An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


2003 – The Iraq War Protests


15 February 2003 – Various

Despite the numbers, the war went ahead anyway. The images over the following years became almost as iconic as those of the millions marching through London and other cities. Bush in front of the “Mission Accomplished” sign; the toppling of the Saddam statue; the subsequent trial and execution. The question is, then – what was the fucking point?

The protest failed to achieve its main goal, but it is beginning to be historicised into a wider narrative of mass protest and voluntary action. It was in many ways one of the first “internet” demonstrations, with millions of protesters brought together through digital technologies such as e-mail and websites. (This is before Facebook and Twitter. But more on these in upcoming weeks). Movements such as Occupy may have had similar headline “failures”, but they have acted as a focal point for protest against the dominant neo-liberal political framework in the Western world.

Indeed, the breakdown of the party systems in Britain and America especially has made this sort of extra-Parliamentary form of protest increasingly potent and necessary. For while the Labour Party and Conservative Party differ on a number of ideological points, many of the key decisions about how to run foreign and domestic affairs have converged. Neither supports nationalisation of key public services; both believe in a strong military, including a nuclear arsenal; both play the realpolitik game of getting close to dictatorships in various parts of the world in return for good arms contracts and a steady supply of oil. Crucially, both supported the Iraq War, even if there were dissenting members from the parties at the time and subsequently.

This has been going on for a while, however. Voluntary organisations and charities have always been politically driven – you cannot set out to solve a social problem without doing so. While many of the larger institutions have, in the past, steered well clear of party politics, there has often been a direct or indirect moral cajoling of those in local and national government to enact policies that will help charities get on with their vital work.

In the 1960s, however, we began to see more assertive groups coming forward. Charities that did not necessarily provide services themselves, but deliberately spent their money on researching the social problems of the day and lobbying the government to fix it. The Child Poverty Action Group, Disability Income Group, Shelter and many others appeared during this time. They were willing and able to use the growing mass media to present their cases in ever-increasingly sophisticated ways. And, to varying degrees, they have had success with governments of both parties right across the late-twentieth and into the twenty-first century.

The growing professionalism of those groups in this new political climate, however, meant that they became specialised. Social campaigners may have had many concerns, but the charities themselves were often very narrowly-focused. The big questions – traditionally the preserve of the political parties – were beginning to be diffused through a range of institutions and organisations, few of whom would ever hold direct power in Westminster or City Hall.

The Iraq protest, then, represented more than just the war. For many, it was the first time in a generation that people had been able to broadly agree on a particular action and – crucially – had the tools to mobilise quickly and effectively across the world. Occupy, and the struggles of the 99% have been similarly branded. They represent growing disquiet on, predominantly, the political left with the party system and the post-war levers and apparatus that are supposed to impose democratic will on the law of the land. That they have been unsuccessful may say more about the increasing distance between the machinery of government and the people than it does about the protesters themselves.

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