The February 15, 2003 protest ten years on: reflections on a decade

The demonstration on February 15, 2003 was the largest protest march in British history, but failed to stop the invasion of Iraq.  A reflection on how the protest, and the war, shaped a decade of politics and culture.

Heather McRobie: ‘Not In My Name’ was the banner we marched under – the slogan does, in retrospect, smell of the ‘me, me, me’ sentiment the 2000s generation was frequently accused of embodying.  But at the time it did at least clumsily touch on some of the sense of the dissent – that through a mass protest we were withdrawing our consent from a government on the precipice of undertaking an unjust act of war.  So much of the period around the February 15th 2003 protest has since become cultural furniture that it is hard to take it in afresh – the busloads of protesters arriving from across the country, the queasy feeling of hearing pro-Saddam or Ba’athist-apologist comments from some anti-war protesters (aged seventeen I remember my grudging realisation that, when you march, you march alongside people you’d rather not be associated with), the ‘Make Tea Not War’ placards that, looking at them now, feel distastefully close to detached, millennial ‘irony’ on the issue that was at hand – the bombing and occupying of a country.  In the aesthetics of the protest, the anti-war demonstrations felt like they carried over some elements from the anti-globalisation protests of the 1990s (the year before, Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo’ was being passed from friend to friend at school, and anti-globalisation-era tools like Indymedia were used to organise the protests), but it struck me at the time that those attending the protest weren’t just the usual anarchists and students – from my memory it felt representative of Britain as a whole: diverse, grumbly, a field of cold toes. 

Samir Jeraj: Grim inevitability permeated my thoughts about the coming war. From the autumn there had been a build up of troops in the Gulf, a ramping up of the rhetoric, and propaganda galore. Before the dodgy-dossier was a human rights report published by the UK government about Iraq – it featured grim footage of Saddam's treatment of the Kurds in the late 1980s accompanied by Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings for effect. Later there was the 45 minute claim, and the nuclear weapons claim, the death of David Kelly, the undermining of the UN Weapons Inspections – all while the troop numbers built up and up. I remember a debate we had in an A-Level History class on war between Piedmont, France, and Italy (part of Italian Unification) – once troops were in the field, each side demanded that they withdraw or else there would be war  -- which was what both sides were after. Could we stop the Iraq War? It seemed not.

Heather McRobie: The language being used by the Stop The War Coalition is interesting in retrospect as it feels like it framed a lot of the anti-war debate, such as ‘Against the racist backlash’ and using language like ‘civil liberties’.  The work of the Stop The War Coalition remains impressive not just in terms of building support for the protests but also in raising awareness of specific issues, such as the early campaigning against Guantanamo Bay in late 2003, as the information was starting to come out.  I do take on board Nick Cohen’s critique of the Stop The War Coalition and its relationship with homophobic and reactionary organisations; George Galloway soon became difficult to stomach, although the phenomenon of the RESPECT party developing as a political party out of the anti-war movement was a step towards a more diverse political landscape when you think how strong the two party system was during that period, whatever the failings of the party itself.  As the war continued through to the mid-2000s, I felt like my friends were all becoming politicised by the war, although it is hard to read in retrospect whether they were people who would have become politically engaged anyway.  Riz MC's Post 9/11 Blues captured both the frustration at the situation and at the same time the feeling of saturation by ‘war on terror’ news -- how people were both frightened and joking about things like racial-profiling in police stop and searches.

Samir Jeraj: On the day war broke out, I was heading into college early in the morning. My first and only class had been cancelled, so I had the day free. I walked into town and found a large group of people sitting around the war memorial at the junction between Hills Road and Station Road, blockading the road – I sat down with them in what was my first direct action. In Cambridge, there were demonstrations in the market square and – if I remember correctly – someone had hoisted a French flag over the town hall, as the French had refused to participate in the War. Several members of the local Labour Party destroyed their membership cards in front of the local tv cameras. Six weeks later, I walked into a polling station for the first time, I looked down at the ballot and saw the (pro-war) Labour, Conservatives, and Lib Dems – and then cast my first vote for the Green Party, the start of my journey to being an elected Green Party Councillor five years later. Ten years on from the war, especially now in anti-cuts activism, I meet young Labour Party members, people too young to remember that time and I try to convey the sense of manipulation, betrayal, and anger at that time, if only so it might not happen again.

