Lessons and legacy of the two-million strong Iraq antiwar protest

Demonstrations are dead-end get-togethers without the leadership of a vanguard revolutionary party. Iraq, Occupy – where are you now?

The biggest demonstration ever seen in the streets of Britain palpably failed to achieve its declared aim, or anything approaching it. The question no one seems to be asking is: why?

The two-million-strong demonstration against the Iraq war 20 years ago today was not a success of the antiwar movement, but a symptom of its rottenness and failure. That demonstration’s total impotence was a clear sign that a so-called ‘antiwar movement’ led by servants of the imperialist Labour party was never going to be able to stop any wars – it wouldn’t even be able to explain to workers what it takes to stop a war.

Two million people took to the streets of London on Saturday 15 February 2003. Stop the War likes to claim the credit for that mobilisation, although in fact it had very little to do with it. It was a section of the British ruling class, the Europe-aligned section, which did not want to remove President Saddam Hussain of Iraq via an invasion but through other methods (you know, the ones where they starve little children and tell everyone it’s ‘worth it’ to impose their will on irritatingly sovereign states).

The Daily Mirror campaigned against the war consistently, and advertised the demonstration repeatedly. Having helped to mobilise a huge crowd, it ran its presses all night to make placards for the event.

Still, never mind how they got there. Imagine what could have been done with all that raw people power, if only it had been given proper leadership.

But what was done?

Were the people told that if they were prepared to occupy the centres of government (Parliament), of administration (Whitehall), of the transport system (rail terminals, tube junctions), of the justice system (Courts, Scotland Yard), of the business districts (the City) – to bring all the business of directing and managing the economic and political affairs of the state to a standstill – then they would be in a position to demand that the war machine be stopped in its tracks?

No. Instead the hopeful and angry millions were allowed to wander off home again, or were herded into Hyde Park to be addressed by the great and the good of Liberal and not-so-left Labour worthies, all of whom had essentially the same message:

“Well done! Your demonstration is really big! We’re breaking records! Write to your MP! See you next time!”

And in this way, a real mass movement was turned into a machine for the manufacture of cynicism and disillusionment.

No wonder Tony Blair felt confident to send his RAF bombers out to their bases in the Mediterranean and the middle east even as the demonstration was taking place. He knew it posed no threat. He knew that the ‘leaders’ of that movement could be counted on to misdirect and dissipate the energy of the potentially game-changing force at their command.

But history will have the last laugh.

For while many workers were turned off the idea of political action that day, and have not yet returned to the fray, it was Britain’s role in the criminal Iraq war, and in particular the bare-faced lies told in order to galvanise support for that illegal aggression, which really began the long, slow process of undermining the faith of the British people in their politicians, their journalists, their state institutions and their democracy.

And the next time those same workers are moved to protest about the spiralling cost of living or the insane drive towards WW3, our rulers may find that they are far less susceptible to the idea that our government means well, or has anyone but the financiers’ best interests at heart.