Iraq and the great march against George W Bush and his war

Iraq and the great march against George W Bush and his war

A group of us took part in the march and demonstration against President George W Bush’s state visit in November 2003 in protest against his attack on and occupation of Iraq.  It was very striking that so many hitherto non-political friends, who had never before taken part in a protest against anything, decided to come on this march, or else announced that if they had been able to be in London on the afternoon of 20 November in the middle of the Bush state visit, they would have joined the marchers.  I can’t remember any issue since Suez in 1956 that has so energised normally passive opinion on a political or foreign policy issue.

One of our group sent this account of the march to his family:

“I marched (or rather shuffled) the full length of the route yesterday with a group of retired ambassadors including B—, —- and —–.  There were at least 100,000 people taking part [but see below — BLB] so don’t believe the govt/police figures which are always half the number. It took us 30 minutes to travel 50 yards down Malet Street!  It was the largest weekday demo ever seen in London. —- lives and works in Brighton and had come up for the day: —- is a senior official in the —– and had walked from Whitehall. He had an altercation with a policeman who would not let him through a barricade, calling him PC Plod which caused problems for us. There was a lot of strong feeling over Guantanamo Bay and the feeble role the US plays in the Palestine tragedy. Not many people of working age, as one would expect, this being during working hours, but lots of young people and old folks. Large numbers of middle-class men and women, and quite a number of families with toddlers in push chairs. There is total equality of the sexes: young women hold banners, organise chants, and act as group leaders.  We were all photographed by MI5 as we went along, flanked by thousands of police and overlooked by rifle marksmen on roof tops. This is what bombing Iraq to bring democracy has brought us to.  This message is really for D—- [in Chicago] so that he can let Americans know that British opposition to Blair and the attack on Iraq does not come solely from Commies and far left lunatics.”

The organisers of the march had predicted that up to 100,000 people might take part.  Huge numbers were already streaming into Malet Street, the assembly point, from all the side streets when we arrived at about 1.30 pm ready for the scheduled start of 2 pm.  At 2.15 the stewards announced through loud-hailers that the police had asked for a postponement to allow them to close off more side streets because they had under-estimated the numbers who had turned up for the beginning of the march.  According to the next day’s press, the final police estimate for the numbers taking part was

“around 110,000”.  Police estimates of occasions like this are invariably on the low side.  The organisers’ estimate was “more than 200,000”.  Protest organisers’ estimates of occasions like this are invariably on the high side, so perhaps a fairly safe guess might be some 170,000, making it easily the biggest weekday demonstration ever seen in Britain.  The police took good care to keep the marchers well away from the places where the President and Mrs Bush were going to be during the afternoon and evening.  Mr Bush left Downing Street just minutes before the front of the march, headed by an American Vietnam war veteran, was allowed to move out of Parliament square to march up Whitehall past the entrance to Downing Street.  A group of protesters tried to peel off from the top of Whitehall to walk down the Mall to Buckingham Palace where the Bushes were staying, but were turned back by a phalanx of police.  Against this background, with a turnout almost twice that expected by the organisers, the comment by America’s First Lady, Laura Bush, looks almost crass enough to have been made by her husband:

“We haven’t seen that many protests.  But we have seen many American flags and people welcoming us.  I don’t think the protests have been as large as predicted.”

Mrs Bush went on to say that “The Queen has tried to make us feel comfortable…”, which may raise a wry smile on the faces of future guests at Buckingham Palace if Mrs Bush wrote the same comment in the Palace’s guest book.

Critics of the demonstration relied on some pretty far-fetched arguments:

“Discourtesy towards the Head of State of a great nation and close ally on a ceremonial state visit”

A head of state who is also a politically controversial and highly divisive head of government, responsible for a deeply objectionable foreign policy and reactionary domestic policies, owing his position to electoral abuse and judicial bias, can’t claim to be entitled to the suppression of dissent in the name of politeness.   If this state visit, the first by a US President since Woodrow Wilson in 1918, had passed off without any manifestation of the strong objections of a huge section of British opinion to the man, his policies and his actions, that would have sent a damagingly misleading message to Bush himself, his administration and the American people.

