Recently I read Ian McEwan’s new novel Saturday, which is set in London on 15 February 2003, the day of the great march against the war in Iraq. The fact that McEwan uses 15 February as a framing device is an illustration of how deeply the anti-war movement has rooted itself in public consciousness in Britain.
The anti-war demonstrations in Britain have been part of a larger global movement. The French political scientist Dominique Reynié has estimated that, between 3 January and 12 April 2003, some 36 million people took part in nearly 3,000 protests around the world against the Iraq war.
This Saturday, 19 March, we have another great demonstration to mark the second anniversary of the outbreak of the war, which will contribute to a global day of protest against the occupation of Iraq.
But the fact that it is now two years since the Anglo-American invaders stormed into Iraq has led many people to question the point of the protests. Millions marched, they say, yet the war happened, the occupation continues, and the perpetrators George Bush and Tony Blair are still in office.
The conclusion drawn from this argument varies. Some decide that mass action is ineffective and lapse into the apathy that is increasingly the majority party in Western liberal democracies.
Others argue that the problem lies in big demonstrations. Much more effective are direct actions that disrupt the running of the country.
I find this latter argument unconvincing. The point of the anti-war movement around the world is to put direct pressure on national governments not to participate in Bush’s imperial project.
To achieve this objective requires showing that very large numbers of people are strongly opposed to the war on terrorism, even though their views lack representation in the official political system.
Scattered, localised direct actions do not provide the necessary visibility. Large numbers of people marching through the capital do.
The big national demonstrations are also important in sustaining the momentum of the movement. Activist coalitions wither at the roots unless, in addition to local activities, they have to organise reasonably frequent large events that offer a reaffirmation of their strength.
The anti-war movements that abandoned the streets after the fall of Baghdad have found it hard to campaign against the occupation.
Of course, we didn’t stop the war. Ultimately this was because the bulk of Labour MPs lacked the guts to stand up to an authoritarian, imperialist prime minister, as we saw once again last week when the House of Commons voted repeatedly for the anti-terror law demanded by Blair.
But not demonstrating wouldn’t have made it easier to address this problem. On the contrary, abandoning the streets would make it easier for Labour MPs to crawl to the whips and would demoralise and isolate those opposed to the war.
Given that the Commons voted with Blair, the only way to have stopped British participation in the war — and in turn possibly the entire assault on Iraq — would have been large scale strike action. This happened on a limited scale in Italy during the invasion of Iraq and in Greece more extensively during the Nato campaign against Serbia in 1999.
But being able to mount this higher form of direct action requires a mass movement capable of reaching deep into British society. The Stop the War Coalition is one of the beginnings of this, precisely because it has been so strongly committed to mobilising large numbers of people.
Both the capitulation of the Labour backbenchers and the absence of large scale strike action against the war are symptoms of the same problem. This is the fact that the organised working class in Britain remains dominated by Labourism, which binds it to the Blair government.
Addressing this problem requires the development of a political alternative that can begin to challenge Labourism from the left. Far from being in conflict with the big anti-war marches, this project is all about giving a political voice to those who took to the streets against the war, only to be ignored by Blair and his toadies.