Heather McRobie: It’s hard not to notice how the ‘war on terror’ has affected our daily habits and our language.  I lived abroad for several years during the end of the ‘war on terror’ era, where my British accent often felt like a marker, something to apologise for, in light of many people’s reactions to me as a symbol of the British government and their actions.  I do think my decision to work in human rights came out of the period following the 2003 protest and the sense of powerlessness during that time.  One surreal memory is of working as an intern at a human rights organisation on torture and then coming home and watching an episode of 24, and tiredly feeling goaded by the narrative set-up to support Jack Bauer’s actions, the frequent cognitive dissonance of that period.  The signs were often opaque – why did high street shops start selling keffiyehs in the mid-2000s – was that protest, irony, appropriation? These conversations came and went habitually.  On a political level I remember the really pungent, wounded disappointment in Labour throughout the period, amplified by the visceral sense of betrayal I think my parents’ generation felt, for Blair to have poisoned things the way he did so soon after the grim decades of Tory rule had just ended – I think there was a real heartache there that still lingers.  As Gary Younge wrote with commendable honesty in 2010, our party politics does have an element of tribalism that isn’t to be dismissed – the loss of faith in the Labour party, with the country’s fractured identity lines still raw with class difference and exclusion, left many lost, ‘tribeless’ as Younge describes it.

Samir Jeraj: Looking back on the events since 2003, or since 2001, you can see how it’s permeated culture. Every television programme seemed to allude to the War, from the frequent paralleling of storylines with Iraq in Arrested Development, to the sharp analysis of religion, war and politics in the reimagined version of Battlestar Galactica. Iraq wasn’t the first television war but it was the first major US/UK conflict which combined media saturation with media control. The confrontation between the BBC and the UK Government over reporting of the David Kelly case has seen a much more subdued BBC since Iraq, and slowly the narratives changed from weapons of mass destruction to regime change to ‘well it worked out and we should do Iran next’.  The myths and historical memory will probably end up revolving more around the television and films produced than on first-hand accounts, or scholarly history. Blair said “history will be my judge” – but most of us got more satisfaction out of Channel 4’s brilliant The Trial of Tony Blair, knowing that he’ll never stand trial.

Heather McRobie I think one thing about being part of an occupying country that we don’t discuss much is how the brutality being enacted abroad seeps back into the homeland – I feel like we’ve had very little discussion in the UK, even compared to America, on how this has played out; P J Harvey’s Let England Shake, from 2011, seems the only art that has captured this sense of both dislocation and connection, the haunting of the homeland by the actions abroad.  I think there was a generational shift in understanding or becoming interested in Middle Eastern politics, and Britain’s pernicious role in the region, from the rise in young people taking Arabic classes to the increased awareness of Britain’s position in the wars in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009.  I was living in Amman when Obama won the election, and between his election and his inauguration was the Israeli bombing of Gaza– there was continual oscillation between relief that the Bush era was finally over and frustration that the realities of occupation, in various ways, continued as violently as before.  These last four years have been disquieting, in terms of how – while seemingly drawing a line under what now feel like the ‘dark days’ of the Bush-Blair era – the Obama administration has stitched the poison of that period into ‘legitimate’ practices – the 2012 National Defense Authorisation Act that legally entrenched indefinite detention was a turning point for me, losing any last ‘hope’ that Obama would reverse the damage of the ‘war on terror’ era.  I don’t want to sneer at my friends who were caught up in the euphoria of the 2008 Obama election campaign, as much as in retrospect it can look like millennial Beatlemania, cringeworthy hero-worship – it was an outpouring of the feelings of powerlessness that we had felt since the start of the Iraq war, when ‘Not In Our Name’ had meant nothing. 

The Obama campaign of 2008 in this way both followed on from and replied to the 2003 protest march: it had the same hallmarks of ‘personalised’ (or branded) activism – the ‘Hope’ slogan substituting ‘Not In My Name’, which built on much of the commodified, ‘wrist-brand’ activism of the 2000s, with all the problematics that entailed – while departing from the anti-war protest in one significant respect: my friends who campaigned for Obama were now placing their ‘hope’ in institutional politics, the election of a President, as ‘Not In My Name’ and popular protest hadn’t worked.  Reading the anti-austerity protests, from the 2010-2011 university fee protests to UKUncut, through the lens of the 2003 protest, I think the shift is towards the recognition of the need to secure small concrete victories, rather than a mass protest ‘objecting’ to the overall state of affairs, which is perhaps why the March 26th 2011 protest drizzled out so dishearteningly – it felt like the worst elements of the 2003 protest: people with disparate messages, some of whom you are uncomfortable to be associated with (Ed Miliband’s 2011 protest speech, for instance), with nothing concrete achieved.  This year, the decline in resistance to the austerity programme feels like a repeat of the slump we felt several years into the war – a sense that the window for resisting has passed.

About the authors

Heather McRobie is a journalist, writer, and co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She is completing a PhD on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and holds an MA focusing on Balkan studies. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature was published in December 2013.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie 

 

Samir Jeraj is a journalist with a focus on issues in housing. He was a City Councillor in Norwich from 2008 to 2012.