Not in my name: 'Stop the War' 10 years on

Today is the 10th anniversary of the Stop the War protest in London, against the Iraq War. 10 years on, those who marched should not be quite so sure of themselves

So many slogans, but was there ever a clear message?
Peter Cannon
On 15 February 2013 14:53

Today is the 10th anniversary of the Stop the War protest in London (and in cities around the world) against the Iraq War. This anniversary has inspired numerous articles from anti-war commentators about their memories of the event, how for many this was their political awakening, and how betrayed they felt by Tony Blair and the Government for going to war. 10 years on, they argue, their stance has been vindicated.

For me, it was a political awakening of a different sort. I was initially unsure about the war, but in many ways the anti-war movement eventually turned me into a supporter. 

This did not receive much attention at the time, but the Stop the War Coalition (SWC) was led by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). This would explain the bizarre far-left slogan on an SWC poster I saw at my school: “No to war, No to racism, No to privatisation”. No to war - OK. No to racism – well, sure; a bit of an odd connection, I thought, but fair enough. No to privatisation – what has that got to do with anything?

The SWP co-ordinated the march with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain, who provided the many ‘Freedom for Palestine’ placards at the march – which again seemed a little unusual.

I remember being disturbed by some of the coverage of UK Muslim opinion on the possible war. Some Muslims said they were against the war because it would harm their ‘Muslim brothers and sisters’ – which begged the obvious question; so if it was not your ‘Muslim brothers and sisters’, you would not care? But somehow such positions became mainstream and even expected.

There is no doubt the SWC march drew in a much broader range of people who were against the war.  I can understand why: Iraq had not attacked us first; Iraq was in no way responsible for 9/11; The UN weapons inspectors had not found anything.

But we need to bear in mind that there were downsides to the anti-war case too. Not taking action against Iraq would have meant trusting in the good faith of Saddam Hussein. The marchers were arguing that Iraq’s tyrant should be left in power when we had the chance to remove him. The brutalised country would be left as it was, and that was not a benign outcome either.

The march certainly drew a large crowd. There were 750,000 according to police, although some participants insist the figure was closer to two million. The Government, we are told, did not listen to them, and ignored ‘the will of the people’.

But since when did protest marches override representative democracy? A million people may have marched, with only one lone counter-demonstrator standing there holding a sign calling for action against Saddam Hussein. But that does not equal an election. No matter how big the protest, a Government does not have to change its policy to reflect the wishes of the marchers. In fact, what kind of weak government would do such a thing when faced with an issue of national security and war?

The war, though unpopular, did have democratic legitimacy, because our elected representatives voted for it overwhelmingly. It is strange that so many people seemed to become legal experts overnight and declared the war ‘illegal’. On what basis? Not only were there seventeen UN resolutions against Saddam Hussein, but more importantly, the UK’s Attorney General said it was legal and our sovereign Parliament voted for it – that’s pretty conclusive.

Regardless, calling it an ‘illegal war’ became a standard mantra – as though the vetoes of countries like China at the UN Security Council were more important than the decisions of our own democratic institutions.

And if there had been a ‘second resolution’ at the UN, explicitly authorising military action, would critics of the war have said “fair enough, we’ll shut up”? It is notable that the UN resolutions passed after the invasion, recognising the US and UK as occupying powers under international law, made no impact on the SWC’s calls to ‘bring the troops home’.

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