Up to a million people are expected to be on the streets of London today making their objections to the possible use of force to disarm the Iraqi regime and overthrow Saddam Hussein – it is likely to end up being the largest demonstration in British history.
The ultra-left nature of the Stop the War coalition’s leadership is not really the issue anymore – the size of the demonstration has swamped the usual suspects in a sea of concerned citizenry. Respected centre-left politicians such as Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats and former Labour cabinet minister Mo Mowlam will address the rally in Hyde Park. The anti-war movement has clearly crossed into the mainstream.
As someone who devoted a far bit of effort into trying to make radical politics reach beyond the ghetto of the sectarian subculture I should be pleased to see this remarkable movement of people on the streets. And on one level it is of course pleasing to see people making their voices heard and taking an interest in a serious matter. It would be a cause for real concern if Britain was preparing to send troops into action and no-one raised any objections or asked any difficult questions. Apathy has been the first victim of this war and that is a good thing.
But still, I am not with the marchers either physically or politically.
As much as I am disgusted at the sabre-rattling, arrogance, intollerance and more recently downright xenophobia of much of the right-wing pro-war campaign in the US media, as much as a I find it hard to take seriously the president of the United States and his cliched and primitive style of politics, as much as I doubt the intentions of sinister figures such as Donald Rumsfeld, I still could not bring myself to rally to the slogan Hands Off Iraq.
Why? Well, as Johann Hari puts it in the Independent today:
“My recurring nightmare – literally – is that, when all this is over, I meet up again with some of the friends I made in Iraq (and who I talk to everyday by e-mail), and they say to me: “You knew we hated Saddam, with his torture chambers, his secret police and his 100 per cent ‘election’ results. You knew we were desperate to overthrow him. You knew about the 5,000 people he gassed at Halabjah. You knew. So when British and American planes were just miles away, waiting to kill Saddam so we could begin to rebuild our country, what did you do?”
How could I possibly tell them I went on a march opposing the war? How will I explain that one million people in my home town actually did?
Those of on the left who have refused to join in the essentially populist calls to Stop the War have been accused of all manner of ‘crimes’. Some of you who read this weblog have sent me emails which could be accurately described as hate-mail.
The claim is that people on the left who are not against military action on principle have ‘sold-out’ to the right, have ‘caved in’ and have abandoned their core beliefs.
In fact far from taking the easy way out, people on the left who have taken a strongly anti-Saddam line, have found themselves among an unfashionable minority in Britain and Europe – as I said anti-war is now mainstream.
Of course it is no great sacrificice for an anonymous blogger such as myself, but the likes of Hari and Aaronovitch in the media and those Labour MP’s who have taken a supportive position to the Prime Minister, deserve respect for taking a dent to their popularity and being willing to stand against the flow.
And yes, that includes Tony Blair.
A man accused of being a follower of fads, obsessed with opinion polls and lacking the leadership ability to take a stand on issues of principle has been prepared to take a huge hit in popularity because he thinks he is taking the moral and principled position.
How high would Blair be soaring in the polls if he had taken a German or French approach? How much begrudging applause would he be winning from the party rank and file if he was on the podium today in Hyde Park criticising George Bush?
Instead he was at the Scottish Labour Party conference making the case for his stand and carefully and calmly addressing the arguements of the protesters outside in one of his most impressive speeches.
Clearly much will be made of the numbers on the marches today but Blair managed to put those numbers into perspective.
“This isn’t a regime with Weapons of Mass Destruction that is otherwise benign. This is a regime that contravenes every single principle or value anyone of our politics believes in.
There will be no march for the victims of Saddam, no protests about the thousands of children that die needlessly every year under his rule, no righteous anger over the torture chambers which if he is left in power, will be left in being.
I rejoice that we live in a country where peaceful protest is a natural part of our democratic process.
But I ask the marchers to understand this.
I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honour. But sometimes it is the price of leadership. And the cost of conviction.
But as you watch your TV pictures of the march, ponder this:
If there are 500,000 on that march, that is still less than the number of people whose deaths Saddam has been responsible for.
If there are one million, that is still less than the number of people who died in the wars he started.”