In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil, the Stop the War Coalition emerged in the UK to resist the coming ‘War on Terror’ advanced by the US and its allies. The organization has remained a central force in the fight against imperialism and war ever since, helping stage some of the largest demonstrations in UK history. Following the recent US exit from Afghanistan, Lindsey German, national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, spoke to Spring about the last 20 years of the StWC.
The drive to war by the UK, US and Canada began almost immediately in the wake of 9/11. The Stop the War Coalition in the UK was launched in response. Can you tell us about how the coalition came together? Who is involved? And what were the initial goals?
The events of 9/11, whatever your politics, were fairly shocking events. It was obviously going to be one of those moments, that’s going to really change the world.
As socialists in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) we saw the need to try and get a big meeting to get some sort of movement together. And we had actually a relatively big meeting of the SWP in London, just a few days after 9/11. The Scottish Socialist Party organised one of several hundred. But there were a lot of people on the left who said you couldn’t get a movement, it’s so bad. It’s such a terrible terrorist attack that you can’t really do anything, you can’t oppose these wars. But given the response we realized there’s more opposition to this war than you might think.
So we booked a very big hall in London. Got a number of speakers whom we built relationships with through the anti-globalization movement. Jeremy Corbyn spoke, George Monbiot spoke, Bruce Kent from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) spoke. And we were absolutely astonished that we got 2000 people at the first meeting. We had an overflow that was full, we had 500 people out in the street. Speakers had to keep coming out and address all these different meetings. So it’s a kind of chaotic meeting. But the vast majority of people there obviously agreed with the kind of analysis being put forward, that this wouldn’t stop terrorism, that it would make terrorism worse.
The following week we had 500 people out to our organizing meeting. It was a place where we hashed out the politics. And I remember one guy got up and said that you shouldn’t just have “stop the war” as the slogan, you should also be against attacks on civil liberties and against Islamophobia, because these are going to be consequences of this war. People agreed and that was voted on to add those demands. That was very important.
So that was really how it began. It brought together the usual left organizations, sections of the trade union movement, the peace campaigns and organizations. But also — and this was a new thing compared to previous wars — the Muslim community began to turn up in quite large numbers,which was a very important development.
What were some of the challenges the anti-war movement faced from the state, from the media, and from the political establishment, especially in the early days of building the movement?
There were lots and lots of challenges. The government was a Labour government. But whereas you might traditionally think that Labour will be less keen on war than the Tories, it was as enthusiastic for war as any other government. So you had Blair instantly saying, we support George Bush; going to Washington as soon as he could to support Bush; talking about humanitarian intervention, which was a big thing of Blair’s — going back to his Chicago speech in 1999 during the Kosovo War.
The media was incredibly gung-ho for war. And, of course, the British military was very keen for the war. They also all believed the Afghanistan invasion would be a very easy war, which of course, it was, in the sense that it was a total mismatch between the Western military and the Taliban’s military capacity. I remember John Simpson, who was the chief BBC foreign correspondent — by no means the worst of BBC reporters — actually got on a tank when it was going into Kabul in November 2001, and said, “This is victory.”
The media, the government and the military were all completely linked in their aims. It was hard to put an alternative argument and there was a lot of Islamophobia against Muslims in the immediate days after 9/11. But we found even right at the beginning, you could get an audience of people who are a minority of people, obviously, but who could see what was wrong with this war and could see it wasn’t going to solve any of the problems.
It wasn’t like some previous wars, such as the Falkland War, where you really felt that you were a tiny minority and that nobody really agreed with you outside the far left. That wasn’t the case this time, but you had to get out on the streets or into the trade unions to find it. You had to: it wasn’t there in the media or in mainstream politics. Very few MPs voted against the Afghanistan war. MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn, Tam Dalyell and Alice Mahon opposed the bombings. In total 17 voted against the war.
