A festival of frustration

London's demo confirmed that being anti-war has become a respectable pursuit.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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According to a newspaper guide to Saturday’s London demo against war with Iraq, 750,000 people descended on Hyde Park, carrying 50,000 placards, and making use of 300 temporary port-a-loos. Everyone put together marched a total of 1,775,000 miles (or 224 times around the world), making enough noise to register a 7 on the Richter Scale.

The numbers were certainly impressive. But what was the march for – and what was it against? One report described the demo as ‘a chorus of defiant opposition to Bush and Blair’s drive to war’. Yet talking to the protesters and listening to the speeches, the demo sounded less like a ‘defiant chorus’ than an expression of frustration with Blair and the state of British politics. Many seem to be projecting a sense of isolation from British political life on to the canvas of the war debate.

The London demo confirmed that being anti-war has become a respectable pursuit. In days gone by, marching against war was generally seen as something that lefties, peaceniks and pinkos did. This time round, the Daily Mirror paid £10,000 for a stall to promote its wares; the speakers included mainstream political figures alongside the hard-left usual suspects; and middle-class families travelled to London on specially-chartered ‘peace trains’ to try to get Blair to ‘listen to us’.

The demo was a curious mix of old-style radicalism and middle-class respectability. On British demos over the past 10 years, there have always been a sea of placards made by the Socialist Workers Party – with SWP members handing out ready-made radical statements to anyone who was interested. This time, SWP placards (‘Wanted for murder: Bush and Blair’) had to vie for attention with Daily Mirror placards (‘Make love not war’) – and judging from newspaper photos of mass groups of protesters, the Mirror placards won out.

SWP members and ‘Mirror representatives’ also clashed over which was the true voice of the anti-war movement. The Mirror’s stall described the Mirror as ‘the anti-war paper’, while the Socialist Worker claimed to be the ‘newspaper of the anti-war movement’. One Socialist Worker seller complained that ‘those Mirror people are paid to be here, which is not the same. It’s just a scuzzy tabloid jumping on the bandwagon’.

In the speakers’ area, old radicals stood shoulder to shoulder (literally, not metaphorically) with respectable politicians. At one point I saw Charles Kennedy, leader of Britain’s third-largest parliamentary party the Liberal Democrats, looking distinctly uncomfortable in the company of Bob Crow, head of the rail workers’ union and such an old leftie that, as the Sun reminded us, he has a bust of Karl Marx in his office and named his dog after Che Guevara.

Shortly after former New Labour minister Mo Mowlam spoke, the playwright Harold Pinter took to the stage to read a ranting poem against the ‘stupid’ people who run the USA. As secretary of state for Northern Ireland in the late 1990s, Mowlam helped to secure American involvement in Anglo-Irish affairs and gushed over then US President Bill Clinton’s contribution to the Northern Irish peace process, yet here she was sharing a platform with the increasingly (and irrationally) anti-American Pinter.

This unholy alliance between radicalism and respectability was best embodied by Ahmed Ben Bella, who was the first president of Algeria in 1962 following the war of independence against France. Bella was introduced to the crowd as the ‘epitome’ of the struggle against Western wars, as someone who knows that peace has to be ‘fought for long and hard’. Yet Bella used his five minutes to say ‘Vive la France!’, praising the current French regime for taking a stand against ‘Monsieurs Bush and Blair’. What’s more, his pro-French comments won booming cheers and claps from the assembled thousands – surely the first time ever that an imperialist power like France has been cheered at an anti-war demo.

Among the marchers, too, there was a mix of radicals and respectables. Julie, a 27-year-old from Uxbridge in Middlesex, with a clutch of left-wing publications under her arm, was there to ‘say no to American imperialism’. ‘This war is for Bush’s benefit, not Iraq’s’, she said. Fergal, a student from Glasgow, said that a demo this big could ‘potentially smash Blair’s warmongering’. ‘We could put a stop to Blair and Bush and their war for oil’, he said.

Yet there were scores of middle-class families, too – mums, dads, prams and kids, who had come because they ‘felt the need to’. Emma from Somerset, who had a baby carrier strapped to her back, said, ‘Blair has to listen to us. I am here to tell Blair that public opinion counts’. Hilary, a 50-year-old managing director from Harrow in Middlesex, said she was at the demo to ‘send a message’ to Blair. ‘I don’t like the idea of this war’, said Hilary, ‘and I don’t like the way Blair ignores people’.

Many of these ‘marching virgins’ – the students, parents and middle-aged attendees who had never been on an anti-war demo before (or ‘Middle England’, as the Guardian referred to them) – didn’t seem very keen to talk about the war. When I pressed them for opinions about the planned attack on Iraq, the response was often ‘Well, of course I’m against it’, or ‘I think we should leave it to the UN’. Their attendance on the demo seemed to be driven less by a passionate commitment to an anti-war stance than by a concern that the Blair government is ignoring public opinion and ‘not listening’ to ‘the people’.

The demo looked more like a festival of frustration than a coherent march against war. Many seemed keen to parade their ‘worries’ about the Blair government ‘just doing things’ without consulting the rest of us. This suggested a growing mistrust of political institutions and a sense of isolation from the decision-making process. One marcher told me that she would ‘never countenance voting for anyone but Labour’, but she was here to say to the government ‘don’t take us for granted’.

