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Anti-war campaigner Gabriel Carlyle reflects on an opportunity lost

We could have won

Recently, reading about Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution” – with its iconic tent-city occupation of Kiev’s Independence Square, the Maidan – my memory was sent hurtling back to the 2003 “Day X” protests in London on the day that Britain invaded Iraq.

Then, in what was probably the most dramatic UK protest against the war, thousands of schoolchildren left their classes to occupy the roads around Parliament as part of a national school strike involving scores, if not hundreds, of thousands of pupils.*

Several questions immediately occurred to me. What if – like their counterparts in Ukraine** – the school students had been able to draw upon the skills and knowledge of those with firsthand experience of organising nonviolent resistance?

What if the anti-war and peace movements had planned seriously for – and supported – mass civil disobedience after 15 February?

What if there had been a strategy to win, and even a fraction of the million marchers had taken part?

We almost won

It has long been known – though many, including many anti-war activists, are still unaware of the fact – that the UK anti-war movement came close to de-railing Britain’s participation in the 2003 invasion.

Indeed, just days before the war started the government was frantically drawing up contingency plans to withdraw British troops from the invasion – in no small part because of massive public opposition.

More recently, it has been reported that, so worried was the US about a possible collapse of the Blair government, Bush rang Blair nine days before the Commons vote on the war to offer him the option of “drop[ping] out of the coalition.”

Though the British establishment was deeply split over the war – on pragmatic, rather than moral, grounds – Blair refused.

Given these circumstances, what might have been the impact, in the run-up to that crucial parliamentary vote, of 50,000 disciplined nonviolent protestors setting up camp in Whitehall and refusing to leave? Is it really inconceivable that Blair could have been forced out? I think not.

An open window

Just as the period of Ukraine’s rigged election was for Ukraine, the month-long period between 15 February and the start of the invasion was a special time in British politics: a brief window of opportunity where the extraordinary became possible.

As the British public realised that overwhelming public opposition and the largest march in British political history weren’t going to be enough to halt Blair’s commitment to an illegal war, it was clear that there was only one way forward for the anti-war movement: escalation. That meant civil disobedience.

Needless to say (and again, as in Ukraine) nonviolence would have been a necessity, as violence on the part of the activists would rapidly have lost them their most crucial weapon: public support. It would also have assisted police repression: the police are well-versed in dealing with public order situations, but would have been sorely tested to prevent tens of thousands of peaceful – but determined – activists from descending on Westminster and paralysing the heart of government.

However, 15 February was much too late to start preparing for such resistance. As in Ukraine, the groundwork would have had to have been laid long in advance, with thousands of activists trained around the country from the point when it became clear that the war was all-but-inevitable – certainly no later than August 2002.

Lessons

On Iraq, the anti-war movement decisively won the battle for the public mind – by February 2003 85% of the British public opposed invading Iraq without a second UN resolution – but lost because it lacked the means to bring sufficient pressure to bear.

In its May 2007 report on “mitigation” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that, if we are to have any hope of averting catastrophic climate change (dangerous climate change having now become inevitable), we have no more than 100 months left to begin a massive, permanent decline in global CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, Britain’s emissions, which have risen significantly over the past decade – look set to rise still further – as we build more roads and coal power stations, and expand airports around the country.

We have yet to convince the British public of the urgent need to force the government to take drastic action on climate change, but when we do we had better make sure that we have learnt the lessons of 2003.

* See Katya Nasim’s film Day X – A Story of a School Strike for reflections by some of the strike’s organisers: http://tinyurl.com/ytctmm
** See Matthew Collin, Time of the Rebels: Youth Resistance Movements and 21st Century Revolutions.

Gabriel Carlyle is one of the coordinators of Voices in the Wilderness UK, which is ten years old this month!