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How the first Gulf War shaped the British left

Thirty years on from the first Gulf War, Evan Smith considers how it exposed the limitations in the British left’s ability to build a mass movement

7 to 8 minute read

A black and white photo of people protesting against the first Gulf War

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, the British left was wrong-footed. Despite many British left groups not being particularly supportive of the USSR, the process of seeing the Soviet bloc collapse between 1989 and 1991 was still demoralising, as it seemed to signal the end of the longest-running socialist experiment and validation of the popular notion that ‘socialism’ had been defeated. 

These events also upended the international order, with the US growing more confident on the world stage as its great rival underwent a period of turmoil.  

It was in this period of flux that the first Gulf War happened. After the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War – in which the US gave support to an Iraq then led by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government – Iraq invaded its neighbour Kuwait in August 1990. The US and Britain, alongside their main ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, saw this as a threat, and, for five months, sought to pressure Hussein into withdrawing from Kuwait through sanctions, military build-up in the region and the possible declaration of war. 

After Hussein refused to withdraw, the US, Britain and their allies launched military attacks in January 1991. By the end of February, Iraqi forces had retreated from Kuwait and a ceasefire was declared, while several regional uprisings (encouraged by the US) were put down by Hussein. Instead of sending troops into Baghdad to remove Hussein, the US sought ‘regime change’ in Iraq, leading to a fraught situation which would eventually end in the 2003 invasion of the country by the ‘Coalition of the Willing’. 

The first Gulf War and the left’s response

As the Western powers put pressure on Iraq after the initial annexation of Kuwait, the British left started campaigning against Western aggression and the possibility of war in the Middle East. But there was no single anti-war group established – instead, several different campaign groups, divided along ideological and sectarian lines.

The Socialist Workers Party, alongside left-wing sections of the Labour Party (including figures such as Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn), the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the dwindling Communist Party of Great Britain, took part in the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf (CSWG). There was also the Campaign Against War in the Gulf (CAWG), which was led by Socialist Organiser (precursor to the Alliance for Workers Liberty) and Socialist Outlook. The Revolutionary Communist Party and the organisation that it split from in late 1970s, the Revolutionary Communist Group, were both involved in the Ad Hoc Hands Off the Middle East Committee (HOME).

In the lead up to war, nearly all of the British left criticised Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and highlighted the fact that Iraq had been a Western ally against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war for most of the 1980s. Most left groups also argued that the Hussein regime was a dictatorship that had persecuted communists in Iraq for decades, and the groups expressed support for self-determination of the Kurds that lived within Iraq’s borders. 

Disagreement and divisions

However, there were some disagreements between the various campaign groups, which led to practical divisions in the movement. One issue was over whether to call for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, alongside the campaigning against Western intervention. This was a demand of CAWG, which called for ‘Troops out of the Gulf, Iraq out of Kuwait’. Other left groups were more ambivalent, focusing on the Western war drive.

The left looked back to the movement against the Vietnam War for guidance, but it became apparent that the challenge this time was different

Another point of contention was whether to call for a complete withdrawal of Western troops from the Middle East, with CND and others connected to the Labour left arguing that it distracted from the immediate attempt to stop the war.

These disagreements led CSWG, CAWG and HOME to call separate demonstrations in late 1990, with CAWG and HOME barred from speaking at the major CSWG rallies; the more centre left elements refusing to join CAWG and HOME marches; and HOME refusing to support CAWG due to Socialist Organiser’s position on Israel

Lessons from history

Much of the left looked back to the movement against the Vietnam War for guidance, but it became apparent that this previous movement had taken several years to build and that the challenge this time was different. The main focus of the anti-war movement in 1990-91 was to campaign for war to be avoided, rather than for the withdrawal of troops from combat as had been the case with Vietnam.

A number of those who supported the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf, reasoned that this meant building the widest anti-war movement possible, to put pressure on John Major’s Conservative government not to support the US war drive in the Persian Gulf. Others, however, had misgivings about this, arguing that the underlying causes of the conflict – Western imperialism in the region and oil-based capitalism – would remain even if war was averted.

The actual military operation against Iraq lasted just over a month, and, to the surprise of many, the US did not follow through with a direct effort to topple Saddam. The ‘new world order’ that emerged after the Gulf War was still in embryo, and while many understood that the war against Iraq was part of an effort by the West to stamp its authority on a post-Cold War world, it was difficult for the left to fully comprehend what this meant in 1990-91. 

By the end of 1991, with US hegemony emerging as the dominant feature of the ‘new world order’, the left in Britain, as well as elsewhere, started to pour its efforts into the nascent anti-globalisation movement and campaigns against US (neo-)imperialism.

After Iraq, most groups on the British left opposed Western interventions in the Balkans as Yugoslavia broke up, with many seeing parallels between the US/UK attack on Saddam Hussein and the UN/NATO incursions against Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. Like the left’s view of Hussein, these groups argued that whatever the transgressions of Milosevic, the ‘main enemy’ was the Western powers. As we have seen on a number of occasions since the 1990s, there was slippage between critical support for a country facing the might of Western military powers and viewing authoritarian leaders as figures to be supported as fighters against Western imperialism. 

Echoes from history

In 2002-3, when the Bush and Blair governments started to push for war against Iraq, the previous anti-war campaign from 1990-91 influenced how the new anti-war movement developed. In an echo of the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf, most of the left became involved with the Stop the War Coalition (STWC), seeking to build a mass movement. The AWL found it was unable to work with the STWC, particularly its links to the Muslim Association of Britain – just as its predecessor, Socialist Organiser, found itself on the outside of the CSWG in 1990-91. 

The 2002-03 anti-war movement was much larger than Britain witnessed in 1990-91, but it too was unable to stop the war from occurring. However, in the Second Gulf War the US uprooted Saddam Hussein and the initial invasion became a long-term occupation. These differences meant that, just as the movement against the Vietnam War did not offer much to the movement against the first Gulf War, the movement from the early 1990s offered limited insights for the anti-war movement in the 21st century, especially after Hussein was deposed and the US, alongside its allies, became an occupying force in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan. 

The anti-war movement in 2002-03 has been rightly seen as a turning point for the left in Britain, building a popular opposition to the Blair government but ultimately not successful in forcing the government to reconsider its role in the invasion of Iraq. But the anti-war movement in 1990-91, facing a similar war drive, was unable to develop the same momentum. 

The first Gulf War came at a time when the British left was in disarray, thrown by the ongoing collapse of the Soviet bloc and rearrangement of the international order at the end of the Cold War, which impacted upon its ability to mobilise opposition to the war. Coming at a time of flux, the movement has been an overlooked moment in the history of the British left, but it shaped how the left viewed the US as an imperial power after the Cold War and fostered a divided anti-war movement that would impact upon the Stop the War movement in the following decade. 

Looking at the anti-war movements in 1990-91 and 2002-03 highlights a paradox for the British left. The building of a mass movement in a short period of time meant unifying around a broad objective to draw in as much support as possible, but this also meant alienating some potential allies, who felt that this broad objective sacrificed too much. The fractured approach taken in 1990-91 was shaped by existing divisions within the left, but also left its impact by shaping how the left engaged with each other when trying to build another anti-war movement ten years later.

The critical mass generated by both anti-war movements indicate that the mass mobilisation strategy pursued by CSWG in 1990-91 and STWC in 2002-03 was generally correct (even if ultimately unsuccessful), but criticisms from other sections of the left could not be totally ignored – for future activities may depend on solidarity between those who vehemently disagreed on the last battle.

Evan Smith is a historian and the author of No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech (Routledge)

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