From Iraq war to anti-austerity marches: do mass demonstrations achieve anything?

If the biggest anti-war protest in human history could be ignored, then why bother marching for or against anything ever again?


THE PROTESTS are coming. Polish your placard, stitch up your banner, wash the tear gas out of that old bandana. Get ready to rally over the coming weeks, months and years, because what else is there to do?

If you don’t like the new government, if you don’t want to see the welfare budget cut by billions, if you are made fearful, distressed or furious by what the Conservatives are planning, what can you do except march? Join a political party?

Thousands of new members have signed up to the defeated parties since the election, apparently, but Labour is still in disarray, the Liberal Democrats are nowhere, the Greens unconvincing, Ukip is eating itself alive. The SNP is the only effective opposition and that’s no comfort outside Scotland. Things can only get bitter.

Many trade unions are too weak to strike; and David Cameron is planning to strangle the rest with changes to the law that the TUC says will leave its negotiators “with no more power than Oliver Twist when he asked for more”.

On the other hand, prime ministers who try to act strong bring out strong reactions in the people who oppose them. And social media makes it easier than ever to organise a protest: a generation ago, it took six months of campaigning to fill Trafalgar Square; now you can organise a flash mob in an hour.

Unions, faith groups, charities and campaigners are taking a longer run up by calling all dissenters to gather under the banner of the People’s Assembly, with a national march against austerity on 20 June that will start outside the Bank of England.

They will want a peaceful protest, a carnival of concern: a vast version of an anti-austerity event that happened in Bristol last Wednesday and drew a couple of thousand people. It got less attention than the smaller, more angry confrontation outside Downing Street the day after the Tories came back to power, when smoke bombs and traffic cones were thrown at the police (who had come in their body armour and riot shields ready for such a clash).

Protest thrives in days like these, when there seems to be no alternative, but is it worth it? Does it work?

Those are questions posed by a new film called We Are Many that looks back at the biggest protest in British history: the day a million people – or maybe two million – marched in London against the war in Iraq. They were from all walks of life, and many were protesting for the first time ever.

The actor Mark Rylance remembers in the film that he thought he had stumbled into a different march: “I thought: ‘This must be for something else.’ Because there were all these families, people with pushchairs and babies, people who I had never seen before on these things and the outpouring of rage from the people was so beautiful, really passionate and eloquent and beautiful, people crying out and shouting.”

We Are Many records the great swell of opinion that brought people out to protest in nearly 800 cities in 72 countries on 15 February 2003; and the great hope that grew in the hearts of many of the 30 million that surely there could be no war after this. But it was the day a generation lost its innocence.

“The scales fell from people’s eyes,” says the director Amir Amirani, who spent nine years making the film. “Up until then, they still had a faith in politics: that there would come a point at which the politicians would have to listen. The realisation that this was not the case was a huge moment which, as the author John le Carré says in the film, has stuck in our craw ever since.”

We Are Many will have its premiere in London on 21 May and be released in cinemas on 22 May.

Amirani, a Londoner of Iranian descent who trained at the BBC, says he is one of a “huge swathe of voters who have said they will never vote Labour again because of what the party did with that war. Where do those people go?”

His answer is that they have gone into single-issue politics or campaign groups such as 38 Degrees, whose co-founder David Babbs appears in the film.

“Quite a few went into the climate camp, the Occupy movement or direct action,” says Amirani. “A whole generation was radicalised and politicised, but just could not buy into the politics of their parents: ‘You vote Labour or you vote Tory.’ Those people grew up and they are looking for answers that the election did not give to them. What will they do next?”

Protest is the answer. They are in place and ready to go. But what’s the point? If the biggest anti-war protest in human history could be ignored, then why bother marching for or against anything ever again?

We Are Many has a good stab at coming up with a positive answer. First it argues that 15 February 2003 was like a spark for the Egyptian revolution. Then it suggests that Parliament’s decision not to go to war in Syria in 2013 was a direct result of politicians knowing there had been “structural shift in public opinion away from war”.

Surprisingly, Tony Blair’s ally Lord Falconer says the anti-war march did change things: “If a million people come out on the streets in the future, then what government is going to say they are wrong now? When the last time the public expressed their opposition in that way, history said the people on the street were right and not the people in the government.” That’s quite an admission from a man who still believes going to war was the right thing to do.

Dr Eliza Filby, a lecturer in modern British history at King’s College London, says he is right but such an admission is rare. “Yes, protesting does have an effect, but politicians don’t admit it. They can’t.”

History tells us there are three main ways of making an impact with a protest, she says. “You can have huge numbers, as they did in 2003. You can have prominent people – that works.” The third option is to smash things.

“You’ve got to have lots of violence against property and destruction of property, because that breeds chaos. Governments don’t like chaos, it undermines their authority. They won’t admit this, but they will do anything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

One example is the race riots under Margaret Thatcher. “The riots all over in the summer of 1981 scared the hell out of a cabinet that was divided and weak. There was the Scarman report, the government did start putting money into the inner cities. Thatcherism was not stopped in its tracks but it did change,” says Dr Filby.

“The more chaotic a protest looks, the more a government will condemn it publicly and the more fearful it will be privately, and so liable to make changes.”

These can happen in secret over a period of time and are rarely exactly what the protesters want, she says: the protests in 2003 did not stop the invasion of Iraq but they did create a climate in which no prime minister can now go to war without the support of the Commons. “That is a direct consequence of the march.”

How many protests achieve anything at all? About a third is the answer, according a remarkable piece of work from the Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University. Researchers studied 843 protests in 84 countries between January 2006 and July 2013, from Occupy Wall Street to mining strikes in South Africa and rallies in Brazil.

The report says the number of protests is rising, more middle-class people are marching and more than half of demonstrations are against austerity measures or poverty. “Today we are experiencing another period of rising outrage and discontent and some of the largest protests in world history.”

But only 37 per cent of protests resulted in “some kind of achievement” in the short or medium term. Those that did were usually about domestic policy.

So, if you are going to protest, here’s how to have the most impact. First, make sure it’s an issue that effects people around you, not far away. Next, make a clear demand like stopping a war or raising the price farmers are paid for milk.

Get celebrity backers. Go break a window or two. Don’t hurt anybody or daub graffiti on war memorials as some idiot did during the Downing Street protest, but if you want to get noticed then absolutely do make it look as if there is chaos on the streets and the authorities can’t cope. These are the lessons from history.

Huge numbers really help. Be warned, though: even if you can draw a jaw-dropping, record-breaking crowd, be prepared for the politicians to ignore you. The only way to bring immediate change is to gather day after day after day in the same persistent massive show of force, as happened in Egypt and other countries during the Arab Spring.

Could that happen here? Do we even want it? As the film director Amir Amirani says: “This is the big question facing all of us in society: what is left for people to do? Is it non-violent resistance? Is it direct action? Is it Egyptian-style, Greek-style and Spanish-style opposition? If a million people do come out again, is it a one-time demonstration and then we all go home again like before?”

The protests are coming, but if they are ignored will we do what we did in 2003 and melt away, almost embarrassed to have caused a fuss?

“As Ken Loach says in our film, government can handle that,” says Amirani. “What it can’t handle is real organisation. Whether we will have that in Britain over the next five years remains to be seen.”

Source: The Independent

Join Stop the War
The campaign against the British government's war policies continues. If you are angry at Parliament voting for the UK's fourth war in 14 years, and sickened by MPs cheering the bombing of Syria:
Join Stop the War now »

Red Button