Anti-war demonstration, February 15 2003: The day that made history

Anti-war demo 15 Feb 2003, photo Molly Cooper

Anti-war demo 15 Feb 2003, photo Molly Cooper

BRITAIN HAS never seen anything like it. Up to two million people flooding the streets of central London in a massive sea of anti-war protest.

Hundreds of thousands were on their first ever demonstration and it was a day that nobody will forget. As demonstrators converged on London they were strengthened by knowing that they were part of a worldwide movement with millions more making their voices heard across the globe.

Taking over the streets

DROP BLAIR Not Bombs, Pay the Firefighters Not the Firestarters: front and back of a home-made placard. Youth against the war, demonstrating for the first time.

Manny Thain

Gower Street runs North/South from Euston to London’s West End. From 11.30am to 3.30 pm waves of humanity washed down the street. Londoners got there first, followed by contingents from Walsall, West Bromwich, Birmingham, Nottingham, Peterborough, Merseyside, Yorkshire and Gloucester – to name but a handful.

Yet Gower Street was only the official assembly point. Tens of thousands of protesters tried to take short cuts to Hyde Park. So parallel streets, too, thronged with the anti-war beat. Tottenham Court Road, which runs parallel to Gower, became another feeder march. In effect, the whole of the West End was taken over. Police looked worried at times, so used to walking by the sides of demonstrations, keeping everything ‘in order’. But there was no room for them on Saturday as protesters filled the roads and pavements.

It was hard to believe that as thousands were streaming through these streets a similar scene was taking place at the Embankment.

People in the flats overlooking the march blasted out protest songs on their sound systems, waving banners, cheering the protest on. Young people eagerly agreed with the Youth Against the War call for a walkout on 7 March and on the day war breaks out – assuming Bush and Blair continue on the warpath.

Blair has failed to convince people that war against Iraq is ‘just’. People from all walks of life in Britain understand that this is a war for oil and US domination. Anger at Blair’s domestic policies is fuelling this mood. This must now be turned into more resolute action, such as workplace, college and school walkouts.

Cheers for system change

HYDE PARK became the scene of one of history’s biggest ever open-air meetings last Saturday. Hundreds of thousands of people were packed together to make a human central heating system that kept out the biting cold.

Ken Smith, Stop The War Coalition national steering committee

Apart from Ms Dynamite, the best responses of the day were to speakers who came from the Left.

Former Labour Cabinet minister Mo Mowlam and Liberal-Democrat leader Charles Kennedy were initially warmly applauded but by the time they concluded their speeches the applause was more polite than enthusiastic.

When Mo Mowlam concluded her speech by using Labour’s old campaign slogan, “things can only get better”, there was derisory laughter.

In contrast, all the speakers from the Left spoke passionately and carried the crowd with them. Tariq Ali was loudly cheered when he said: “We want regime change in Britain. Bring Down Blair!” RMT railworkers’ union leader Bob Crow also got loud cheers for his call for workers to take action on Day X, the day the war starts.

Tony Benn got a huge response when he said that the march was the foundation of a new political movement, the first ever simultaneous global demonstration.

Although this march was against the threat of war he said, it was also about the establishment of a Palestinian state, for democracy in the Middle East, democracy in Britain and redistributing wealth from the 500 billionaires who control the planet’s resources.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, made it clear that even if the US were to corruptly cobble together support for a second UN resolution, this war would still be wrong and we would still oppose it.

This got a much bigger cheer than anything that Charles Kennedy had said about going through the UN. He concluded to rousing applause when he said he wanted to see a world free from poverty, injustice and war and that the system had to be changed to achieve that.

Billy Hayes, leader of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), said the TUC should fully back the Stop The War coalition and warned New Labour that the unions who are currently funding Labour were fed up with being ignored. And if Blair persisted with his drive to war then the unions would fight to get a government that was going to end the war.

Left-wing MP George Galloway said to laughter and cheers:

“We don’t want Blair’s government playing Mini-Me to the Dr Evils of the Bush regime. We do not intend to continue with a prime minister who acts as the Governor of the 51st state of the USA.”

To enthusiastic applause, he gave a powerful warning to Tony Blair in his conclusion: “If he takes Britain over the cliff and into war, he will break the Labour Party he is supposed to lead. Some of us are prepared to pick it up and rebuild it out of the wreckage as a real Labour Party”.

Feb 15 – Socialism on the march

HUNDREDS OF Socialist Party members took part in the demonstration, selling The Socialist and staffing stalls along the route. Here are some of their impressions of this historic event.

