Back in 2003, a sign of the depth of the revulsion at the government’s support for the US war on Iraq was the extraordinary reaction to the war by Britain’s supposedly apathetic and feckless youth. Around the UK, tens of thousands of students walked out of school in protest. In Birmingham over 4,000 school-uniformed protesters took to the streets; in Edinburgh around 300 12-15 year olds tried to occupy the castle; and in Manchester over 400 students sat in the road, peacefully blocking the traffic.
To mark this action at the time, Red Pepper tracked down 13 of these school-age protestors and asked them for their views on the conflict. The resulting article was a powerful tribute to the exuberant and purposeful rebellion of youth.
Five years on, with British troops still bedded down outside Basra, we’ve gone back to some of the same students and a few new ones, and asked them how they feel today about their protests then, about politics since and about what can be done to bring about change. Has the war left them feeling disillusioned and powerless or has it increased their political engagement – and if the latter, what kind of political engagement do they now find productive? And what will they be doing to mark the five-year anniversary?
First, we have three of the original Red Pepper kids:
In 2003, at the age of 14 Michael was reported as saying: I am appalled and ashamed that our country has been dog led into a potentially devastating war.’
Five years on he describes how cynical he now feels about politics: ‘What a mess we’re in. Reports of yet more deaths in Iraq have become almost a permanent fixture on news broadcasts. For me they have lost their shock-value. Suicide bombings, kidnappings, torture, and friendly fire: they are all now just common terms for my generation. The constant stories and images of death and destruction have had a desensitising affect upon my peers and me. If we are exposed to images of car bombs and brutal military operations everyday, what can you expect? This has to be one of the most worrying legacies of the Iraq war on my generation.
‘The biggest impact it has had upon me personally is a distinct sense of disillusionment with the political system. Essentially, the current western political model has failed me. How can such an illegal, destructive, counterproductive and divisive operation like the Iraq conflict and “war on terror” be allowed to happen?
‘Aged 15, I was hugely enthusiastic in my criticism of the conflict, taking part in anti-war demos and truly believing that our collective efforts would reap some kind of reward. However, Blair’s blind commitment to Bush and the conflict in the face of such intense opposition left me with a strong sense of being wronged. If up to two million people taking to the streets of London wasn’t enough to stop him, what could we do?
‘Unfortunately, I have not since turned such feelings into political activism. However, it has taught me that capitalist democracy does not and can never work but for the interests of the rich few – just take a look at the weapons manufacturers, oil companies and security services enjoying their share of the victors’ profits. In this sense, the war has encouraged me to look for and develop my understandings of an alternative socialist system and not simply accept political injustices that surround us.
‘The last line of my piece in May 2003 is scarily resonant: “All this war will do is create thousands of new terrorists.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more accurate. It’s rather worrying that experienced world leaders failed to see what a 15 year old boy could. I just hope that more thought is used before embarking on the next “crusade” against Iran.’
Aged 11, Imogen said: ‘A lot of girls gathered at the front of my school before lessons started. My head teacher was furious and said she was going to alert the police, but we marched anyway.’
She recalls now: ‘I can remember hearing, five years ago, about the war against Iraq. Even at the age of 11, I was adamant in my belief that there should be no war, a view I still hold today. As far as I’m concerned, nothing justifies such a vicious attack on mainly innocent people.
‘Back in 2003, I participated in the anti-war protest, by parading London’s streets with the millions of other demonstrators. This was the first time that I had really been exposed to any kind of political activism, and it moved me to see so many people, from many different backgrounds and cultures, coming together to make their views known. Obviously, my age barred me slightly from participating in student walkouts, as this was only for the older students, but I did support their cause.
‘As my political understanding has grown, my opinion has not changed; I would never think declaring war could be the answer to anything. I admire all those who had the courage to make their voices heard. I’m proud to have taken part in the London march.’
At 15 Annie said: ‘Something has overcome the segregating lines of age, class, gender, race and religion – a will to prevent war.’
Now she says it hasn’t put her off being active: ‘It is of course easy with hindsight to echo the anti-war cry of the 2003 demonstrations with an increased confidence and to knowingly proclaim “I told you so”. Looking back, the war in Iraq and resulting insurgency has added a further five years of trauma and instability to Saddam’s legacy.
‘However, the failed cries of thousands of anti-war protestors in 2003 has not made me feel politically despondent or left me cursing the evils of “the system”. We have an endless energy for shaking our heads and tutting at the decisions and foibles of politicians and the impotency of the “everyday Joe” in the arena of “politics”. However, a majority seem unwilling or unable to practice individual and group power within the world of “politics”.
‘Being at university has enabled me to embrace the idea that acting within your local sphere and abilities can really make a difference. I’ve seen friends winning the battle against wasted energy on a small scale, instigating an anti plastic bag policy and an accessible recycling system for undergraduates, for example. This bottom-up method is essential as it locates power within society.
