How Iraq shaped a generation of anti-war activists and changed Scottish politics

Stuart Rodger

Four prominent anti-war activists – Aamer Anwar, Alan Bissett, Rosie Kane and Stacey Devine – reflect on their experiences in the anti-Iraq war movement in the wake of the Chilcot Report

AMID the deluge of reports in the wake of the Chilcot Report, the voices of one group have been left out: the anti-war activists. Far from being merely background players in the story, the anti-war movement constituted a grass-roots mobilisation which was unprecedented in size and scale, with the war provoking the biggest demonstrations in Scotland’s history.

On 15 February 2003, it is estimated that some 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Glasgow to protest the war.

Recalling the Glasgow demonstration, veteran lawyer Aamer Anwar talks about the sheer energy of the marches:  “I remember at the time there was a great deal of hope that we would be able to stop the war. Over 100,000 people marched through Glasgow. Every cross section of society was represented. Young and old, every creed and colour. It was a tremendous feeling on the streets.”

Aamer Anwar 

 Scottish novelist Alan Bissett gives a similar account of the London mobilisation: “I was one of the millions who marched in London on 15 February 2003. I genuinely believed that the biggest protest march in British history would send a strong signal to the government that they could not disregard. Put yourself in the middle of millions of marching people – after you’ve spent your youth in an atomised state of post-Thatcher alienation – and feel even the physical experience of that. All those people, stretching into the distance. All that noise and colour and positive energy.”

But both were devastated by the demonstrations’ failure – making them question the very process of democracy in Britain. “I lost faith in political activism for a time,” Bissett says. “How could they ignore that many of us? A global street mobilisation on that scale? At that point I started to feel that politics was pretty much sewn up,”  

Anwar was similarly deflated: “Blair and Bush almost tried to suck the life out of the principles of democracy, the right to protest, out of people thinking that their views could make a difference, into thinking that putting a cross in a box every five years is all you can do. That was simply unacceptable.”

Alan Bissett 

But for both, it gave them a new-found resolve: “For the left defeat just becomes something you have to get used to,” says Bissett. “When you are young that is very hard to take, as you’re full of the confidence and vigour of youth and just presume that things will simply go the way you want them to. The auld yins knew better. The loss of that innocence hardens you for the long game. There is no final defeat, just as there is no final victory.”

Anwar says he, too, took lessons for the future: “Looking back, for a while, it had a horrific impact because it almost decapitated the movement, but it radicalised a generation. Each movement teaches you lessons. You take lessons from that movement, which can then be deployed at different stages.”

The dissenting voices came from some surprising directions, among them school students. One was Stacey Devine, who was only 15 at the time of the invasion. “I took all my pals out of school, We went down to the park, made signs,” she says. 

“We all kicked off. I don’t know how it happened but I ended up right at the front of the march, shouting and screaming. I can still remember some of the chants to this day.” 

Rosie Kane                                                                                  

Another prominent anti-war activist was former MSP Rosie Kane, whose life-long devotion to peace drove her to parliament, and for whom the war was particularly personal: “I’m a friend of Rose Gentle’s [the mother of Gordon Gentle, a young soldier killed in Iraq], so I feel a really raw feeling. I don’t like to say it’s too little too late but it is. It’s like re-opening wounds and throwing salt. It’s such an awful thing and it didn’t have to happen.”

For Bissett and Devine, it gave them a sobering insight into how the world works. Devine says it gave her an insight into the politics of class and gender: “That was two white, university-educated, rich men, playing battleships. It was men, I didn’t realise that at the time. These elitist men, stale, pale, and male, who just think they are above others.

“That war was a class war. It was for rich boys to get rich, and poor boys to die. They dress it up as such an honour – you fight for your Queen and country. They should be out partying at a night club, not shooting people in the desert.”

Stacey Devine 

Bissett, meanwhile, says the Iraq war was his first real introduction into the structures of the political system in Britain.

“Watching the machinery of Parliament, the military and the media slide into place to facilitate this vast crime before us, that was the first time I’d had direct and depressing experience of state and capital power,” he says.

Kane is especially passionate about the wider economic context of poverty and disadvantage which soldiers and conscripts have faced: “I was a youth worker before this war started. Some of the kids in Drumchapel were already being seduced, kids below the poverty line slowly becoming economic conscripts, the army were outside the dole offices. So kids were lured, I would even go so far as to say groomed. So these kids looking for three meals a day and a roof over their head ended up on the streets of Basra.”

For all four, the Iraq war was one of the leading factors driving them to push for Scotland’s independence. “That gulf in Scotland now looks to be unbridgeable,” Bissett says .“The crucial role of the Iraq War in this regard is that it weakened Scotland’s relationship to Labour, allowing the SNP to fill the centre left-vacuum. If Scotland votes for independence the British establishment will have thoroughly deserved it.”

Devine is similarly scathing: “Westminster is an all boys’ club which is completely outdated.  All their focus is on London. David Cameron is just as guilty. He had a perfect opportunity to say sorry.”

Suggesting a regretful vindication by the Chilcot Report, Bissett says: “The Chilcot Report exonerates us and ensures Blair will be remembered as one of history’s most vainglorious and deluded actors. We could see a mile away that the ‘intelligence’ Blair was selling to the British public was bogus. Having that proven doesn’t bring back the dead, but it’s something.”

For them, it seems the anti-war movement should get credit for setting the historical record straight.

Anwar concludes: “The Chilcot Report wouldn’t have happened without the anti-Iraq war movement. That happened because there was pressure from people like Rose Gentle, and pressure from the anti-war movement. The ghosts of Iraq will haunt Tony Blair until the day he dies and quite rightly so.”

Picture courtest of: Flickr / Lars Bon 

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