Can you talk a little about how the Stop the War Coalition took what might be latent anti-war sentiments, or at least skepticism about the war, and organized that into a mass movement? How did the Stop the War Coalition get a million people in the streets on February 15 2003? How did you move the needle on public opinion, win more support from Labour MPs, and win support in unions?
We had a very big demonstration, 50,000 to 80,000 people, in November 2001 against the Afghanistan war just as the war was ending. It was probably the biggest anti-war demo since Vietnam. But as that war was ending many people on the left thought that was it and the movement fragmented a little. But by March of 2002, we’d had Bush’s axis of evil speech, and we know that Blair promised Bush around that time that he was determined to go to war, and would support the war against Iraq come what may.
We knew by Spring/Summer of 2002 that Iraq was definitely a very major target for regime change, and we really built over the summer as people were really worried about an invasion of Iraq. Of course we know now that Donald Rumsfield, Paul Wolfowitz and others were keen to go into Iraq that day after 9/11.
We were holding lots of big meetings around the UK about the possible Iraq invasion. The Muslim community was coming out in big numbers and there was more stuff happening over Palestine. There was a big pro-Palestine demonstration in response to the Jenin massacre by the IDF in April. I spoke at the demonstration and Stop the War Coalition was able to build relationships with the Muslim community.
We have a number of meetings with the organizers of the Jenin protest. Can we have a joint meeting? Can we have a joint demo? Where it is possible to bring in the question of Palestine and the question of Iraq, we decided to do it, despite some difficulties and debate over slogans and the role of women in the movement. But we did get agreement and we organized a protest at the end of September, the day before the Labour Party conference to put pressure on Blair over Iraq. People always talk about February 15 as the biggest protest that we had. But in a way, the one in September was just as important in terms of building the movement. There must have been 300,000 to 400,000 people at that demonstration. We had lots of people from the Muslim community, lots of trade unionists; we had left trade union leaders speak at the demo and then went to the Labour Party conference to argue against intervention.
So from late September, right through to March, when the war began, it was nonstop. We had school students in the movement, we had a lot of support from the trade unions, we had a lot of support in the Muslim communities. We had big meetings in places like Bradford, and Preston, and in all the Lancaster towns. It just really took off everywhere. The other thing that was crucial was in November, there was the European Social Forum in Florence. We all went to that, and spoke at various rallies and about opposing war. There we had a series of planning meetings about having an international day of action. We debated having it on January 18, which is when some American organizations had planned a big protest, or February 15, which some argued would be too late.
We decided February 15, because it was hugely important in terms of getting more Europeans lined up. We had very big protests on February 15 in London, but the other biggest ones were in Italy and Spain.
After the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the justifications for the war soon fell apart. Can you talk a little about how, even though the war happened, the anti-war movement shifted the political landscape, and in many ways made it harder for people like George Bush to expand the war to places like Iran? What was the impact of the anti-war movement over the next couple of years, both abroad and at home?
One of the big problems for the government here and in the US was the basis on which they sold the war was found to be false very quickly. Very few Iraqis welcomed the invasion. There was resistance from day one from at least a section of the Iraqi population, which the US and UK didn’t expect. After a war starts, people polarize. The Lib Dems in this country immediately supported the war once it started, after having been opposed to it. Other people as well say there’s no point in doing anything. “We didn’t want the war to happen. But now it’s happened, we have to support the troops.”
Two things I think changed all of this. One was that the weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist. And that was a huge, huge problem for them. The second thing I think, was the increasing awareness of the brutality of the occupation, particularly the torture in Abu Ghraib, but also the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah and other daily acts of violence.
I think it was very important that we kept holding these people to account and obviously, you can’t do it at the level of 2003 forever. But I think it was very important that we did at least try to do this.
I’m sure that Blair thought that the war would make him popular. I’m not saying that was his first thought. But politicians think, as long as it doesn’t cost too much, in terms of human life, it’s something that will help them. And of course, that was exactly the opposite. We destroyed Blair. I mean Blair destroyed his own reputation. He can never shake off the Iraq question. And that’s a very big defeat for him really.
