‘An attractive outpouring of rage’: did Britain’s largest ever protest change the world? | Iraq conflict inquiry

US president George W Bush and prime minister Tony Blair during a press conference at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland in 2003.

A dozen years in the past, within the places of work of his Institute for International Change, I interviewed Tony Blair. With reference to his fateful choices over the conflict in Iraq, he had a sequence of trusted platitudes at hand. One phrase he used, maybe one of many strains that he nonetheless turns over in his head when he appears within the mirror within the mornings, was this: “Folks at all times used to say to me: hearken to the folks,” he mentioned. “That was a positive thought, in fact, however sadly the folks had been all saying various things.”

US president George W Bush and prime minister Tony Blair during a press conference at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland in 2003.

US president George W Bush and prime minister Tony Blair throughout a press convention at Hillsborough Citadel in Northern Eire in 2003.
{Photograph}: Stefan Rousseau/PA

If ever there appeared a day when that was not the case, it was in all probability Saturday 15 February 2003, 20 years in the past this week. That was the day when an estimated 1.5 million folks took to the streets of London to march in opposition to the threatened assault on Iraq.

Realizing what we all know now, those that gathered that day within the capital had been on the correct facet of historical past. The marchers on the time didn’t agree on every thing, however they shared a dedication to attempt to silence the drumbeat to conflict – or to at the least to present the UN weapons inspectors extra time to seek out the fabled weapons of mass destruction on which the rhetoric of Blair and President George W Bush depended (the day before today, Hans Blix, chief of these inspectors, had once more knowledgeable the UN that no such weapons had but been discovered).

The unprecedented range of the protesters was memorably captured within the front-page Observer report from the march by my late, lamented colleague Euan Ferguson.

The Observer report on the march in February 2003.
The Observer report on the march in February 2003. {Photograph}: The Observer

“There have been, in fact,” Ferguson wrote, “the standard suspects – CND, Socialist Employees’ Occasion, the anarchists. However even they regarded shocked on the variety of their fellow marchers … There have been nuns. Toddlers. Ladies barristers. The Eton George Orwell Society. Archaeologists Towards Conflict. Walthamstow Catholic Church, the Swaffham Ladies’s Choir and Notts County Supporters Say Make Love Not Conflict (And a Residence Win in opposition to Bristol can be Good). They gained 2-0, by the best way … There have been nation folks and lecturers, dentists and poulterers, a hairdresser from Cardiff and a poet from Cheltenham …”

Jeremy Corbyn, who was amongst these to handle the ocean of marchers from the stage in Hyde Park, famous on the time that even the Each day Mail was providing free route maps for attendees up from center England. “For a second, we’d turn out to be the mainstream,” he later mentioned.

The London march had equivalents that day in additional than 600 cities throughout the planet, maybe the only largest mobilisation of individuals in human historical past. Protests had adopted the rising solar – starting in Auckland after which Sydney, shifting by Tokyo, Manila, Moscow; an estimated 3 million folks in Rome; 5 million in Spanish cities.

“The outpouring of rage from folks was so stunning,” noticed the actor Mark Rylance, who was taking a day off from a pointed sequence of bloody historical past performs on the Globe theatre. Lord Falconer, Blair’s former flatmate, and future Lord Chancellor, recalled how, within the thick of all the controversy, the sheer human scale of all of it, for a day, “simply shut you up”.

Ghada Razuki was within the engine room of the march that day, working the workplace of the Cease the Conflict coalition, the occasion’s organisers, with a staff of 4 folks. An Iraqi exile and critic of Saddam Hussein, she had labored as a firefighter and union rep in London for 15 years earlier than taking over that position.

Tim Robbins, Jesse Jackson and the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, address the protesters.
Tim Robbins, Jesse Jackson and the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, tackle the protesters. {Photograph}: Scott Barbour/Getty Pictures

Talking to me final week, she recalled unending 20-hour working days main as much as the occasion – now flying to Washington to steer Jesse Jackson to talk (essential, it was believed, in encouraging black communities to march), now making an attempt to co-ordinate with different networks internationally. She’d been on demonstrations all her grownup life, she mentioned, principally with the identical outdated acquainted faces, however from the beginning this one was totally different.

“I’d say by mid-January we knew we’d have at the least half one million folks,” she remembers. “We had been getting calls from all kinds.” Two of these calls stick in her thoughts.

“I keep in mind an 80-odd-year-old girl phoning up from the West Nation, in tears, saying that she couldn’t make the demonstration,” she says. “I used to be really on the 149 bus on the time, heading again all the way down to London Bridge. I mentioned, ‘Nicely, look, don’t fear. I’ll ship you a leaflet – possibly you may put that in your entrance window.’” However the girl mentioned no; what she deliberate to do as an alternative was lie down in protest on the M4, which ran near her. “I keep in mind pleading along with her on the bus: ‘Please, please don’t try this!’” Razuki says.

