England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

20 years since the biggest protest in British history: Lessons from the 2003 anti-Iraq War

By Jason Toynbee

It was huge. The biggest demonstration in British history with up to two million people on the streets of London shouting, down with Blair and his war mongering lies! The noise was staggering. Ordinary people in their massed ranks demanding, no to war in Iraq!

That was twenty years ago. Today the protest of 15 February 2003 is still printed on the memories of those who took part. It’s a source of inspiration. Yet it also provides lessons in how to organise mass movements and, crucially, how to build to win. For the plain truth is the march and countless other anti-war protests around the world did not succeed in stopping the bloody invasion of Iraq and the terrible imperialist and Islamophobic wars of the 2000s.

The ‘War on Terror’

Why was war against Iraq being threatened? The ‘trigger’ was the 9/11 attacks on the USA in 2001 by a group of right-wing Islamist terrorists calling themselves Al Qaeda who mainly hailed from Saudi Arabia. They did not represent Muslims in general, but were rather a tiny clique determined to push the world backwards into feudalism. Any idea that the Islamic world shared these ideas was firmly refuted in 2011 when popular revolutions broke out across the Middle East and North Africa to overthrow the reactionary and authoritarian ruling class of those states.

In an attempt to demonstrate American military might, the US government of George Bush responded with bloody vengeance in Afghanistan where Al Qaeda was based. In December 2001 US and British forces ousted Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and the military operation turned into a protracted, blood-drenched war of occupation.

This would still not be enough. The so-called War on Terror now became the pretext for an attack on Iraq and its authoritarian ruler, Saddam Hussein. Over the course of 2002 increasingly loud calls in the advanced capitalist countries for a new war were cloaked in the language of a crusade to overcome terrorism and dictatorship. Reinforcing that rhetoric, capitalist media and politicians promoted a vicious campaign of Islamophobia, implying that all Muslims were terrorists.

These tactics represented a classic attempt to divide the working class through racism and nationalism. What’s more, they were used to obscure imperialist aims, namely control of the strategically important Middle East with its huge deposits of oil, including in Iraq.

Damned lies and false evidence

The role of Tony Blair and his ‘New Labour’ government was crucial here. During 2002 Blair took on the role of cheerleader for an attack on Iraq. The goal was to persuade people at home, less enthusiastic governments around the world, but also the United Nations, that war was the only possible course.

In lockstep Bush and Blair mounted a campaign of misinformation with false claims that Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda. Then came the fiction that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), specifically biological, but by implication nuclear too. As US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfovitz put it afterwards,”we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”

In September 2002 the Blair government published what came to be called the ‘dodgy dossier’. This claimed to show hard evidence of Iraqi WMD. In fact much of it was plagiarised from a dissertation by a student in the USA whose sources were extremely suspect! Most working class people around the world remained sceptical about this inept attempt at propaganda.

Later in 2003 after the invasion New Labour found a flunky, Lord Hutton, who was prepared to whitewash Blair and his cronies. The Hutton Report, published in January 2004, focused on the case of Dr David Kelly. Kelly, a biological weapons specialist, had told BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan off the record that certain evidence in the dossier was suspect.

Kelly committed suicide in July 2003 after newspapers outed him as the source for a BBC story exposing phoney evidence in the dossier. However Hutton laid the blame on BBC misreporting for the terrible pressure on Kelly and his subsequent death. On the larger question of the dossier, Hutton maintained the government had no information from intelligence sources which would have led it to question the ‘evidence’ for WMD. His report attempted to absolve the government of any direct responsibility. Few
commentators even on the right believe this.

Today, as Keir Starmer sets out on the election trail in Blair’s footsteps the question arises, would a future Labour government behave differently. Of one thing we can be certain, Labour in 2023 maintains the same pro- imperialist line, the same desperate devotion to the cause of US foreign policy, that it held at the start of the century.