Part of the ruling class reassessment of the Iraq war is that some of the outcomes of the invasion were unforeseeable — that no one could have known what was going to happen. But almost everything that the anti-war movement said was gonna happen had happened. In 2016 the Chilcot report came out. Can you just talk a little about what was in that report and why it was significant?
I think what Chilcot did, despite it being incredibly staged and managed, was to say that the war wasn’t justified, that the threat of weapons of mass destruction was false, and effectively that people had been misled — if not lied to — by Blair, Alastair Campbell and others. It did have the effect of obviously vindicating a whole range of people, the military families, the anti-war movement itself, the ex-soldiers who’ve been involved in things.
On the day that Chilcot came out, Jeremy Corbyn, then the Labour leader, held a public event where he apologized for Labour’s involvement in the Iraq War, which was very important. But at the same time Blair was holding a press conference where he was justifying himself, saying he would do it all again.
Blair was totally discredited by the war. But there were also big implications for British imperialism. Britain was driven out of southern Iraq by the resistance of the Iraqi people. The shine of British imperialism has certainly been diminished.
The Stop the War Coalition has played an active role in opposing the bombing of Libya, as well as opposing the various attempts to bomb Syria or to escalate that war. Can you talk a little more about how the Stop the War Coalition has continued its organizing efforts?
The Stop the War Coalition has always taken a position on a range of wars connected to the war on terror. For example, we opposed the war on Lebanon in 2006. We had very, very big demonstrations over that.
The Arab Spring presented all sorts of complexities. You had uprisings against a series of dictators and people you would be quite happy to see overthrown. The problem, I think, with both Libya and Syria was that it’s absolutely clear that the Western powers were going in for regime change. They succeeded very quickly in getting regime change in Libya, but at a terrible cost. Libya is a total disaster today. In Syria, I think one of the problems we had was actually that the left itself was quite divided over the question. Some people, some people on the left, were in favor of humanitarian intervention. Some people who were totally uncritical of Assad. There were other people who were totally critical of them and believe that any Western intervention would be the right thing to do. When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of Labour in 2015, he was heckled repeatedly at meetings by those advocating for intervention in Syria.
In the case of Syria it was clear that the more democratic and socialist and left wing elements within resistance were very quickly superseded by groups that were dominated by extreme jihadism. And these elements were backed by the Saudis and the various Gulf states and were effectively backed by Britain and the US as well. Because you had Russia intervening this further complicated it, you have people who said, “well, that’s great. Russia’s helping to fight jihadism.” Others said that this meant you have to totally support any kind of Western intervention. The day that Russia started bombing in Syria, we put out a statement condemning the bombing and condemning the intervention.
When David Cameron was Prime Minister, he tried to get support for an intervention in Syria. And I think, largely because of our kind of campaigning, the then-leader of Labour, Ed Miliband, decided no, he wasn’t going to support it. And actually Cameron couldn’t get support in the House of Commons. And therefore Obama couldn’t then intervene. I regard that as an important victory for the anti-war movement.
We took a position which was that we’re perfectly prepared to be critical of these governments and dictators but we don’t believe any kind of intervention is justified. And that was quite an unpopular position but I think it’s been completely vindicated.
You mentioned Jeremy Corbyn. He was the chair of the Stop the War Coalition. Could you talk a little about how the Stop the War Coalition laid the basis and helped create the conditions for the rise of Corbyn in the Labour Party? And also what was the role of the Stop the War Coalition once Corbyn was the leader of the Labour Party?
Jeremy was chair of Stop the War for a few years, and only stopped being chair when he became leader of the Labour Party. He was absolutely central to it. Our offices are in the same building as his constituency office in Islington.
