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Stop the War won the Syria debate

The anti-war movement may have failed to stop war with Iraq – but by subjecting it to serious scrutiny we made it harder to wage future wars

You often hear that the February 15 2003 anti-Iraq war march in London — the biggest demonstration in British history — was a failure.

Left-wing activist Ellie Mae O’Hagan said in 2011: “The Stop the War march in 2003 was so huge and monumental, and it did absolutely nothing.”

Two years later on the 10th anniversary of the march author Tariq Ali, who spoke at the Hyde Park rally in 2003, said: “It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy.”

I’ve tried to counter this popular perception in my book The March That Shook Blair. And Parliament’s vote last week indicates that the anti-war movement has not, after all, been a failure.

If you look at the newspaper reports from early 2003 and compare them with recently published insider accounts a clear picture emerges of a prime minister under intense political pressure and a government in crisis or even on the brink of falling.

The key date was March 11 2003, just over a week before the invasion. According to the Sunday Telegraph on this day the Ministry of Defence “was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.”

A Daily Mirror report explained that the crisis had been triggered by a phone call between then defence secretary Geoff Hoon and his US counterpart Donald Rumsfeld.

Hoon “stressed the political problems the government was having with both MPs and the public.”

A Peace News columnist called this argument “delusional,” while many people attending talks I’ve given have been sceptical that the march came close to stopping the 2003 invasion.

But others have pointed to the long-term effects of the march and its influence on public opinion in particular.

This is what’s key to understanding last week’s vote against any attack on Syria.

It chimes in with what former Stop the War Coalition (StWC) chair Andrew Murray told me: “What we can say Stop the War has done is help foreshorten the war in Iraq and raise the bar enormously for any such war ever being undertaken in future.

“Sometimes if people ask ‘what war did you manage to stop?’ I answer: ‘The next one’.”

Murray’s argument was confirmed by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in a piece for the New Statesman earlier this year: “Iraq has permanently raised the bar of public legitimacy for future interventions, whichever government puts them before Parliament. Today the British public are more sceptical of the principle of committing British troops abroad, because they are more critical of the circumstances in which it could be justified.”

An Opinium/Observer poll in June adds weight to this argument, with 69 per cent of respondents saying Britain should restrict the military to protecting its territory and humanitarian assistance in times of crisis.

The shift in public opinion was underlined last week. Almost every paper noted that the “spectre” of the Iraq war hung over the House of Commons during the debate.

And 2003’s legacy was also prominent during Ed Miliband’s much-discussed face-to-face meeting with David Cameron and Nick Clegg in Downing Street, where reportedly “Ed said to the Prime Minister: ‘You have to realise that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us’.”

What’s missing from all the coverage is any mention of the anti-Iraq war movement.

That’s not surprising. As former Respect leader Salma Yaqoob explained in my book: “We have to remind ourselves we’re up against some very powerful interests and the last thing they want to admit is that they have been shaken by the anti-war movement.

“Don’t look for validation from the very people you are opposing.”
The elite has every interest in minimising and dismissing popular protest. But it was the anti-war movement, headed by StWC, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain, that played the crucial role in highlighting government deceit in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and mobilising so many against the war.

As former StWC press officer Mike Marqusee told me: “Although [the march] didn’t stop the war it placed it under a degree of scrutiny that very few wars in British or US history have had.”

All this contributed to the government losing its bid for parliamentary support for an attack on Syria by 13 votes.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has since seemed to rule out any British involvement in military action: “Parliament has spoken. I don’t think it is realistic to think that we can go back to Parliament every week with the same question having received no for an answer.”

And the New York Times reported that “the lack of a British blessing removed another layer of legitimacy for Obama” and that the president had told senior aides one of the reasons he was seeking congressional approval for military action was “a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.”

Congress returns on September 9, so any military action will at least be delayed until then. No small thing if you live in Syria and are preparing for or trying to escape from the so-called precision bombing.

It is clear that a direct line can be drawn from the massive anti-Iraq war protests in 2002-3 to the government being forced to back down from military action against Syria 10 years later.

This in turn has delayed the US march to war. And if Congress votes against military action, making it politically impossible for Obama to proceed, the influence of Britain’s anti-war movement will have stretched very far indeed.

Make no mistake. The government’s defeat last week is a huge victory for anti-war activism.

Not so much for the anti-war protests that have happened over the last few weeks against attacking Syria, important and essential though they are.

But for the more than a million people who marched through London that cold Saturday in 2003, it is proof that we didn’t march in vain.

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.

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