The Iraq War protests had huge impact – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise


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4:32 pm - February 15th 2013

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by Chris Doyle

Back in February 2003, a BBC producer invited me for an interview on Iraq. What were my views? My attempts at nuance were brought to a grinding halt and I was offered an unappealing choice: “Listen, do you support George Bush or George Galloway?”

I responded, “How about George Clooney?” Never having been a disciple of either of the ‘Georges’ meant that the BBC rescinded the invitation to be interviewed. Amazingly, opposing both Saddam Hussein’s regime and the proposed war did not fit the required narrative.

Most British Muslims and Arabs I have spoken to see the 15 February 2003 protests only in terms of failure. They argue that the protests did not stop Blair and Britain still went to war. Many even ask, “What sort of democracy are we living in when a government can ignore such huge opposition?”

But that is not the whole story.

Firstly there was a huge impact on the British establishment.

It was never likely that a determined Prime Minister with a majority of 165 and the support of the main opposition party was going to concede, yet arguably one more Cabinet resignation would have forced Blair to step down. It was that close.

I am certain that when Blair started envisioning and planning a war on Iraq he did not expect such a backlash, such opposition and ultimately such personal hostility towards him. He had fought many other wars with little impact on his personal standing and prestige.

Blair’s eventual resignation was largely brought about by his failure in Iraq having lost the confidence of so many of his colleagues. He may never recover his reputation – extraordinary for a man who won three consecutive general elections.

As a result, subsequent leaders have been more reluctant to be seen as gung ho and interventionist. It will be in the minds of any leader considering intervention in Syria and Iran. Over Mali, it is noticeable how nervous ministers are about any deployment of UK forces.

Secondly, the criteria for British involvement in future conflicts have changed. There is much clearer preference for getting UN Security Council backing, as in Libya, and for ensuring that there are solid legal grounds for action. In addition there is a far greater suspicion of untested intelligence and relying solely on that for intervention.

Any intelligence-based report on Iran is met with acute scepticism. It has even been argued that an aversion to foreign interventions has gone too far and that perhaps for example, there should have been humanitarian intervention in Darfur.

Aside from the policy impact, what about the protesters? A global movement was effectively created, with protests in around 60 countries. Three million people marched in Rome alone, a world record. This global movement revealed a new conscience about international affairs. In Britain, the British Muslim and Arab communities for the first time marched side by side with all other parts of British society.

But there are lessons to be learnt from these protests. As a lobbyist, I was painfully aware of how few demonstrators had actively engaged their MP. To this day when asked by those still depressed about the Iraq war, I counter with the question: “Did you write to your MP or seek to meet them? Did you write to the Prime Minister? Did you write to newspapers?” Imagine if Tony Blair had had a million hand-written letters!

Finally, the other great failure of the anti-war protests was not to speak out more clearly about the evils of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It was a vile genocidal power with whom the West should never have dealt and should never have armed.

Many MPs told me that they had concerns about the plans for war but were nervous of being linked in any way with Galloway. They wanted the comfort of more ‘reasonable’ figures to ally with. Events in the Middle East should rarely be depicted and debated in such black and white terms much as the media may prefer it. Choosing between the two Georges should not be the only option.


Chris Doyle is Director of @Caabu (Council for Arab-British Understanding).

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Reader comments


My salient recollection, apart from the speeches, at the Glasgow march was the grotesque armed police cordon around the SECC where Blair was addressing the Labour conference in a bizarre coincidence. Never seen heavy handed security like that in Glasgow. Not even for Papal or Royal visits.

. . and in the same vein – We Are Many – trailer for upcoming film http://vimeo.com/59652207 pls watch and RT if this speaks to you (or FOR you)

” I counter with the question: “Did you write to your MP or seek to meet them? ”

Answer is prob yes in a lot of cases. But most people’s experience and perception of MPs is that they are fodder for the whips and will never rebel against the party line. Hence no point in lobbying.

“Many MPs told me that they had concerns about the plans for war but were nervous of being linked in any way with Galloway.”

This is just a “you know i was concerned about this really” type sob story. Frankly it’s bollocks. Had they opposed the war they would have also been associated with Robin Cook, Clare Short, Ken Clarke, John Gummer, Charles Kennedy and numerous other MPs from all parties. And MPs knew full well that fact as well at the time. Truth is they simply put their career prospects first.

Planeshift is of course right. 149 MPs voted no in ‘the declaration of war’ division, including Galloway.

I am certain that when Blair started envisioning and planning a war on Iraq he did not expect such a backlash, such opposition and ultimately such personal hostility towards him. He had fought many other wars with little impact on his personal standing and prestige.

Well as far as the Balkans conflict went he ended up being hailed as a hero and had Kosovan babies named after him in the immediate aftermath. So that might well explain his enthusiasm for being a big fucking hero no matter what any protesters say and charging off into the breach. (Well, sending other people’s children off to die on his behalf anyway.) (Presumably children NOT named after him.)

Amen to this, Chris. Particularly salient is your point about the cost to Blair’s political capital. It is almost possible that, had he not gone to war he might still be Prime Minister even today! I think that those of us who did March succeeded in tempering further mongering of war-for-the-wrong-reasons.

