February 15, 2003, is a day that will enter the history books. It saw coordinated global protests against the imminent Iraq War in 600+ cities. Experts in social movements have described it as the largest protest event in human history. Estimates of participants worldwide range from 8 to 11 million: Rome saw around 3 million, Madrid 1.5 million. The numbers in London? Well, the police estimated 750 thousand, the BBC around 1 million, and the organizers some 3 million. The Scamblers were well represented, with Annette, Sasha, Rebecca and Miranda all able to participate (Nikki was with us in spirit).
I recall a chilly but dry day as we alighted at Waterloo and made for the Embankment. Hundreds of coaches from more than 250 cities and towns across the country – including 100 from Wales alone – discharged their cargoes of protestors. It was a genuinely heterogeneous coming together of people united against the prospect of this ugly, murderous Bush/Blair project. Euan Ferguson from The Observer noted the presence of the Eton George Orwell Society, Archeologists Against War, Walthamstow Catholic Church, the Swaffham Women’s Choir and ‘Notts Country Supporters Say Make Love Not War (And A Home Win Against Bristol Would Be Nice)’. All police leave in London was cancelled, though in the event no show of force or much in the way of policing or monitoring was required.
Progress was slow, halting and hesitant due to the sheer numbers of marchers. My feet ached the more for the stop-start crawl. We Scamblers were among the many who fell way short of Hyde Park by the time the main speakers – Tony Benn, George Galloway, Charles Kennedy, Bianca Jagger, Harold Pinter and crew – did their bit. We roamed slowly through a litter of abandoned placards and paper cups and around the park, wondering if there was a B-movie. In the end we found a café and did what we Scamblers do.
So, as the phenomenologists would say, we experienced a communal trudge, comradeship with strangers, political wit, an amicable but iron-like collective purpose, a plethora of creative signs … and tired feet. My main memory, and one mentioned in a previous fragment on Bliar? An unambiguously clear message to No 10: ‘Don’t tell us we don’t understand, JUST DON’T DO IT!’
What did it all amount to?
First, it failed in its explicit purpose. In his dairies Campbell went on to suggest that Blair wavered. Maybe he did, but it’s doubtful. He was after all tucked tightly up in bed with his best friend in Washington.
Second, toughened political dissenters like Tariq Ali were aware that it had an implicit purpose too, namely, to energize and mobilize resistance to News theorist – Terry Boswell from Emory University’s Department of Sociology had long argued on the basis of historical data that protests that fail according to their contemporary explicit purposes can nevertheless pay dividends in terms of their implicit purposes. The subtext of the failure of 15/2/2003 may yet turn out to be its success as a catalyst for future change. ‘All these things’, Seamus Milne commented, ‘are part of the process by which things are going to shift’. In any case, as Tony Benn loved saying, ‘hope is the fuel of progress’.
Third, and more personally, the collection of Scamblers took comfort and strength from being part of an overwhelming, rational and heartfelt surge of public passion. In one poll for The Guardian, 6% of people claimed that someone from their household went on the march or had intended to. This translates into 1.25 million households and fits in with the estimate of circa two million attendees (assuming that more than one person could come from each household): there is a special solidarity in such numbers!
Some 13 years later I would reiterate a sentiment I had and expressed at the time, one that seems less extravagant now. For me, the Iraq ‘adventure’ epitomizes Bliar’s premiership and his behaviour since. Together with Bush he should be charged with war crimes. Just count the number of citizens’ deaths (‘collateral damage’!) during and following on from the immoral, illegal invasion of Iraq; and while you are at it, check Bliar’s subsequent income from advising dictators no less restrained or accountable than Saddam Hussein.