New York

Was Tony Blair Listening?

by

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.”