The Iraq War protest: the largest virtue-signal in history
Why did this million-person march have so little political impact?
On 15 February 2003, the world witnessed the largest single protest in history. Across different nations and time zones, an estimated 10million people took to the streets in opposition to America and Britain’s impending invasion of Iraq. In London alone, nearly one million people slowly descended on Hyde Park, having reportedly marched a total of 1,775,000 miles, making enough noise to register a seven on the Richter Scale.
It was a protest of unprecedented volume and awesome scale. And yet, it had almost no political impact at all.
A month later, on 18 March 2003, British MPs voted resoundingly in favour of the war by 412 to 149. Then, on 20 March 2003, the Coalition of the Willing began the invasion itself. A few years later, George W Bush and Tony Blair paid for their warmongering sins at the ballot box – with resounding re-election victories.
The awkward, inescapable fact was that this massive protest turned out to be massively inconsequential. Marking the 10th anniversary in 2013, New Left veteran Tariq Ali admitted that ‘it had very little effect on mainstream politics’. Even Andrew Murray – a senior member of the Stop the War Coalition, which organised the march – conceded that ‘we were completely ignored’. As broadcaster Michael Goldfarb concluded sourly in 2010, this loud, voluminous protest ‘changed absolutely nothing’.
Or did it? From another perspective, it’s possible to see 15 February 2003 as the day that a certain mode of protest, indeed a mode of political theatre, went mainstream. The point of this new type of protest was less to change things than to perform and express oneself. No wonder this unimaginably huge movement of people, which could have stormed thousands of parliaments had it the will and organisation, seemed so resigned to the war taking place. Because the protest was never a serious attempt to stop the war. It was an opportunity for self expression, a chance to disassociate oneself, as an individual, from the seemingly inevitable conflict – to say, as the slogan of the time had it, ‘not in my name’.
Of course, as an opposition to the war in Iraq, it really was spectacularly ineffectual. This was hardly a surprise. As spiked argued throughout 2002 and 2003, this was an anti-war movement largely in name only.
After all, many who marched through Western cities that day didn’t actually object to the prospective war itself. They objected to its potential ‘illegality’ – that is, the fact it hadn’t been given a UN seal of approval. They simply wanted more evidence that it was legitimate, that Saddam Hussein really did have a stash of WMD hidden away somewhere and that he had therefore violated UN Security Council Resolution 1441. Give Hans Blix, the fawned-over UN weapons inspector, more time to find the evidence, they said. And no doubt if the UN had then given the invasion a thumbs-up, they would have then been quite happy for British or American troops to roll into Baghdad. They weren’t opposed on principle to a neo-imperial war. They just wanted it to be evidence based and sporting blue hats. As the liberal Observer declared the day after the protests, ‘we would back military action if necessary, as a least bad option for securing peace and stability’, especially ‘if backed by the UN Security Council’.
While the international-law fetishists dominated some sections of this not-so-anti-war movement, something vaguer motivated others. A worry about the consequences of any potential invasion, a gnawing anxiety over ‘the blowback’ that was surely to come our way should Bush and Blair go ahead with the invasion. Again, they weren’t so much opposed to war, as they were fearful of it.
Then, of course, there were other domestic factors at play. In the UK, for instance, the grievances that had been building up among disillusioned Labourites over the New Labour ‘project’ seemed to come to a head on 15 February 2003. The way in which New Labour was prosecuting the war, through spin, PR and dodgy dossiers, seemed emblematic of the shallow and manipulative way in which it governed in general. Little wonder so many people that day were more keen to talk of their anger towards Blair and his ‘lies’, than they were about Iraq itself – indeed, many of these self-same old-ish Labourites have continued to use the Iraq War as a stick with which to beat ‘Tony Bliar’ and New Labour ever since.
What the anti-war movement so palpably lacked, however, was any principled opposition to the war. Sure, there were conspiracy theories about oil, but there were no real shared political-moral ideals that might have turned this massive but disparate protest into a coherent anti-war statement. There was no sense that it was not in Britain’s or America’s gift to decide what’s best for Iraq. There was no assertion of a people’s right to determine their own future (as fraught with difficulty as that may have been). And there was certainly no sense of the importance of defending national sovereignty.
In place of shared ideals was an incoherent melange of legal cretinism, party-political disillusionment and fear.
This was undoubtedly a political failure. As Brendan O’Neill put it at the time, the Stop The War Coalition didn’t ‘so much lead the anti-war movement as simply call demonstrations and see what happens’. As Andrew Burgin, a member of the Stop The War steering committee, boasted: ‘It’s a new movement, out of anyone’s control… it has its own momentum.’ And like subsequent iterations, this leaderless movement led to nowhere.
Yet while it failed politically, perhaps it did succeed culturally – in ushering in and mainstreaming a performative style of politics. It may not have mounted a coherent opposition to the war. But it did provide an opportunity to posture, to virtue-signal before the term had been coined. It provided a chance for a mass of individuals to send out a sign that they were free of the vices of their elected governments. That they had nothing to do with the sins of their nations. That they were good people.
The protest’s practical political impact may have been non-existent. But the baleful legacy of ‘not in my name’ is everywhere today.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
Picture by: Getty.
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