Was Tony Blair Listening?

Protestors moving through Piccadilly Circus on their way to Hyde Park
photo: Jehad Nga

The morning before a million plus people marched London’s storied boulevards and spilled into Hyde Park for the nation’s largest ever demonstration, Tony Blair desperately sought the safety of his moral highlands as he spoke to the nation from the podium of a Labor Party conference. "Ridding the world of Saddam Hussein would be an act of humanity," he told his party faithful, the leadership of which would put aside significant differences and rally around him in the hours following the anti-war rally. "It is leaving [Hussein] there that is inhumane." In a dramatic about-face, the Prime Minister hoped to co-opt the largely humanitarian logic of the anti-war appeal, which by some polls, sways over 60 percent of the British public.

"I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor," the prime minister said, "but sometimes it is the price of leadership."

Blair was certainly not popular in the park on Saturday, and many protestors and speakers openly called for the end of his leadership. But the most colorful invective was reserved for George Bush. "I have to tell you," said George Galloway, a labor member of Parliament, "I would rather be eating cheese, and reading Sartre on the banks of the River Seine than eating popcorn with the born-again-Bible-belting fundamentalist Republican administration in Crawford, Texas, execution capital of the world!" In largely that spirit, organizers and rally speakers railed against the Transatlantic alliance, and called the turnout a major victory for anti-war forces, a voice for what is repeatedly called Britain’s "silent majority." Judging from the reactions of the British press, and indeed, the last-ditch appeals for humanity articulated by Blair, they may well have been right.

Protestors came from all over the country, a caravan of a thousand buses—religious groups, lawyers, construction workers, firemen, even a coalition of anti-war sex workers. Just overhead were a million signs and banners, and Iraqi, Pakistani, and Palestinian flags ("You won’t see a Union Jack," a friend said. "It’s considered really right-wing and jingoistic"). Slogans ranged from the predictable "Not in My Name" and "Don’t Attack Iraq" to the inventive ("A Village in Texas is Missing its Idiot"). There were American flags too, and expressions of U.S. support. Bill and Thea Weedman, who arrived on holiday the day before from San Diego, were stunned by the turnout. "We’re here because war leads to more war," Bill Weedman said, noting that the large military presence in their hometown prevented any real demonstrations. He provided his own solution to the Iraqi impasse. "If we’re serious about removing Saddam," he said, "we should just charter two or three planes and remove him, rather than serving our young people up as cannon fodder." Thea agreed. "There are plenty of other tyrants."

If providing a plausible alternative to the battle plans of the Bush administration has left anti-war campaigners in a bind, Friday’s UN Security Council showdown provided a tunnel out. "I want to congratulate Mr. Blix for having the courage and the fortitude to be able to speak out in accordance with his principles, and to have spoken about the need for more time," human rights activist Bianca Jagger told the Voice. "We need to give him all our support. Like the French are saying, we need to triple the number of weapons inspectors, we need to keep the inspectors inside Iraq, but we must not use force against another state." The novelist and historian Tariq Ali, a featured speaker, was less convinced that the danger had passed.

"It’s clear that Europe is still very nervous [about war], but the question is, is it going to be possible in two weeks time for the U.S. to get the French and Russians around?" Ali wondered. "It’s an open question. My feeling is the U.S. could do it, but they will have to make some concessions."

Jagger and Ali were among a number of lefty celebrities lending glamour to the cause, along with actors Vanessa Redgrave and Tim Robbins, former member of Parliament Tony Benn (who interviewed Saddam Hussein in Baghdad a few weeks ago), Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Gorillaz singer Damon Albarn, who stayed mostly within the safety of his entourage.

For Americans, that the day’s agenda seemed more concerned with Palestine than the impending war may have been disconcerting (some local editorials cautioned the protestors against conflating the issues). One American protestor tried in vain to get her little stars and stripes to be seen above the sea of Palestinian flags. For Tim Robbins, the emphasis on the other Middle East conflict distracted. "I personally think we should stay focused on one issue," he said, noting that the stateside anti-war movement was growing in the "face of endless propaganda."

But as speaker after speaker invoked the misery of the Palestinians, a conviction seemed to emerge, that Blair and his supporters had gotten their foreign crisis the wrong way around; and that the tinderbox calling for the world’s attention was quite a few miles short of Baghdad. "It’s the heart of the issue," said Vanessa Redgrave. "I would say to Mr. Blair, if you do want peace in our world, than you would solve the horrifying injustice that the Palestinians have undergone for decades, because that is a situation we British bear a particular responsibility for."

As the day’s activities ended, and spontaneous bonfires warmed up the chilly evening, families made their way back to the parked buses, while others wandered to Piccadilly Circus for a sit-in. Alfonso Reis e Sousa, a filmmaker, reflected on the day’s events. "I’m one of those people who probably support action if there’s a second UN resolution," he said. Next to him stood Keith Morris, a retired British diplomat, who counted himself in the same camp. Observers say this constitutes the majority of British anti-war opinion and that if the country goes to war without the support of the world body, it might well bring down the Labor government.

As international TV crews jostled and clawed for Jesse Jackson’s attention, the reverend stuck to a moderate tone. "In the past," said Jesse Jackson, "the people of the East could not talk. And now, the West cannot hear. But this highway ideology of Rice and Powell and Cheney . . . I think Tony Blair should hear his own people."

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