What is to be done? - a report on war and anti-war from the UK

The immediate UK reaction to the events of September 11 was one of stunned surprise. So mighty America is vulnerable after all! Political views stretched widely across the spectrum – much more widely than in the US – given by the shock felt by some academic/intellectual Americans at the attitudes summarised in the submissions invited by the London Review of Books (Vol. 23, no. 10, October 4). Public opinion as determined by polling was broadly supportive of the US, or at least of Tony Blair’s position vis-a-vis the US, which is not quite the same thing. But there was no sense that this was ยด our fight’ and it is almost impossible to find defenders of the government position to contribute to discussion meetings on the war such as those that have been held here on campus. Gallup poll figures for war support have fluctuated quite widely over the last 2 months. No-one really believes that the UK is likely to be a terrorist target for anyone other than the Real and Continuity IRA. The emergency anti-terrorist legislation was treated harshly in the House of Lords, where Tories (rather unlike their commons counterparts) and Liberal Democrats united in partial opposition(!). Home Secretary Blunkett could hardly publicly explain that it was all a sop to mollify US opinion.

The Stop the War Coalition, formed almost immediately after the war against AI-Qaida was announced, also split almost immediately because of the political tactics at the rather disorderly founding meetings in which the Socialist Workers and their supporters grabbed the executive positions and froze out some of the other activist groups such as ARROW. Nevertheless their London March and demonstration on November 18th was the largest seen since the days of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) marches in the 1980’s with some 25000-30000 involved.

National CND remains the organisation of longest standing and with the most organisational capability, with several paid staff members, It is an essential component and the continuing centre of the non-politically dogmatic opposition to wars. Its earlier march and demo (originally planned as an anti-NMD demonstration) on October 13th at 15000-20000 participants, was almost as large as the later STW event.

The Network for Peace meetings in London try to coordinate or at least facilitate actions by the various groups. At the December 15th meeting, Paul Marsden, the Labour M.P. who has been in sharp conflict with his party on the issue and who may switch to the Liberal Democrats, spoke, as did Dan Plesch the military/political analyst, Afghan and Muslim representatives and our colleague from CND and current Abolition 2000 figure Bruce Kent.

Thus following his Middle East tour and visits with Fahd, with Abdullah, and with other political figures in Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Tony Blair commended their policies. Evidently the war for democracy and for civilization required our support of and from this regime, so realpolitik demanded that we Ignore the realities of Saudi Arabia, whence 15 out of the nineteen came. But since Blair’s demands that we not abandon the Afghanis when the Taliban were removed have not found much echo in US policy, he has seemingly returned to domestic and traditional UK policy concerns such as Zimbabwe.

A central difficulty for all UK intellectuals and political activists, admitted by UK Government ministers when pressed (as recently by Jack Straw in his discussions with the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee) as areas of disagreement, remains the massive list of US withdrawals in 2001, unprecedented in history and incredible to have come from any significant power, let alone the dominant and now only superpower; such as the withdrawals

  • from Kyoto
  • from the bioweapons convention (25 July 2001 – reiterated last week in its memo to the BWC meeting that precipitated the latter’s postponement of further discussion)
  • from the ABM treaty (continuously threatened; although that may now be changing, the final outcome may not be for the better)
  • from the CTBT prepcom committees directed at on-site inspection (21 August 2001)from the ICC prepcom committees (March 2001); note that during the evening of September 10 2001 an amendment was passed in the US Senate to prohibit the US from cooperating with the ICC in any way, which had earlier culminated in the disgraceful Senate Bill S.857, of uncertain current status, but which was introduced under seven senators’ names (May 9 2001), and, if enacted, would authorise military action by the US against officials of any International Court to “rescue” any detained US citizens
  • from the UN Racism conference in Durban, where the very public withdrawal was solely with Israel; it was so close in time (cf. the strange call by the US ambassador from the airport on September 4 2001 that he was leaving but not withdrawing) that although plans must by then have been under way, I am sure it steeled their nerve;

and the reluctances

  • to pay UN dues (that is of long standing)
  • to ratify the land mines convention, and, now
  • to acknowledge even ongoing threats such as those posed by the anthrax attack; unlike the UK where a few years ago, during a mail strike, all public mail boxes were sealed for weeks (it hardly affected anything personally or businesswise and that was in pre-intemet days) the US has been reluctant to take effective countrywide protective action.
  • to set up a public enquiry – into the security lapses, before the attacks, at the airports, on the planes and in the buildings (the terrible advice given to return to the second tower), and into safety of aircraft and buildings. Disasters in Europe almost always involve public enquiries and these provide the basis for legal catharsis. The US traditionally had its grand jury system. Where is that now?

Abolition 2000 UK on February 16th held a “Treaties” Day school to educate ourselves and others as to the complex web of international agreements and understandings that underpin the slow progress to nuclear disarmament. Workshops were led by experts from several UK “defence think tanks”. Merav Datan of IPPNW in New York and the main author of the Model

Nuclear Weapons Convention (1999) crossed the Atlantic to give the keynote speech. Others included Roland Krueger of the Nuclear Policy Group, NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Dominique Lalanne, neutrino physicist at the Linear Accelerator, Orsay (who spoke “for” both the French government and the French Peace movement!), & Sergei Federyakov of the Russian Embassy, London. These disparate participants were in surprising agreement on many of the key issues, including the uselessness of nuclear weaponry.

Meanwhile I am sad that I may never be able to go to the US again or at least not in the foreseeable future – not just because I am legally targeted by the PATRIOT Act and Presidential executive orders, but also because I fear the consequences that might ensue through not being able to hold my tongue. The US political and psychological reaction is comprehensible. Its physical manifestations are naive and potentially self-destructive. It is all very worrying.