A combination of Valentine’s Day, a business trip and subsequent workload conspired to prevent me from writing about my experiences of the 2003 anti-war demo, but I’m taking the trouble to do so now. This is partly to provide people to an archive of the old website I set up for the day, which five years on is something of an historical archive. But it is also because, missing the anniversary aside, I believe there is something to learn from the experience.
Basically, I learnt three important things from the demo and its aftermath. The first lesson I learnt, which you will be able to vouch for, is that I really needed to learn how to design websites properly. My attempt at a website was frankly laughable – the entire thing is written in HTML (no CSS) and I had to resort to crude third party sites just to set up a working form. As I was manually inputting each pledge I received, I ended up getting swamped; the list on the website was dwarfed by the number of pledges and messages of goodwill I ended up receiving and not having the time to include. A few years later and I’m still learning, but I have at least got my head around CSS and PHP (just about), even if I’m still stubbornly appalling at planning my projects.
Secondly, I could no longer ignore the fact that the hard left is riven with dangerous arseholes who you should at all times be wary of working with. On anything. To be fair, I had broadly got this message during my university days, but my participation in the Leamington Spa Stop the War group rather reinforced this notion.
At university I learned that if you stood in a student union election against a member of the hard left and won, you were likely to get your head kicked in. I also learned about what I’ve come to learn is affectionately known as TIGMOO. Basically, if you are part of this great, glorious, socialist-labour movement you are One Of Us (even if we hate your guts), while if you aren’t you are The Enemy (even if we agree with 90% of what you say). Not so much my enemy’s enemy is my friend as my enemy is my friend as long as he can recite a couple of verses from the Internationale. Oh, the hours I wasted attempting to negotiate joint working relationships with SWPers and AWLers on issues such as tuition fees only to discover they had cooked something up behind our backs with the Labour Club which enabled both Labour and their hard left comrades to save face (even if it meant a stalemate). But I digress.
My working relationship with the Leam lot was actually quite good in the run up to the march itself. I spent a lot of my Saturdays helping to run the stall outside Woollies and a lot of my Sundays attending organising meetings. It was all good.
The problems started when the war began. In short, it emerged that a number of my comrades could not have been happier that it had happened (anyone else remember the banner greeting people as they arrived at Hyde Park on 15/2 confidently predicting that this was the beginning of the rise of the proletariat? In your dreams). At a time when the rest of us were contemplating defeat, they had got a second wind. It was all talk of demos, shutting down the town centre and vandalising the rail lines. Revolution was in the air bruvvas! Those of us who thought it would be more appropriate to hold vigils rather than demos were laughed out of the community centre.
The final straw for me, not surprisingly, was when it was “decided” that the Leam Stop the War Coalition would be supporting the Socialist Alliance in the local elections. So much for coalition (this is why I can only laugh hollowly at Alex Harrowell’s suggestion that we should offer the SWP uncritical solidarity in a stand against the “Right”. As if the SWP would do the same for anyone else!).
But thirdly, the most important thing I learned from the demo was the craven desire for what it regards as respectability of much of the Lib Dem establishment. Read the motion that Susan Kramer and I proposed to the Federal Executive and got passed nem con. To our surprise, Charles Kennedy backed the motion. Then the trouble started. If dealing with the SWP was difficult, getting our own party to implement an executive order was downright impossible!
Senior figures in the party did everything they could to stop any aspect of this motion from being implemented. They point blank refused to put anything up on the party website, hence my own ham-fisted attempt. They wouldn’t link to my site, with Chris Rennard suddenly coming up with a policy that official party website only linked to websites run by party Specified Associate Organisations. 24 hours later, I got the then LDYS Chair to agree to “publish” the website, rendering that particular “policy” meaningless.
Eventually, after weeks of lobbying (and I should make it clear here that it is Donnachadh McCarthy who deserves all the credit here; I merely skulked around in the background), and with less than a week to go before the demo itself, Kennedy was asked a direct question by David Frost on live television and, bottling it, turned volte face and said he would be “very happy” to go on it. Suddenly we got our link on the front page of the party website, publicity in Lib Dem News (which until that point had been relegated to the letters pages) and the full weight of the party’s campaigns and press departments behind us.