I’ve always thought central to him becoming leader and central to his popularity was his stand over the war in Iraq and his support for Palestine (and other various anti-imperialist struggles). It singled him out as somebody who wasn’t just good on domestic issues, which is what the Labour left likes to concentrate on. He was very good on these international issues. This really annoyed the British ruling class, the media, everybody, you know, they can stand people saying we should nationalize the railways or should we put more money into healthcare. But they do not like British imperialism being challenged.
At its heart, Labour is a divided party: it has a left, many of whom are good on the questions of Palestine, anti-imperialism and so on. But it has a right wing, which is completely supportive of the army of the military of everything that is identified with imperialism.
The whole question of anti-semitism in Labour, which was really about support for Palestine, become an absolutely defining question in Labour to its to its great shame. It was used to attack Corbyn’s leadership to try to brand him as a racist and anti-semtic because he stood up for the rights of Palestinians. It’s an incredible thing, really, when somebody who has a long record of anti-racism is attacked like this. Nobody talks about anti-semitism in Labour now that Corbyn isn’t the leader. I mean, presumably, if it were such a huge problem, there would still be lots of those people around. But it obviously was something that was used as a means to attack the left. Anti-semitism existed, yes, but it was very isolated in a very large party. The IHRA definition of anti-semitism was used to attack Corbyn and the Labour left. It was a wedge issue. The other wedge issue, was of course, the Brexit question.
Corbyn apologized for the Iraq War, stood up for all sorts of groups of people supporting the Palestinians — it was a tremendous development in terms of Labour. It was something the Labour right really wanted to root out. And of course, he still is suspended from Labour where, you know, he can’t sit as a Labour MP in the next election. They’re already lining up to further destroy him and destroy the ideas he stands for in the Labour Party, which is more important, obviously, the ideas about Palestine solidarity.
The reaction inside the Labour Party seems to have escalated with Starmer’s leadership. Activists are being kicked out and Corbyn’s membership is suspended. Support for the Palestinian cause inside the Labour Party is going backwards at the same time there is a blossoming of Palestinian solidarity movement in the UK and globally.
The one thing that’s begun to roll back the Labour right’s attack on Palestinian solidarity were the very big Palestine demonstrations — in London in particular, but around the country. People from all over the country are very committed to it, and even in quite small places.
It was encouraging to see the Palestinians themselves were so united, it wasn’t just the West Bank, or Gaza, or Jerusalem, or the Palestinians within Israel, it was all of them coming together. And that was a big development.
The Palestine solidarity campaign, which the Stop the War Coalition works closely with, succeeded in getting large numbers of people mobilized, and just a tremendous sort of sense that people were moving. I went to one of the poorest bits of East London, just after some of the big demos, and they were having local demos where all the kids would come out where they’d have their own little sound system just in a market. And it was all the women who were organizing it. It was a very big moment, and I think we’ve played a big role in it.
I think one of the things the Stop the War Coalition has done is that whether it’s Palestine, or Islamophobia, or civil liberties — we try to relate to what people are looking at if there isn’t a big war going on. I think we’ve always had a very political approach. And of course, one reasons is a lot of the leadership of the Stop the War has always been anti-imperialist. It is not that we just don’t like wars. We realize wars aren’t just an aberration, wars happen for a reason. Anti-imperialists have a range of different analyses about imperialism itself, whether China or Russia and other countries are imperialist, and so on. But we’ve managed to kind of get that basic idea across to quite a wide section of the population, so people do understand that war isn’t just accidental. It has to do with strategy, with economics and with what the West wants to do and who its rivals are and so on. And that’s very important.
Could you talk about the role of organized socialists in building and maintaining the Stop the War Coalition and why having a socialist perspective about imperialism, about building a united front, about strategy and tactics, helped build the movement?
In Britain we could have had three anti-war movements: you could have the socialist and left anti-war movement, you could have had a traditional pacifist anti-war movement, where the CND comes from, and you could have had the Muslim anti-war movement. The fact we brought all those three together, which took some effort and still takes effort to maintain, was extremely important.
