Campaign to stop the war

The massive demonstration on 15 February, organised by the Stop The War Coalition (STWC), Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), was a historic occasion. Up to two million people took to the streets of London in opposition to the coming war on Iraq. Later, on 22 March, following the start of the US/British onslaught, nearly half a million marched. With the prospect of a protracted conflict, how is this movement to develop? How is its ideological level to be raised? Bob Shepherd examines the issues.

Before the 15 February demonstration, political debate focused on the British-led drive to get a second UN resolution. The Lib Dems, led by Charles Kennedy, and many in the Labour Party, had latched on to this possibility to cover up their refusal to openly oppose imperialist war preparations. They hoped that with a second resolution, they would be able to salve their conscience and support the war at the same time. How did the STWC deal with these temporary fair-weather friends? In the first instance, by ideologically capitulating to them. In a letter to Tony Blair in December last year to mark UN Human Rights Day, its leaders wrote ‘We call upon you as Prime Minister to give a clear undertaking not to engage in military action against Iraq without the explicit authority of the United Nations and without an explicit decision of the House of Commons to do so’. Signatories included left Labour MPs Alice Mahon and Jeremy Corbyn, together with CND chair Carol Naughton, and STWC Convenor Lindsey German, also a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The clear implication was that with the agreement of the UN and parliament, the signatories would not oppose the war.

No serious socialist could have signed such a letter. The UN has always been a forum for imperialist negotiations over spheres of influence, all the more so since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The British Parliament has always sanctioned every war that British imperialism has chosen to wage against the oppressed of the world. The responsibility of socialists was clear: to educate the movement about the history of the UN, and the real nature of British imperialist democracy. The STWC and SWP ducked this.

The STWC then went further, and invited Charles Kennedy, leader of the imperialist Lib Dems, onto the platform on 15 February, together with a long list of Labour lefts and trade union leaders. There was little room for anyone new, anybody directly representing the anti-imperialist sentiments of young people. It is a deception to describe Charles Kennedy after the event as a ‘turncoat’ as Socialist Worker did. He had never changed his imperialist clothes – nor did the STWC demand that he should.

The desire of the STWC leadership to be respectable is overwhelming. This means that the agenda of the Labour left cannot be challenged in any way. An example is the so-called parliamentary rebellion against Blair on 18 March. The media made much of the 140 Labour MPs who ‘rebelled’ by voting for an amendment to a resolution supporting the government’s policy on Iraq. But what did the amendment say? That parliament ‘believes that the case for war against Iraq has not yet been established, especially given the absence of specific UN authorisation, but in the event hostilities do commence, pledges its total support for the British forces engaged in the Middle East, expresses its admiration for their courage, skill and devotion to duty, and hopes that their tasks will be swiftly concluded with minimal casualties on all sides’. Who voted for this? STWC Labour MP leaders Alice Mahon, Jeremy Corbyn and of course George Galloway. So we have a movement which proclaims itself as anti-war but with leaders who have pledged their support to the British forces in Iraq. Do we hear anything about this contradiction from, say, the SWP? Not a word. The shame-faced left outside the Labour Party is protecting the shameful left within.

Drawing a distinction between a party leadership which supports imperialism and war, and ordinary members who have been ‘committed to peace’ (Socialist Worker, 25 March) is entirely bogus. It allows the Labour left to get away with the pretence that there is a progressive aspect to the Labour Party. It also allows the SWP to get away from really putting pressure on left Labour MPs to resign from the Labour Party, and declare themselves unequivocally opposed to British imperialism.

If this movement is to be successful we must take the side of the oppressed. This means taking the side of the Palestinian people and putting it at the heart of anti-war work. The aims and objectives of the STWC fail to mention Israel or Palestine at all. More conspicuously, nor did the declaration or the resolutions passed by the recent STWC People’s Assembly. The left pays lip- service to the cause of the Palestinian people, but fails to ensure that the movement takes on board the connection between Zionism and British or US imperialist interests in the Middle East.

An effective movement will come into direct conflict with the British state. Already police have prevented demonstrators from getting close to Fairford airbase on the 22 March demonstration. They have attacked schoolchildren in London. Lines are now being drawn between those who really want to oppose the war and its supporters, and a leadership dedicated to respectability. This division will become more apparent when it comes to organising defence campaigns and fighting for basic democratic rights. Anti-imperialists must play a leading role in preparing the movement politically for this.

The actions of the school students in their national strike against the war on 19 March offers hope for the future of the movement. Their actions were, by and large, organised spontaneously; they engaged in militant action in blockading city centre streets, were forced into confrontation with school authorities and faced police brutality. This is the sort of determination that will ensure the movement goes beyond the limits the STWC leadership is trying to set.

FRFI 172 April / May 2003


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