Mobilising for peace

IssueFebruary 2008
Feature by Phil Steele, Linda Rogers

The phone never stopped ringing. There were coaches to be booked, of course, but many callers simply wished to talk, to share their feelings and concerns and to discuss this rush to war in Iraq. Even ex-servicemen called in to express their support.

February 2003 was a remarkable period in British political history, when progressive public opinion was raw, even desperate, and contempt for UK and US government policies was at an unprecedented level.

Labour’s drive to an illegal war had ignited and united an extraordinary spectrum of political parties and movements, of faith and non-faith groups, of peace activists young and old.

People who had never protested before in their lives and people who had not demonstrated for 20 years or more were all determined to join the march.

The Bangor & Ynys Môn Peace and Justice group, founded in autumn 2001, met weekly and held lively stalls on local high streets.

By February 2003 we had a pretty accurate impression of the public mood (including that of serving soldiers and their families).

Other independent peace and justice groups also sprang up at that time around north and mid-Wales – in Caernarfon, Llandudno, Mold, Wrexham, Aberystwyth and beyond. The Stop the War Coalition also formed groups, in south-west and south-east Wales. All this energy came to a head in the London march of February 2003, which turned out to be – without any doubt – the biggest demonstration in British history.

In our part of Wales people heard of the planned protest by word of mouth, through student intranet, through the Welsh and English media, through e-mail forums such as Just Peace Wales, through the Stop the War Coalition website, through well-established Cynefin y Werin networks, and above all through the tireless publicity, coordination and support of CND Cymru officials based in south Wales.

The role of the internet and the mobile phone in political organisation was quite a new phenomenon and was crucial to the success of the protest. It was later claimed by some that activist groups “successfully mobilised the people”. I would say that the people successfully mobilised themselves!

Of the five coaches which left Bangor in the early hours of the Saturday morning, four were organised by the peace group and one by the local Islamic centre. In all, 103 coaches travelled from Wales. A further 500 local people who were unable to make the six-hour journey to London held their own demonstration in the centre of Bangor.

In our southbound coach, BBC Radio 4 featured a fatuous speech by Tony Blair, in which he declared that it did not matter how many people marched, it would not outnumber the people killed by Saddam Hussein (once more obfuscating the official casus belli, namely those mysterious weapons of mass destruction).

Blair made it clear that he did not care about this protest and therefore would not be changing his policy. We had been warned. The broadcast was met with cries of derision and eventually turned off in the interests of road safety.

The motorway and the service stations seemed to be full of coaches heading for the capital. Soon the great tide of humanity filled the streets of London and swirled from Marylebone to the Embankment and Westminster, a good-humoured, singing, whistling, yelling, placard-waving multitude, a mere million or two strong.

Speakers blared out songs by John Lennon and samba drums thundered. At Cambridge Circus the cast of Les Miserables leaned from high theatre windows in period dress, lending a revolutionary air to the proceedings.

Here and there we came across other groups and friends from Wales in the throng. The final push down Piccadilly became an exhilarating charge, but there was no violence at the end of the day, just a series of moving and reasoned speeches in Hyde Park – a venue the government had, until shortly before the march, attempted to prevent us using.

Many motorways later, at about 2am on Sunday, we arrived back in North Wales utterly exhausted. There had been major rallies in 60 other countries around the world.

What did it all achieve? Well, it did not of course stop the war, or any of the horrors that followed the invasion. However, the march did reveal the degree of opposition in a country where democracy itself was under attack from government.

February 2003 allowed us, those against the so-called “war on terror”, to know ourselves and our strengths. The march also has to be seen in the context of an extensive, imaginative and effective patchwork of local and regional actions, activities, alliances, meetings and discussions that took place throughout the British Isles during 2002-2003.

Today as Blair goes off to make his millions with those who profited from the war, and Bush limps into the sunset without his mission accomplished, it is perhaps still too early to deliver a historical verdict on February 2003.

But our small group in Bangor still meets weekly, five years later, and still attracts new members. And all over the world, the struggle goes on.

Topics: Anti-war action
See more of: Wales