“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote William Wordsworth of the French revolution. “But to be young was very heaven!” And to quite a lot of people, the same seems to apply to having gone to the giant London demonstration of 15 February 2003 against British participation in the war to topple Saddam Hussein.
I’ve lost count of the pundits who have told us how it changed their lives and opened their eyes and nothing was ever quite the same again. Yes, it was massive, the biggest demo in London maybe ever – 1 million, 2 million? No one knows. We came from all over, all sorts of people. It was an extraordinary mobilisation, and it felt good to be part of a giant crowd.
But that was it. We came, we hung around in office-land, we eventually got to Hyde Park. A month later, Robin Cook resigned from Tony Blair’s cabinet and there was a backbench Labour revolt in the House of Commons. Then Britain went to war.
In short, the demo failed. OK, it might have been more effective – a Tory MP on the platform, perhaps,
or a bit of direct action? – but the brutal truth is that a lot of us turned out to say we didn’t want war, and the government, which had won a big majority in 2001, ignored us, as was its democratic right.
So why is everyone talking about it ten years after? It’s not just the convenience of anniversaries for editors. Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, framed by the day of the protest, captures the unease that made the Iraq war a watershed for liberals and leftists. Should we be opposing the overthrow of the most murderous tyrant of the late 20th century? Or should we be backing an imperialist adventure that has every prospect of failing? It was a defining moment, and the arguments continue to this day, filled with passionate intensity.
At the time, it seemed that the scale of opposition to war might prove fatal to Blair’s premiership. But it turned out to be only a nagging wound for New Labour. For all the sound and fury, Blair won another general election in 2005, and Iraq played only a small role in the manoeuvring by Gordon Brown that eventually ousted him.
The war did, however, prove critical for the confidence and credibility of the left in the Labour Party. It was riven over the war but also committed to maintaining Labour in power. Cook’s resignation speech won a standing ovation in the Commons, but most Labour MPs who agreed with him stuck with Blair. Individual Labour Party members opposed to war drifted out of the party, and the anti-war cause became the property of the Liberal Democrats, the Leninist far left (the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of Britain and George Galloway), the mosques with whom the far left had allied, and the Greens.
None of them managed to capitalise on the political collapse of the Labour left. The Lib Dems won 62 seats in the 2005 general election, the biggest haul for a centre party since the 1920s but only 10 better than 2001, then jettisoned two leaders before turning to the free-market right. George Galloway won Bethnal Green for Respect after a campaign directed at traditionalist Muslims, but Respect soon split after a bust-up between Galloway and the SWP. Galloway resurrected his Bethnal Green strategy to win a by-election victory in Bradford last year, but it’s hard to see that as more than a one-off. The Greens retained the European Parliament seats they won in 1999 in 2004 and 2009 and won representation on local councils, though it wasn’t until 2010 that they got their first MP (and that had little to do with Iraq).
Meanwhile, Labour lost power in 2010 to the most reactionary government we’ve had since the 1930s. Iraq was not a major factor in the defeat – at least by comparison with the MPs’ expenses scandal, immigration and the press trashing of Brown and Labour’s record on economic policy. But it was a factor, and it was an issue in the leadership election that followed. Ed Miliband won in part because, conveniently, he’d not had anything to do with the decision to go to war.
The war marked the start of a dismal decade for the British left. Can we move on, please?