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Can't stop now: why 14 years on Stop the War still has much to do

Viewing the documentary We Are Many about the anti-Iraq war demonstrations in 2003, Alice Bragg asks, where are we today.


“I would say there is still a war to be stopped. And the war to be stopped is Britain’s war on terror and whatever comes out of it.” I’m sitting opposite Andrew Murray, one of the Founders of Stop the War Coalition and its Chair until 2011. His desk is large and his expression is extremely serious.

“Just last year we marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War,” Andrew continues, “That is where we will end up again unless there is a powerful anti-war movement.”

On 22nd May 2015 Amir Amirani’s long-awaited documentary ‘We Are Many’ hit the cinema screens. The film charts the rise of the anti-war movement in Britain following President Bush’s announcement that the US would respond to the attack on the Twin Towers by invading Afghanistan.

The crescendo of the film follows the global day of protest against the invasion of Iraq, held on 15th February 2003, when 35 million people worldwide took to the streets in the biggest protest the world has ever seen.

In Britain alone, 2 million people marched nationwide. I was one of them. At the time I was working for a director who gave me time off to film as many protests as I could. It shaped my life irrevocably.

I’m in Costa Coffee with John Rees, another Founder of Stop The War Coalition and one of its National Officers. John is on lunch break from his work as a news presenter. Along with most of those involved in the anti-war movement, John does so on a voluntary basis. Gentle and open, John is nevertheless a self-professed militant socialist.

However, when talking about the film, ‘We Are Many’, he becomes as excited as a little boy. “A Hollywood scale production - and their own history is being projected before them.” His fruity West Country accent bursts through, “I mean, we never get to write our own history. We never get films made about our own history. Somebody else always makes them. For one of us to make that film – it’s a terrific thing!”

Stop the War Coalition was launched just weeks after the 11th September attacks during a meeting at Friend’s House, a building owned and run by Quakers. Quakers are an off-shoot of Christianity that seek to live by the principles of truth, peace, simplicity and equality. 

“It was a very tempestuous meeting,” Andrew Murray recalls, “lots of different views.” Anas Altikriti, founding member of the Muslim Association of Britain was there. “We noted how it was full to the rafters and how people came from all parts of the country and internally we started talking about getting involved on an organisational level.”

At least 2,000 people came to that meeting at Friend’s House and two months later, when the newly-founded Stop the War Coalition called their first demonstration, over 80,000 took to the streets. As Murray writes in his book, ‘Stop The War’, “The mood was there to be caught”.

Meanwhile, Anas Altikriti returned to the ranks of the Muslim Association of Britain to tried and convince them to join the Coalition. But the tide of opinion was moving in the opposite direction. “The community all of a sudden started debating whether they should go inside and lock their doors and start building walls and fences around themselves, creating a sort of self-imposed siege mentality.”

Anas recounts, ”As someone grown up in Britain and who sees themselves as British first and foremost, it was quite an existential question.” Broad and solid with kindness in his eyes, Anas sits on a small chair in the lounge of a Holiday Inn, Brent Cross. The football is playing on the television behind us. From time to time, his eyes flicker towards the screen. “Basically, you are going out and you are exposing yourself at a time when media-wise and political-wise you are under the microscope and you are challenging the establishment.”

Stop the War Coalition campaigns on three key goals: stop the war, stop the racist backlash and defence of civil liberties “and if you agree on that” John tells me “you’re in”.

Stop The War members across the country come together in local groups, organising everything from rallies to leafleting, debates and seminars. They also mobilise people for national demonstrations.

However, because it is a coalition, any group can get involved. “One of the great things about Stop The War and the wisdom of its political leadership,” explains Kate Hudson, General Secretary of CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, “was that it understood the necessity of working in a very broad way.”

“At the start” recalls Andrew Murray, “there were two or three unions involved and quite a few left-wing groups, some pacifists and religious organisations.” But as the campaign gained momentum “it became a very broad church,” Kate recounts, her porcelain doll features detracting nothing from her inner strength,  “Greens and Labour and Pacifists… eventually it was able to relate to the Liberal Democrats. Charles Kennedy was on the (15th February) demonstration and the Daily Mirror had placards on that demo too.”

CND had called a peace rally just weeks after the September 11th attacks, which over 50,000 people attended. This was followed by a demo organised by Stop The War Coalition in November.

It was after attending this demonstration, that Anas Altikriti and others from the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) became even more determined to start a conversation with Stop the War.

