London: No to the Bush-Blair War

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Phil Hearse

NO CLEARER DEMONSTRATION of the difference between U.S. and British politics could be found than the September 28 London demonstration, which mobilized 350,000 people on the slogans “Don’t Attack Iraq” and “Freedom for Palestine.”

Thousands of young people from Britain’s significant, mainly Pakistani, Muslim community joined the demonstration. Support from the labor movement and universities was massive. Eleven national trade unions supported the demonstration, including the country’s biggest, the 1.5 million strong local government workers union UNISON.

Among the supporting unions was the Fire Brigades Union; firefighters in Britain have long been a bastion of the left, and despite the huge wave of solidarity with the New York firefighters in the wake of September 11, have never faltered in their opposition to war.

Six union general secretaries spoke at the demonstration, as well as a host of other labor movement, radical, socialist and religious figures.

The organizing body of the demonstration, the Stop the War Coalition, is politically dominated by the far left (and the British Socialist Workers Party in particular), which adopted the non-exclusionary basis familiar in antiwar coalitions in the United States in the 1960s.

The breadth of support for the demonstration showed the deep unpopularity of Tony Blair’s slavish support of the Bush-Wolfowitz-Rice-Perle-Rumsfeld team which is dominating U.S. foreign policy.

Opinion polls have repeatedly shown majority opposition to any unilateral attack on Iraq, and mass opposition to an attack sanctioned by the United Nations. The view that the U.S. agenda has little to do with fighting terrorism, and everything to do with seizing control of Mid-East oil, and utilizing unbridled militarism to secure absolute world political domination, is commonplace in Britain.

Opposition to war has come from the new Archbishop of Canterbury and indeed the majority of Church of England bishops; from within all the political parties in parliament, with the exception of the ultra-reactionary Ulster Unionists; and from tens of thousands of young people who are providing the basis for the renewal of the socialist left.

On 24 September the House of Commons was recalled from its endless summer recess, as Blair conceded to demands that the drive to war had to be debated. Just hours before the start of the debate the British government published its long-awaited dossier, alleging renewed Iraqi efforts to build weapons of mass destruction, and warning that Saddam Hussein could soon have missiles packed with biological or chemical weapons capable of hitting British bases in Cyprus.

This effort, which the British intelligence service MI6 in collaboration with the CIA had six months to produce, was widely seen as a total failure, and derided by the liberal-left daily papers The Guardian and The Independent, and also by the mass circulation Daily Mirror.

Sixty-five Members of Parliament voted against the government, including more than fifty Labor MPs and all the members of Plydd Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party.

Three members of the Liberal Democrats, whose official line was to abstain, also voted with the dissidents. The “abstention” line of Liberal Democrats represented the political cowardice of their leader Charles Kennedy and their fifty-four-strong parliamentary caucus.

In fact the overwhelming majority of Lib Dem local activists are opposed to the war. The Liberal leadership, however, are petrified of being characterized by the government as unpatriotic in the event of war, and of losing their appeal to voters deserting from the ever-more-collapsing Conservative party.

The barrage of hostility to Blair’s fawning support for Bush is reflected in discreet and not-so-discreet disquiet from inside the military and intelligence “community.” MI6 may have served its political masters by producing the infamous Blair “dossier” on Iraq, but several papers have reported disquiet among individual intelligence officers that the reports of Iraqi weapons are untrue of exaggerated.

Dan Plasch, a senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, think tank of the UK armed forces, wrote an article for The Guardian titled “First Iraq, then Iran, after that China.” Such extrapolation reflects real concern among military planners and defence intellectuals that the Bush team has “lost it” and is reverting to wild ideas about how to run international affairs. Suspicion and hostility to war with Iraq is also widespread in the “Square Mile” — the City of London financial district — where many senior analysts think war could drive the world economy into deeper recession.

Shifting Ground

All this, including even pressure from “soft left” members of the Blair cabinet (Overseas Development Secretary Clair Short and Leader of the House of Commons Robin Cook), has forced Blair to insist that the “issue” is not regime change in and of itself, but weapons of mass destruction, and that the whole business must be sanctioned by the UN.

Blair’s insistence on this — together with that from France and Russia, as well as Arab countries — has forced Bush to indeed go via the United Nations route.

Nobody has satisfactorily explained why something as evil as unleashing the U.S. weapons of mass destruction on the Iraqi people (once again) is justified if the UN Security Council sanctions it, but not if the United States goes alone; but mass opposition is forcing Blair to adopt this line to protect his flank.

The Blairites are heavily briefing the press — off the record — that they consider the Wolfowitz-Perle-Cheney-Rice team around Bush to consist of reactionary maniacs, but are pressing the line of “tie the U.S. up in the UN, and thwart them by being friendly.”

This is just a cover. When push comes to shove and the bombs start falling, Blair will be shoulder to shoulder with Bush. But the political price being paid by Blair and Labor is increasingly heavy, and hostility to the U.S. political leadership is a mass epidemic.

ATC 101, November-December 2002