ESTIMATING the size of a demonstration is an art.
The police, for reasons best known to themselves, don't pay it much attention. After the day was over, we heard that the Strathclyde force had come up with a figure of 30,000 in attendance. Someone wished them luck in calculating the overtime bill if that was their idea of arithmetic.
Certain of the press reports made a better stab at the job. A total of 50,000 marchers soon became the consensus. This seemed to be arrived at, however, by estimating roughly a crow's likely path along the Clyde from the vicinity of Glasgow Green to the SECC. On February 15 a decade ago nothing so straightforward was allowed.
Out of the Green, the Saltmarket, High Street, Ingram Street, on to Montrose Street, on to Cochrane Street, past George Square, along the great trek of St Vincent Street, left into Finnieston Street, then Congress Way, then the SECC's delightful car parks. Anyone who says that's a mere two miles on foot was wearing spring-heeled boots.
The 15th was bright, clear and damnably cold. This was bad news as soon as the numbers gathering became apparent. The key to any march in winter, if you must indulge, is to keep moving. For a lot of those present, young and old, there was no such luck. Many people were at the SECC while we were still enjoying Ingram Street. On the plus side, we missed a lot of speeches.
The speaker we had wanted to catch, 100,000 and better of us, was Tony Blair. He was due at the SECC for a Labour conference. The party, having first tried to deny the demonstration public address facilities and the like, rescheduled his speech. Making another of his tough choices, and with his usual fortitude, Mr Blair was out of town while the march was still on the road.
Whether London was a better destination that day is a moot point. The Glasgow demonstration was a big deal for a small country, but it could not compete with certain other cities. The English capital probably saw a million people on its streets; Madrid was swamped by a million and a half; in Rome the crowds were put at three million. Around the world, in hundreds of towns and cities, anywhere between six and 30 million protested. However you regard the estimates, "vast" is a useful word.
Iraq, of course. Like a lot of people, I had been writing about the impending war for what seemed like a long time. Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors had found no trace of the WMD that Mr Blair and George Bush "knew" to exist. No possible version of international law – Saddam Hussein waging war, giving plausible evidence of intent to wage war, a UN sanction for intervention – justified an attack. The Iraqi dictator had been kept in his box. And what would happen to him, I remember writing, if he dared use his supposedly devilish weapons?
If allied concern for his people had been uppermost, meanwhile, the gassing of Iraqi Kurds, fighters and civilians, at Halabja in 1988 would have justified involvement. Hundreds of Kurdish villages were then levelled in a paradigmatic example of ethnic cleansing. Later that year, nevertheless, George Bush senior was lending a billion dollars to Iraq and exercising his veto over a congressional resolution calling for sanctions. Saddam had not yet become the enemy of choice.
It's all history now, but none of it was a secret at the time. When the bombing of Iraq began on March 19, 2003, ordinary people around the world had choices. They could believe what they were being told by Mr Bush and Mr Blair, or protest against a war founded on lies. They could tell themselves that Saddam was sufficiently vile as to justify any pretext, or remind themselves that deceit and abuse of international law also have toxic effects. Glasgow was one sign of the conclusions drawn.
Talking on the BBC's Newsnight almost a fortnight ago, Mr Blair admitted that Iraq still has "big problems" a decade after the war. The hundreds of thousands dead, 179 British soldiers among them, counted as a "very, very high" price for the removal of Saddam, he said. But the former Prime Minister continued to insist that Iraq, still a hotbed of sectarian killing, is better off in the absence of the dictator given the possible "consequences" of his survival. In other words, what happened is justified, even yet, by what might have been.
No-one now expects Mr Blair to admit he was wrong, or criminal, or so slavishly devoted to America's interests that he ignored 159 of his own MPs when they were given the chance to vote. It is striking, though, that no sooner had he spoken to the BBC than Foreign Secretary William Hague was drafting a confidential letter to all members of the present Cabinet telling them not to discuss the case for war, or discuss publicly the legality of Britain's actions. We have different governments, but one state.
That was one topic of conversation all those years ago, as I remember, on the road to the SECC. Once you had stopped being impressed by the scale of the demonstration, the usual British conclusion followed: it wouldn't change anything. Perhaps I'm cynical about the power of protest. It seemed obvious, nevertheless, that Mr Bush, Mr Blair and the rest were so entirely hell-bent on their war that democratic dissent on a global scale would not deter them even slightly.
Did that make the politicians wrong? They had their mandates. An ICM poll on February 16, 2003, found only 29% of British voters in favour of war, with 52% against, but no real politician runs his government because of opinion polling. Besides, there is a familiar "my country right or wrong" effect when the shooting starts.
On March 20, one day after the bombing began, YouGov found 53% supporting the war, with 39% against. At which moment was Mr Blair right, by that measure, and at which was he wrong? The polls would not turn decisively against him again until May of 2004.
Still, at the moment of choice, when Britain could have withdrawn from America's war, Mr Blair chose to ignore the people's will. We might have no tradition of governments being forced out by street protests. We do have an equivalent habit among politicians of ignoring any popular feeling that does not suit their book. They would probably argue that only the ballot box and votes in the Commons should count. What Iraq demonstrated is that this allows them to spend years on end doing as they please (dishonesty optional).
Much of what we were told about Iraq turned out to be a pack of half-truths and plain lies. If Mr Blair was righteous and right, as he yet maintains, why was honesty superfluous? We have learned since – again, no surprise – that such behaviour has no consequences for the likes of him. Checks and balances cease to function. Democracy is abused in democracy's name and there is no democratic means to do a thing about it.
Small wonder it felt like a chilly day on Glasgow Green. Many of those thousands would march again, no doubt, if they felt the same need and anger. How many would do so in the honest belief that their protests would make any kind of difference?
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