LONDON — Before long public pressure might just lead Britain to drop out of participation in US wars, a move that would seriously damage future pretenses of acting as an international coalition.
I’ve spent the past few days here in London talking with leaders of the Stop the War Coalition, sitting in on a weekly planning meeting, and attending a day-long conference on building opposition to the Afghanistan and Libya wars. This movement is strong, smart, well-organized, and eager to work with other peace movements around the world.
Over two-thirds of the people over here, just like back home, want out of the wars. They’re going to deliver a petition against bombing Libya to Downing Street, along with a number of members of Parliament on June 28th, and they are planning to occupy Trafalgar Square in October on the 10th anniversary of both the invasion of Afghanistan and the creation of the Stop the War Coalition — which organized the world’s largest demonstration against the invasion of Afghanistan 10 years ago. They support and will work in solidarity with Americans’ plan for the same anniversary: http://october2011.org
London is like DC and New York combined in one place, with the rest of the country compressed into the mid-Atlantic. There’s a relatively good communications system, relatively good social supports, far better public transportation, and a tradition of leftist activism with no shame or self-loathing. Labor unions here oppose the wars, including the one in Libya. Random people asking questions during sessions of Saturday’s conference demanded that the movement become more intellectual. It’s a different world. It’s not shocking that the British government agreed to pull its troops out of Iraq. Nor is it surprising that Tony Blair has been unable to hold a book event in London, facing the threat of massive protest.
The peace movement has struggled over here, just as in the United States, with momentum slowing down in recent years, and with hesitations over the propaganda for the Libya War. But the Stop the War Coalition is growing, bringing in more dues-paying members and prominent supporters. Saturday’s conference included speakers from abroad, including Arab Spring activists, students, artists (see this young woman’s powerful poetry: http://sanasino.wordpress.com/poems ), military family members, historians, intellectuals, and members of Parliament.
As at home, the peace movement has made connections with movements against spending cuts. Students understand that higher education is being sacrificed to fund wars, and that those wars are at the choosing of Washington, not London. This movement also understands the threat that restrictions on civil liberties pose to peace advocacy. Bahraini opposition cannot legally demonstrate in London, but Prime Minister David Cameron dines with the crown prince. The students here object to police tactics like kettling as violations of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
Jeremy Corbyn, MP, was introduced on Saturday by Stop the War Coalition’s Andrew Murray as working with a pack of war lords. Corbyn agreed: Parliament is made up of war lords and war criminals, he remarked. Corbyn credited Stop the War Coalition with helping to prevent an attack on Iran in recent years, just as I believe the US peace movement deserves credit. Corbyn called the idea that more time is needed to finish a job in Afghanistan a “load of tosh.” He also pointed out that the two sides fighting in Libya can exchange parts for their rifles, because they both have rifles provided by Britain. I didn’t hear a good word about Gadaffi in London — in fact, plenty of condemnation. But many speakers, including Fiona Edwards of Student Broad Left argued that a rebel movement subsumed under international imperialism would be even worse than Gadaffi. A young woman from Tunisia expressed the sentiment shared by others from that region: “Our countries do not want Western intervention, or money! It comes with policies. It’s not free or even just with high interest.”
A number of speakers argued that a counter-revolution against the Arab Spring is being fought by Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States, the UK, France, and NATO. An opposition leader from Bahrain said that what his people want is for the West to stop training troops to oppress and torture. Author John Rees said that after Tunisia and Egypt took the imperial powers by surprise, they went into Libya and Bahrain as a counter-attack, misusing popular sympathy with the Arab Spring to rehabilitate the idea of war that had been so discredited in Iraq and Afghanistan. Egypt, Rees argues, is still the central struggle, where the new military government is working to demobilize the people and imprison those who demonstrate or strike.
Tariq Ali said that people should be left free to succeed or fail. No one ever proposed that China invade Indochina, he said. Why should NATO invade Libya? Or Syria? Or Yemen? Bahrain didn’t ask for intervention, he pointed out, but got it anyway. Bahrainis chanting “Neither Sunni nor Shia but Bahraini” were attacked and the struggle sectarianized by the Saudis with the support of the United States.
Mohammed Kozbar of the British Muslim Initiative expressed his outrage that on the same day in Baghdad six member of the U.S. Congress had proposed that Iraq compensate the United States for the costs of the war. Later that day, Iraq asked the Congress Members to leave the country. The rest of the Americans should go with them.
George Galloway, MP, was the last speaker on Saturday (nobody ever dares speak after him). He recalled telling Jack Straw in Parliament eight years ago that, contrary to Straw’s assertion, British troops would not be home by Christmas, nor would they be home 10 Christmases hence. Straw laughed. But the war will eventually conclude, Galloway said, on the very terms it could have concluded with 10 years earlier.
The BBC, Galloway complained, is denouncing Syria for using Apache helicopters to attack its own people. “I’ve never understood,” said Galloway, “why it is worse to kill your own people than other people’s people.” The BBC had cheered a week or 10 days earlier for Apache helicopters used by Britain to kill Libyans. The problem with Syria, Galloway said, is not that it’s run by the latest Adolf Hitler of the month, but that it harbors Palestinian leadership, supports Lebanese national resistance, and refused to participate in the attack on Iraq.
I spoke in support of US plans for October (http://october2011.org) with Galloway pounding the table and leading the cheering in support. He concluded his own remarks by recalling that Lindsey German, the brilliant organizer of the Stop the War Coalition, had scolded him in 2003 for predicting that they would bring a million people to protest in London. They brought many more than that.
Galloway chose to speak slightly out of turn again: “We’re fed up with marching!” he said. “We’re going to occupy public space!”
A standing ovation followed.