Chief steward of the largest demonstration in British history, Chris Ninehan, reflects on the politics, impact and organisation of Feb 15 2003.

Protesters in Hyde Park on Feb 15 2003. Photo: Ben Sutherland

“There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” New York Times, 17 February 2003.

The global demonstrations on 15 February 2003 were the biggest protest event in world history. No one has been able to come up with anything like a historical precedent. Researchers estimate these were demonstrations in at least 800 cities around the world and that anywhere between eight and thirty million marched. The protests unfolded around the globe in sync with the sun. Waking on the Saturday morning activists in Britain learnt that Australia had already had its largest ever protests – four demonstrations of more than 100,000 including between 300,000 and 500,000 in Sydney. Around a million Australians marched in all, about 5% of the entire population.

That set a pattern. Not only was this a genuinely worldwide day of mass action but, though there was marked unevenness, country after country had their biggest protest in generations, or ever. Many of the biggest demonstrations were in Europe. Organisers in Rome estimated three million marched. In Madrid the movement claimed 1.5 million and there were massive marches in other Spanish cities. 45,000 people marched in Switzerland, its biggest demonstration since 1945. More than 100,000 marched in Norway in all – making it the biggest protest since 1917.

But there were significant demonstrations in every region of the globe with the exception, apparently, of China. The biggest demonstration in the Middle East was in Damascus, where US broadcaster CBS estimated 200,000 marched, but there were protests across the region, including a co-ordinated demonstration in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. On the day, the Egyptian movement held a small illegal protest, but they were inspired by the global marches to call a breakthrough protest a few weeks later, which marked the re-emergence of popular protest in the country.

This illustrated another characteristic of 15 February. The scale and momentum behind the day gave activists living in authoritarian regimes the confidence to take to the streets. Around 3,000 people braved their way to the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur on an illegal demonstration the police had promised to attack. In Jordan 5,000 protested and in Tunisia 2,000 demonstrators faced down attacks by armed riot police.

Elsewhere, leading ANC figures joined the tens of thousands marching in South Africa. In Antarctica a group of scientists at the US McMurdo Station held a rally on the ice at the edge of the Ross Sea. In the US hundreds of thousands marched in New York and clashed with police who tried and failed to stop what was supposed to be a static protest turning into a march. Desmond Tutu and Susan Sarandon addressed the rally, amongst others. Major UK cities all had big marches. In Seattle organisers had expected 20,000 or 30,000 and were amazed when over 50,000 people turned up, more that at the WTO protests four years before. In Los Angeles 50 or 60,000 joined Martin Sheen and Mike Farrell and director Rob Reiner to march down Hollywood Boulevard. In South America the biggest demonstrations were in Uruguay and Argentina, but there were protests across the continent, including at least 20 in Brazil, in one of which President Lula Da Silva joined in.

Organisers reported higher than expected turnouts even when protests were organised in the last few days. The Uruguay demonstration was organised by a group of anti-capitalists after they heard about the day at the World Social Forum in Brazil two weeks before. On the day some 50,000 marched through the capital city of Montevideo. This is in a country of a little over three million.

London was one of the centres of the action. Britain had had the first great anti-Iraq War demonstration in September 2002 when 350,000 marched, It was activists from Britain who had first proposed the international day, quickly winning support from members of the Italian movement, and then agreement across Europe. Leading US campaigners Jesse Jackson and Tim Robbins came over especially to march in London, because they shared the understanding that the British government was the most vulnerable point of the war effort. Blair was clearly at odds with the British people and his own party. If the US’s main ally could be dislodged there was just a chance the whole project could collapse.

The epic proportions of the upcoming demonstration started to sink in on the day, about two weeks before the march, that coach numbers reached 1,000. The take-up was boosted further by a clumsy government attempt to stop the march. With contempt for both public opinion and civil liberties that was typical of New Labour, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell reused to sign off on the demo route claiming the Hyde Park authorities were worried about damage to the park’s grass. This transparent ploy caused outrage. The Stop the War Coalition took a strong public stand, said the march was going ahead whatever happened and suggested Buckingham Palace as an alternative end point. Desperately trying to save face, the Hyde Park authorities raised health and safety issues: numbers of people; the depth of winter; the dark, poorly lit park; unsafe, muddy ground and so on; but the damage was done. In the face of popular rage and ridicule Tessa Jowell and her park keeper allies backed down humiliated.

It became clear the original meet up point on the Thames Embankment was going to be overrun, so a second meet up point was organised a mile south of Euston Station. On the day enormous crowds amassed there too. People travelling down on the trains from the north to Euston found the crowds had backed out from New Oxford Street way past the Euston Station entrance. Some waited four hours before they even started walking. Incredibly the two marches synchronised and met at a euphoric moment in Piccadilly Circus, right by the statue of Eros.

