15 February 2003: The anti-war movement in the UK and around the globe
Ten years ago over one million people marched through a bitterly cold London to oppose the looming war in Iraq. It was the biggest demonstration in British history. Ken Livingstone told me that he had calculated the number of people on the march was the equivalent of the entire population of England circa 1200.
However, a common argument today is that the march was “an absolute failure”, as a UK Uncut activist said in 2011. I wrote my new book, The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, to challenge this negative view of the march. As peace activist Milan Rai told me when I interviewed him: “If someone was to say the anti-war movement achieved nothing, I think that is plain, flat wrong. We achieved a lot, and a hell of a lot more than we realise.”
Rai is particularly interested in drawing attention to what has become known as ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ - “the lowest point of the crisis for Mr Blair”, according to the Sunday Telegraph at the time. The same report explained that the panic and concern in Government was so great that 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.” What had brought this crisis to a head? According to the Sunday Mirror Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon had phoned the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and “stressed the political problems the Government was having with both MPs and the public.”
Of course Blair didn’t pull back and British troops played a key role in the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. An attack, let’s not forget, that directly led to over one million Iraq dead, along with around four million refugees. But while the anti-war movement couldn’t stop the war, several people in the book argue that the anti-war movement, as a key driver of public opinion at the time, influenced how the war was fought and when British troops were withdrawn. In addition the peace march and anti-war movement has had a number of important and long-lasting influences on the British political landscape – from fatally wounding Blair, to having a profoundly positive effect on community relations in the UK and politicising and radicalising many of the young people now involved in groups such as UK Uncut and Occupy (I explore ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ and some of the march’s short and long-term influences in a little more detail in a recent Morning Star article and in a lot more depth in the book itself).
Although the focus of my book is the march in London on 15 February 2003, I want to use the rest of the space I have here to think about the international anti-war movement because the achievements of the anti-war movements in several nations are largely unknown to most people in the UK, including many activists. The Guardian reported that on 15 February 2003:
“Huge waves of demonstrations not seen since the Vietnam war jammed more than 600 cities around the world over the weekend as protestors from Tasmania to Iceland marched against war in Iraq. Up to 30 million people demonstrated worldwide, including around 6 million in Europe.”
Edited by three American academics Public Opinion and International Intervention. Lessons from the Iraq War (Potomac Books, 2012) is an important assessment of the role of public opinion on policymakers around the world in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Of particular interest to anti-war activists in the UK are the chapters on Mexico and Turkey. (NB: All the unreferenced quotes that follow are taken from this book).
In 2003 Mexico was occupying a non-permanent position on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It should be noted that despite the neo-conservatives public antipathy to the UN, polls suggest the blessing of the UN on Iraq was important to the American public. For example, a January 2003 Knight Ridder poll found 83 per cent of Americans supported going to war if this was in concert with major US allies and the full support of the UNSC. If the US went to war with just one or two of its major allies – without the support of the UN – this support fell to 47 per cent. Polls taken in the UK at the time showed a similar concern among the British public for UN support.
Desperate for legal and diplomatic cover, in early 2003 the US and UK were pushing hard to gain support in the UNSC for a second resolution to authorise war on Iraq. Bush is reported to have plainly said to Mexican President Vicente Fox “I want your vote, the security of the United States is at stake.”
Mexican public opinion was strongly opposed to the US-led invasion of Iraq, with a February 2003 poll finding 81 per cent of people did not support the US position. Even when those polled were made aware there could be significant costs to Mexico for not supporting the US, a majority of Mexicans still opposed the US on Iraq.
Mexico’s leaders, then, were in a tight spot – caught between their own public and under intense pressure from the US to support the American position. However, while Mexico’s anti-war stance was not as strong as much of Latin America (presumably because of their close relationship to the US), it never backed the US position at the UN. The authors of the chapter on Mexico note that “the reluctance of Mexico, Chile and Germany to support the [US] initiative” at the UN was “especially noteworthy” as it meant the US was unable to negotiate a majority of votes from the non-permanent members to support their aggressive stance on Iraq. Public opinion was a key factor in this process, with a senior official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arguing Mexican public opinion “immensely influenced the decision not to support the US in the war against Iraq”.
Turning to Turkey, the book quotes a 2008 interview with Yaser Yakis, the Turkish Foreign Minister in 2003, about the position of Turkey on the US-led invasion of Iraq:
“From the very beginning, we were opposed to an invasion of Iraq and argued that this should not be the way. However, when it became clear that the invasion was inevitable and we could not prevent it, then we concluded we should participate in it and cooperate.”
For the US, cooperation meant that US troops would be allowed to launch their attack on Iraq from Turkey. To this end the US was offering Turkey $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, the US and Turkish Governments did not count on the Turkish people, 86 per cent of whom were opposed to the invasion according to March 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll.
With the Turkish Constitution requiring a parliamentary vote for the deployment of foreign troops on Turkish soil, the policy decision was open to the influence of public opinion: “To block passage of the motion, there were many demonstrations, campaigns, messages by citizens to MPs, and visits to MPs’ offices by NGO representatives and private individuals.” With “MPs and ministers… under a strong pressure from the grassroots” on 1 March 2003 parliament voted against the motion to station US troops in Turkey by three votes. According to the authors of the chapter on Turkey: “Our case study provides support for the argument that in democracies public opinion plays a major role in constraining the decision of policymakers. With regard to the Iraq War, the disapproval of the Turkish public was quite strong, and it served as a major constraining factor for the government.”
So Mexican public opinion was a contributory factor in the US and UK not getting UN authorisation for their invasion of Iraq. This outcome has had a long-lasting negative effect on the global public perception of the invasion and occupation. Meanwhile, by pressuring their government to reject the US request to use Turkey as a staging post for the invasion the Turkish public forced the US to invade Iraq from just one front in the south, meaning Iraq could safely deploy more forces south of Baghdad. They may not have stopped the war but the Mexican and Turkish populations had significant constraining effects on the ability of the US to act as it wished in 2003.
More importantly the Mexican and Turkish experiences present an awkward question for the UK anti-Iraq War movement: If public opinion in Mexico and Turkey was able to force their government to resist strong pressure from the US over Iraq why couldn’t the UK anti-war movement force the British Government to do likewise?
The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003 is published by Peace News Press, priced £11.50 inc. p+p for UK delivery. Copies can be purchased from www.peacenews.info