The seismic shifts in public opinion rocking Tony Blair’s administration again shook Whitehall on Saturday, as up to 100,000 anti-war protesters paraded through London calling for the prime minister to resign.
The suspended Labour MP and anti-war campaigner George Galloway summed up the mood of the demonstrators when he told Aljazeera.net: “Britain is on the march here today, and I believe Tony Blair is on his way out.”
With new opinion polls indicating that more than half the British public - and a quarter of backbench Labour MPs - now want Blair to resign immediately, the storm clouds are gathering ahead of the Labour party’s Bournemouth conference next week.
“Tony Blair should be forced to resign and pay for his crimes,” said Talaat, who had travelled more than 300km from Drumfield, near Sheffield to attend the protest.
“Our hearts go out to our Iraqi brothers and sisters,” her friend, Mumtaz chipped in. “We pray that Insha Allah their sacrifices will be rewarded.”
Voices of protest
This was the fifth protest by the Stop the War Coalition in just 12 months and as with previous marches, demonstrators from all walks of life took part.
Rainbow flag-waving Liberal Democrats joined hands with whistle blowing Iraqi Communists as they clapped and shouted their way from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square.
One woman wearing fly wings on her back waved a banner reading, "War kills animals too: Don’t destroy my habitat!" Another man carried a brown piece of cardboard on which he’d simply scrawled: "I feel ashamed to be British."
Deborah Fink, 36, from Jews for Justice for Palestinians said that the decision to call the demonstration on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was "insensitive" but she was marching in solidarity with Palestinians anyway.
“This protest is the beginning of a campaign for a demonstration against Bush’s visit that will be really huge”
Stop the War Coalition
“I’m marching as a Jew because Ariel Sharon continues to commit crimes in my name, so it’s my duty to speak out against it,” she said.
Inevitably though, many of the angriest voices on the demo belonged to people who came from Iraq and Palestine.
Muhammad, a student from Ram Allah said, “If the UK government continues to support the US and Israel, then you have to understand that you will pay a price sooner or later. We Muslims do not feel safe in this country anymore and Britons will come to feel the same way when they visit our countries.”
Gona Saed, 34 from Sulamaneiya in northern Iraq said she had come to the protest because of the lack of security for women in her homeland.
“Four hundred women have been kidnapped in Baghdad since the war,” she said. "How can the US protect us when they can’t even protect the United Nations?”
“I’m marching so that my family in Iraq can see that they are being supported by thousands of people here, who know how they are suffering.”
The numbers game
As usual, the question of how many thousands were marching was a moot point.
John Rees of the Stop the War Coalition’s national committee told Aljazeera.net that over 100,000 people had taken part. But the Metropolitan Police said that just 20,000 had been present. Activists claim the police routinely underestimate their numbers.
The march reflected growing
opposition to Blair
However, the numbers game on such occasions, belies a deeper debate within the anti-war camp about the most effective way to protest
Some argue that a focus on building national demonstrations, instead of organising non-violent civil disobedience has held the movement back.
Asad Rehman, a Stop the War Coalition officer said the failure to organise such direct action during the war in April had been “a strategic problem”. But he defended the coalition’s record.
“Irrespective of what happened in this country, Tony Blair had decided he would support the war, UN vote or no UN vote, parliamentary backing or no parliamentary backing,” he said.
“What we achieved in getting two million people onto the streets on 15 February was amazing, and unprecedented. We may not have been able to stop the war in Iraq but we dealt a serious blow to Tony Blair.”
Certainly, Blair's ‘honest kind of a guy’ image that once worked so strongly in his favour, now appears to be a liability, particularly among the media-savvy young.
“Tony Blair just goes along with everything that George Bush says,” complained Jasmine, a 20-year-old from Manchester.
“Everyone I know back home wants him to resign. I’d like Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, to replace him, but only because he’s the best of a bad bunch.”
Whatever manoeuvres are launched against Blair within the Labour party next week, the Stop the War Coalition is hoping that the mood of discontent peaks during a three-day visit to London by President Bush in November.
“This protest is the beginning of a campaign for a demonstration against Bush’s visit that will be really huge,” John Rees said.
The political seismologists in Number 10 may well be put on alert. For according to George Galloway, “it will be the biggest political festival this country has ever seen.”