2 September 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, September 5 2003

I’m used to wishful thinking in Tribune, but last week's piece by the convenor and chair of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey German and Andrew Murray -- respectively apparatchiks of the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Communist Party of Britain -- really was in a class of its own.

Their message was that all is for the best in the organisation that has been the public face of British opposition to the US-British war to oust Saddam Hussein.

"Although the war has been officially 'over' for four months," they intoned, "the anti-war movement is as busy as ever." Hundreds of people have turned up to meetings and conferences "marked . . . by a vibrant and democratic spirit. The Government's troubles over the death of Dr David Kelly have vindicated the movement. The unions are on board. Dozens of exciting activities are planned in the next few weeks.

And who doubts this? Only “former leftists such as David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens -- who believe that the whole movement is the result of a sinister collusion between Islamic fundamentalism and the Socialist Workers' Party". But they are "utterly ignorant of the Muslim community". And the SWP "is only a problem if you come from that part of the left which has spent the past 20 years stampeding ever-rightwards". "A lesson of this past historic and exciting year," they conclude, "is that such squabbles are of minor importance."

Well, if you believe that, you'll believe that the British revolution is imminent or that Stalin's slave-labour camps were a fiction of imperialist propaganda. The truth is that the Stop the War Coalition has been a colossal failure -- and that the politics of its leading actors bears a substantial part of the blame.

Here, it is necessary to go back a bit. Before 9/11, Iraq was not a major issue in Britain. The Leninist micro-parties and other leftists had railed for years about the iniquities of the UN sanctions regime against Iraq. But lifting it would have left no way of constraining Saddam. So most of the left agreed with the government that sanctions were preferable (if not quite as they were) to removing the pressure or escalating to all-out military action.

What changed after 9/11 -- when it became clear that the US was preparing to invade Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and overthrow the Taliban -- was that Britain’s Leninists found a cause they shared not only with part of the non-Leninist left but also with a substantial section of Muslim opinion. Led by the SWP and the CPB, they set up a committee they dominated, the Stop the War Coalition, to campaign against US imperialist aggression.

On Afghanistan, its efforts were ineffectual – two lacklustre London demos, one of 20,000 and one of 50,000 -- but that wasn't surprising. Although there were doomsayers across the political spectrum who warned (incorrectly) that the Afghan war would be a disaster, few apart from the died-in-the-wool left, the pacifists and the Islamists questioned the legitimacy of the enterprise.

But once the Bush Administration's attentions turned to Iraq, British public opinion shifted -- and for good reason. There was little evidence that Saddam had any responsibility for 9/11 or would turn belligerent again. And invading Iraq appeared extraordinarily risky, not least because of the arsenal everyone assumed he possessed. From spring 2002, it was clear that there was a potential "coalition of the unwilling" opposed to war against Iraq (unless diplomacy had been exhausted and war had UN backing) including most of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and even some Tories.

This was an extraordinary opportunity for an effective mobilisation against war. But seizing it required an anti-war movement that reflected mainstream anti-war opinion. It had to be explicit that Saddam was a legitimate target for international action short of war. And it could not be, or seen to be, a front for self-styled revolutionaries or radical Islamists on the make.

The Stop the War Coalition failed on almost every count. It organised several big demonstrations -- including one in February that was massive. But that was all. Politically, it never left the leftist ghetto. The SWP conspired shamelessly to retain organisational control. The coalition was cool towards anyone further Right than Labour's hard left (though it tolerated anti-Semitic Islamists). It not only refused to accept that Saddam was a problem but welcomed his supporters. Once the fighting started, the coalition came close (and the SWP even closer) to endorsing the heroic Ba’athist socialist resistance. Unsurprisingly, the numbers on the demos melted away.

Of course, even the most competent and inclusive campaign might not have stopped the British government going to war. But the Stop the War Coalition could not have done much worse if its leaders had been in the pay of the CIA.