A slow, dense river of bodies flowed north from Blackfriars Bridge; another snaked its way south through Bloomsbury. They met at Piccadilly Circus. For four hours a tidal swell of placards, banners and flags flooded past the Ritz Hotel, DeBeers diamond showrooms and the Royal Academy towards the rally in Hyde Park. A million people, at least, and the organizers claim near 2 million. Clearly it was Britain’s biggest political rally ever – on this, everyone agrees.
The issue of Iraq is hot in Britain, and getting hotter. The anti-war movement has been gathering momentum for months. Yesterday it found its voice. Whether or not to launch a war to disarm Iraq -- and possibly rid the world of Saddam Hussein – threatens the leadership of Tony Blair like nothing else has since his election six years ago.
Today, Blair finds himself perilously short of goodwill and reliable allies. He faces major battles in Europe, at the United Nations, in NATO, perhaps above all among disaffected activists of his own “New” Labour Party. Only hours before yesterday’s march, Blair assured a party audience in Scotland: “I do not seek unpopularity as some kind of badge of honor. But sometimes it is the price of leadership, the cost of conviction.” Increasingly Tony Blair’s spokesmen are speaking gravely of the prime minister’s “moral certitude.”
I continued my walk with Harriet Martin, the U.S.-born Quaker. "My own reasons for being here are endless," she told me. "I don't believe Iraq has stocks of weapons of mass destruction. I think if this war happens it will provoke more terrorism in the world because people will become so disaffected and angry." I ask whether she feels 9/11 has revived the demonizing of Saddam and propelled Iraq back up the U.S. foreign policy agenda. "I think Bush declared a war and then had difficulty finding an enemy," she says. "Saddam Hussein was left over from 11 years ago and could be tied in ... with a bit of difficulty." We were drowned out by a deafening wave of sound -- a spine-chilling swell of noise echoing off the four-story facades of Gower Street that swept over us and back into the Euston Road.
The "leftover" and further demonized Saddam is, however, the most persuasive recruiting sergeant for Tony Blair and the advocates of "serious consequences" if Iraq fails to comply with U.N. demands. I found no faint apologists, let alone defenders of him or his regime among any of the marchers.
At the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, gateway to London's theatreland, two youthful retirees from the midlands city of Leicester, Julian and Pat Pollock, are happy to damn Saddam from every angle. "We know he's a bastard," says Pat, "but we have no right to change another country's leader. And there are plenty of others as bad, like Mugabe, so why him? Why Saddam?" I play devil's advocate: Perhaps because Saddam has murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people, invaded one neighbor, waged an extraordinarily bloody war on another, caused the death of more than a million people in the process and gassed the Kurds, I ventured. (To say nothing of the acid baths.)
"He's utterly appalling, I agree with you," says Pat, "but this is about the means, not whether it's justified to kill him. It's who else you take out in the process." I asked if she would support a covert assassination of Saddam? "No, no, no," said Pat. "I'd support going in to bring him out." Pat used to be a social services manager. Her husband ran a small agricultural business. "I might well support a covert assassination," he says, smiling. His wife laughs and lights up a Marlboro Light.
In response to this week's Franco-German veto of plans to send Patriot missiles and AWACs to defend Turkey from Iraqi missiles, sections of the British press launched searing attacks on European hypocrisy. "MONSTROU.S. INGRATITUDE" thundered the Daily Mail's front page on Tuesday; over a moody sepia print of U.S. soldiers on Omaha Beach in 1944, a strap-line detailed the cost of defending Europe in U.S. lives over half a century. Rupert Murdoch's Sun, never slow to take a pop at Johnny Frog, called the Chirac-Schröder plan "cynical and shameless opportunism." The London Evening Standard ran a trenchant feature: "The Selfish Men Wrecking NATO."
Not far from the Ministry of Defence, in Whitehall, Mike Mortimer, a retired motor trader from Surrey has a different view: "I don't think America came into World War II only to rescue us. They had their own reasons -- Pearl Harbor being a major one." Fair point. He adds: "But for Blair I don't think oil is the whole story. I'm sure he does believe that Iraq is a threat to world peace."
And if we had to choose between the U.S. and Europe? Not now, not next year, but in 20 years perhaps? "I really hope we don't have to choose," says Harriet Martin, the Anglo-American Quaker from Birmingham. "I consider myself a citizen of the world rather than of any one country. But I suspect that if Britain did have to choose, it would go across the Atlantic, because of the cultural ties."
As dusk falls on this bitter Saturday afternoon, I lock my bicycle at the end of Piccadilly in the shadow of the Boedica, the ancient British warrior-queen carved in stone thrashing the stallions that draw her powerful chariot. I wandered into the park. Like hundreds of thousands of the marchers, I'd missed the speeches. But it didn't seem to matter. I'd been listening to most of the speakers for at least 20 years, since I was a student and attended Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rallies in the early 1980s (as we all did). Sister Dynamite had strutted her finale and the stage was being struck. Here and there groups gathered around small fires warming their hands and feet around pyres made of used placards. Mission accomplished.
Would it make any difference? Would Tony Blair hear the roar of the crowd?
"He's gone up to Scotland today so he's not even here", says Ryan, an illustrator from the city of Sheffield. "But there's a good feeling here. Lots of peace, lots of love. People are smiling and happy. That must have good connotations."
From a neighboring pyre a cheer goes up; I looked round. Flames were consuming a bulky papier maché effigy of Bush and Blair painted blue and red. I strolled back to a girl called Hylie, a finance worker who says she is Iranian by birth. "So do you think this will make any difference?" I ask. "So many people turned up it must mean something," she smiles. "But I don't suppose it will. In the end the governments do what they want." And Tony Blair? "He's a puppet of the Americans. But they're puppets too, aren't they? In the White House they're all Jewish. This is all being done for Israel."
I headed back to my bicycle. The uphill ride home was chilling. I reflected ruefully that in one respect, I had surely failed. There are several hundred thousand Iraqis living in Britain. I'd kept a sharp eye out, but didn't find a single one all day. Could they all be political dissidents? Later at home, on the 9 p.m. radio news, I learned that one BBC reporter had fared better. She had found an Iraqi citizen, a young woman living in London who had turned up to berate the marchers. "Everyone here is wrong," she said. "Everyone in Iraq wants to get rid of Saddam, but they are realistic enough to know they cannot do it themselves."
But on Saturday in London, it was a million and a half voices against one lone voice.