“Pandering to a disreputable streak of knee-jerk anti-Americanism”

Many of us who marched (or shuffled) have always been, and remain, admirers of numerous features of American life who feel a real affection for the American people, their warmth, generosity of spirit, energy and up-beat approach to life.  We envy them the robustness of their democracy, their attachment to freedom of speech, information and the press, the ideals expressed in their Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence.  Our own culture is impregnated throughout with the distinctive flavours of American cinema and literature, jazz and popular music, racy and vivid vernacular.  Many of us have long-lasting and firm friendships with Americans;  my own grandchildren are American citizens and New Yorkers.  What we find unacceptable about the Bush régime and its policy actions is that they are a rank betrayal of all that we respect and admire in the traditions and values of the United States.  Many Americans took part in the great march, several carrying placards reading: “PROUD OF MY COUNTRY, SHAMED BY MY PRESIDENT“.

“[Following the atrocities earlier in the day in Istanbul,] the demonstrations that had been organised against Mr Bush yesterday, far from being an expression of the collective will of the British people, looked irrelevant and naive… ” — Times editorial, 21 November 2003

So far from making our protest irrelevant or naive, the terrible carnage in Istanbul on the same day, probably sponsored by al-Qaeda, reinforced our message.  An anonymous senior diplomat was quoted by the BBC as having asserted that if Britain had not joined the American attack on Iraq, our Consul-General in Istanbul, the unfortunate Roger Short, would still be alive.  The US-UK attack on a Muslim Arab country, launched in the face of the opposition of the Security Council and in flagrant breach of the UN Charter and international law, justified on the basis of unreliable and misrepresented evidence, and unsupported by any serious planning for the post-war management of an illegal occupation, has plainly aggravated anti-western sentiment among Muslim people all over the world, creating an even more welcoming habitat from which terrorists can operate with impunity.  For all his undoubted villainy, Saddam Hussein at least kept al-Qaeda out of Iraq.  President Bush and Mr Blair have effectively ushered them in, a blunder that is already costing lives and will cost many more before this disaster can be consigned to history.

The US-UK invasion and occupation of

Iraq have also been a dangerous diversion from the real challenge posed by international terrorism, which hitherto has had little or nothing to do with Iraq.  The point, along with others equally pertinent, is made with lethal clarity in a letter to The Times of 21 November by my former diplomatic service colleague, Sir Nicholas Barrington, who was British High Commissioner in Pakistan from 1989 to 1994 and who knows whereof he speaks:

“At this significant moment in British-American relations the apologists for President Bush should not be allowed to get away with the line that the pre-emptive attack on Iraq, and botched follow-up, was part of the War on Terror.

Combating terror is vital, but in my experience most people who understand Muslims and the Muslim world know that recent events in Iraq will have driven more people into the arms of al-Qaeda and its like, rather than the reverse. As our hard-pressed security and police services must be aware, the threats to Western lives and property are on the increase.

Without admitting as much, British and US policy on Iraq seems now to be following the sensible views on early handover to the Iraqis put forward by the French. Is it too much to hope that we should also at last agree that any new political set-up in Iraq should primarily be legitimised by deriving authority from the United Nations?

What a pity that Mr Bush’s state visit (letters, November 20, etc) is taking place at a time when US government foreign policies have rarely been so criticised in Britain, by people who normally think of themselves as friends of America.”

I am glad that I marched in protest, along with tens of thousands of decent, peaceable, outraged people of numerous differing ages, occupations, nationalities, religions, political views.  I laughed with them at the humorous, angry and often disgraceful banners carried by many fellow-marchers (the least offensive that I saw carrying the words “Couldn’t think of a slogan” on one side and “I only came out for a pint of milk” on the other), and I shouted my indignation and frustration as we shuffled along past Downing Street, a futile but not entirely meaningless gesture.  Were we truly representative of British opinion as a whole?

Perhaps;  perhaps not.  Opinion is divided here as everywhere.  But if something approaching 200,000 people were prepared to turn out on a grey November weekday afternoon to pass a peaceful message of protest and dissent to this most unwelcome of presidential visitors, the number of those in Britain who share our sense of outrage but who could not be in London that day, or who shrink from protest marches as a means of expressing their views, must run into many millions.  I hope our friends in the US will be told by their media about how all records for weekday protest were broken when their barely-elected President came to London.  I hope someone will tell Laura Bush.

London, 21 November 2003

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