Another Anniversary, another March through London

Andy Newman

Predictably there is some dispute about the size of London’s 18th March anti-war demonstration, the 13th national demonstration organised by the Stop the war Coalition. Socialist Worker makes the ludicrous claim that “Well over 100,000 anti-war protesters from across Britain marched in London”, a figure even more preposterous than the mere 15000 suggested by the police. Organisers claimed from the Trafalgar Square platform that it was the biggest demonstration since 2003.

Of course it is hard to judge the size of the demonstration on the ground, but the evidence from coaches from around the country suggests that while it larger than the demonstration on September 24th last year, it was about the same size as the March 2005 demo. This time 5 coaches came from Bristol, and 2 from Leeds (although one of those was a double decker). Everyone I spoke to from outside London was pleased (and relieved) that the turn out was better than they had expected, but those of us who actually had to organise transport are aware of the real situation: the anti-war movement has understandably fallen back from earlier levels of activism.

According to my observation, there were noticeable fewer older Moslems on the demonstration, but a good number of younger Asians. It was also noticeable that the Socialist Party had almost as high a profile on the ground with paper sellers as the SWP. What was definitely apparent is that the demonstration was mainly a mobilisation of the left and peace movements, and had not managed to pull wide support from outside that constituency. The very positive aspect is that it was a sizeable demonstration, of perhaps 20000 to 40000, which is a firm foundation, and proof that the anti-war movement has stronger roots than it did 4 years ago. Nevertheless, the movement simply cannot sustain itself on an unimaginative and predictable timetable of marches through London. Why not have the next march at a military base, somewhere like Brize Norton, the embarkation point for British troops on their way to Iraq?

I was worried about the over-emphasis on the possibility of an attack on Iran, both as a theme for building the demonstration, and also on the day. So many of the slogans and placards addressed Iran, and yet there was almost no mention of Afghanistan, where British troops are actually in theatre. Clearly there is some very strong posturing from both the US and Iranian governments, but they are far from war, as evidenced by the bi-lateral talks announced last week to take place in Baghdad between the two governments on how they can co-operate over the question of security in Iraq.

Yet there is no sense of perspective on this from much of the left. Labour MP, Alan Simpson, wrote in last week’s Morning Star that the beginning of the US war on Iran would be remembered as March 2006, and George Galloway writes in Socialist Worker: “It almost defies belief that George Bush and Tony Blair could be contemplating a new war while the fires they have already started in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to rage.” He is right – it defies belief. There is absolutely no evidence that Tony Blair’s government is thinking of war on Iran, except in the alliterative rhetoric of Mr Galloway. It is almost as if some in the anti-war movement are talking up the prospect of war on Iran in order to reboot the campaign.

In reality the current belligerent noises from Washington are from more marginal figures than in the build up to the Iraq war, like Ambassador to the UN Tom Bolton, and there is no consensus among the neo-cons towards military action on Iran, though obviously they still talk tough. Other members of the Bush administration are more nuanced, so for example, R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, told reporters last week that the aim of the US government was simply to diplomatically isolate the Ahmadinejad government, and President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, has stressed that US policy of preventing other states developing nuclear weapons had not been made "with Iran in mind." Clearly the threat of US military action towards Iran cannot be ruled out, but it is not an imminent or probable prospect. It does the anti-war movement a disservice to exaggerate the possibility, and in doing so underplay the immense complexity of the situation today in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where US forces are bogged down, and where the US government has lost any clear vision of what to do next

The important task for the anti-war movement is winning the message that bringing the troops home now is in the best interest of the Iraqi people. As Johann Hari recently wrote in the Independent; “The polls show that most of these violent [Iraqi] militias draw their support from the fact that they oppose the foreign troops, not from the fact that they massacre fellow-Iraqis. So the best way to drain their support – and dampen the inertia towards civil war – is to withdraw the troops now. Iraqis can see this very clearly: a poll recently conducted by the Ministry of Defence (hardly an anti-war source) found that 80 percent of Iraqis want out “immediately” so they can deal with the remaining jihadists and anti-democratic fundamentalists themselves.”

Both nationally and locally the anti-war movement needs to place more emphasis on providing information and understanding, and building links with Iraqi civil society, which strengthens our hand in arguing for the prompt withdrawal of troops.




March 2006

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