Lack of strategy

When Stop The War Coalition (STWC) called the demo at the start of 2003 the response was extraordinary. Similar mass protests took place around the world, with as many as 36 million taking part. Undoubtedly these huge mobilisations made capitalist governments very nervous. Wherever possible the ruling class tries to ‘gain consent for wars. The fear is always that its
authority will be dented by going to war in the face of mass opposition, and indeed Blair was fatally damaged by the Iraq War. His reputation never recovered as ‘Teflon Tony’ became ‘War Criminal Blair’. Why then did he take the risk of attacking Iraq after 15 February? In part, he believed and continues to believe his own propaganda.

But it also came down to the poor strategy of STWC and in particular the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Britain which took leading roles in it. At the start of 2003 Bush and Blair were still trying to get the UN to agree to war via a so-called ‘Second Resolution’. In the event this was abandoned as a hopeless task shortly before the attack began. But in the run up to the march STWC invited a speaker who actually supported war, on condition of UN endorsement, the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.

The CWI (now ISA) had three members on the steering committee of STWC who objected to this invitation but were overruled. And so Kennedy came and spoke to the rally at the end of the march. Despite his being loudly booed this did real damage, because the so-called anti-war’ Lib-Dems then supported the war at the first opportunity and so further undermined the movement.

Nonetheless the Lib-Dems gained a degree of credibility as ‘radicals’ which helped them win votes a few years later in 2010, and form the austerity coalition Con-Dem government with the Tories.

A further mistake was that STWC failed to invite speakers representing socialist organisations who could explain the facts: that war grows out of capitalism and imperialism, and that the only alternative to a world of constant war was a socialist world.

STWC also failed to build decisively on the 15 February protest. The steering committee met a few days later and agreed on the need for this, but failed to take any concrete steps to build from the initial march. For example, left trade union leaders had called for strikes on Day X, the day the attack would begin, yet did nothing to make this happen. More demonstrations were announced, but socialists in STWC calling for a mass escalation of resistance to the war found themselves in a minority.

Although the CWI (now ISA) launched an international call for Day X protests, with members calling out hundreds of thousands of mainly young school students, including in the UK (see the account by Paul in the box below), the failure by STWC and union leaders to go beyond demonstrations to mass industrial action dissipated the momentum for a mass anti-war movement.

The march in London, despite its huge size, was unable on its own to force an end to the war. Blair admitted afterwards that he was scared by the demonstration, but not so much that he called off the war mobilisation. Strikes which prevented the movement of troops and weapons on the railways and ports, or which shut down the government machinery in the civil service, backed up by strikes by all workers opposed to the war for oil, were the only way in which the war machine could have been halted.

Some rail workers did take limited action. But this was never built on, because the leadership of the movement and the unions did not share our perspective that when the ruling class has decided to go to war, it can only be stopped by the even bigger threat of the working class bringing society to a standstill.

Opposing war today

Today Ukraine raises similar questions. True, there’s a different political situation. This time it is Russian imperialism playing the role of an invading force. However, billions of dollars worth of military equipment continue to be pumped into Ukraine by the US and its allies, notably the UK. This is not truly about supporting the legitimate right of Ukrainian people to defend themselves but instead using the Ukrainian state to fight on behalf of the western capitalist powers. At stake in this war, then, is the agricultural and mineral wealth of Ukraine, but also the extension of Western, or Russian, imperialism into the wider region.

On the STWC website an article of August 2022 calls for “a Herculean diplomatic effort” by all states concerned to stop the Ukraine war. But this completely sidesteps the question of why any government involved in an inter-imperialist conflict would want peace. It assumes instead a fund of liberal goodwill which just needs to be unlocked. In reality, there is no evidence of this latent desire of capitalist states to do ‘the right thing’. They will always act in the interests of their own capitalist system and if that means war, so be it.

The only way to oppose war is through mass organisation of the working class and youth, building a protest movement and using the strike weapon to force governments to act. Most importantly, an anti-war movement can only be created on an international basis, on both sides of the imperialist conflict. This is what International Socialist Alternative stands for.


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