On the coaches

“Our new Taunton Socialist Party branch organised two coaches for the demo. The Saturday before the demo our stall was inundated with people of all ages, sexes and nationalities wanting to sign the petitions, book tickets for the coach and buy our papers. It was amazing how many young people came. We sold 38 copies of The Socialist and our picture was in the Guardian with placards and red flag – you can see it on our website. Steve Bush and Dave Moody

The arrival

People arrived in London and the streets began to overflow. Andy Tullis and Rob MacDonald who were at Waterloo Station report:

“Four Lambeth Socialist Party members sold 250 copies of The Socialist from 8.15 until 2pm as people came straight off the train. It was constant, and we worked hard. We asked them all if they were interested in buying. We signed up several people to join the party. It was a magnificent demo. It’s a once in a lifetime, isn’t it?

Gower Street

“The northern arm of the march overflowed from Gower Street,” reported Annoesjka from the Hackney stall at Euston.

“We sold over 100 papers as people flooded into Euston Road. The police were forced to close it as buses got stranded in the mass of people. There was such anger. Someone said ‘I’ve not been on a demo for twenty years.’ Many said it was their first demo. People are being politicised by this. Gower Street filled up and people flooded up Gordon Street (which runs parallel).

“On the megaphone we were saying ‘Come to our stall and get the socialist alternative to war and terror. Buy The Socialist.’ They were queuing up to sign the petition and everyone wanted our posters. We had arrived early and put our posters up on all the lampposts, but people were tearing them down and using them as placards.”


Lionel Wright was our best seller on the demo, selling 211 papers outside Embankment tube. He told us:

“I started from 9.45. I was actually putting the paper in people’s hand and saying ‘Do you want a copy of The Socialist?’ They would ask ‘Is it free?’ And I’d say, ‘BP don’t advertise in our paper! We have to cover our costs. We’re putting the socialist alternative to this war.’

“The truth is I’m not the newest member by far but the size of the demo really inspired me: I knew that hundreds of thousands were attending their first demo, so I really tried to get as many people as possible to read The Socialist, as well as getting potential members.”

On the march

The march set off early. Alec Thraves reports:

“As we approached Parliament Square, Wales Socialist Party members formed a line of sellers across the road, selling to everyone. By the end of the march Swansea Socialist Party had sold 72, with 40 plus from Port Talbot, 50 from Pontypridd, and Cardiff sold 70. People were grasping our leaflets and using them as mini-placards.”


The crowds merged at Piccadilly.

“It was freezing but we sold 188 papers and 10 people filled in join cards.” reported Clare Doyle. “Two people from Cirencester paid £5 each to join there and then. One woman from South Africa said she wanted to join and gave £5 for the paper and literature.

“Many people took the leaflet and stuck it onto themselves or onto makeshift placards. Same with the front page of the paper in a few cases.”

Sofia, Emma, and Lindsey were three college students attending the demo. Emma skipped her Saturday job in Mango on Oxford Street to attend. Sofia, a seventeen year old Socialist Party demonstrator quickly sold out of papers. Everyone was enthusiastic about the 7 March Walkout Against the War.

Passing Green Park Tube, Tony McGill of Hillingdon branch reported:

“We sold 136 papers and raised £135.65 for the fighting fund. It was a fantastic day and one that we will never forget.”

Hyde Park

In the morning the police were stopping the ‘usual suspects’ from putting up their stalls in the park – including the Socialist Party. So we put up our hoardings on Park Lane.

The police then barricaded us off from the march, so we ferreted our papers into the park as the demo arrived. The march streamed into the park from every entrance. We sold 250 papers at the Queen Elizabeth entrance, and London West Central branch sold 153 from the Hyde Park Corner entrance. People held up our paper and leaflets as placards as they entered the park.

Groups of anti-Saddam, anti-war Iraqis came up to our stall buying papers and taking our material.

Youth against the war

Clare James and Sarah Sachs Eldridge report:.

“The ISR/Youth Against the War contingent from London was made up of groups of school and college students and young workers and was really lively. We gave out chant sheets so people could join in with ‘What shall we do with the Toxic Texan’ to the tune of ‘The drunken sailor’ and ‘Tony Blair’s a Tory’ to the tune of ‘My old man’s a dustman’.

“As people poured into Hyde Park, we were on the megaphone for hours calling for young people who wanted to help organise walkouts in their schools and colleges to come to the stall. Streams of young people were fighting through the crowds to come and give their names. We were there until it was dark and still they were coming into the park.”