On 15th February 2003, I marched with my family in protest against the rising beat of war that was coming from Downing Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and in the assertion of the right of the people to express a profound anger and antipathy at the course foisted upon us. The government was at odds with a huge part of the populace, and had won the assent of the remainder through a series of claims about Iraq’s capacity to threaten the UK which were false, and which were indeed premised in part on evidence obtained from a man whose sanity had shattered during a months-long sequence of torture interrogations.
We marched, and we delighted in the discovery that we were not alone, that we were a massively disparate gathering of unexpected friends. We celebrated, pleaded, demanded, and we went home. We were ignored. Whatever Tony Blair saw when he looked at a demonstration of one and a half million people in central London, many of whom were Labour supporters and members of his party, and many of whom will never forgive either him or Labour for the decision to go to war, it did not move him in our direction. His public response was disdainful, even contemptuous, and – despite an opinion from the government’s chief legal advisor that UN Resolution 1441 did not by itself give legitimacy to an invasion, he held fast to the promise he already had made to George W. Bush: Britain would follow the US into Iraq.
I felt, seeing my country go to war in the face of such a huge demonstration of public opposition, that I had been part of an epochal failure. A cynical trade of absurdly asymmetric worth had taken place: Blair had balanced the Countryside March in favour of fox-hunting – the perennial parliamentary time-suck – with the one against the war, and somehow nullified them both. It seemed like the demise of the march as a form of resistance, and that in turn implied something uglier about the state of our democracy: mere popular pressure was no longer enough to get results. From the Blair period onward, you would have to have actual personal power, be it wealth, force of arms, or banked influence, to get something done. The only forms of collective action that still had heft, if moral weight were now to be ignored, were direct ones: strikes, acts of civil disobedience causing massive disruption, and boycotts with immediate commercial consequences. The relationship between the people and our executive had deteriorated so far that we could reliably control our government only through forms of societal self-harm.
I’m not sure to what extent I’ve carried that perception ever since. I have demonstrated. I’ve signed countless petitions – I see them as a sort of notice of intent to object more robustly, if necessary – and some of those protests have been heard, some not. I’ve given to campaigning organizations, both financially and in the form of my time and my work. I have voted, of course, written books and opinion pieces, agitated from the podium at festivals and events. But I have never really believed, since, that a determined government could be swayed from a bad course merely by democratic pressure. I’ve watched successive governments fail to tackle climate change, seen every administration since 2001 embrace the slithering cowardice of equivocation on torture and reach for the warm authoritarian embrace of total surveillance on the one hand and impunity on the other.
Two weeks ago I went to a screening of We Are Many, Amir Amirani’s documentary about the 15th February 2003 protest, and for the first time properly understood what it was. I was not just part of a one and a half million demonstration ignored by a Labour Prime Minister drunk on a cocktail of cowboy justice and the military re-engineering of foreign countries – though that, by itself, would have been remarkable. February 2003 can be seen as the first truly global protest, attended by millions of people across nearly eight hundred cities: people marched not just in London but Madrid, New York, in Sydney and in Cape Town. There was a protest at McMurdo Base in Antarctica. The film made me feel for the first time that what happened that day didn’t mean a kind of death for mass protest even if it failed in the short term to achieve its aim – and it wasn’t just a mass protest, it was an attempt at course correction for good and sufficient reasons now borne out.
I opposed the war because I did not believe that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the 2001 attacks in New York; because I did believe that if we shifted focus from the original target of the Taliban’s avowedly pro-Bin Laden regime we would lose control of that situation; because I believed that invading Iraq would be a mess that would cost a vast number of Iraqi lives and could potentially also cost many of our own; because I thought that the inspections were working and that Saddam Hussein was not successfully hoarding nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and could not deploy such weapons to strike European targets in any timeframe, let alone the quoted forty five minutes; because the spectacle of the UK and US, who had for decades backed Saddam Hussein, lining up to call him a monster as if we had just discovered the fact and were, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, “Shocked! Shocked!” was a hypocrisy that sickened me. I believed as well – on the tenuous basis of my degree specializations which amount to a short course in propaganda, destabilization and international troublemaking – that the entire region was an interlocking snare of grudges, territorial disputes, sectarian and ethnic fracture lines, and that anyone who thought blowing a big fat hole in the middle of it would provoke a sudden wave of enlightened democratic government was an idiot. I was wrong – in exactly one respect: the loss of life in Iraq was massively asymmetrical, although there is still time for the endless chain of consequences to suck us into some destructive madness of decades that will even the score.
It never occurred to me to wonder how that demonstration twelve years ago, and the fact that so many people across the world are empowered by these same historic objections to say to the hawks of their nations “we were right, and you were wrong,” might influence our response to Syria now, to ISIS and the rest. I had not dared to hope that there might yet be life in the idea of peace as a solution to war, rather than more war – a notion that is as stunningly obvious as it is depressingly revolutionary. I had laid to rest some optimistic part of myself, until I watched this unpretentious, uplifting rendering of what happened, and thought that perhaps it wasn’t pointless after all.
It’s a superb film. It’s simple, stark, and it made me cry – but I came out feeling that I’d march again tomorrow, and the next day, and that perhaps I should.