Don't disdain the doves

In very many ways, the British have spoken out against war. Mr Blair must heed them

Mary Riddell
Sunday January 26, 2003
The Observer

The English National Opera has embraced a tradition stretching from Wat Tyler to the Wombles. Enraged by plans to cut the ensemble by a third, ENO chorus members gathered outside the Arts Council in London last week, bearing placards labelled 'Blood Money' and singing Mussorgsky.

While tweed-coated altos aren't quite the Tolpuddle Martyrs, their cause is the worthiest of a new wave of middle-class street action. Following the Countryside Alliance, the Not-So-Levellers are now going strong at Oxford University, where Will Straw and others have been demonstrating against Charles Clarke's plans for tuition fees.

There has been no corresponding agitation from dustbin campuses, possibly because undergraduates there have doubts about the current system, under which some pay the same for a rubbish degree as Mr Straw does for his prestige version. More generally, the poor and the oppressed have ceded street action to clubbable cartels.

But something stranger is happening to dissent. On the day the ENO took to the streets, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament organised a lobby of Parliament against the Iraq war. The chorus line got wide newspaper coverage; the 1,000 demonstrators barely a mention. Last weekend's nationwide marches against war went equally unnoticed.

The problem is not that George Galloway's hymns to Saddam are less attractive than Verdi choruses. It's about numbers. Outright opposition to war has risen to 47 per cent, according to the latest ICM poll, but unease remains anchored to the sofa. Had such inertia afflicted previous generations, the Magna Carta would have been unsigned, the poll tax unabolished and women might still be pleading for the vote.

Smollett thought 'the immediate danger of public commotion' was the only real check on arbitrary government. If so, then Bush and Blair can carry on milking an anti-protest mood they helped engender. For all New Labour's communitarianism, politicians don't like crowds. As Dr Steve Reicher, an expert on collective behaviour, points out, the controllable photo-opportunity long ago replaced the mass meeting.

The age of pay-per-view football, PlayStations, text messages and web-browsing has helped create virtual communities with atomised behaviour and lonely tastes. The Countryside Alliance assembled its 400,000 virgin protesters through old-style bonding, or even coercion. Anti-globalisation protesters combined ancient mantras of community with electronic rostering. Their reach was global, but their focus, whether directed at smashing a G8 summit or saving a butterfly from bypass builders, was local. The movement was a triumph of muscle over mind, but briefly it looked important.

Not so the British anti-war alliance, whose thin army appears to have unearthed its Aldermaston donkey jackets to march again. Today's teenagers were the children - our children - skewered with Babies Against the Bomb badges and wheeled out on CND marches of the Eighties. Inevitably, most do not rally to their parents' causes and icons. Tony Benn is no more relevant a guru of youth culture than Noddy.

Damon Albarn from Blur, though a trifle last year, is better, until you start to compare him with the US protesters; a galaxy of stars exhorting the President not to go to war in their A-listed names. The vast turnout in America, hailed as 'a stirring in the nation' by the New York Post, is inspired by Vietnam and Martin Luther King, but also by suspicions that the Bush presidency, narrowly won, lacks legitimacy.

When Berlusconi flouted the unions, three million marchers turned out in Rome. As John Lloyd has said, the street has more power in Italy because the constitutional space is so damaged. To a lesser extent, the same goes for America. In Britain, people are in the odd position of seeking to protect a murderous tyrant from a Prime Minister whom they quite like and wish to keep.

It's understandable if armchair protesters prefer to contemplate the Saddam paradox over beer and Twiglets. It is even preferable. Street demos suggest a simple clash between right and wrong. In the words of a Tom Stoppard character outlining the dialogue of protest: 'My God, you'd need a more supple language than that to describe an argument between two amoebas.'

While the hawks may have the stronger claim on plankton thinking, the complex case for peace has also been badly made. Rebranding war as moral by way of a second UN resolution is no more than a figleaf for frail consciences, while weapons inspectors, the peace lobby's agents of righteousness, are only in Iraq because of warmongers' might.

Still, there are worse things than mild hypocrisy. This battle, even before war begins, is a clash of monsters. On one side stands Saddam and, on the other, a fracturing alliance built on the premise that crushing sovereign nations is allowable in the name of some unspecified cocktail of human rights, cheap oil or filial duty.

The best, and the worst, reason to attack is that some states are so terrible that only war can salvage them. It was so in Kosovo and, thus far, in Afghanistan. A democratic Iraq is everyone's wish. But, when the consequence of pre-emptive action is unknowable, hopes of freedom do not suffice. The test for war must be just cause; not dreams of what a just result might look like.

What is lacking in the Iraq debate is not balaclava helmets, or Thermoses of tomato soup, or elderly protesters in vests reading: No War for Oil. Millions agree with them. I am one. But the missing ingredient, on both sides, is humility.

Those who advocate conflict are taking a fearsome gamble, albeit in the name of freedom. Those who abhor war barter Saddam's possible survival and his country's misery against a wider danger. If pre-emption replaces deterrence as the fulcrum of global engineering, then the boundary blurs between the forces of civilisation and terror.

So why aren't more people out marching? Through fatalism, some say, but that is too bleak an analysis. Assuming that the weapons inspectors report no smoking gun tomorrow, it sounds as if they will be allowed to carry on. War looks probable but not inevitable. Such modulation is due, in part, to the quiet voices of citizens who can say, as politicians dare not, how hard the choices are and how imperfect.

Containment, smart sanctions and ongoing UN inspections are simply the least worst option. They don't fit on a placard or inspire the masses. They don't invoke the spirit of Vietnam, and they never will. If you want a street demo, march to save the opera or for the right to abortion, the rally that last week brought Washington to a halt.

Modern conflict may be too complex for arcane forms of protest. That does not alter the power of dissent. It does not matter whether the forum of public opinion is net-surfing in Basingstoke, grumbling at the Tesco check-out, or on the march in Parliament Square. British voters have stood up against an unjustified or unmandated strike. Tony Blair would defy them at his peril.