Saturday, 13 November 2010

Lessons from 15 February 2003

This is an excerpt from Andrew Murray, Lindsey German, Stop the War: The story of Britain's biggest mass movement (Bookmarks, 2005). The book, which I highly recommend, is available from Bookmarks.

This is from the end of the chapter on the great, 2 million-strong demonstration of 15 February 2003 (and the movement around it), which celebrates that extraordinary upheaval and identifies the factors which made it so large-scale and politically momentous.

I think it's useful revisiting the lessons of that time as we enter a new mass movement, this time in opposition to savage cuts. The authors conclude their account by addressing the question of why even the biggest protest in British history didn't stop UK involvement in the invasion of Iraq.

'The greatest weakness was surely the movement's insufficient implantation in workplaces, and the limits this imposed on the possible forms of struggle.

Had there been any real sense that the widespread action in schools and communities could be echoed in workplaces, then that would surely have given the cabinet pause for thought. Had there been even a belief that an aroused labour movement would be determined to exact a political price for Blair's capitulation to Washington, then that would have been a factor in the balance.

This turns above all on the question of the trade unions. The unions remain the biggest and potentially decisive organisations not merely for mobilising working people, but for converting the protest into the sort of concrete challenge which would have been required to prevent the government waging war.

This does not simply mean calling for a "general strike to stop the war" which was not advocated by anyone in the leadership of the movement. It means giving serious consideration as to how the unions' great weight could be used to help block the war drive.

There are several reasons why this did not happen.

First, there is no tradition of British trade unions taking direct action against war - there are no "good old days" when organised labour mobilised against a conflict in which Britain was a fighting party. This reflects a longstanding weakness in relation to questions of imperialism within the trade union movement.

Second, the trade unions were just barely emerging from a long period of defeat and extensive depoliticisation. The tradition of big trade union mobilisations has atrophied to an alarming degree. Naturally, the anti-union laws which would make any industrial action for peace unlawful substantially raised the bar for trade unions contemplating such a call - they reinforce, as intended, every tendency towards passivity in the movement.

Third, throughout the present conflict the trade unions (especially the big ones) were slow to become part of the anti-war movement. The larger unions tended to hold aloof. This meant the unions were insufficiently engaged in its daily leadership - and perhaps felt insufficient "ownership", in the jargon.

Fourth, specific problems were created by the fact that this was a war being fought by a Labour government. The priority placed by some union officials on keeping in with the government - reaching its lowest expression in the role of the TUC itself, which failed to associate with the movement even after the General Council had adopted an anti-war position - made it harder to persuade unions to take a stand which could bring them into direct conflict with New Labour.

The basic conclusion to be drawn is probably this - the anti-war movement failed to stop the war because it was insufficiently implanted in a militant working-class movement.

Such a milieu does not exist at present. The Stop the War Coalition and its allies could not create the breakthrough which would have given the movement greater depth and weight in the working class. That remains a critical issue for the (near) future...

Could more "direct action" have done the trick? Civil disobedience led by the Coalition was in fact vast. To have sustained it at a higher level to the point where the government might have cracked was beyond the movement, given the state of working class organisation outlined above.

Only a fairly small minority would have been prepared for consistent confrontation with the state, and that would likely have led to their tactics, rather than the issues of peace and democracy, becoming the focus.

So the "15th February movement" did not succeed in its ultimate objective. But it achieved enough to continue to shape the course of politics to this day on the issues of Iraq, Britain's relation to the US and how Britain is governed. This became clear in the weeks and months that followed Bush and Blair's disastrous aggression.'


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