So this is what it feels like to be in the political mainstream. As we turned into Piccadilly Circus on February 15, and the two lines of march, each larger than any demonstration in British history, converged into a gigantic human current flowing very, very slowly toward Hyde Park, a junior member of The Nation‘s London bureau posed the essential question: “Are we nearly there yet?”
Certainly we are a lot closer than before the weekend’s massive show of opposition to war against Iraq. In demonstrations, size matters, and to have turnout so far in excess of the organizers’ wildest hopes, not just here in London, where more than a million protesters took to the streets, but in Rome (2 million), Barcelona (1.3 million), Sydney (200,000) and Melbourne (150,000) is the strongest possible indication that the people remain unconvinced–even, or perhaps especially, in countries whose leaders are content to follow George W. Bush to Baghdad, and whose mass media are filled with dossiers of Iraqi menace.
All of Britain seemed to be on the march: activists, anarchists, stockbrokers, retired soldiers, Muslims, Jews, Anglican priests, Catholic nuns, Buddhist monks and a group of young Iranian women in headscarves carrying a banner opposed to Imperialism and Fundamentalism. Many were first-time protesters; middle England was out in force. A poster of Blair in a teacup helmet counseled Make Tea Not War. A silver-haired man from Gardeners Against War with a hand-lettered sign saying Give Peas a Chance marched alongside a contingent of Sex Workers Against War. There were pre-printed signs from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Muslim Association of Britain and from the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, Charles Kennedy, was an early volunteer to speak at the rally. There were also speeches by veteran campaigners Tariq Ali and Tony Benn, London Mayor Ken Livingstone, pop diva Ms. Dynamite and Jesse Jackson.
The sight of a million people patiently, even politely asking their government to step back from the brink (for every poster calling Bush a murderer there were a dozen addressed to “Mr. Blair”) had to give even the most bellicose advocate of “serious consequences” for Iraq cause for reflection. In Glasgow, Tony Blair tried to wrong-foot the demonstrators by making “the moral case for removing Saddam.” While he told delegates to the Labour Party spring conference, “I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honor,” more than 30,000 protesters marched through the streets outside. For the past six years Blair has governed from atop an impregnable majority. But his effort to straddle the gap between Europe and the United States on Iraq has already cost him his aura of invincibility. If he follows Bush into war without a second United Nations resolution, it could cost him his job.
Blair is not the only European for whom the stakes are high. Across the Continent, the Bush Administration’s crude attempts to strong-arm public opinion–Rumsfeld’s remarks about “old Europe,” bully-boy threats to pull US troops and US dollars out of Germany, sneers about an “axis of weasels”–have sharpened the sense that America is abandoning the international institutions it once helped to build, no longer even bothering to pay them lip service. In countries where total war is still a living memory, rifts in NATO and the European Union produce profound anxiety. The letter in support of the United States circulated in early February by Blair, Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar and their “gang of eight” confirmed the view that America doesn’t give a damn for European unity–and indeed intends to undermine it. Europe’s unease has given rise to an apparent paradox: Even at the demonstrations in Greece and Italy Bush was vilified, but old-style, root-of-all-evil anti-Americanism was not much in evidence. The situation is too serious for that now. Last weekend anticapitalist hotheads, middle-aged lefties, party stalwarts and Palestinian activists put aside their own agendas to roar out a deafening warning: The wounded giant’s arrogant ambition is putting the world at risk.
Thirty-five years after the Prague Spring and the Paris barricades, Europe is on the move. Are we nearly there yet? Not quite. Those who think a war to liberate Iraq would be a just war (but believe this isn’t that war) need to be clear about what would make them reconsider. Those who oppose war unless sanctioned by the UN need to face the possibility (more remote now, but still likely, given US dominance) that there will be a second resolution. We need to talk more about our obligation to the Kurds and the Iraqi people, and stop using oil as a rationale for cynicism. We need to find a way to express differences within the coalition rather than use them as levers to pry it apart. Above all we need to build something out of all the hope and anger on the streets. We need to wed analysis to emotion, and turn momentum into a movement. Still, we are on our feet.