I disagree with your point about the coalition that was built by the protests. I think the Stop The War Coalition failed to properly build on the support they received. This may have been because of Galloway’s prominence. It may have been because the covenors of the movement were too left wing or anti-American, etc (I don’t actually remember what their politics were or what previous movements they had been a part of). Or it may have been that they were not strategic enough, and failed to properly collect the personal data of the protestors in a way that allowed future mobilisation.

Actually, it would be an interesting thought experiment to game out what would happen if the same push to war were to happen today. Surely campaigners would be savvy enough to collect and segment the personal data in the style of Blue State Digital, 38 degrees or Change.org, &ct. that would have lead to a much more efficient anti-war movement that raised a bit more money and more supporters. Coupled with the sharing tools offered by Facebook and twitter &ct, the movement would certainly have been able to get those letters sent to MPs, an probably forced that extra cabinet resignation too.

Any reluctance to invade Iran comes from the fact we are militarily overstretched and practically bankrupt – not because of protests about previous invasions.

And the Labour Party will still dig Blair out to campaign for funds so they’ve learnt jack-shit. When he’s in prison we can start talking about lessons learnt.

8. Richard Carey

I’ve got to make a pessimistic point; the Iraq War took place against huge protests, which were shown to have no effect, which I think made people cynical towards the political process, and nowadays the government goes to war without even telling us first. If we were to attack Iran, we’d hear about it after it had already begun.

Blair will always be remembered for Iraq, but will he ever face any legal consequences? I doubt it, even though he lied the nation into a war which killed hundreds of thousands.

9. Richard Carey

Pessimistically, I would say the Iraq War demonstrations showed that the government can ignore such peaceful protests with impunity, especially as Blair was re-elected afterwards.

If the government decides to attack Iran, I doubt they’ll even bother telling us until they’re already doing it.

10. Richard Carey

Sorry about the double post, I thought the first was lost in a technological crash. Luckily my opinion hasn’t changed in the interim.

I think we can safely say that the movement against the Iraq war led to the defeat of the neo-cons in the US by Obama and along with the bogging down of the US armies in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Arab Spring. Naturally it did not overthrow imperialism but it made it think for a bit before of course eventually returning to type.

I was for the Iraq war.

13. flyingrodent

I think the Stop The War Coalition failed to properly build on the support they received.

I think it tells you everything you need to know about modern British politics that it was left to these three-men-and-a-dog organisations to organise against quite possibly the most obviously doomed and lunatic government policy of the last fifty years.

This may have been because of Galloway’s prominence. It may have been because the covenors of the movement were too left wing or anti-American, etc (I don’t actually remember what their politics were or what previous movements they had been a part of). Or it may have been that they were not strategic enough, and failed to properly collect the personal data of the protestors in a way that allowed future mobilisation.

It most definitely was because almost everyone figured, well, if (x) million people barely gave the government pause before it tore off and did exactly the idiotic things it always intended to do, more protests probably aren’t going to sway them. I mean, I like the idea that maybe a few more marches might have dissuaded the government. It’s quaint.

It’s not a mystery why anti-war protests died away – it was because it’s entirely obvious that governments have long since spotted that they can let movements march and bang their drums, and then totally ignore them once they’ve all gone home. We come out, shout a bit, then sod off and watch the horror unfold from the comfort of our front rooms, because the ruling class of the UK has little or no antiwar sentiment. Governments may pay some heed to marches when protestors start breaking things, and not before.

I mean, hell, even after a decade of near-biblical levels of slaughter, how many MPs decided to vote against exporting the wonders of our military to Libya? I’ll tell you – thirteen. Thirteen out of, what, six hundred and fifty?

But let’s not forget – that Galloway, oooh, he’s a wrong ‘un.

I disagree with the post, by the way. I think the 2003 protests were a gigantic debacle, a farcical failure of comically enormous proportions. That’s not the fault of the people who attended, by the way. It’s the Labour Party’s fault, for being such a bunch of insane, grovelling careerists led by an mental, bullshit-spouting ideologue who was stupid enough to really, deeply believe his own propaganda.

“(I don’t actually remember what their politics were or what previous movements they had been a part of).”

It was essentially run by the same groups who organised against Afghanistan. However once they found they had substantial popular and active support they just didn’t know what to do with it. Hence it disappeared into infighting and various political factions trying to translate the support into the ballot box

“specially as Blair was re-elected afterwards.”

With a reduced majority. So the political consequences of ignoring such movements can be said to equate to roughly 50 seats.

The longer term consequences was I think the labour party lost motivated activists (espcially in the south) – some to other parties but most to non-activism. This has an effect in terms of it allowed the conservatives to operate unchallenged in many areas.

In Scotland, nobody now seriously thinks labour is a party that represents social justice. And labour lost many activists and support not just to the SNP but to the scottish socialists, greens and so on – all of whom support independence which had the effect of mainstreaming the idea that Scotland would be better off without london rule. In Wales, welsh labour cleverly adopted the ‘clear red water’ strategy which gave them some protection from other left wing parties. Otherwise they too would have suffered.

