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Marching against the Iraq war – what it means a decade on

Stop the War march 01Inspired by various articles and discussion on social media I ended up spending a part of last Friday evening looking through the photos I had taken on the ‘Stop The War’ march ten years ago that day.

I ended getting a little lost in nostalgia. Looking at pictures of Liberal Democrat friends and colleagues all wrapped up in scarves and gloves against the cold and thinking about what has happened to them, and to me, in the following ten years will do that. I found that I have one or two pictures of people on the march who are now members of parliament — and some who are no longer members of the party. I realised I was a lot less cynical back then than I am now. I was also a lot thinner.

I do remember that day pretty well. I remember the feeling of real pride I had in being a Liberal Democrat and also in being part of that huge crowd together making our opposition known.

But did that march actually achieve anything?

Ultimately it failed in its objective to stop the war. But it would be wrong to go from that to saying that it had no consequence.

Political protest is a process and not an event. Getting X numbers of people on a march doesn’t automatically mean that Y politician makes a Z decision. It doesn’t work like that. The anti-war protests of that time made the Blair government pay a higher political price for the war than they otherwise would have done. It shaped and changed British politics beyond that. Yes the war still happened and Tony Blair wasn’t put on trial in the Hague and so on – but in a subtler way politics was different.

Yet its impact could have been greater.

The Left

I’ve read a number of articles about how those on the left feel that the march was a pointless failure and how it lead to feelings of disappointment and disillusion etc. If some had entertained the idea that the march was going to be a step towards the revolution then they were bound to be disappointed.

One thing I remember thinking at the time — and I believe it still holds true today — was that the march was not about the left. Left-wing organisations may have been responsible for the logistics — I saw one website comment where someone was pointing out that the SWP contribution was the most efficiently organised (which I can well believe) — but the participation encompassed a whole spectrum of people. This was not a left-wing march — it was an anti-war march, and the Liberal Democrat participation was an important component of that. If it was a failure for the left then it has to be recognised that this is in part because the left failed to build upon the legacy of the march in the inclusive manner that would have made the most of the potential impact.

The Liberal Democrats

What was the impact of the ‘Stop The War’ march on the Liberal Democrats?

Do read Gareth Epps post on the Liberator blog;

I don’t always whole-heartedly agree with Gareth — but on this I am in almost complete agreement. He gives a picture of the events at the time that tally with my recollection, although he was obviously much closer to the action than I was. He also rightly praises the contribution made by Donnachadh McCarthy, James Graham, Martin Tod and “the usual combination of veteran campaigners and young Liberals coming up trumps”. I’d like to thank all those who were involved in arranging and organising the Liberal Democrat presence on the march who gave myself and many others the opportunity to feel the pride that we did that day.

The Curse of Reasonableness

Gareth talks about how Charles Kennedy’s nuanced policy approach to the Iraq war was proved right but how he also had to be “dragged, almost kicking and screaming, to the march”. Kennedy’s handling of the Iraq war issue was one of the better episodes of his leadership but the party as a whole was also right to push him into participation in the march. It is to his credit that he was ultimately prepared to make that jump.

This story should be better understood by the Party’s current leadership. We are often right on policy in part because our policy is nuanced. But a nuanced position can be difficult to campaign on. Too much nuance and your distinctive message can get lost. I have started to call this problem “the curse of reasonableness”.

To counteract this curse it is helpful to sometimes forget the complexities and take a stand in a simple and unequivocal way. And that might mean marching to say “no”. The current leadership need to understand this better and also appreciate that the party as a whole might have a better understanding than them of which issues to forget the nuance on, if they were only to listen.

It strikes me that the secret courts issue might be a good example of this.

Missed opportunity #1

Lets also remember that the Party’s anti-war stance at the time gave the Liberal Democrats a significant boost.

But again I think the impact could have been greater.

It wouldn’t have been that long after the march that I began to get frustrated by how the Liberal Democrats were failing to build on that anti-war stance. I remember telling some senior policy people how I thought one of the Party’s weaknesses was foreign policy — and getting a pretty surprised reaction.

What I wanted was for the Party to use the fact that we had people listening to us because of our position on the war to tell a wider story about how we saw Britain’s role in the world beyond Iraq. To develop a proper Liberal alternative to Blair’s liberal interventionism. Paddy Ashdown was saying some interesting things at the time, and to a lesser extent was Shirley Williams, but beyond that the opportunity was missed.

While I was disappointed then, Gareth is right to point out that things at the moment are much worse;

“Were fate and international events to throw up a parallel situation today, indeed, what might happen? The answer is far from clear, especially as, since their accession to government, the Liberal Democrats have scarcely discussed foreign policy at all and appear to have largely forgotten about the wider world.”

Aside from pursuing an agenda on Europe we appear to be uninterested in developing anything distinctive in our approach to foreign policy. The recent reshuffle that left no Liberal Democrat in the Foreign Office or the MoD has only exacerbated this.

Missed opportunity #2

Locally here in Luton the anti-war stance gave us, an all too short-lived, electoral boost. But more importantly it gave us an opportunity to begin to engage with our local Muslim community in a way that we had previously been unable to do. It also led to some significant new recruits, some direct from the Labour party, including Qurban Hussain who now sits on the Liberal Democrat benches in the House of Lords.

This is a legacy of that time that lingers. Our local party remains much more representative of our community now than it was ten years ago. Yet can the same be said at a national level?

Again the 2003 anti-war stance made a diverse range of people interested in the party — and gave the party something to talk to them about — who wouldn’t have been interested otherwise. Was enough done to engage with them? Did we work on ways to turn support for us on this single issue into more widely based support? I am not sure. I feel this may have been another missed opportunity.

This has turned into a much longer post than intended, and I am not sure how to end it, so here are some photos from the 15th February 2003:

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