At the very same time as protest movements are growing spectacularly around the world, there is paradoxically a doubt in the air about the power of protest to influence events. Partly this scepticism is a reaction to the neoliberal elites' relentless and dogmatic commitment to austerity, never mind what the public thinks or feels or - apparently - does. There have in Greece for example, already been countless mass demonstrations and twenty-seven general strikes since the countries’ current crisis began and still no sign of a rethink of the economics of retrenchment on the part of the elites.
Partly, on a longer view, the many setbacks for the left and the labour movements since the 1980s have generated a pervasive awe in our rulers' ability to get their own way. You can see this reflected in the 'strong' theories of ruling class influence which tend to dominate left thinking. New Labour itself can trace its intellectual roots back to Neil Kinnock’s 1980s so-called new realism that argued a basic ‘we can’t beat them, we better join them’ approach to Thatcher and the ideologues of the free market. But you can see it too in more radical thinking. Chomsky's ‘propaganda model’ of media function, for example, builds no space in its mechanisms for the possibility of radical ideas permeating the mainstream media. The modern day followers of Foucault see power relations as so deeply embedded in our words and thoughts that we have trouble detecting them, let alone challenging them.
One of the ironies in the situation is that the great anti-war protests in 2003, which through their unprecedented scale and global reach gave an enormous impetus to the current phase of protest politics, are sometimes cited as evidence that marching changes nothing. Of course it is true that the protests failed to stop the attack on Iraq, but the view they achieved nothing needs to be challenged.
Ten years on the real history of Britain and the Iraq war leads to very different conclusions. Revelations have trickled out in memoirs, insider accounts and interviews over the last few years to show that the anti-war movement created panic in Downing Street and despair in Whitehall. Even before the biggest protests on 15 February, 2003 Blair himself admits to being isolated and desperate:
'The international community was split. UK public opinion was split. The party was split. I was between numerous rocks and innumerable hard places. The strain on everyone around me was almost unbearable. At home in Downing Street, I was a bit like a zombie.'[i]
Alistair Campbell remembers the morning of the two million demonstration itself as especially bleak, 'every part of the strategy was in tatters - re the UN, re the US, re the party, re the people country which was abut to march against us.'[ii] The Blair team escaped London to go to the Scottish Labour Party conference, but the future looked grim. As up to one hundred thousand people gathered to protest outside the conference hall in Glasgow, a Blair aide confided to a journalist 'this really was the moment of maximum pressure on him. As he travelled up there, we just didn't know whether the event would turn in to a fiasco.'[iii]
Things were so bad, plans were laid for Britain to pull out of the invasion of Iraq. Days before the war began, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon phoned Donald Rumsfeld, his US opposite number, to say Britain might not be participating, 'We in Britain are having political difficulties, real difficulties, more than you might realise'. That very night Rumsfeld announced Britain might not be going to war to a packed White House press conference.[iv]
Contrary to the myth of cabinet unanimity, senior ministers, including foreign secretary Jack Straw, begged Blair to back out to save his skin, and theirs. Memoirs show that when they failed to persuade him they thought they were going down. Blair himself says of that time, 'I thought: these really might be my last days in office.'[v]
The normal media disdain for demonstrations too evaporated in the tension of those days. The Daily Mirror swung behind the anti-war movement and carried long articles on ‘why we should march’ in the run up to February 15. Most papers carried maps of the route in advance, and many ran souvenir supplements in the days afterwards. Opinion pieces talking up the power of protest proliferated while on the night of 14 February the BBC weatherman recommended that people should wrap up if they were going on the march tomorrow.
This was a movement on such a scale it could not be ignored. What is more it hit the streets at a time when the both the British establishment and the ‘international community’ were divided over Iraq. The isolation of Blair, Bush, Berlusconi and Aznar was clumsily advertised when they met for a final war summit days before the invasion in the mid-Atlantic Azores.
The cowardice and careerism of so many MPs narrowly saved Blair, and condemned the Iraqis to years of mayhem, but it is not true the movement made no difference. We now know we nearly stopped Britain entering the war. We knew already that Blair was, in the end, hounded out of office, in disgrace over Iraq. His successor Gordon Brown made sure one of his first promises was to get the troops out of Iraq.
Just as important, the movement has helped win the argument against foreign wars. Collectively we have managed to create an anti-war majority in this country that has held over Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and extends now to a widespread solidarity with the Palestinians. More Britons hold the Israelis responsible for the problems in the Middle East than the Palestinians – a huge and historic turnaround. This body of anti-war opinion undoubtedly acts as a brake on our rulers’ instincts to take us in to further wars. Whereas for Thatcher in the 1980s it made sense to launch the Falklands war to try and win an election, now a politician contemplating sending British troops abroad has to factor in damage in the polls, lost votes and very likely sustained street protest.
This, of course, doesn't mean the argument and the campaigning is over. Elite politics in the twenty-first century is frighteningly unresponsive. The establishment has got used to getting things its own way, and it is less and less interested in hearing objections. Besides, there is a consensus on the key questions across the political spectrum which makes alternatives appear exotic or unreal, at least from inside the Westminster bubble. It is precisely the democratic dysfunction created by this situation that explains the increase in protest. In the early 1980s about 2% of the population admitted to having been on an anti-government demonstration sometime in their life. By 2003 that figure had reached 12%. Over the same timespan there was a drop in the number of people who believed there was ‘a good deal of difference’ between the main political parties from 80% to 15%.[vi]
But if this elite contempt for popular opinion and closedown of political options makes protest more urgent than ever, it is also likely to make it a tougher prospect than in the past. If more people have begun to take the streets as in anger at a poisoned political process, the self interested intransigence of our rulers can also create cynicism about protest. What the history of the anti-war movement really teaches us is that protest is worth the effort. We won the argument against Blair, we shaped the popular mood against war and we created a historic progressive alliance on the streets. We even came close to bringing Blair down. The reverse side of unresponsive regime is an illegitmate government and therefore ultimately a vulnerable one.
There is much more to do. As if to illustrate our establishment’s unwillingness to learn or bend, Cameron participated enthusiastically in the 2011 Libya escapade and rushed to support the French expedition in to Mali earlier this year. Our leaders’ commitment to both austerity and war in the face of all the facts and overwhelming popular opposition means that protest will have to escalate to be effective. But the demonstrations against the Iraq war show that people power can shape the political agenda and take the most confident government to the brink.
Chris Nineham was one of the organisers of the February 15 protest, he is a vice chair of The Stop the War Coalition and author of the forthcoming book The People V Tony Blair, politics, the media and the anti war movement. Available now from www.stopwar.org.uk
[i] Blair, T. (2010) A Journey, p.424
[ii] Campbell, A. (2012) The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq, p.460
[iii] Financial Times, 29 May, 2003, p.17
[iv] Campbell, A. (2012) The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq, p.490
[v] Blair, T. (2010) A Journey, p. 429
[vi] British Social Attitude Surveys, quoted in Nineham, C. (2013) The People V Tony Blair: Politics, the Media and the Anti-War Movement p.37
Get our weekly email