So the long term effect of blair’s decision overall is likely to be have been that the seeds sowing the end of the UK were sown.

Governments may pay some heed to marches when protestors start breaking things, and not before.

Pretty much this.

Still, lets all have a nice orderly picnic in Hyde park this year against austerity and see where that gets us. No doubt David Cameron’s shitting himself in fear at the thought of it.

The tabloid approach to the statement leaves the reader with too many unanswered questions. For instance we are to assume that elected politicians within the publicly perceived framework of parliament are decision makers. There is no mention of the corporate/financier pressures nor non elected think tank direction e.g. Chatham House, Council for Foreign Relations etc. There isn’t a mention of the corporate media that works in tandem with government and unelected bodies to influence public opinion. The UN is cited but only as an impartial ideal, the reality of who controls UN agendas can be seen globally, from Yemen to Haiti. Humanitarian intervention has been exposed as little more than an excuse to invade and plunder, refer to Libya and the actual humanitarian disaster resultant from NATO/US occupation. Overall the assumption that nations, power groups have the right to interfere in other Sovereign nations undercover of quasi legal deceit typifies centuries old arrogance and elitism. Voices may be heard but are they any better than that they decry.

Yes lots of people turned out to march on 15th Feb 12013. But nothing like as many stayed at home or in the pub to watch the Home Nations Rugby that afternoon. England beat France 25-17 at Twickenham and Scotland were thrashed by Ireland at Murrayfield. Wales lost at Italy as well.

Like it or not that was the main news story of the weekend not the march – which, much like The Sex Pistols concert at the Free Trade Hall, attracted more people every time it was recalled.

Something has happened to people’s expectations. When I was at college going on a march was a regular worthwhile endeavour but no one in there right mind thought it would make a blind bit of difference. On the 15th Feb people went on the march instead of going to Sainsbury’s, the gym, Homebase, the library, college or staying in bed. Good for them. But I don’t see why they should try and persuade themselves it followed that they had earned the power to change government policy.

18. flyingrodent

I don’t see why they should try and persuade themselves it followed that they had earned the power to change government policy.

This does seem to have come out of nowhere as the big talking point: Oh, you narcissists you, thinking you had veto power over government policy! You are so very silly and self-indulgent and so on.

It’s certainly one way of distracting from the fact that the war was plainly idiotic from the start; certain to end with just the vast bodycount that it did; sold with risible, transparent fearmongering and defended with the most inane baiting and name-calling.

All in all, this “Narcissism” is more or less the correct target for folk who’d far prefer to focus on How self-involved all those people who got the war spot-on were. I mean, it means nothing – the war’s supporters are and always will be the clowns here, but it’s difficult to get a good bellylaugh going over the partial destruction of a country.

Can’t say I’m surprised, myself. There’s a noticeable paucity of articles around on the theme of We fucked up massively, were gulled by the most asinine propaganda imaginable and our idiocy got tens if not hundreds of thousands of people killed.

I mean, why would there be? You can’t whack your political foes with We fucked up because we were gullible. You can’t stand on an aircraft carrier wearing a bulletproof vest and shout over infographics, and you can’t push your own enormous humanitarianism over a pile of corpses that size.

This isn’t particularly aimed at Kojak, by the way, who may just be having a dig at the OMG narcissism of the whatever and so on. I just raise it to point out how utterly redundant and farcical these marcher-attacking opinion pieces are, in any kind of proportionate historical context.

Your first two point could have and I argue, have nothing to do with the demonstrations. The first observation relates to the poor execution of the war and the spin which undermined Blair. It didn’t undermine him enough to loose the 2005 election and stayed PM for four whole years after the invasion of Iraq. This line of reasoning seems suspiciously similar to the over-congratulatory tone which the poll tax resistance and riots is thought of- ‘it brought down thatcher!’ (but the same party won the next election……).

Your second point is much the same, perhaps weaker. The experience of the Iraq war hopefully changed some thinking and practices but it is woefully simplistic to view the UK’s relationship with war in/against other states as solely the product of the shadow of Iraq.

Then the rest of the article doesn’t say much at all. In fact it conflicts with the headline, it suggests that the protests actually achieved nothing beyond a gesture.

Furthermore “In Britain, the British Muslim and Arab communities for the first time marched side by side with all other parts of British society.”

Um, are you sure? Have not people struck together, marched against the NF and worked togther on other political issues before Iraq. Or are you characterizing a ethnic and religious constiuency as otherwise unengaged historically with politics and potentially only concerned with narrow and tribalistic matters in their politics. I don’t think you are saying this, but I can see how easy that interpretation can be made, and it has dodgy consequences.

Surely the fact that the war itself went so badly had a bigger impact? The military and government clearly hadn’t expected the level of bloodshed that would come after Saddam was toppled. People who had supported it before changed their minds as the arguments and intelligence which had supported it were shown to be wrong.

If the insurgency hadn’t happened on such a large scale then Blair may have remained popular and in charge, the neocons wouldn’t have been discredited, military action against Iran would be much more likely, and the protests would be forgotten.


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