‘The ease with which I have slipped into committee roles and the amount of student union places you can see go uncontested leaves me not with a feeling that no-one “up there” in the higher echelons is listening but that we “down here” are unwilling to grab the reins. Speaking out and protesting about the decisions of “politics” is of course very important, though it is essential to do this with an informed intelligence. By not always adopting the futile position of me versus “the system” and embracing the potential for change within this system, “political” impotence becomes a fiction as a less apathetic and more discerning and active electorate could create a more accountable government.’
And then some new faces:
I continue to oppose military action in Iraq, but we must all become a part of the effort to create a suitable platform from which Iraqi citizens can progress as a nation
‘The 2003 invasion ignited western public opinion in a way that had not been seen for years. Friends and families argued about the legitimacy of the invasion, there was high profile dissent in government and millions, young and old, poured onto the streets to protest against military action.
‘I do not think anyone, for or against, envisaged the continued bloodshed and violence we see played out before us on our television screens at the close of 2007. The latest survey suggests up to 1.2 million Iraqi civilians may have lost their lives since the coalition invaded their country. The UNHCR estimates that two million Iraqis have fled their homeland into neighbouring countries such as Syria, Jordan and further afield into Egypt.
‘These are countries that are under continued pressure from Palestinian refugees and who are struggling to cope with increased numbers of Iraqis within their borders. This figure is in addition to the two million internally displaced Iraqis who have been forced to move as a result of vicious sectarian violence provoked by an insensitive imposition of the democratic process. The subsequent Shia desire for revenge and power was as inevitable as Sunni fear of subjugation.
‘Iraq is split like never before. If this invasion has taught us anything, it should be that extensive research into ethnic and sectarian divisions, tensions and historical relations should be undertaken as a vital prerequisite for any proposed military intervention. Iraq is now appropriately termed a “melting pot” of hatred beyond our control. So what lies in store for Iraq? A wall to separate communities may grant the coalition forces some reprieve from constant attacks but it is hardly a long term solution for a country ravaged by war, poverty and distrust of all, from occupier to neighbour.
Iraqis are in desperate need of the most basic services. Before we even begin to think of a long-term political process and the healing of sectarian wounds it is vital that civilians are granted their dignity, preferably by those who stripped it away most cruelly in the invasion of 2003. I continue to oppose the use of military action in the case of Iraq, but we must all become a part of the effort to create a suitable platform from which Iraqi citizens can progress as a nation, towards a democracy of which they are proud.’
‘In 2003 I was at school and I knew nothing about politics. Some teachers and students travelled to London for the anti-war march. Not me. I got back to having a laugh with my mates.
‘Since school, I have moved from political apathy to a growing awareness of injustices created by our current regime. Coming to the university was an eye opener. I became aware of Blair’s lies to justify war. I attended documentary nights and left-wing campaign groups, learning new things daily.
‘While working near Piccadilly Station last summer I was uplifted to see so many activists arriving for the “Troops Out” demonstration. After work I followed the blaring mass of people and joined the march.
‘I was happy to take part in the February 2007 “Troops Out Now” march. My mate and I returned feeling roused with a passion for socialism! There were many amazing memories; supportive clapping from pedestrians; feeling part of a group that wanted to stop the evils of imperialism; meeting activists of all ages and ethnicities; CND supporters marching alongside LGBT banners.
‘Anti-war campaigns have enlightened me about the web of deceit and lies, and the collusion of Bush and Blair over oil and gas. I am passionate about revealing the lies created by leaders. I attend demonstrations against privatisation of the NHS and support other fights that we must sustain in order to make change.
‘I was recently asked “why campaign?” when millions did in 2003 and were ignored by a “democratic” government. Turning up in our masses and feeling unified is still important even under a government that shamelessly refuses to react to the people’s wishes, even though we now have to gain legal permission to demonstrate. Students will be demonstrating their disgust at the fifth anniversary. I will support this action whether marching down Oxford Road, holding a vigil or getting a coach down to the capital and campaigning in style. I’ve learnt that It’s never too late to start protesting.’
If you have anything to add – a memory from walking out of school, photos, thoughts on how you felt after being ignored, or what you did to mark five-years on – then let us know at here
From our archive: Five years on
Five years ago Red Pepper published a number of articles on the Iraq war, we’re reprinting a selection here covering the period March to June 2003
Regime change without war
Those of us who oppose war should not allow ourselves to be seen as defenders of the status quo in the Middle East says Mary Kaldor
Tony Blair, in the name of peace and democracy, go
Tam Dalyell on why Tony Blair should reconsider his position as leader of the party
No more demockery
We failed to stop the war but another world is still possible writes Hilary Wainwright
The warfare state
Now that the fog of war has lifted David Beetham assess the implications for British democracy