The demonstration morphed into a wave of humanity moving east-west across central London. Thousands confronted police in Oxford Street, a mile away from the official route, and the police had to stand down, overwhelmed. London belonged to the people that day and no one had experienced anything quite like it. There were still thousands of people pouring into the Hyde Park endpoint and chanting, an hour after the speeches had ended and the sun had gone down.

To savour the moment people lit fires around the park and partied into the evening.

As ever there was debate about the actual size of the demonstration, with the police particularly reluctant to accept that a million marched. Most of the media, however, didn’t even try to call it less. Up to now no one had developed an authoritative way of calculating these kind of numbers on the move, but the best research suggests a figure of around two million. The Guardian reported  an ICM poll taken the day after the demonstration, which concluded that, “at least one person from 1.25 million households in Britain went on Saturday’s anti-war march in London.”

Given that more than one person must have attended from many households, two million seems to be the best estimate. A Telegraph poll came up with a similar figure.

After its size, it was the diversity of the protesters that stood out. As on the previous Stop the War demos, the Muslim communities were out in force alongside the left and the trade unions. But the demonstration’s power was that it brought together so many sections of society. There were celebrities including Kylie Minogue, Damon Albarn and boxer Chris Eubank driving a truck rigged up with the slogan ‘Reason should be our only weapon.’ There were Labour Party delegations alongside the unions, huge student contingents, Lib Dem supporters, a big turnout from the peace movement, Christian and Buddhist and Jewish groups, and thousands and thousands of first-time marchers who earned the new tag, ‘protest virgins.’

The unity of purpose, the sheer size and the long wait combined to break down barriers. One first timer noted, “rookie marchers stood with the Save the Lentil brigade and talked Iraq, Zoe Ball, Greenham Common and bladder control. The smell of Chanel No. 5 mingled with the aroma of cannabis. At Westminster there was a mass stop off at McDonalds. I spotted a Liberty Scarf, a National Trust umbrella and a little blue Tiffany Shop bag.”

Graphic artist David Gentleman had urged Stop the War to produce a simple poster and placard that could be carried on the demonstration to express the movement’s message clearly and crisply. He came up with the brilliant ‘NO’ sign that was carried by tens of thousands on the day alongside many produced by the Mirror. But as in all genuinely popular movements many carried homemade banners including the later to be mass-produced ‘Make tea not war,’ one form Shoreham-by-Sea Twins Group, another carried by devotees of East Anglican hardcore metal, and one brought by gardeners announcing ‘Gardeners dig peace.’

With the exception of the Murdoch press, the newspapers couldn’t miss the message. This, they agreed, with various degrees of enthusiasm or distaste, was definitely not the usual suspects. Some journalists were alarmed, not just by the demographic, but by the universal anger and militancy on display. The Daily Mail’s Robert Hardman wrote of “Barbour’s and burqas, monks and mullahs, Tories and Trots… ‘George Bush – terrorist! Tony Blair – terrorist!’ They chorused as they marched down Piccadilly. The last time I had heard anyone shouting that it was an angry mob in Pakistan. Now the same mantra was being chanted by Middle England outside Fortnum and Mason.”

The interviews, the surveys, the speeches and the reports testify to a mix of emotions amongst the demonstrators on the day, including real fear of the consequences of war and a sense of awe and pride that so many people had turned out to oppose it. But what was noticeable above all was distrust of the warmakers’ arguments. Virgin marcher Mike Shaw summed up a widespread cynicism about what was driving the rush to war:

“This is the first time in my life I have ever felt strongly enough about something to come out and protest. Nobody we know supports this war. Containment would work especially with the inspection regime in place at the moment. [Weapons of mass destruction] can’t be the reason for all this I think it has been part of Bush’s agenda from the moment he came to power. They want to impose their own systems of government…”

Behind this there was a more general feeling of betrayal directed against the politicians who had got us to this point and particularly focused on Tony Blair. In the words of Guardian journalist Richard Williams:

“Whatever else it may have been, the march was a great shout of protest against a man for whom most of these present had voted in the last two general elections. After the long alienation years of Thatcher, Tony Blair presented himself as one of us, part of the culture of modern Britain. But now one piece of foreign policy has provided the catalyst for the release of pent-up disenchantment.”

From the stage, speaker after speaker expressed this sense of disillusion. Mark Serwotka talked of the social cost of the war: “This was will cost £3.5 billion of our money. Why can’t that money be used to fund decent pensions, the health service, pay our fire fighters a decent wage?” Singer Ms Dynamite talked of her belief in the equality of all humanity “which clashes so strongly with the values of the prime minister…We are standing, we are speaking out, we are fighting, but our prime minister is ignoring our wishes.”