The following April 2002, MAB called a demonstration in response to the Israeli massacre of civilians in Jenin Refugee Camp in northern Palestine. “At the time we were told you have to go and apply for a license” Anas recalls, “so we went to the police and they asked how many people we expected. We looked at each other, we had no figure. Shall we say 5,000? I said 5,000 sounds a bit pathetic, let’s say ten, just in case. So we wrote down 10,000 people and, when we left, we felt slightly regretful that we’d outplayed ourselves. We thought if we got 2,000 we’d be lucky. We ended up getting 120,000 people! It was absolutely crazy… at a time when Muslims were under siege intensely… they chose to express themselves at this event, to say, We are Powerful and We are Equal”.

It was during that demonstration that Stop the War and MAB joined forces, announcing a march later that year, to be held on the eve of the Labour Party conference, September 28th 2002. Half a million people came out that day to demonstrate against the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Palestine.

I filmed that march, for no other reason than I believed these demonstrations should be kept on record forever. Walking with my camera towards Embankment station, I captured an elderly lady with silver hair and bifocals holding a sign she made herself: ‘Don’t Attack Iraq’ and I was struck by the fact that she had come alone.

Passing the Victoria Embankment Gardens, opposite the station, my camera recorded a group of Muslim men praying discretely behind a bush. Eighteen in total, the younger ones with baseball caps turned backwards so their foreheads could touch the floor in prayer.

One man had a Stop the War Coalition leaflet pinned to his back, ‘DON’T ATTACK IRAQ’. In elegant unison he knelt and, as he leant forward to pray, it was as if he was pleading directly to God. A few meters away, a woman wearing a halterneck top had written on her bare back, ‘I’d like to see Tony’s point but I can’t get my head up Bush’s arse’.

The protesters started walking calmly, resolute - safe in their numbers. I took up a position on the side of the road and, as people streamed past my camera, some looked into the lens dispassionately while others don’t notice me at all.

Locked in conversation about the latest political maneuvering or focused on the horizon, banner in hand, everyone walking in the same direction. Placards emblazoned with ‘Youth Against the War’, ‘War on Terrorism is a War on Islam’, ‘People Before Petrol’, ‘Give Peace a Chance’ bobbed up and down to the rhythm of the bearer’s steps.

An elderly lady in a wheelchair was pushed by her male carer. Two blonds in matching denim jackets strode confidently behind her. Behind them, a group of girls in black headscarves, white headscarves, heavily made up in white headscarves. A guy walked between them dressed as the grim reaper.

Watching the footage now, I am struck by how many ordinary-looking people there are; a woman in her fifties with a perm and steel-rimmed spectacles could have come straight from morning choir practice. Many are on their own, unselfconscious, determinedly contributing to British politics by standing in solidarity with Iraqis.

Beneath the exhilaration of walking side-by-side in our thousands, we were all aware, somewhere deep inside ourselves, that innocent people would face the destruction of their lives, property and opportunity if this invasion took place; a fate that no amount of popular protest was going to avert. Not in the end.

Five months later, on the 15th February 2003, the largest demonstration in the history of the world took place. Across 600 cities worldwide, straddling every global time zone, people marched against the invasion of Iraq. In London, where 2 million people marched from Gower Street to Hyde Park, it was like witnessing a huge tidal wave surging past grand embassies, pillared offices, majestic government buildings, filling every available space, voices rising up as if from the soul of the earth, “One, two, three, four! We don’t want your bloody war!”

Organised by a tripartite alliance between Stop the War Coalition, MAB and CND, every religion, every ethnicity, every nationality, age, background, political creed was represented on that day. Teenagers had begun school walk-outs by then. They walked together in groups, eyes bright, chanting for a future they believed was theirs to be part of. Mothers pushing prams and smiling, playing a role in politics, in creating the world for their children to grow up in. The disabled, defying trepidation, advancing in wheelchairs within the massive crowd. They were a drop – we all were – in a huge sea compassion and determination. We must not start this war.

John Rees judges the success of the demonstration like this: “My sister and her husband live down in Wiltshire. She works in a supermarket, he’s a hospital porter. In the last five years they’ve only spent one Christmas together because of the shift patterns. My sister’s only been on two demonstrations. One was the miners and one was against the Iraq war.  And when you’re making society-wide change is when you’re making people like that - who have got every reason on a Saturday to go home and sleep on the settee, to take the kids out, to clean the house - and they decide instead to get on a coach and come to London. That’s when it’s making a change.”