Surveying the crowds, the most popular and numerous placards were the ones saying ‘NO!’ in huge letters (only when you saw the placard up close did you notice that it also said ‘…to war’ in smaller lettering) and ‘Not in my name’ – creating a sense of isolated individuals expressing angst with British politics, rather than a group of people united by a common anti-imperialist agenda.

Some of the speakers seemed cynically to exploit the war issue to score some points against the Blair government. Listening to Mo Mowlam, I couldn’t help wondering what she was doing at an anti-war demo. She pointed out that she was ‘not a pacifist’, but that this was ‘the wrong war’ right now (which of course means it could be ‘the right war’ some time soon). She then launched into lecture mode, telling the crowd of thousands not to be violent. ‘If you have violent tendencies, please keep them in check’, she said, to the bemusement of the middle-class families on the ground below.

Mowlam, who has fallen out of favour with her former New Labour colleagues, seems to be using the anti-war platform to continue her one-woman campaign against Blairism – and for herself. She criticised the Blair government’s ‘rush to war’ and its failure to ‘consult more broadly’. For Mowlam, this wasn’t about being anti-war – it was about promoting her self-image as an emotionally attuned and genuine politician.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has become something of a spokesman for the anti-war movement, and is certainly the most prominent political figure attached to the campaign. Which is odd, considering that he isn’t remotely anti-war. ‘I am not a pacifist’, said Kennedy, before explaining his ‘four principles in relation to this war’. First, he said, we need a UN mandate before launching a war; second, we need more adequate information and evidence for Saddam’s wrongdoing; third, there should be a vote in the House of Commons on whether we should go to war; and fourth, Blair should recall parliament if it becomes necessary, before making any hasty decisions.

Kennedy’s ‘four principles’ are about securing the best route for making war on Iraq; they are about the processes the government should go through before bombing Baghdad, rather than being an opposition to bombing Baghdad. Yet when Kennedy declared that ‘The prime minister has got to start listening’, he won rapturous applause from the crowd. Even a pro-war speaker like Kennedy could make an impact, by sounding dissatisfied and angry with Blair, not for making war, mind, but for not going through the proper channels.

For Kennedy, the anti-war issue has provided a platform from which he can berate Blair and co. His party may not have much chance of challenging New Labour’s huge majority at the polls, instead having to make do with winning extra new votes from disillusioned Tory voters – but the anti-war issue gives Kennedy a prominent public and media platform for talking the talk against the New Labour government. It’s not often that Kennedy gets to address 750,000 cheering people and make it on to the news so much – and if that means having to twist his pro-war stance into a ‘concerned about war’ position, then he seems more than prepared to do so.

The New Labour government’s defensiveness about the anti-war movement has made it easier for opponents of the government to turn the war issue against Blair. Blair’s claim that he is ‘risking everything’ on this war; the government’s backdown over banning Saturday’s march from entering Hyde Park; Blair’s speech on Saturday morning, aimed directly at the anti-war movement and brought forward so that it would be broadcast before the demo started – all of this creates a sense that the government is staking everything on this war and is having sleepless nights about the opposition to its plans. Such defensiveness on the part of the government can only fuel the protests, making it seem that saying no to war is one surefire way to hit the government where it hurts.

Saturday’s demo was a confused affair, with no unifying political message. Instead there was a collection of diverse and isolated people wanting to do something, anything, to send a message to the government. And rather than challenging this, or attempting to transform it into a powerful anti-war sentiment, the organisers of the anti-war movement have embraced the confusion and institutionalised it. The Stop The War coalition – the collection of pacifist, left-wing and Muslim groups behind the anti-war campaigns – doesn’t so much lead the anti-war movement as simply call demonstrations and see what happens. Then it’s usually Blair and co’s defensiveness that ends up mobilising people to turn up.

This is reflected in how the coalition is organised. Stop The War organisers celebrate the nebulous, diverse nature of the anti-war protests, without attempting to give any coherence to them. Andrew Burgin, a member of the Stop The War steering committee, boasts about the movement having no central shape. ‘It’s a new movement, out of anyone’s control’, he says. ‘The people organising it are not in control. It has its own momentum.’ (1)

In a sense, Burgin’s description is a fair assessment, capturing how many people seem to be driven to the anti-war movement without any particular aims or ideals. But to celebrate this as a positive thing reveals a deep opportunism on the part of the Stop The War campaign. The organisers are welcoming anyone and everyone into their ranks without giving them any solid arguments for opposing the coming war. The coalition’s steering committee has a total of 55 people on it, to reflect the ‘diversity of our membership’, but also reflecting the fact that the coalition is not interested in steering the campaign so much as just watching it grow, ‘out of control’.

The end result is that people’s confusion and frustration about Blair and his war are being made into an institution of British political life. And there’s only so far that frustration can go before it fizzles out.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

All quiet on the protesting front, by Rob Lyons

A march built on mistrust and fear, by Mick Hume

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) One million could join grassroots protest, Guardian, 12 February 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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