, in effect, a stage army in a bureaucratic theatre. No surprise that involvement in the campaign dwindled rapidly.
The nadir was probably the meeting at which only three people turned up – Comrade Mainwaring, myself, and one other. By that time personal relations had been strained to the point that Comrade M sat alone in the meeting room, not knowing we were there, while we sat outside for over an hour waiting to see if anyone else came. When they didn’t, the two of us retired to the pub around the corner. Comrade M duly reported that the meeting had been a success and a number of important decisions had been made!
If this sort of experience was fairly common – and having spoken with people from around the country, it certainly doesn’t appear to have been uncommon at least in smaller towns – then it’s a sad reflection on the incapacity of the biggest party on the British far left to go beyond being a propagandist, control-obsessed sect and relate to the widest audience it has ever had.
Tragically, such sectarian disorders are not isolated to the one organisation. It was, and remains, a wider problem that afflicts the British left in general. Unless and until we are able to confront it honestly, and make the necessary changes to thinking and practice, then socialists will stay trapped in pious little circles, endlessly squabbling over small details of theory while claiming for themselves the inheritance of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. But as Trotsky himself once pointed out, real politics starts with the millions.
What the fantastic example of 15th February 2003 shows is that it is, after all, quite possible to reach those millions, to build movements of the millions, and maybe even to break the desperate cycle of small-group politics and dead-end front organisations into which the British left has locked itself for so long.
But it has to start from the principle of democracy within the movement, and from a conscious rejection of sectarianism.
For today though, I’ll be taking some time to recall the day we marched through London in such numbers that the city itself felt like ours, and it felt possible that we could even change the course of history. Because I will be able to tell my grandson that, along with perhaps two million others, I was there.
Phil wrote this peace for his blog The New Life.