That day, I felt change was inevitable. Together, the people had spoken. We had done it. The course of history would be altered. It had to be. We live in a democracy and that’s how democracies work. Every text book I’d read at school, every political analysis, every dissenting slogan had assured me of this throughout my life. And I believed it wholeheartedly. As disinterested as the population may be with party politics, as a nation we knew we were making a mistake by invading Iraq. And the nation, the demos, had spoken.

It is hard to convey the feeling of despair when those who we entrusted to represent us chose instead to ignore us. It was a loss of innocence and a broken heart.

Writing in The Guardian, Madeline Bunting described the 15th February march as a defining moment in contemporary political culture, ‘It shifted the tone of what Britain believes itself to be.. we showed ourselves to be a nation that is at ease with itself, compassionate, multi-cultural and tolerant… patiently waiting when the march ground to a halt, politely apologetic if they bumped into you…’ Twelve years later, in 2015, are we still a nation at ease with it itself? Are we still compassionate? Multi-cultural? Tolerant?

“Islamaphobia as an act, as a narrative, as a gesture, and definitely as a contemplation ideology is something that is growing.” Despite the vehemence in his voice, Anas Altikriti’s eyes flash with quiet pain, “and everyone experiences it on a different and unique level.”

Since the invasion of Iraq, a steady stream of legislation has been passed that alters our relationship as citizens to the state. This has been done, we are told, to protect us from terrorism. However, a link is rarely made between the invasion of Iraq and the anger, frustration and outrage that it has induced in people worldwide, emotions that are played upon by those recruiting for terrorist acts.

The source of the problem, therefore, goes unaddressed.  On the subject of the terrorists themselves, Altikriti points out that, “whilst we recognise and realise there will always, in every human society, be the criminals and the outcasts, a civil society - a society that lives by the values of democracy and freedom and transparency and justice - renders those to the very margins.”

Instead, the terrorists: men who preach in mosques in urban suburbs, young guys with patchy beards on the streets of Ladbroke Grove, school girls on Twitter who travel to Syria, are the motivator behind legal reforms that have already removed some of our most fundamental legal rights as citizens. This has been justified on the basis that Islam should be a great cause of fear. “In Britain today” Altikriti concludes, “Islamaphobia has become part of the mainstream”.

I’m trying to get a handle on Stop the War Coalition’s world view. I know that it’s a coalition with a very narrow consensus, enshrined in the three key goals: No to war, No to islamaphobia, Defend civil rights; but I want to understand how those fit within an analysis of the world we live in now.

“My view,” states Andrew Murray, “is that Britain is not just a legacy of imperialism and empire but that it actively conducts itself as an imperialist power. It is one of a small number of states, the most important of which is the USA, that seems to aggregate to itself the power to intervene in other countries, to ‘set the world to rights’ in the vernacular, and I think that is something that needs to be overcome”.  

The declaration of war on Afghanistan following two aeroplanes hitting the Twin Towers did not come as a surprise to John Rees, “The analysis I had was that… the fall of the Berlin Wall would make the United States more likely to seek military power in trying to shape the world. It is declining economically relative to its competitors but it is still overwhelmingly the most powerful military force. What would that mean? The outcome of that configuration would be that it would use military force or military power to redress the terms of trade so that it would work in its favour.”

Since the Korean War (1950-53), the United States has controlled vast regions of the world through first establishing and then continuing a military presence. The discrepancy between justifications we were given for the invasion of Iraq and the realpolitik behind it was explained on my tapes, the old fashioned way, through a crackly tannoy by a sandy-haired bloke from Yorkshire:

“The Socialists on this march here today have spent twenty or so years saying Saddam Hussein should go. But the job of regime change should be for the people of Iraq and not for the oil in the region.”

His words are greeted by casual applause from the group that surround him, five, six, seven tiers deep. He judges atmosphere, unsure whether or not to continue. His girlfriend stands resolute beside him, Arsenal Football Club cap firmly in place. A woman with short grey hair, sensibly cut, waits patiently for him to resume; a student in glasses does too. Beside him, a fat bloke in his forties, lime green shirt and Bedouin scarf; a South Asian woman in a raincoat; a pretty blond with a fringe and tight sweater, on it pinned a badge of the Palestinian flag. Sensing encouragement, he decides to go on, “The working class people in this country will not support Tony Blair and a Labour Government in a war against the people of Iraq!”.