Yet even then Kennedy remained obsessed with having it both ways. Notoriously, his Hyde Park speech argued meekly that he was “not persuaded” of the case for war and demanding that Parliament be allowed a vote (it was; the troops went in). But the biggest single joke of the day had to be the row over placards. On the one hand, I have to admit to being vaguely amused by Donnachadh’s green piety by insisting that we should have generic “Lib Dems say no” placards on the basis that they could be reused by activists for local demonstrations on a variety of subjects (an Iain Paisley revival meeting for instance). But that paled into insignificance compared to the desperately weak “official” campaigns department placards they were insistent must surround Kennedy at all times with the oh-so-unambivalent slogan “give peace a chance!” (John Lennon has a lot to answer for for his particular brand of faux-radicalism).
The fact that, even at such a late stage, we were having such mind-numbingly daft arguments demonstrated quite how uncomfortable the party establishment was with going on this march at all. If we hadn’t dragged them, kicking and screaming, they would never have gone near it. Yet for all that, it was the symbolism of Kennedy joining the march that mattered – even his compromised speech and even more compromised policy motion at the subsequent spring conference (in which they insisted on wording that confusingly seemed to suggest that our opposition to the war would end the moment a British troop set foot on Iraqi soil) didn’t stop the party’s rise in the polls. For a brief period and not for either the first or last time, the Lib Dems truly spoke on behalf of the majority of the nation.
Does all this still matter? After all, it’s all water under the bridge now. Speaking personally, it goes to the heart of the ongoing debate waging over the party’s identity. Reading Ming Campbell’s rather self-justifying account of Kennedy’s drink problem in the Mail yesterday, I was struck by how many chances they gave the man to acquit himself despite the fact that he consistently let them – us – down. I’m afraid I have to agree with Anthony Barnett – just think of the progress we would have made in 2005 if Kennedy had either sorted himself out or been given the heave-ho much earlier (who would have replaced him is a moot point – it certainly wouldn’t have been Campbell who was still recovering from cancer at the time).
I wonder what all this pressure to keep up appearances had on Kennedy’s then-PPS Mark Oaten, and how his personal downfall is related. I hear Lib Dems continue to insist the party is in the all-clear over the Michael Brown donation and boggle (we may yet not have to pay up, but the law is quite ambiguous and the investigation continues). I welcome the anti-establishment stance Nick Clegg has adopted over ID cards, only to see that undone by his uber-establishment stance on the Lisbon Treaty (as for his line on Michael Martin, the stuff about air miles etc. is broadly irrelevant; the fact that Martin has consistently been behind attempts to block transparency and reform should be enough to prevent Clegg dismissing it all as a “witch hunt”).
I recall the cold shoulder I received, again back in 2003, when I formally complained to then Chief Whip Andrew Stunell about Paul Marsden‘s comments in the Times bragging about how researchers are desperate to climb his greasy poll, and I wonder. Marsden isn’t the first Lib Dem MP to get caught out diddling the help (although thankfully he’s the only one to write poems on the subject) I’ve heard about during the years either. If a senior Lib Dem official was ever found to be, say, a kiddie fiddler, would we take action? At what point does an individual’s personal conduct become so unacceptable that they are forced out? My concern is that the party’s collective neurotic obsession with respectability too often leads us down some very dark alleys.
As a party we have always been, and for the forseeable future will continue to be, permanently at five minutes to midnight. I’m not convinced the meekness in our approach has done much in the past to rectify this situation. Over the past couple of years we have reaped what we sowed by not dealing with issues when they arose. Clegg ought to be taking copious notes. I like to think he won’t make the same mistakes as the past, and despite my own misgivings the fact remains that the Lisbon Treaty is an issue which the public stubbornly refuses to take an interest in. But we need a few more brave stances and a bit less nuance.
A final word on Donnachadh McCarthy. The Iraq demo was the beginning of the end of Donnachadh’s time in the Liberal Democrats. Despite the fact that I think he made some shocking mistakes (if he had kept his powder dry following the march instead of demanding recriminations he would have found himself in an incredibly strong position – indeed his lack of any sense of timing always was his greatest weakness), he really was appallingly treated and bullied by the top ranks in the party. He seems to be much better off without the party than the party is without him. It is deeply sad that ultimately we seem incapable of keeping someone like that within our own ranks; whatever you may have thought of him there are far worse people who happily remain party members.