By Kevin Ovenden
For many, especially those hundreds of thousands of us who marched against the
Iraq war in 2003, the question recurs: can we do anything about this impending
UK: National Demonstration: No Attack on Syria
By Stop the War
National Demonstration: assemble Saturday 31 August, 12 noon, Temple Place, London.
TAP – the vote in the Commons is not enough. The US is still rolling out its huge military strength and war is going ahead. All that’s been achieved so far is a delay of a few days.
For over 18 months Cameron and William Hague have tried to play the hard men over Syria, calling for greater action at international gatherings and threatening Damascus with other people’s F-16s. Now, the old Etonian’s arrogance has made Britain a weak link in the shaky FUKUS chain.
At the start of this week Cameron was strutting the airwaves pressing for immediate bombing. By Thursday he had been forced into a tactical retreat – though the intention to press ahead is clear. Washington too rowed back a little to give Cameron, facing potential parliamentary defeat, a lifeline.
Officials mooted that the date for bombing could be pushed back to the middle of next week. If anyone thinks they are in control of events, consider that on that timescale US and British planes will be bombing a Russian ally just as Obama and Cameron sit down in St Petersburg at the G20 summit, hosted by Putin.
The call for restraint by the UN’s Ban Ki-moon hardened Labour’s opposition to the government. On Wednesday it went from reluctant support for the government to tabling its own amendment in the parliamentary debate on Thursday. That amendment placed significant obstacles in the path to military action. But it said only that the UN Security Council must be allowed to consider and vote on the weapons inspectors’ report, not that a Security Council authorisation was necessary before Labour would support action.
Nevertheless, Labour MPs and others report that they are swayed by both the deep divisions in the political class and state structures over action and by the mounting public opposition. Diane Abbott’s political stock soared sharply when she said she would resign from the Labour frontbench if the party rushed into war.
The emergency demonstration called by Stop the War in London on Wednesday drew 1,000 people, extremely significant at short notice and in the bank holiday week.
It seems impossible now for the government to avoid a second parliamentary vote before bombing, and its own motion on Thursday in effect conceded that.
These are not trivial parliamentary games. They are the actual working out of the impasse of the government’s position. They mean that MPs who were expecting to be sunning themselves this weekend will now be in Britain subject to intense, contradictory pressures.
They mean that what was meant to be a lightening strike on Syria this week is now prolonged even before it begins. A question that was of concern for only a minority in Britain is now at the centre of national politics and life – should we support Cameron, should we bomb or not bomb, can we do anything about it.
A major public debate has erupted way beyond the circles and social media that we as activists use to talk with one another. The debate is open. Our opponents are an out of touch government that is inflicting deep social suffering on millions of people, most of whom declare that they are alienated from the official political parties.
The government is a coalition. Its majority depends on Lib Dem MPs, many of whom owe their seats to the anti-war posture the party took in 2003. They are particularly vulnerable to pressure, which in this instance means public opinion marshalled and concentrated into action and political engagement.
There are serious divisions in the Tory ranks too – usually reflective of foreign policy and military establishment concerns. Nevertheless, a move by anti-war MP Jeremy Corbyn and others of the left earlier this year to force the government to declare that it would seek parliamentary approval for any strike on Syria succeeded in winning support from Tory rebels.
A principled mass movement acting intelligently can drive a wedge deeper into the Tory ranks as well as stiffen the position of Labour MPs.
Action now can make a difference. It requires taking the clear anti-war arguments which Stop the War is promoting and which are voiced by many others, including the Daily Mirror, deep into British society. All movements need activists, but we cannot simply be a movement of activists. We have to aim to be a mass movement of people who can be stirred by this question.
The fact that figures such as Peter Hain MP who supported the Iraq war are now strongly against bombing Syria is an indication that our anti-war argument can reach into new and broad layers. That feeling needs to be focused through public protest and through inundating MPs in order to tip the balance. There are many forms of action. Over the coming days the job is to hone them to a single point that will be felt in parliament and the government as they mull how to proceed.
There is every chance that we can play a big role in shifting the debate. What if we do not and they manage to press ahead anyway? Well, our efforts will have been far from futile.
First, whatever the blithe talk of a limited three day bombing with no fallout, the truth is that there will be major repercussions throughout the Middle East if they do go ahead. The only question is how great they will be. They will certainly mark a new phase in which the pressure for further action will intensify and with it the necessity of a strong, united movement of opposition, as well as solidarity with genuine progressive forces in the region.
Second, this is not about something happening far away to other people. It is about the direction of politics and society in Britain. The outcome of the next days and weeks will impact on the scale of opposition to the Coalition’s assaults on the mass of people at home.
A government weakened by defeat of its foreign policy, or even by its curtailment, is going to find it harder to deal with the protests in defence of the NHS, the strikes by public sector workers and the developing social resistance to its austerity policies.
Many of us have supported Stop the War or taken part in its mobilisations over the years. Quite naturally there has been ebb and flow, reflecting events and the possibility at any one time of achieving results. We’ve also had many healthy debates as the disaster of Western policy in the Middle East and the War on Terror has unfolded.
Now is a time to throw ourselves fully into this upswing of the movement – inundating MPs, taking to the streets on Saturday, getting ourselves into the media – mainstream, new and social – everywhere persuading friends, colleagues and family that we need to take a stand, and that by doing so we can make a difference.
Kevin Ovenden, 29 August 2013
The Tap Blog is a collective of like-minded researchers and writers who’ve joined forces to distribute information and voice opinions avoided by the world’s media.