The opposite memorable name, from out of the blue, was from Tim Robbins, star of the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Razuki thought it may be a wind-up, however Robbins duly appeared to do his bit alongside Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger and the remainder on the Hyde Park stage.

It was the sudden inclusiveness of the march that was its nice energy. It’s straightforward to overlook, within the rush to color historical past in black and white, simply how advanced the divides had been, publish 9/11, over Blair’s insistence that Britain needed to stand shoulder to shoulder with its US ally.

Katharine Gun.
Katharine Gun. {Photograph}: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

These divisions had been being performed out within the editorial places of work and columns of this newspaper. The Observer was cut up down the center over whether or not to help the federal government in its determined efforts to get a UN mandate for conflict – debates dramatised within the 2019 movie Official Secrets and techniques, concerning the courageous GCHQ whistleblower Katharine Gun who leaked intelligence concerning the background to conflict to the paper.

Though the information part of that day’s Observer was solidly in awe of the peace march, elsewhere the chief column steered that, “because the least worst choice” it reluctantly went alongside “with a majority in Britain who would settle for navy motion if backed by the UN safety council”.

House was additionally given to Blair, with the textual content of a speech he gave that day to the Scottish Labour social gathering. “If there are 1 million folks on that march,” the prime minister mentioned, to stony silence, “that’s lower than the variety of people who died within the wars that Saddam began.” Blair steered the marchers risked “paying in blood” if their actions led to Saddam Hussein staying in energy.

Different papers picked up that sentence and recast it to say that the prime minister believed that the protesters would have “blood on their fingers”. It’s a phrase that Blair wouldn’t hear the final of.

Dr Nadje Al-Ali.
Inside struggles: Iraqi émigré Dr Nadje Al-Ali. {Photograph}: Sean Smith/The Observer

A few of these marching had inside struggles of their very own. Nadje Al-Ali, one other Iraqi émigré, now professor of worldwide research at Brown College, was amongst these. She was a number one member of a bunch of girls, lots of them Iraqi, referred to as “Act Collectively: Ladies Towards Sanctions and Conflict on Iraq”.

Though they had been clear of their goals, she says, “We had been at all times very uncomfortable with a number of the British anti-sanctions and anti-war activism as a result of we thought it was too typically glossing over the atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In its give attention to the imperialist west, it was typically fairly apologetic or turning a blind eye to Saddam. There was a whole lot of: the enemy of my enemy is my buddy.”

Professor Al-Ali, who taught at SOAS in London at the moment, was intently in contact with sentiment in Iraq. “Folks there had completely combined emotions, too, even in my household,” she remembers. “Everybody was in opposition to sanctions, partly as a result of they allowed Saddam’s regime to manage the inhabitants extra. However by way of the invasion, my household was divided.

“Some folks felt ‘no manner’, as a result of we don’t belief the west – they’re by no means going to deliver democracy and human rights. And others would say, ‘Nicely, what else on this scenario, being caught between sanctions and the horrible dictator? What different choices do we’ve?’”

Though she was by no means of the idea that conflict was any type of reply – and has seen all her worst fears come true – she celebrated the downfall of Saddam together with different Iraqis. How did she really feel about all of it that day in February, earlier than all of it started?

“I didn’t really feel conflicted. We had been in opposition to the conflict. I felt that the march was actually a broad umbrella. I used to be marching with my daughter, who was only a yr outdated. I keep in mind being so moved by the amount and in addition the vary of various folks. And for a second there was a sense of really doing one thing collectively, and possibly they’re going to listen and cease this.”

Philippe Sands.
Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands. {Photograph}: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Additionally there along with his younger kids that day was Philippe Sands KC, the human rights lawyer who was to play such a key position in subsequently settling the proof of the illegality of the conflict.

The march was a type of watershed second for him, he advised me final week. Previous to that, he mentioned, with fun, “I’d somewhat have been boiled in oil than be on a march.” He had grown up pondering that the actual stuff of worldwide politics was achieved in parliaments and courtrooms.

“The march modified my life. I used to be there with my spouse and our three children, then 7, 5 and a pair of. And I used to be struck by how the youngsters requested a whole lot of questions. Specifically, I keep in mind, we had been strolling alongside a person in a tweed coat from Wiltshire or someplace, who had a hand-crafted poster which mentioned ‘Jaw jaw, not conflict conflict’. Our five-year-old daughter – now 25 – whispered: ‘Dad, is that man for the conflict or in opposition to the conflict?’”

It was the presence of these handmade indicators, with their “slogans about Article 2(4) of the UN Constitution” that supplied Sands with a revelation. “Rapidly, I noticed on that march with a million-plus people who atypical folks actually cared about worldwide regulation,” he says.

