The night the war began, an ashen-faced woman in Parliament Square held up a photograph of an Iraqi soldier, reduced to a smudge of carbon but for his head and feet–an image from the last Gulf War. “He’s the same age as my son. I put a lot into bringing up my son.” She’d come from Redbridge, a London suburb not known for its radicalism. “We’re not political animals,” the man with her confirmed. “But this comes from the heart. We’re being patronized by Tony Blair–how can we follow George Bush? I just feel utterly disgusted.”
Most people expected the protests in Britain to die down once the bombs started falling and the media switched into we’re-backing-our-boys mode. It hasn’t turned out that way. On the first day of the invasion, spontaneous protests sprang up across the country in response to the Stop the War Coalition’s call for a walkout from work, school or college. In Leeds, protesters closed the main motorway; in Manchester several thousand young people shut down the city center. Civil servants left government offices, including the deputy prime minister’s. Thousands of schoolchildren walked out of class under their teachers’ noses, roaring and chanting, sitting in the streets. The young are back in politics with a vengeance, high on that heady mix of joy at their own rebellion and horror at the war. Saturday’s demonstration in London surprised even the organizers: More than 200,000 people marched to Hyde Park with whistles, horns and drums, making a most un-British racket. Girls in hijab walked with girls in crop tops, peace slogans lipsticked on their faces. Flags pledged allegiance to a world with a different tilt: the Tricolor, the flag of Palestine, the UN banner, Italy’s rainbow peace flag (these days, even movements must have merchandise).
The mood has shifted now that the killing’s started. It’s not “Mr. Blair” anymore; it’s “Blair out, Blair out, Blair out.” In Westminster, scores of policemen stood shoulder to shoulder to shield the people’s representatives from their constituents’ anger. A pirate flag with George Bush for a death’s head went up in orange flames. In Hyde Park, no one I spoke to really thought we could turn back the bombers, but no one thought it was too late for protest either: “We have to let them know we’re watching them.” “If we weren’t here they wouldn’t be looking where they put the bombs.”
When Blair appeared on television to announce the invasion’s beginning he looked haggard, almost desperate–a striking contrast to Bush’s smug belligerence. He knew he was addressing a deeply divided nation, asking us to trust him on a matter that’s in fact no longer in his hands. As British airmen are shot down by US missiles, as British ministers looking for reconstruction contracts are snubbed in Washington, as the Iraqis fight instead of dance in the streets, the illusion that Blair has some say in America’s enterprise is losing what’s left of its luster. If the invasion goes badly and the Pentagon has to choose between more dead Americans and more dead civilians, the feeling of betrayal will be deeper still. By backing Bush against Europe, the United Nations, much of his own party and almost half the population, Blair has thrown away the last of the good will he won when he unseated the Tories. The movement against the war draws on great reservoirs of disappointment. At this moment, it doesn’t feel like something that will easily dissipate.