eptember 11th 2001 was obviously a memorable day and has proved to be a seminal turning point in foreign policy thinking and in the overall trajectory of British foreign policy. As soon as the attack on the World Trade Centre and on Washington was reported Tony Blair and George Bush went into hyper drive to look for retribution. Others were more cautious, and were concerned about a thoughtless rush to war and conflict; and thus was born the Stop the War (STW) Coalition.
The first meeting was tentatively organised for a small room in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, and as the response to the initial invitation grew, we decided to move to Friends Meeting House in Euston Road, as the response to the suggested inaugural meeting turned into an avalanche we moved to the big hall there and eventually had to take over every single room in the building. Less than three weeks after 9/11 there was standing room only in every part of Friends Meeting House and those of us who were privileged to attend that meeting had to repeat our speech to subsequent overflow meetings around the building, and in my case, on a sixth occasion, to people assembled at the bus stop on Euston Road – these people, despite their best efforts had been unable to fit into the building!
The overall theme of all the speeches was that what had happened in New York and Washington was terrible, but that there was no logic to launching an invasion of Afghanistan. I recall using the phrase are we seriously going to ‘let slip the dogs of war' because of the tragedy that happened in the USA.
This was rhetorical as clearly that was very much on the mind of Bush and Blair. George Bush , having literally flown way above the events of 09/11 in Air force 1 came down to earth and demanded unlimited executive powers to take whatever action necessary, including a curtailment of civil liberties in the United States. He received this authority from a near unanimous US Congress with the honourable exception of Barbara Lee, the Californian Congresswoman. Bush also proposed a massive boost to US Arms expenditure. To understand the increase, this was the equivalent of the total annual of UK British arms expenditure.
In Britain, Tony Blair proposed to Parliament that we support the US and deploy British troops into Afghanistan, he was given enormous backing for this with only 14 of us opposing.
The Afghanistan war was presented as a war to capture Osama Bin Laden and remove the threat of Afghanistan as ‘a safe haven' for terrorists. The invasion was very quick, and the occupation complete within a matter of days. Within that short time, the character of the allied operation in Afghanistan became more and more obvious. Bagram airbase was turned into a prison camp and Bush rapidly opened Guantanamo Bay as a special detention centre for the newly coined term ‘enemy combatants' thus neatly avoiding any reference to the Geneva Convention or the International Criminal Court. Extraordinary Rendition began almost immediately.
Bush proposed and a very pliant congress endorsed development of an enormous string of new US bases across all of the southern flanks of the former Soviet Union.
Not satisfied with all this, the rhetoric of the Reagan era was modernised and brought up to date with Bush's infamous Axis of Evil speech in his State of the Union address of 2002 and his top advisers gave effect to the ill- famed project for a New American Century. This then developed into the proposal for military action against Iraq which was apparently first discussed at an Easter barbeque in 2002 between Bush and Blair in Crawford, Texas. Less than a year later a quarter of a million troops from various nations were engaged in the occupation of Iraq.
The Stop The War Coalition organised an enormous number of local public meetings, pressed for debates in parliament, and organised a series of national marches and demonstrations, each one bigger than the last, culminating in the million plus march in February 2003.
Without the STW Coalition there would have been very little united opposition to the principle of going to war with Iraq. The Labour Party was effectively hamstrung by the New Labour structural changes and the ineffective opposition within the Parliamentary Labour Party. The crucial vote in March 2003 found 139 Labour MPs in opposition (Chris Smith's amendment – the case for war has not yet been made) with a number of abstentions, but critically Blair and the Whip's office had succeeded in cajoling enough Labour MPs to support him to ensure a majority of Labour parliamentarians endorsed his invasion.
Anyone on the march in February 2003 was inspired by the size, the diversity and the breadth of opinion that united in a common endeavour. It is a day I will personally never forget, and at the end of which I flew to New York and then San Francisco to speak the following day with Barbara Lee and many others at their STW Rally.
Tony Blair, being infinitely more articulate than Bush, coined a philosophy around what he called ‘humanitarian intervention', insisting that this gave Britain great influence with the Bush administration. I recall asking him at a PLP meeting, if he could give me any example of when British influence had made any difference to the US. He blankly replied that he couldn't tell us because if he did, it would undermine the nature of the relationship.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the West's refusal and inability to bring any justice for the Palestinian people all stem from a lack of regard for international law and the UN, and a belief that there was a just war to gain resources for the already powerful western nations.
The legacy for the Labour Party from both wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) has been strong and bitter, costing the party in both members, and millions of votes, and it has made a whole generation (particularly young Muslim people) remain deeply suspicious and sceptical of the political system and in particular, of Labour.
Although Blair has gone, and Ed Miliband was elected leader specifically on his rejection of the Iraq War, the policy of global military reach and targeted intervention remains in place.
The STW Coalition should be congratulated on its foundation, its thriving existence, and its ability to mobilise a whole generation for a different and better world. It will continue to encourage debate about Britain's military role in the world and the need for a foreign policy independent of the defence interests of the USA, or any other superpower.