Kate Hudson explains why she believes Britain supports this militarism, “A lot of it comes down to the British establishment’s sense of Britain’s role in the world: what it should be doing and the fact that we want to… punch above our weight, we want to be a heavy hitter, we want to play a role in the world, we want to be one of the states that, if something’s going on, we’re there at the top table saying what should happen”.

This cuts to the very core of British identity. Are we still a country that seeks to dominate the globe as we did for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Or are we something else now? In twenty-first century Britain, who are we and what is our relationship to the rest of the world?

Kate Hudson is clear about the relationship she doesn’t want, as well as the Britain she does, “I don’t want our government bombing other countries in order to get their oil or to change their governments in our own interests. We should not be there. We should not be involved in that”

Kate looks piercingly into the middle distance, “We should have a new foreign policy based on justice and equality and respect for other countries; equal foreign relations between countries” She turns her silky-blue, resolute eyes towards me, “Our government shouldn’t be pursuing this agenda which just ends in killing people”.

Anas Altikriti is clear that many of those who marched on February 15th 2003 would not subscribe to the new imperialism theory but, “it didn’t matter to them… what we had was the simple element of human life being at risk”. After a pause, Anas adds, “I think its more about the values that bring this alliance together, rather than the ideology”.

‘We Are Many’ turns a spotlight on 15th February march and charts its impact on British government foreign policy decisions since then. These include failed attempts to attack Iran and to stage direct military intervention in Syria.

However, as Anas Altikriti points out, “We focus on what happened in February 2003 but if it hadn’t been for the daily activity that was happening up and down the country in towns and villages… we wouldn’t have had the 2 million march”.

Getting people out on the streets, believes John Rees, “changes the trajectory of the country – if its big enough. It has to be big enough to do that.”

I ask Andrew Murray why people would want get involved in Stop The War Coalition, what is the call to arms?

“The call to arms is to disengage Britain from US foreign policy which will drag us into one war after another, has done in the Middle East and perhaps threatens to do in Eastern Europe as well… So one has to think beyond the issues of the present, look to the dangers of the future… the transition into bigger imperialist and inter-imperialist wars, which unfortunately, if they were to break out, would make even the Iraqi conflict look like very small potatoes indeed.” Andrew pauses, lays down his pen and looks straight across at me, “So to save humanity is the vision and the call”.

Despite these devastating predictions, war seems far away to most. However, the two related goals of Stop The War Coalition do feel very present. The rise of Islamaphobia is understandable when news organisations report such frightening stories on an almost daily basis. However, when one considers that terrorist attacks carried out in Europe in the name of Islam number less than one percent, this seems disproportionate.

In terms of defending civil rights, the recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Act is a cause for concern. It requires public institutions to monitor their staff, patients, pupils and students and report anyone suspected of ‘radicalisation’. Those accused will then be dealt with by ‘deradicalisation panels’. Despite attendance at these panels being voluntary, at least at present, one could see how non-compliance could be interpreted as an admission of guilt. I suddenly feel like I’m in a scene of ‘The Lives of Others’, the popular film set in East Berlin that subtly and painfully reveals the human impact on free-thinking people when they are living in a police state.

In the Forward to Murry’s ‘Stop The War’, the late, great Tony Benn writes, “Our own history is full of popular victories that have been won in the same way, starting at the bottom and building up until their demands have been met and accepted as a permanent feature in decision making by all future governments”.

His words serve as a gentle reminder that unless we engage, unless we do something, our voices will not be heard. And we may not always be defending ourselves. But if history has taught us anything, it is that the flames of injustice will eventually consume us all.

“Ordinary people, they only have two things really,” his lunch break almost over, John Rees leaves me with this thought, “they don’t have power, the don’t have money, they don’t have the media. They have only two advantages over the rulers: there’s more of them and they can organise.

So numbers and organisation are always the key things… and mass political work is our way of intervening in the political world”.

Left alone at the table in Costa Coffee, I think about those 2 million people who marched on February 15th and the thousands of others who mobilised in any way they could; through anti-war theatre performances, rock concerts, candle-lit vigils, sit-ins, walk outs.

My tapes capture only small flashes in the democratic explosion that was taking place across the country – across the world - at that time. And I ask myself, not for the first time, did we lose? And from the very caverns of the earth I hear the word, NO. But we can’t stop now.

Source: Stop the War Coalition