The Didn’t Stop the War Coalition – Ten Years on From Feb 15

It occurred to me earlier that yesterday was ten years since the global protests on February 15th 2003, when millions of people across the world took to the streets to demand a halt to the then-imminent invasion of Iraq. It was an expression of protest unprecedented in history. It also accomplished precisely nothing. In other words, it was a glorious failure.

If you’re interested, here’s a pic of me (I’m on the right) in the pub at Paddington station, after attending the London march. My face looks rather pink from the cold of that day.

Depends on whose estimates you believe, anywhere between 750,000 and two million people marched through London. Whatever number you call it, the one thing you can say with certainty is that it was a lot. My day started early in the morning, joining a large convoy of buses from my home city. When we stopped off at the motorway services, the car park was crowded with buses from other convoys all over Britain. It was as if the armies massing in the Kuwaiti desert were being matched by another, entirely unarmed, force, descending on London.

At times you couldn’t really call it a march. It was more of a shuffle, the sheer volume of people being too great for the streets they were passing through. It wasn’t just the numbers that were striking either. The people in attendance were not just the usual types one would find at a protest. Sure, there were the Trotskyists, the veteran, grey-haired Communists who’d forgotten the Cold War was over, the anarchists, the Greens. But the overwhelming majority of people were just concerned individuals, many of had never been on a protest march before.

The whole thing culminated in Hyde Park, where the Rev Jesse Jackson exhorted a vast crowd to “keep hope alive”. I then tried and failed to find my coach home, which was logjammed in somewhere among a massive fleet of other coaches. In the end I gave up and headed to Paddington to find a train.

For a very brief period it seemed as if something truly epoch-defining had happened. The Stop the War Coalition had become a genuine mass movement, representing large swathes of the population. Surely something had been changed.

In fact, nothing had changed. Just over a month later, troops surged across the Iraqi border. A million or so British people marching through London hadn’t stopped the British Army marching through Basra. You know the rest – a messy invasion followed by an even messier occupation. Another messy occupation in Afghanistan. A steady stream of civilian deaths in both those countries. Another stream of British lads coming home in Union Jack-draped coffins, or with limbs missing, or without a scratch but inwardly tormented by what they’d had to see and do. Plus all the nasty hangovers that we’re still left with – instability in the Middle East and North Africa, drone strikes in Pakistan and so on. Not to mention the ruined legacies of Bush and Blair, paving the way for the presidency of Barack Obama – the only Nobel Peace Prize winner in history to have a kill list.

As for the Stop the War Coalition, their time as a mass movement was short-lived. With the failure to achieve the goal they were named after, the number of people attending their protests shrank rapidly. The demographic also changed. For many of those who attended their first protest on February 15th, it was also their last. The STWC quickly shrivelled to its rump of the Trots and those scowling old men in red sweaters.

Two of its core organisations – the Socialist Workers Party and the Muslim Association of Britain – joined to form a political party, the Respect Coalition. The two groups shared an opposition to the war, a stance of support for Palestine and precious little else. They scored some minor electoral upsets before the coalition was torn apart by the differences between the two groups. Respect still exists, but mainly as a small fan club for George Galloway MP – a man whose main ideology tends to be George Galloway. Meanwhile, the SWP is currently deservedly imploding due to a rape scandal.

February 15 may have been a mass outpouring of the word “No”, but was it ultimately heard?

There was also another throwback to ten years ago this week. Real-terms wages have now fallen back to 2003 levels.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….

 

 

Olympics, Hope and the Dampening of Cynicism

I can be cynical grump when I so choose but ! can’t help feeling a bit of excitement about the Olympics though as they roll into town this week. I almost don’t want to. I know they are expensive and it’s a distraction from the government agenda which is forcing cuts on those who are least able to afford them.

I know that logically, but as a child and as an adult, I’ve always enjoyed ‘remote participation’ in the over-commercialised ‘greatest show on earth’ because despite the organisers, despite the sponsors, there are moments of humanity and hope that dig deeply.

I remember the day in 2005 when it was announced that the Olympics would be held in London. As a native Londoner, I was excited and pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t as cynical as I became because I wasn’t sure what it involved. I will though, forever link that day with the day that follows, the 7th July 2005 when the terrorist bombs exploded in the transport infrastructure in London, killing 52 people as well as the four perpetrators and injuring over 700 people and that doesn’t account for the mental scars the day left on many many more.

The happiness and excitement turned instantly to pain, fear and distress and the two events become almost linked in my mind.

So it took a long time for me to feel comfortable and feel happy about the circus coming to town again. I enjoy spectacles, I enjoy distractions, even commerce-laden ones and I can’t apologise for that. If I’m excited that the world is coming to my city, I only want for her to be able to show herself to her best. To enjoy it and enjoy myself.

It’s not ‘cool’ to be excited and I’m not blind to the poverty, distress and suffering that is happening in the city while she paints herself up and while we aren’t watching because I’m still working and will be every (work) day the games are on (with a one exception as I did grab some tickets).

I went out to see the Olympic Torch as it passes through London. I saw joy. I saw happiness and I saw kids getting really excited.

Is it worth the cost? Is it worth allowing this government to be painted in anything other than the true colours of pain and distress that they are explicitly handing to the nation? Probably not. On balance, I’d rather have a fairer society with income distributed to provide more to all. Is it worth giving Boris his moment in the sun? That hurts too, because I never for a moment think that Boris is a mayor for London – he is a mayor for the parts of London that will be likely to vote for him.

But these aren’t the choices I was given.  Am I going to pretend I don’t want the excitement, celebrations and joy which exists around me? No. I’m going to enjoy these few weeks that London is at the heart of the sporting world. I’m going to use the events to build conversations with the people I visit, draw on memories of previous events and celebrations and use the excitement and celebration that is finally beginning to settle in the city. I’m going to use the time to enjoy the other associated celebrations, events and displays taking place. I’m going to enjoy the summer and the city.

I love London and I love the people who share this city with me. I want everyone else to come to know what a great place we are and can be. I tried to be more cynical, I tried to balance the head and the heart, but eventually the excitement came.

Yes, it’s going to be harder to get to work and it’s going to be harder to get home. We don’t have the luxury of ‘working at home’ but we don’t really know what the effect will be on the day to day work life as a social worker in the heart of an Olympic city but I’m sure it’s a theme I’ll come back to before the party is over.

For now, I’m going to try and enjoy it.

Lammy and Smacking

David Lammy, the Tottenham MP, spoke yesterday in an interview on LBC about his views on smacking.

Among other things, he said

“There are groups of people in this country who are confused by the law and we need to listen to those people,” he told the Guardian. “There is a divide between professionals and parents who feel quite differently.”

This issue has been covered at length in the media and it relates to issues he wrote about in the Autumn in  his post-riot book ‘Out of the Ashes’. He said that the Children Act 2004 ‘went too far’ in changing the legislation regarding the defence of reasonable punishment from parents who would no longer ‘be masters’ in their own homes. Continue reading