Wobbly Tuesday is one of the great secrets of the Iraq war, kept secret not by state censorship and repression, but by media and academic self-censorship.
Nearly 10 years on, it is time for the British anti-war movement to finally shake off the lie that the astonishing anti-war mobilisation of early 2003 had no effect whatsoever on the British government.
It is time for the peace movement to celebrate how close it came to detaching Britain from the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
It is time for anti-war activists, each one of us, to make sure that everyone in the country knows about Wobbly Tuesday and what it means about popular power.
As the US revolutionary pacifist Dave Dellinger once said, we have 'more power than we know'.
'The lowest point'
It was clear from the autumn of 2002 that the United States was determined to pursue a military confrontation with Iraq. The global mobilisation against this war peaked on 15 February 2003, when over a million people marched in London and millions more demonstrated around the world.
The British government began to lose faith in its ability to win a parliamentary vote on the war.
On Tuesday 11 March 2003, the government panicked. In particular, Geoff Hoon, the Labour minister for 'defence', panicked.
The Sunday Telegraph later reported that on 11 March, 'Mr Hoon's department [the ministry of defence] was frantically preparing contingency plans to "disconnect" British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.' (Sunday Telegraph, 16 March)
Reporters Colin Brown and Francis Elliott continued:
' “Wobbly Tuesday” was the lowest point of the crisis for Mr Blair, who was still struggling to shake off an aggravating flu virus. Mr Blair appeared to be facing a choice between two appalling humiliations: a Commons vote in which the majority of his own party voted against him, or a war in which British soldiers stood by and twiddled their thumbs.'
Don't call us...
The worst moment of the day came when Geoff Hoon rang Donald Rumsfeld, his opposite number at the Pentagon. They were meant to be fine-tuning their invasion planning. Instead, Hoon spent the call explaining to the US defence secretary that British troops might not be joining in the assault.
The Sunday Mirror reported on 16 March 2003: 'During the transatlantic telephone conversation on Tuesday, Mr Hoon stressed the political problems the Government was having both with MPs and the public. But according to one Whitehall source, he "over-reached" and gave Mr Rumsfeld the impression that Britain would not play a front-line role. Both the Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon rapidly back-tracked. The PM later had to give Mr Bush his personal assurance that British troops were ready to make a "significant contribution" to any conflict. Mr Blair was also forced to make a statement to the Commons.'
Shortly after the phone call, Donald Rumsfeld stated publicly that there were 'work-arounds' available to the US if the British were to pull out of the invasion force.
In response to a reporter's question, Rumsfeld said: 'I had a good visit [phone call] with the minister of defence of the UK about an hour ago. Their situation is distinctive to their country and they have a government that deals with the parliament in their distinctive way and what will ultimately be decided is unclear as to their role... in the event a decision is made to use force. [Emphasis added]
'The second issue of their role in a post-Saddam Hussein reconstruction process or stabilisation process which would be a different matter. I think until we know what the resolution is we won't know the answers to what their role will be.'
In his memoirs, Alistair Campbell wrote of this as 'another Rumsfeld disaster': 'It was not entirely clear whether it was deliberate – ie a warning shot that they could and would do it without us – or a fuck-up. We all assumed the latter. He just didn't get other people's politics at all. David M [Manning, Blair's chief foreign policy advisor] said it made it virtually impossible to have a shared strategy with them. Hopeless. Yet another communications friendly fire. TB [Tony Blair] went bonkers about it, then called Geoff, who admitted he had put the thought in Rumsfeld's head because he was trying to be very explicit about our difficulties as a way of reining him in. Rumsfeld must have thought he was being helpful, God knows.' (The Blair Years: Extracts from The Alistair Campbell Diaries, Hutchinson, 2007, p676)
Robin Cook, who resigned from the government over the war, wrote of this day in his memoirs that Rumsfeld 'startled a press conference by sharing with them the possibility that Britain may not be able to take part in military action from the start because of the difficulty in handling its Parliament.'
Cook added: 'I can't help feeling gratified that Parliament has come centre stage in this world crisis after years in which the commentators were inclined to write it off as irrelevant.' (The Point of Departure, Simon & Schuster, 2003, p318)
Let's start from the beginning. US president George W Bush was determined to go to war with Iraq. The anti-war movement in the US was strong enough that he had to have allies in that war.
That meant Britain. The anti-war movement in the UK was strong enough that prime minister Tony Blair had to promise to get a second resolution from the UN security council, specifically authorising the use of force.
The global anti-war movement was strong enough to prevent the US and UK from even getting a majority of members of the security council to support a second resolution.
They could not get Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan (the undecided members of the security council) to line up behind them.
The lack of a second resolution, because of the strength of the global anti-war movement, was what made March 2003 so extraordinarily stressful for Geoff Hoon and his colleagues.
Tony Blair did not want to have a vote in parliament on whether or not to go to war with Iraq.
It was the anti-war movement, both inside and outside the Labour party, that forced Blair into holding the vote on 18 March. It was a gamble that he won, but that he came close to losing.
Prime ministers and politicians don't like admitting they've panicked. In this case, the mass media and the history books have kept quiet on the desperation of the British government, and truth of Wobbly Tuesday. All the information is readily available for those who care to look, but it has effectively been censored.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, explaining their Propaganda Model of the mainstream media, once wrote: 'That the media provide some information about an issue... proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage. The media do in fact suppress a great deal of information, but even more important is the way they present a particular fact – its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition – and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.' (Emphasis added)
The authors of Manufacturing Consent continued: 'That a careful reader, looking for a fact can sometimes find it, with diligence and a skeptical eye, tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to most readers, or whether it was effectively distorted or suppressed.'
It's up to us to uncensor the truth about how close the British anti-war movement came to pulling Britain out of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.