So seeing it as a broad thing, and the united front is very, very important for it. But then, as you say, socialists are also incredibly important to the whole process, partly because we do understand the nature of capitalism itself. It’s not about male militarism. It’s not just about bad leaders. It’s not just about any of these things, it goes much deeper. It is about the whole way in which the system is structured and how that is very closely tied to war. The whole neoliberal period has seen more wars than any time since the Second World War.
Socialists see imperialism is linked to capitalism, and therefore you’ve got to try to overthrow capitalism. You also look at the contradictions of the going on with the countries involved. We’re seeing America is still the major superpower, but it’s a declining economic power, and its military power is much higher than its economic power. But nonetheless, it’s declining. We know China is growing economically and is putting a massive amount of resources into bolstering its military strength. There is also a whole number of what are sometimes called regional imperialist, or sub-imperialist, powers, really heavily armed compared to what they were like 30 years ago — most obviously, Saudi Arabia. Germany and Japan, growing up, were viewed as the defeated powers in the Second World War weren’t allowed to have nuclear weapons and weren’t allowed to rearm for a time. But we look at them now, they are major, major military powers.
So you look at all these different kinds of contradictions, particularly being here in Britain. The latest defeat in Afghanistan is telling. It’s absolutely obvious once Biden made the decision to go, the British couldn’t even organize an independent evacuation from Kabul. It exposed Britain. In the UK there is always talk about the special relationship between the UK and the US. There was no special relationship over Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not only that, it’s kind of cut them off at the knees, because what it shows is that, really, America doesn’t need Britain at all militarily. And that’s a huge blow for British prestige, particularly at a time when it’s just left Europe and therefore can’t be part of the European army or military force. And that’s why you’ve had Blair being absolutely rude about Biden. And it is why John Major, who was the Prime Minister before Blair, laid into the Americans at a Financial Times event just the other weekend.
The British ruling class dresses this up as caring for the Afghan but we know what this is about. They care about being seen as an important player. They are worried about being irrelevant, losing permanency on the UN Security Council. If the UK loses Trident, what’s the point of having Britain on the Security Council? There isn’t any. And they’re worried that if Scotland goes independent that is a real possibility. This has all cut Britain down to size. The level of hysteria amongst the parliamentary discussion and media folks over the Afghanistan withdrawal is quite high.
What does that end of the US withdrawal and the speedy collapse of the Afghan government say about the project of liberal intervention? What does it say about US, UK, and Western imperialism’s relative position in the world?
Biden’s speech last week makes it very explicit. This withdrawal from Afghanistan isn’t just about Afghanistan. We can no longer remake countries in the way that we want. In other words, humanitarian intervention is over.
I think this is quite a turning point. We’ve come to the end of an era from 9/11. Really, in terms of what they’re going to do now, what they will do next. We know that with Obama, Trump and Biden, there has been a ramping up of a new cold war with China. But it’s not going to be the kind of opponent that they faced anywhere in the last 20 years. China is a huge economic and military power. There’s obviously tension still over the Middle East, particularly with Iran and Israel. And there’s still the continuing, kind of old, new cold war with Russia, which kind of reasserts itself now and again.
I think we’re not seeing the end of Cold War tensions. What we’re seeing is a defeat for US imperialism and Western imperialism. Generally, I think we’re seeing a particular problem for the British. But these tensions are going to continue. We still have a situation where there are many, many flashpoints in the in the world where you can, and we know from accidents, and we know from missteps, that can happen — you can get all sorts of conflicts that blow up, you also get conflicts which blow up like the Israel-Palestine conflict blew up earlier this summer.
Imperialism is absolutely central to the world in which we live. However, I think that we can say that the War on Terror itself has been an abject failure, really, and that does at least mean that imperialism has to recalibrate. And I think when you look at why it’s a failure, you obviously have to give the people in the particular countries involved credit for standing up to imperialism. But I also think anti-war movements and anti-war opinion and in countries like Canada, Britain and elsewhere have played a huge role in making this happen.
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