Only connect

IssueMarch 2009
Feature by Kevin Gillan, Jenny Pickerill

British anti-war groups active in the first years of the new century, in the era of the “war on terror”, are united predominantly by opposition to particular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Protest events have been composed of a great array of activists, from feminists to Islamic patriarchs, the Liberal Democrats to Socialist Workers Party, from the deeply religious to the entirely secular, and from bereaved military families to supporters of the Palestinian cause.

So anti-war movements work within uneasy alliances, and much that divides these groups goes unexamined and untested. The large-scale participation of Muslim groups, themselves diverse, is to be celebrated, but there has been little dialogue across religious or ideological difference.

During two years of research into the state of the British anti-war movement, involving 60 interviews with activists around the country, we often heard that dialogue about such religious or ideological differences (such as gender separation on buses and in meetings) had been avoided because it was thought likely to disrupt the alliance.

If groups have silenced themselves on some topics in order to create a pragmatic unity in opposition to the “War on Terror”, this may help explain the scale and speed of mobilisation.

But the contemporary, single-minded focus raises questions for the longer term: what of the politics of tomorrow? It is not unreasonable to suppose that wider issues may appropriately be examined once the common ground of opposition to war has been established: explorations of the politics of gender and sexuality by the women of Greenham Common signal the enduring value of the political spaces opened up when people join hands in opposition to the belligerence of states.

This remains an open possibility today, and in Leicester, for instance, peace activists are now organising meeting spaces for a wide variety of participants to discuss some difficult, potentially divisive issues.

They are seeking to create welcoming spaces of dialogue for all, so that communality can be discussed and broadened. This initiative is at its early stages and making such connections can be slow, but its approach and aims are inspiring.

While there have been notable occasions on which anti-war protest has gone global, peace and anti-war groups generally direct their attention to their national governments (as the relevant decision making body) or more local communities (as the base of mobilisation). Struggles for peace are more often national and local rather than they are global.

The internet

Alternative information exists on the internet in a globalised space, and activists have made significant and effective use of information technologies.

Just as bloggers and journalists are able to rapidly and easily circulate photographs of torture (originally taken by soldiers as trophies) on a global scale, so too activists have been able to use such information to undermine any claims that we were “winning the peace”.

But these flows of information can easily become overwhelming. Activists must create their own filtering processes and there are dangers in the creation of “information cocoons” wherein one only seeks information that is confirmatory and comfortable.

Email overload resulting from joining too many distribution lists to which one is already sympathetic is a common experience and can result in closure to alternative information flows. In this way it can be hard to reach beyond these local and national networks to the transnational arena where values and priorities might differ.


Concrete activity across borders can be formed by either horizontal or vertical links. Women in Black, who choose to work internationally (on the basis of interpersonal connections), or the Faslane 365 campaign (which has involved impressive levels of international participation), exemplify the horizontal mode of international networking.

Alternatively, the Stop the War Coalition’s representation in the Cairo conferences in 2002 and 2003, and CND’s involvement in Gensuikyo’s Hiroshima meeting in 2003, both exemplify the attempt to create an analysis and strategy through vertical international coordination.

As with the diversity of participation in anti-war movements, a variety of approaches may present a danger of people working at cross purposes but also offers the promise of more effective campaigning.

As some states work at global levels to promote violence, so an appropriate response requires peace movements to continue attempts to link across borders.

Through these links we can celebrate and support those often small-scale and emerging initiatives as they seek to continue to build and broaden anti-war movements world-wide.