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|London protest: ‘We still hope to sway people. To stop this war snowballing’
By Marcus Tanner 23 March 2003
They said the mood would be bitter this time round and that there would be more “anger”, since last month’s monster anti-war protest in London had so visibly failed to stop the military juggernaut in its tracks.
But amid the forest of righteous placards wending their way down the Embankment yesterday there were ample signs that a distinctive British sense of humour was still bubbling away amid the gloom. “Vive la France” read one placard. “I wish I was French!” read another. “Support our troops,” one woman called out, echoing the words of her own homemade placard, “bring them home!” “We all live in a terrorist regime,” one group sang to the tune of “Yellow Submarine”.
The alarmist talk about “Saddam’s friends”, the phalanx of more than 3,000 police, the buzzing of helicopters in the skies above London all seemed curiously inappropriate to this rallying of alienated and disappointed Blair-istas. Outside Temple station an elderly woman — navy skirt, bouffant blonde hair, pink scarf and a cascade of pearls — struggled with her oversized placard. “Oh my God, am I too late?” she called out, kneeling on the pavement as she tried to tape her collapsing board (slogan: “Bush is an assassin”) back together. One of the Underground staff knelt down to help her. “No dear, you’ve got ages,” she said, looking up to wink broadly at the crowd.
There have been many attempts to paint the protesters at the Stop the War march as an unlovely alliance of the militant and the merely naive. They are “Saddam’s friends” and either enemies or traitors, to “our boys”. But this was a very British demonstration, not so much militant as plain shocked, hurt even.
Among the veterans of these affairs, the lean, ferrety-faced men with their megaphone voices and mass-produced slogans about socialism and Palestine, there were droves of representatives from that famous if elusive constituency known as Middle England — worried-looking families wrestling with the business of carrying a placard in one hand and a rolled-up “quality” newspaper under one arm, while keeping pushchairs and toddlers in order. Almost everyone was talking into smart mobiles. (“Where are you? I’m by the boat – the BOAT, silly!”)
And amid it all, London went about its business — joggers steaming past the coaches from Norwich and South-end with barely a backward glance, tourists snaking their way round the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral and queuing for the pleasure boats.
Of course the numbers were bound to be down from last time, when 700,000 or two million — take your pick — thronged the streets, when there still seemed a chance of stopping the military onslaught before it began. And of course there was a mood of greater resignation. What was the point of shouting “stop the war” when it has not only started but the Americans are halfway to Baghdad?
“I don’t think that much can be achieved,” said Kath Gordon, who had come up from Kent with her husband and daughter Jill, aged 20. “He’s not listening to the people,” she added. (We all knew who “he” was.) “We voted for him,” Kath said. “But not again. It’s Kennedy next time.” What did they hope to achieve this time round? “We still hope to sway people. If we can do that, all well and good.” “This could snowball into World War Three,” added Jill.
By mid-afternoon, it was clear that even if numbers might not match the last protest they could still muster a good few hundred thousand.
Organisers pointed out that they had had precious little time to organise anything, and that the huge rally in February was the fruit of several months of planning and booking. But it was still very much a nationwide event, with plenty of banners from Leeds, Southend and Norwich as well as America. “I guess it won’t change anything,” said Julia Klark, a student from Chicago, “but we still want to show there are lots of Americans against the war.” There were lots of children, too, a sign that the whole kids-against-the-war phenomenon might be with us for a while.
Need Blair have trembled? Certainly it was not a crowd that seemed about to storm the Winter Palace. At the end of the day, most placards would be folded, rubbish put in bins and protesters would resume their seats on buses and trains back to quiet country towns.
Yet there was a pervasive feeling among the crowd that promises had been broken and faith not kept. They may not take their revenge tomorrow and they will surely not now stop the war. But the after-effects of the rally may well make themselves felt when the army of responsible citizens that marched yesterday in London next have the opportunity to voice their opinions in a polling station.
In another development, Foreign Office sources have privately confirmed that one of their most experienced civil servants, Elizabeth Wilmhurst — a legal adviser to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw — has resigned amid disagreement over the legality of a war without UN backing.
Ms Wilmhurst worked at the Foreign Office for 30 years, including acting as adviser to the previous Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who resigned from the Cabinet last week.
The departure of Elizabeth Wilmhurst, deputy legal officer since 1997 at the Foreign Office, will embarrass the Government, since Tony Blair has repeatedly argued that armed intervention by American and British Forces was justified under international law.
Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, has reassured the Cabinet that legal cover is provided by the UN resolution 1441 passed four months ago. But his interpretation has been disputed by many eminent lawyers.
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