Impressions of a protest

Thursday November 20 saw some 200,000 demonstrators answer the call of the Stop the War Coalition to show Bush and Blair what they thought of their imperialist war and occupation of Iraq.

Thursday November 20 saw some 200,000 demonstrators answer the call of the Stop the War Coalition to show Bush and Blair what they thought of their imperialist war and occupation of Iraq.

The wishes of the Bush coterie - concerned about the safety of the US president during his state visit - were fulfilled to the letter: whole areas in the centre of the capital was shut down completely. Nevertheless, after prolonged negotiations, protestors were allowed to march from Malet Street, through Whitehall and past Downing Street and parliament. Buoyed by the huge numbers - which came as something of a surprise - the spirit of the demonstration was excellent as, darkness falling, it made its way to the rally at Trafalgar Square.

Alongside the rather small and inconspicuous stage in the square was a large ‘jumbo-tron’ video screen. Between speakers, the crowd was treated to cartoons, etc. mocking the hapless Bush: pretzels were a common theme (as were, more inexplicably, chimps), as well as selections from the Bush oeuvres (with “I believe that fish and mankind can coexist peacefully” being a clear winner in the ‘Eh?’ category).

The first speaker of note to take the stage was boho ‘poet for peace’ Adrian Mitchell. Mitchell, best known for his poem ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam’, spoke about - well - lies and Vietnam, before reciting a revised version of … ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam’. Best to stick to what you know, I suppose.

Former SNP leader Alex Salmond followed. “George Bush,” he said, had “hijacked America”. This is quite a common notion. It is also one that completely ignores the fact that the Bush policy is no more than an extension of that begun by Clinton. Or was it, perhaps, the New American Century-ites that began ramping up arms spending in the 1990s, as well as ordering the bombing of Sudan, Serbia and the rocket attacks on Afghanistan? Speaking much later, Tony Woodley, TGWU general secretary, took up Salmond’s point, calling for a Democratic president to replace Bush. Brother Woodley “hopes the Democrats will behave better”. Oh well.

Time and again we heard from the platform the call for the British government to “stand up to Bush” (Louise Christian) and “change policy” altogether (speaker for the Muslim Association of Britain). As if it were so easy to break the thousand threads - steel ropes, more like - that bind ‘our’ ruling class to American capital! Or as if imperialism were no more than a policy option of the order of foundation hospitals!

Looming across the rally was the specially constructed effigy of Bush himself. At intervals, all attention seemed to be drawn to it. After Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic had spoken came the symbolic centre-piece of the rally: the toppling of the Bush statue. As ropes were thrown across it, the shout “Down with Bush!” went up, at first from only a few sections of the demonstration and then building up until all Trafalgar Square was chanting.

This was an excellent idea and well executed. It did, however, serve to highlight the principal defect of Thursday’s manifestation. Of course, speaker after speaker denounced Blair as well as Bush, but the whole event - especially given the omnipresent blood-spattered “Bush” placards handed out by the STWC - felt far too US-focused. The left seemed content to echo this: a great failure. Our main enemy is at home - Tony Blair, New Labour, and the entire edifice of British imperialism.

Immediately following the toppling was Jeremy Corbyn MP. Corbyn was alone in tying the “advent of a peaceful world” to radical social change. Only with the “end of crony capitalism that dominates the world” could there be peace. We will be kind and assume that Corbyn has no illusions in the pacific nature of non-“crony” capitalism.

Leading Socialist Workers Party member Lindsey German,  with her STWC hat on, made a rather bland speech. That said, comrade German’s contribution was, on one point at any rate, at least superior to the recent missives of fellow SWPer John Rees. Whilst comrade Rees has been busy making analogies with the withdrawal of troops from liberated Europe after World War II - something which implies a piecemeal, and never complete, withdrawal of US-UK troops from Iraq - comrade German pointed out that “the withdrawal of troops is up to the Iraqi people”, who had made it clear that “they want them out now.”

It was “the one and only” George Galloway MP - for it is he - who made the most concretely political speech of the night. Amidst one-liners about the possible “consummation of the special relationship” if Bush decides to take a walk around Buckingham Palace during the night (is he not in danger, joked Galloway, of being “taken for a royal servant”?), and paraphrases of Gandhi, he looked forward to using the 2004 European elections as a way of uniting “all the forces on this march in one mighty movement and drive nails into the political coffin of Tony Blair”. Anyone for a spot of Peace and Justice, with a side-order of Monbiot-Yaqoob?

Thursday November 20 once again showed the strength of the anti-war movement in Britain. The left must offer it real answers: not just Bush, but also Blair; not just Blair, but also New Labour; not just New Labour, but the entire rotten edifice of British imperialism (of which Labour, old and New, has always been a most loyal servant). It cannot be reformed away, but must be overthrown.