Published on Friday, February 14, 2003 by the lndependent/UK
Politicians are Out of Step with the People
War is Pretty Much Inevitable - But That Doesn't Mean Protest is Pointless, Either in the Short or Long Term
by Natasha Walter
It was only a few weeks ago that commentators were shaking their heads over the almost invisible nature of the resistance to war. How things have changed. At the moment, we can only guess at the size of tomorrow's protests, but anecdotal evidence is talking big.
Whether you are going on the fact that more than 80 coaches are traveling from Manchester to London or that a half-a-dozen friends have called to ask you where they should meet and whether it would be a good idea for them to bring their children, an awful lot of people in Britain seem to be getting ready to walk this walk.
For a generation, this old-fashioned kind of march-and-rally, with its old-fashioned speakers and old-fashioned placards, has looked outdated; so often tried, so often ignored. And let's not kid ourselves; however big this one is, it isn't suddenly going to shift the international situation into a new key. Obviously, war is pretty much inevitable, and has been for a long time, well in advance of the current diplomatic showdowns. But that doesn't mean the protest is pointless, either in the short or the long term.
When the number of people behind a protest is so large, this sort of straightforward march comes into its own. More unusual protests, such as delegations to Iraq, have been helping to raise awareness of particular issues, such as the plight of civilians. And more confrontational protests have also begun, and will develop further with the beginning of the war. The tolerance for direct action has been growing over the last few years, and already more than 4,000 people in Britain (including myself) have signed a pledge to support civil disobedience, such as blocking roads, when the war begins.
But right now, a straightforward show of people out marching makes a very straightforward point very well: that the politicians are out of step with the people. In Britain, recent polls symbolize a crisis of legitimacy for our Government that, come tomorrow, it will have to work hard to dismiss. The march represents the people; the Government does not. According to a midweek BBC poll, the march represents about 90 per cent of the people in Britain (unless the UN gets behind war) and the Government represents about 10 per cent.
Because of this massive public support, even its opposers are finding it hard to marginalize the march. As we all know, peace marchers in the Sixties were a hippie rabble, and those in the Eighties were scruffy dykes; but who do we have here? Since even Daily Telegraph commentators are saying that they and their friends will be there, it could be anyone. Even people who believe that war may ultimately be necessary, depending on how things go with the weapon inspections, will still go on the march to put the case that more time is needed right now. The few journalists who are totally against the march are trying to tell us that it will be dominated by old-style Trotskyites or new-style anti-Semites, but that is pretty weedy scaremongering.
I'm not saying that the march will change anything on its own. But I am saying that although the journey towards war seems inexorable, this protest is not meaningless. Whatever Hans Blix says to the UN today, the negotiations for and against the war will continue for a little longer. So the march will at least remind some belligerent politicians that their power base can slip away. It will at least give some heart to those politicians who are arguing for a last chance for diplomacy and containment.
And the march will highlight the central characteristic of the anti-war movement: its international foundations. Those people who march in London tomorrow will walk with up to 10 million others in up to 400 cities in up to 60 countries, from Los Angeles to Antarctica. Millions will be marching together to resist their political leaders, who would like to pull them further into a spiral of violence. Without wanting to sound too hippy-dippy, this symbolizes the kind of global humanism that might one day stand as a counterweight to global terrorism and global warmongering.
As the protests flash over televisions and computer screens and newspapers, the eyes of people in Arab countries will look at the West, and those in Western countries will look south and east, and this will encourage the understanding that the interests of ordinary people are not identical to the national interests expressed by their governments.
It is very striking that in the BBC poll, although almost half the population are opposed to any war with Iraq, a staggering 90 per cent are opposed to a war outside of UN agreement. This desire to legitimize our foreign policy in the framework of international organizations shows a great hunger for more, not less, leadership by international institutions that is pretty surprising for those who see the British people as xenophobic little islanders.
This generation of Europeans and Americans brought up more or less in peace feels a strong revulsion for war. They prefer diplomacy, however dirty; deterrence, however protracted; negotiation, however bullying, to missiles and invasions. And so they are holding up the UN as the solution because, however flawed an institution it may be, it looks like the only alternative to global instability.
The fact that the people of Britain want international stability so much that 40 per cent of them say they will make up their minds on war after, not before, the UN Security Council speaks shows that there is a very interesting shift in the view that ordinary people have of international institutions. One reason why there is such an abyss between public opinion and the Government of Britain is that people have become convinced that Tony Blair, by saying he will listen to the UN only if it says what he wants it to say, is undermining fragile global stability.
The way people are talking in meetings, on the internet, on television and on radio-participation programs shows they believe that a war without even the questionable legitimacy conferred by the UN would make terrorism more likely, by alienating public opinion throughout the Arab world. In this context, in which international law is taken as so important, Clare Short cut a persuasive figure on Wednesday when she argued that without a UN mandate, the international co-ordination needed to put into place humanitarian aid and any sort of nation-building in the aftermath of the war would be catastrophically undermined.
That is not to say that ordinary people are necessarily naive about the nature and limitations of our international institutions. I actually believe that now the workings of the UN have been put under such scrutiny, public opinion including mine would simply not accept a resolution that had clearly been bullied out of other countries by the US.
And although so many people are arguing that the current framework of international law should be respected, there is a growing feeling that the endpoint of this international movement against war must be the creation of international institutions that are more transparent, more democratic and more easily influenced by the will of ordinary people, not just by the national interests of governments.
This kind of idealistic talk about thoroughgoing reform of international institutions was once dismissed as the less realistic part of the anti-globalization movement. But as people march tomorrow in Kigali and Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg and Jakarta, London and Lisbon, it is hard to predict exactly where the end of this road will lie.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd