Tuesday, Sep 30, 2003
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By Vidya Ram
ON SATURDAY, 100,000 protesters from all over Britain took to the streets of London to protest against the occupation of Iraq, striking yet another blow against the beleaguered Blair Government. Mobilised by the Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the marchers carried placards explicitly demanding the Prime Minister, Tony Blair's resignation and some with a play on his name, calling him `Bliar'.
The march culminated in a giant rally in Trafalgar Square. The crowd, which crammed into the massive square, was addressed by a broad platform of speakers representing diverse voices in the movement. They included the veteran Labour MP, Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, and the renowned film director, Ken Loach. Dima Tahboub, the Jordanian widow of Tariq Ayyoub, the Al Jazeera journalist killed when the network's offices in Baghdad were hit by an American missile, received a warm welcome when she addressed the protesters. Bob Crow, the General Secretary of the RMT rail union, got thunderous applause when he called on Mr. Blair and his entire Cabinet to resign.
The message of the marchers was clear: the dynamic and united anti-war movement that brought two million protesters to London on February 15 is stronger than ever, bolstered by a recent leak from the Iraq Survey Group indicating that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. Lindsey German, Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, told The Hindu: "We are still here, strong and loud. Everyone on this march represents 10 or 20 others who weren't here." As innocent Iraqis and British and American troops die on a daily basis in Iraq, anger is mounting and Mr. Blair's popularity has plummeted. A recent poll in The Financial Times shows that half the British public believes Mr. Blair should resign because of his role in the war. The Hutton Inquiry into the apparent suicide of the weapons expert, Dr. David Kelly, has exposed a trail of deceit and spin leading to Downing Street. Alastair Campbell, Blair's Press Secretary and close confidant, has already resigned, following reports that he dressed up the dossier that made the case for war in Iraq. The political career of the Secretary of Defence, Geoff Hoon, whose role in fabricating `facts' and hounding Dr. Kelly has been thoroughly exposed in the Inquiry, is also on the rocks. Although Mr. Blair has denied reports that he may resign, the very fact that he has used the `R' word highlights the tenuousness of his position.
The anti-war movement is not a pacifist movement. Bringing together trade unionists, students and members of different religions and political parties, it strikes at the very heart of the New Labour Project. The march was a day before angry Labour activists and trade unionists headed down to Bournemouth for the party's annual conference. Furious at being ignored and lied to, delegates are expected to attack a whole range of measures from the introduction of private funding into the health system to `top-up fees' for University students. Addressing the protesters on Saturday, Mr. Crow condemned the hypocrisy of New Labour, which could find billions to spend on the illegal occupation of Iraq but offered nothing to Britain's public services. The suspended Labour MP, George Galloway, condemned Mr. Blair's decision not even to discuss the war at the conference "It's like having an elephant in your living room and failing to mention it," he told protesters.
Although the Labour Party continues to lead in the polls, Mr. Blair has every reason to worry. Two weeks ago, the party lost a byelection to the Liberal Democrats in Brent-East, the most multi-ethnic constituency in Britain, which Labour had won with a 15,000-vote majority in the last general election. The low turnout, 35 per cent, said it all: Labour Party supporters stayed at home, expressing their disillusionment and anger with a party that no longer represented their interests or listened to their views. This view was echoed when Mr. Loach, speaking at the march, called on Mr. Blair to represent the interests of the people and not of big business.
Mr. Blair has also alienated Britain's large Muslim population, which feels particularly under attack. The second official slogan of the march `Freedom for Palestine' clearly indicated that the march was against not just the occupation of Iraq but also against continuing Western intervention in the Middle East. Protesters from all communities demanded "U.S., U.K. Out of the Middle East" and Mr. Livingstone condemned "a hundred years of imperialist intervention in the Middle East."
The sense of defeat felt by some in the anti-war movement when the war first started has evaporated and has been replaced by a strong sense of optimism and a determination to hold Mr. Blair and his Government to account. The movement has already started preparing for George Bush's State visit to Britain in November. To mark the occasion, Mr. Livingstone has pledged he will not give Mr. Bush a reception in Town Hall, but will hold an assembly for the peace movement instead.
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