For British politics, the defining moment of the last decade was not an election result or a policy announcement. It was 15th February 2003, when over a million people marched through London to oppose the invasion of Iraq.
It was the biggest demonstration in British history, but both Labour government and Tory opposition went ahead and launched a war without public support. This striking image illustrates two key aspects of the last decade – a government pursuing a thoroughly militaristic agenda, and a public resistant to going along with it.
Blair’s attachment to militarism was a key characteristic of his premiership. The terrorists who murdered thousands in the World Trade Centre in 2001 hoped to provoke a war that would be seen as an assault on Islam. Bush played right into their hands. Blair fell into line, with sizeable, but far from overwhelming, public support for invading Afghanistan. While Al Qaeda was known to be a loose network, the media spoke as if it were a global conspiracy. Bush and Blair announced the “war on terror”.
It didn’t work. Attempts to secure public support for invading Iraq failed from the start, with few taken in by fictitious weapons of mass destruction. Blair’s comments on Saddam’s brutality were undermined by his friendship with Saudi despots. For the first time in living memory, UK troops were sent into a war that was opposed by a majority of the population.
But militarism is about more than troop deployments. The government plans to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system. The arms firm BAE Systems has enjoyed so much influence that the former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said that BAE’s boss had “the key to the garden door at Number Ten”. This twisted relationship reached its zenith in 2006, when Blair intervened to end a criminal investigation into BAE’s allegedly corrupt arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
The incident was a staggering demonstration of the way that both militarism and capitalism distort democracy. Blair defended millionaire gun-runners, Saudi despots and Washington neo-cons while treating public opinion with contempt. With a few honourable exceptions, his militarism was enthusiastically supported by his ministers and the Tory opposition.
By backing BAE, Blair, Brown and Cameron showed their belief in furthering the financial interests of the wealthy at the expense of the majority. Taxpayer-funded subsidies of arms dealers reached around £850 million per year in the middle of the decade. Nor is war immune from the privatisation craze – military occupation has been outsourced, with contracts handed to mercenary companies whose soldiers in Iraq outnumbered UK troops.
The privatisation of war has contributed to dramatic changes in the nature of armed conflict. Listening to certain commentators, you could get the impression that no such changes have taken place. Cheerleaders for militarism still talk as if war were a matter of defending nations from aggression with established armies. In reality, over 90 per cent of casualties in modern warfare are civilians. The vast majority of the decade’s wars have been within, not between, countries. Their combatants have been resourced by multinational arms companies without national loyalties and have frequently included mercenaries.
The changes to the nature of warfare are rarely acknowledged because they make the traditional arguments for militarism redundant. The horrific day in 2005 when terrorists blew up commuters in London has been used by politicians to justify all manner of policies. But no amount of battalions, tanks, Eurofighters or Trident missiles would have prevented such an attack. Bombs and bullets do not lead to compassion and understanding. Furthermore, it is clear that the biggest threat to our security is the danger of catastrophic climate chaos. The floodwaters will not stop at national borders or be repelled by a hail of bullets.
While the government ploughs money into military “solutions”, its supporters claim it would be “unrealistic” to do otherwise. Given that the world now spends nearly $2,000 on military force for every dollar spent on conflict prevention, it is amazing that nonviolent approaches are successful at all. Yet recent years have seen nonviolent methods of conflict resolution used successfully in countries as diverse as Estonia, Guatemala and Mozambique. The relative lack of violence in Northern Ireland is surely one of the greatest successes of the decade.
Nonviolence attracts far less money and publicity than violence, but the British people have shown themselves able to see through the flimsy network of lies and reassurances used to justify militarism. Not only were most of the public opposed to the Iraq war, but polls consistently show majorities against Trident and the occupation of Afghanistan. Last November, it became clear that the government’s gung-ho approach to war had massively mistaken the public mood, when an independent poll revealed that 87 per cent of British adults believe the dead on all sides should be commemorated on Remembrance Day.
The millions who marched in 2003 did not prevent the Iraq invasion, but they may have made Blair or Bush think twice about laying into Syria or Korea. Many more people are now aware of the arms industry’s influence within government. In 2008, campaigners achieved the closure of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), the arms companies’ lobbying unit within the MoD. Arms dealers were infuriated by its replacement with a slightly weaker, but still abhorrent, unit within UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). No longer can arms companies have it all their own way. NGOs have highlighted the true costs of Trident, resulting in a cabinet split that means there is a real chance of the Trident renewal not going ahead.
With British soldiers still dying and killing in Afghanistan, and other armed conflicts around the world rarely even making the UK press, there is far, far more to do. Climate change and economic crises have gripped the world’s attention. It is vital that we make the links between militarism, climate change and capitalism. This means not only co-ordinated campaigning, but clearer messages. We must continue to expose the way that both war and climate change have delivered profit and power to the few, at the expense of the planet and its people.
Militarism sustains its support by constantly telling us, despite the evidence, that people cannot achieve things alone; that we need powerful individuals employing men with guns to keep things under control. Gandhi suggested that one of the biggest threats to Indian freedom was the people’s reluctance to trust themselves. There is always a tendency to fall back on trusting violence, governments, money, traditions or even activist heroes. The first step to challenging militarism is having the confidence simply to trust ourselves.
(c) Symon Hill is co-director of Ekklesia. This column appeared originally in the Morning Star on 11 January 2010.