Here’s an extract from our latest pamphlet – We Are Many: The Story of a Movement

Lindsey German & Andrew Murray

Chapter 3: Portrait of the Movement…

The Stop the War Coalition has been a remarkable movement, and not merely because its political judgements have proved to be correct time after time. Its breadth and energy, particularly in its opposition to the war against and occupation of Iraq have been a powerful chapter in the history of democratic protest and campaigning.

The Coalition originated on the Left, among socialist activists from a range

of different traditions – far left, Communist, Labour etc – many of whom had been involved in previous anti-war campaigns. Establishing the unity of the Left was not itself to be taken for granted, and required the construction of

the campaign around simple mobilising demands which allowed space for divergence on secondary issues, as well as the marginalisation of sectarian or pro-imperialist groupings. The campaign found a ready audience from the start in the traditional organisations of the British peace movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament first of all. Labour MPs like George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn played a leading part from the earliest days, as did long- standing anti-war campaigners like Tariq Ali. London Mayor Ken Livingstone came to play a prominent supportive part.

But the Left on its own would not be sufficient to reach all the parts of the community which needed to be brought on board. Building wider alliances was essential. Here Stop the War benefitted from an already-developing move to the left among the trade unions. Initially, smaller but influential unions like ASLEF and RMT on the railways and NATFHE (now part of UCU) in higher education supported our work. So too the CWU union in post and telecoms, once Billy Hayes was elected its General Secretary, and PCS in the civil service under Mark Serowtka. As the intensity of the movement developed, membership pressure drove larger unions like the T&G (now part of Unite) and Unison into affiliating with the Coalition, overcoming hesitations at the level of leaderships anxious not to fall out with the Labour government. This extended our reach in workplaces and working-class communities.

If trade unions are a traditional prop of progressive campaigns in Britain, other elements were entirely novel. We have already referred to the alliances forged with Muslim communities in opposition to war and in solidarity with the Palestinian people. This was a partnership without precedent that helped facilitate mass Muslim participation in a political campaign on a scale not seen before. Neither the Left nor Muslim organisations were required to abandon their beliefs on other questions – they were merely required not to seek to impose them on other parts of the movement. The focus was building the broadest and most effective opposition to war that was possible. New Muslim leaders, including women like Salma Yaqoob, came to the fore in the movement as a consequence. A political alternative was offered to isolation and resentment which can damage community cohesion. Neither the Left nor the Muslim organisations could have done this in isolation from each other. This unity has threatened the establishment, who fear having their hands tied internationally by the presence of a militant and mobilised Muslim community in Britain itself, and no little effort has been expended on trying to break or undermine it.

Novel, too, at least in its extent, was the support for the anti-war movement amongst school students. In a resonant answer to the canard that the younger generation were disengaged from politics, tens of thousands joined in the campaign to stop a war they regarded as an amoral abomination. Even before war broke out significant numbers of walk-outs had occurred at schools across the country. On the day Bush and Blair embarked on their aggression thousands of schools were disrupted as students abandoned their lessons in order to make their voices heard. School Students Against the War became a key part of the movement for many years.

Even more dramatic was the development of Military Families Against the War, an entirely unprecedented campaign, sponsored by Stop the War and rooted in military communities previously inaccessible to anti-war movements. This was the measure of the failure of Blair to carry the country with him as casualties mounted in Iraq. Parents like Rose Gentle, Reg Keys and Peter Brierley found the courage to admit that their children had been killed for a lie, in a pointless war, a very challenging thing for any father or mother to acknowledge. This carried the anti-war movement into the heart of public opinion, further undermining the legitimacy of Blair’s endless wars. In response, the government launched initiatives like Armed Forces Day, which the services had previously managed very well without for blood-soaked centuries, and the ceremonial return of dead soldiers’ coffins from Afghanistan through Wootton Bassett. In addition, the Coalition backed soldiers like Joe Glenton who denounced the war policy of which they had been made the instrument.

Stop the War also established a strong cultural presence. Numerous artists contributed their skills to our propaganda, most notably David Gentleman, who designed the Coalition’s iconic blood-spot posters. Cultural evenings at St James’ Church in London’s Piccadilly were important fund-raisers. Today our President is famous musician Brian Eno and our Patrons include eminent actors Mark Rylance and Kika Markham.

Still more important was our nationwide network of local groups, reaching into every corner and community of the country and reproducing at local level the coalition assembled nationally. This embedded the anti-war movement

in the political culture of the country, giving us a visible presence in cities, towns and villages and holding MPs’ feet to the fire. The movement drew on the energies of hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life and beliefs. It reshaped political attitudes on international questions. Of course, this was possible because the foreign policy the government followed had

been so self-evidently disastrous. But this would not have turned into such a broad movement which recognised the necessity for change without sustained campaigning at every level.

To give a flavour of what the Stop the War movement was like in summer 2006, at a point when it was already past its peak, one of the present authors wrote the following in The Guardian:

“Reflecting on just the meetings I have attended over the last month or so gives some idea of the breadth and militancy of the domestic opposition to British foreign policy, even if much of it flies beneath the Westminster radar.

I spoke at a rally in Forest Gate called by the local Muslim community in the aftermath of the botched police raid there. There was plenty of criticism of

the cops, of course, but the loudest cheers were for speakers who linked the harassment British Muslims are facing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I attended a fringe meeting at the annual conference of Unison, Britain’s biggest trade union. Between 300 and 400 delegates turned up – a huge part of the whole conference and the biggest anti-war fringe meeting we have ever held at a union event.

The coalition held a benefit night for Malcolm Kendall-Smith, the brave RAF officer who went to prison for his refusal to serve in the Iraq war on grounds of conscience. A host of celebrities, including David Edgar and Vivienne Westwood, turned up to perform in the beautiful setting of St James’s Church in Piccadilly before a sell-out audience. We raised over £10,000 to help Malcolm with his legal costs.

In Cambridge I shared a platform with Rose Gentle and Sarah Chapman, two women who have lost loved ones in Iraq. The dignity and passion of the members of Military Families Against the War reaches parts of society the rest of us

can’t very easily. In Hackney, I spoke to a large crowd at the Day-Mer festival, organised annually by the Turkish and Kurdish communities in north London, strong supporters of the anti-war movement from the outset.

And I spoke – on the same evening, as it happens – at two festivals in London: Islam Expo and Marxism 2006, each attended by thousands of people. Of all these engagements, only the last could really come within the ‘students and the left’ category. It is a sustained national progressive movement without any real precedent…

Today’s opinion poll shows that the arguments of the anti-war movement now command majority support on every point – backing for the Iraq war and occupation is at record lows, and more people are convinced that the British Army is doing no good in Afghanistan than believe the opposite (a position the top brass may well share).

And, of course, 63 per cent of people want an end to the uncritical support for George Bush’s wars and a stop to the foreign policy alignment with Washington…”

Purchase your copy of We Are Many: The Story of a Movement Here

08 Oct 2021 by Lindsey German & Andrew Murray

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