Duke of York syndrome
Where do we go beyond the heights of the latest demonstration - apart from marching back down again? Emily Bransom reports from last week's anti-war demonstration
Waiting in a nearly deserted Hyde Park at midday on Saturday September 24, there was the usual sense of anticipation before a big demonstration. Not knowing how many people would arrive, it was only possible to judge where the march was heading by watching the police helicopters above hovering slowly closer. As usual, estimates of numbers varied hugely, with organisers claiming that 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets. The BBC, by contrast, quoted the police figure of "up to 10,000". I would have thought between 20,000 and 30,000 was nearer the mark. Certainly it did not come close to previous marches in terms of either size or atmosphere. When two million people demonstrated in February 2003, it was impossible not to really feel a part of something with massive potential, something that was splitting the British establishment down the middle and visibly shaking the Blair government to its rotten foundations. In comparison, Saturday's protest was rather flat. The crowd filtered into the park at around 2pm and gathered around the stage to listen to an afternoon of speakers, poets and musicians voicing their opposition to the US-UK occupation of Iraq. On the one hand, it is, of course, pleasing to see such a variety of individuals speaking out against the warmongers. Yet the usual line-up of lefts, christians and muslims, amongst others, merely served to highlight the lack of any clear political focus. Enthusiasm was high to begin with. Tony Benn was greeted, predictably, with loud cheers, as was John Pilger, whilst warm applause welcomed family members of soldiers killed in Iraq. The occasion was less celebrity-orientated than other demonstrations - Ms Dynamite was nowhere to be seen - and Respect had more than its share of speakers: John Rees, Lindsey German and Yvonne Ridley (Respect supporters also had a reasonably strong presence on the march, with many sporting T-shirts bearing its logo). Yet, as the afternoon progressed, the speeches did not - it began to sound as though some on the platform were sharing cue cards. Congratulating so many people for turning out, patting themselves on the back for making an impact that Blair could not possibly ignore, delighting over Oona King's defeat in the general election. By mid-afternoon many in the crowd had begun to head home. Not even the 'Marxist' leaders of the Socialist Workers Party, comrades Rees (speaking officially for Respect) and German (for the Stop the War Coalition, the march's main organisers) attempted to map out any strategy for the anti-war movement. Comrade Rees ended his speech with the exhortation to "keep fighting, keep marching", while comrade German could only urge people to join their local STWC, come to the annual conference at the end of the year and start preparing for yet another national demonstration next March (the speaker from the Muslim Association of Britain reminded us that this was the 21st to have been jointly organised by the STWC, MAB and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament!). Talk about the grand old Duke of York. Surely it must eventually dawn on the comrades that making a twice-yearly appearance in central London is not exactly forcing Blair to change course. Yes, yes - war is unjust, the occupation is brutal and unpopular - but what can we do about it? No wonder we are gathering every six months in smaller and smaller numbers. We need clear and updated slogans. We must demand 'Troops out now'. Not 'Bring the troops home' soon or whenever is convenient for Bush and Blair. Above all we desperately a strategy. The anti-war movement must become a movement against the existing constitution and the existing system. Otherwise it is doomed to eventual dissipation and finally demoralisation. But SWP leaders reject anything that smacks of principle and political differentiation. The be-all and end-all of their political approach is broadness for the sake of broadness. A recipe for fudge and defeat. Certainly in the name of keeping the movement 'broad', they do not even deign to present what they claim to be their own politics - that of working class socialism. Only the workers' movement, armed with a democratic anti-imperialist programme, can halt Blair and Bush - numbers alone (even if they were not falling) cannot hope to do so. None of the speakers were willing to face up to the fact that simply saying 'Bring the troops home' lacks social purchase. Nor is it enough to simply defend the muslim 'community' and existing civil liberties. We must challenge the political system and champion the fight for extreme democracy in Britain. We need a democratic republic in place of the constitutional monarchy system. There also needs to be a sharp anti-capitalist edge. We fight not only against this or that war but against the imperialist system that engenders war. A speech which attempted to tackle such questions would have marked a step forward. Instead what we got almost without exception was the SWP's lame 'see you next time' approach. Despite the criticisms contained in this article, however, occasions such as last Saturday are clearly positive and politically significant. The fact that marches are being organised and still rallying many thousands provides a solid basis upon which to build. On the same day up to 150,000 gathered in Washington, the largest anti-war demonstration in America since the invasion of Iraq. This is particularly encouraging. Slogans similar to those of British protestors were combined with demands to "make levees, not war". Resentment was fuelled towards the unlimited billions of dollars being spent on the occupation rather than on aid to the southern states devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But the question on both sides of the Atlantic remains: where do we go beyond the heights of the latest demonstration - apart from marching back down again?