“Right here was I, a world lawyer spending my time in a ghetto with different worldwide attorneys speaking to one another, having zero impact. And at that second, I took a call to attempt to attain an even bigger viewers.”

The results of that was Sands’s 2005 e-book, Lawless World, the second version of which revealed the memos – between [attorney general] Lord Goldsmith and Blair – that in 2006 successfully dismantled any lingering British religion within the elementary integrity of that authorities and the authorized foundation for its conflict.

There have been others, inside the federal government, who sensed a reckoning that day. Robin Cook dinner, nonetheless within the cupboard as chief of the Home, watched the marchers shuffle previous from the balcony of his state residence close to the Mall. “Giant numbers of them, I think, had not voted for Labour till Tony Blair grew to become chief,” he famous, “and will not now vote Labour once more.”

Labour cabinet member Clare Short.
Clare Brief. {Photograph}: Martin Argles/The Observer

Labour cupboard member Clare Brief was watching the march on tv. It was her birthday, and for some time she felt she might need motive to have fun. “It made me so pleased,” she tells me, looking back.

“My son was on the march with my granddaughters and his native church. I feel it was the primary march he’d been on. He despatched me a textual content in the course of it that mentioned, ‘That is so improbable. Blair goes to must hearken to us.’ And even then I believed: you understand, possibly Blair will rethink.’”

Was there any dialogue, I’m wondering, within the cupboard the next week concerning the march?

“The cupboard was not operational in any respect by that point,” Brief says. “It was simply the little entourage, you understand, couch authorities. The prime minister would are available and say [foreign secretary] Jack [Straw] will let you know a few assembly he had with Colin Powell [US secretary of state]. After which Jack would say one thing which you had already examine within the papers, and that was that. I don’t keep in mind any dialogue of the march in any respect.”

Brief stayed hoping, stayed within the authorities, longer than she thought she would, even past the beginning of conflict. “However that point was the second that the social gathering type of fractured” she says. “It’s actually what defined the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Folks wished one thing pure and extra principled. And people scars nonetheless go deep.”

Omid Djalili.
Omid Djalili. {Photograph}: David Fisher/Rex/Shutterstock

The mythology of the march, the place it holds in reminiscences, stays potent. It’s very properly value watching, as I did final week, Amir Amirani’s documentary We Are Many, which regarded again on the protests of 2003 from the vantage of 2015, earlier than the world convulsed once more. The chief producer of that movie, the actor and comic Omid Djalili, holds it – and never the march itself – as a turning level in his personal activism.

It’s value remembering, Djalili says, that for all these individuals who had been there, very many extra weren’t. “On the time, I believed: what a waste of time. I used to be very a lot a kind of folks irritated as a result of I’m caught in site visitors. It was an inconvenience. My spouse had mentioned, ‘We should always go to the demonstrations’, however I used to be very anti-demonstration – ‘It by no means makes a distinction,’ I mentioned.”

The revelation got here to Djalili just a few years later. Amirani was a schoolmate of his and was crowdfunding for the movie. Djalili was once more a bit sceptical, however then he watched a number of the footage.

“I keep in mind pondering: I simply had no thought. I keep in mind the phrases world demonstrations, however I didn’t know the extent. That penny solely actually dropped 10 years later. I’m ashamed of that. However I additionally suppose I used to be consultant of many individuals in that.”

When the movie got here out, John Prescott, the previous deputy prime minister, rang him up. “I don’t know the way he bought my quantity,” Djalili says. “He simply wished to inform me that it was a rare time. He mentioned he remembered going to Tony Blair, then, and saying ‘there’s one million folks on the market. We are able to’t simply go together with what they’re saying in America. Nearly all of the world know that is fully fallacious.’”

Since that point, Djalili has turn out to be somebody who now not thinks marching makes no distinction. He has been extraordinarily vocal in help of the ladies’s motion in Iran and the resistance in Ukraine. He goes on each march he can. “I discover it very shifting and unifying,” he says. “I’m uncomfortable shouting demise to anybody, however a number of the extra witty chants – I’m all in.”

He has little question that these items do carry an impression, lengthy after the actual fact. “The actual significance of that day,” he suggests, “is that it has given complete generations of activists an thought of what may be doable. The TikTok technology see the movie and it offers them the sensation I had: that appearing and doing these items isn’t a waste of time.”

Brief, for all her difficult regrets about that second, has the same opinion. Within the quick time period, she says, “The actual fact we went to conflict weakened folks’s sense that demonstrating might make any distinction. However I feel, conversely, it made governments very cautious of ignoring them.

“The Cameron authorities’s defeat on the potential bombing of Syria [in 2013] was an instance of that. Having enraged all people so not too long ago, they had been frightened to do it once more. So possibly that was a profit,” she says. “At the very least, that’s the hope.”