The demonstrations so vast and the gulf between the people and the politicians so wide that many began to draw more general conclusions from the day. In the words of Madeline Bunting, Guardian columnist:

“Saturday proved that the decline of democracy has been overstated. What has changed is the pattern of participation: political parties and turnouts may be declining, but intense, episodic political engagement is on the increase. In recent years we have seen both the lowest turnouts and the biggest demonstrations in British political history. Now there is a conundrum to keep hundreds of political scientists busy.”

The Meaning of the March

The evidence backs up Bunting’s view. And it makes surprising reading for anyone who thinks that people have become apathetic or depoliticised in the last few decades. The best research into the day’s events confirms the diversity of the demonstration – a very wide social, age and gender spectrum participated, “every group in society was represented to some extent”, though it was “somewhat younger, slightly more female and especially much better educated that the average citizen.” A narrow majority, (54%) were women, 11% were under 24 and another 11% over 65, with the largest percentage in the 25-45 group (38%). According to these figures managers made up 6% of the demonstrators and office and manual workers together 20%. Another 20% of the respondents were students.

Though it was diverse, it was not simply a cross section of society. The survey’s authors conclude that the protesters fitted the profile of the new social movements more closely than that of the population as a whole. They also find that the movement concentrated its attractive power in general on those with broadly left-wing views. It also records a very high level of people who have demonstrated previously, suggesting 45% of demonstrators had previously been on a peace protest, 27% on a protest over social issues, and 25% against racism.

The anti-war movement was part of, and an accelerator in, a wider, global trend towards involvement in street protest. Since the early 1970s, a growing percentage of the UK population has reported taking part in demonstrations or other political activism. An examination of the British Social Attitudes surveys over the three decades to 2003 shows an uneven but dramatic rise in the number of people who say they have demonstrated against the government some time in their life. In 1983 the figure was 2% of the population, it then peaked at 12% in 2003. A similar, if slightly less marked trend is apparent in the World Values Survey which also shows a steady rise in the number of people saying they have participated in demonstrations over the same period.

In 2005, 6.4% of the British population confirmed participating in a demonstration in the last five years. If this is correct it would mean in the first five years of the new millennium almost three million people in this country demonstrated. Over a third of these – 1.2 million – were aged between 12 and 25.

The trend towards political street protesting has coincided with a sharp lowering in the public’s confidence in core institutions of political society and particularly in the relevance of the political process. The British Social Attitudes Survey records a relatively steady increase in the number of people saying that they “almost never” trust the British government to placate national interest above the interests of their own political party from 10% in 1974 to 30% in 2003.

The same surveys reveal a steep drop in the number of people who believe that there is “a good deal of difference” between political parties, from 80% in 1987 to 15% in 2003 and just 12% in 2005.

Not surprisingly there has at the same time been a steep decline in membership of political parties. In 1983 just under 4% of the British population were members of the main political parties. This figure dropped sharply to 2% in the early 1990s, rose slightly around the 1997 election and then fell again dramatically to just over 1% in 2005, with Labour leading the fall. This decline in political engagement is part at least of a European and almost certainly an international trend. But in Pippa Norris’ study of what she calls a “global democratic deficit,” the UK Parliament comes out worst in a Europe-wide survey of trust in parliamentary institutions.

It has also coincided with a steep increase in the number of people who self-define as left wing.

The percentage of British people who position themselves on the left has grown in size across all age groups. One recent summary of polling information calculated that it means that the ‘left’ consists of over sever million people, up from 4.8 million in 1981. The most striking change is amongst the young. The percentage of 15-29-year-olds who identify themselves as left-wing has grown from 12% in 1981 to 20% in 2006. When translated into actual numbers it means almost 2.5 million young people define themselves as on the left, with about 750,000 placing themselves on the far left.

The Stop the War campaign has not just reflected this trend, it has helped create it. In the words of convenor Lindsey German:

“These demos were of an absolutely unique state in Britain and of course they had a big impact. Far from it being the case that they have led people to think demonstrations don’t work, actually, demonstrations have entered popular culture in the last decade. If you look at all sorts of TV programmes and soaps it’s common for people to get out the placards and go on the streets. This reflects the reality. There is much more of a sense that you can’t rely on politicians. It’s encouraged the idea that you can demonstrate over all sorts of things.”

15 February was not, then, just an outburst over a single issue. It expressed outrage at the government’s war policies but it also had a wider significance. The movement crystallised a general sense that parliament was not representing the people and that politicians’ priorities had been hijacked. It was a high point in a trend towards protest politics that reflects not a depoliticisation of society but a sense of the possibilities of people power. It was part of a process of popular radicalisation.

This is an extract from Chris Nineham’s book, The People v. Tony Blair: Politics, the Media and the Anti-War Movement, available from the Stop the War shop.

14 Feb 2023 by Chris Nineham

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