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Massive disappointment

How the media loves anniversaries and now I’m at it too; it hardly seems 10 months ago let alone 10 years that war was declared on Iraq. Saddam was the excuse, war was the result, and the number of Iraqis who’ve died in consequence will be forever disputed. What PN readers may agree upon is that one death was one too many.

What the peace group here in Stroud was, and is, agreed upon was that, from the moment the Twin Towers were attacked in 2001, war on Iraq was inevitable and Bush and Blair would go to any lengths to justify it. In that respect the abominable Bs behaved like any and all political leaders. Which brings me to The march that shook Blair (Peace News Press, 2013. £10.)

It pains me to write that I have reservations about this book – reservations about its practical use I mean. The three recruited endorsers quoted on its cover are revealing in this regard. Joe Glenton, ‘Afghan veteran and author of Soldier Boy (Verso)’ claims the march ‘came within a hairsbreadth of derailing the warmongers and still shapes our politics today’. Salma Yaqoob, ‘former leader of the Respect Party’ claims the book is ‘an inspiring and timely reminder of the power of popular protest’.

Both claims strike me as delusional. Having — unlike sceptical me — the stamina to read the entire book, Bruce Kent’s sober assessment of the book as ‘a moving and nostalgic piece of oral history’ is closer to the mark. As such, the book is valuable and important but an unmistakable cry of disappointment runs through it.

My memories of this massive march are vivid and these, and my assessment of their significance, remain unchanged. I was astonished to listen to fellow demonstrators — whose views I respect — claiming that the march had ‘changed British politics forever’ and such like and so on.

My column in PN after the march disputed these views and nothing I’ve read, heard, or seen since, has caused me to back down. However, I read recently — in one of the nationals — an intemperate attack on the supposedly cosy middle-class consensus of the march as expressed in the slogan ‘not in my name’.

This, the writer claimed, was feeble conscience-baring and breast-beating self-regard. I disagree strongly and believe that while the demonstration did not derail British and American warmongers or remind us of the power of popular protest, it might have — providing it was adequately reported there — let at least some Iraqis know that not all Westerners — Christian or otherwise — were intent on killing them. If it brought home that fact, the march did indeed achieve something.

My most profound reservation about the book, however, centres on its title. Blair’s oft-reported remark that ‘I may have to resign over this’ tells us only that he didn’t and his cast-iron messianic self-belief still seems to burn as strongly as ever. Like Thatcher he was ‘not for turning’ and I never believed that the march would turn him. He is, and was, unshakeable.

The march was a desperate response to a desperate situation and there was every reason for it to take place and every reason to support it. In my case — and perhaps it was true of many others — I didn’t think about its effect on our government so much as its effect on ourselves.

It’s important to know you’re not alone, that others feel the same way and this coming together is both ritualistic, comforting. and profoundly necessary. There is reassurance and strength in numbers and so, of course, the march had that effect.

It is claimed that it brought onto the street many people who’d never demonstrated in their lives before. To lose your political virginity in such a massive assembly as took place on 15 February 2003 consequently assumes a huge significance and, I believe, has been the cause of hyperbolic overreaction.

Those of us who swept into Trafalgar Square as part of the huge CND demos of the ’60s found this march both less awe-inspiring and remarkably familiar. We’ve learned perhaps to keep a sense of proportion about the undeniable emotion of such occasions.

In the 1950s, I can remember people touting an ‘International Peace Petition’ which accumulated, we were told, literally millions of signatures worldwide. I think its motivation was to halt the nuclear arms race but its opponents proclaimed it ‘a communist plot’.

I had no idea who instigated it, where it was gathered, and to whom, if anyone, it was presented. Where is it now, I wonder. Names didn’t change the world and it’s arguable that economics killed communism. In the end, Soviet Russia couldn’t afford the arms race and neither can the British government afford to stay in Iraq — popular protest or not.