On This Day: The Anti-Iraq War Demonstration, 15th February 2003

Anti Iraq War Demo Hyde Park

Hundreds of thousand of protesters gathered in Hyde Park on the 15th of February 2003 to take part in a global weekend of action opposing the invasion of Iraq (Photo: IWM).

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001, global geopolitics shifted dramatically. The US adopted an aggressive ‘with us or against us’ stance, and Muslims replaced Communists as the biggest threat to Western civilization. The US government identified several countries to bear the brunt of this aggression, whether they deserved it or not; they were described as the ‘Axis of Evil.’ Iran, Iraq and North Korea were the most common targets, although other countries were also identified. The US accused Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, of possessing weapons of mass destruction and having links to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind 9/11. At the beginning in 2003, despite opposition from the UN and countries such as Canada, France, Germany, and Russia, the US and its allies were preparing to invade Iraq. Millions of ordinary people also opposed the invasion, and the weekend of the 15th and 16th of March 2003 saw what was probably the biggest protest event in global history.

It is very difficult to estimate the number of people who take part in protest marches, but between 6 and 10 million people took to the streets in more that 600 cities in 60 countries around the world. The march in Rome made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest anti-war rally in history, with around 3 million people taking part. The London march was jointly organised by the Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain, with support from another 450 demonstrations.

The plan was that 2 marches (known as feeder marches) would set off from different parts of London. Londoners and people from the south of England would gather on the Embankment, and people from the Midlands and the North would meet at Gower Street. The two marches would meet at Piccadilly Circus then march as one to Hyde Park for a rally. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport tried to ban the rally; blaming health and safety concerns and the need to protect the grass in Hyde Park. No one bought this argument however, and Jowell was forced to back down.

 

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It is estimated that more than a million people attended the march in London (Photo: Daily Mail).

The weather in London on 15th March 2003 was cold and grey, but the number of people who turned up to take part exceeded all expectations. The feeder marches started earlier than scheduled because of the sheer number of people there, but many people were still delayed for a long time before they were able to set off. The speakers at the rally in Hyde Park included Harold Pinter, George Galloway and Tony Benn, but lots of people didn’t arrive until after the rally had finished, and many didn’t make it as far as Hyde Park at all.

Despite the significant delays, the atmosphere was good and the day was peaceful. Many of those who took part were not hardened activists, they were ‘normal’ people who were moved to protest by what they saw as a gross injustice. For thousands, it was their first protest march. This made the sense of betrayal and disillusionment even worse when it changed nothing, and the Labour government led by Tony Blair sent British troops into Iraq. Others argued that one protest march was never going to change anything, and that marches have to be used in conjunction with other tactics of resistance to achieve concrete change.

Troops from the US, UK, Australia and Poland invaded Iraq on 20 March 2003. Although Saddam Hussein was overthrown relatively quickly it was a long, drawn-out conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions lost their homes. The US didn’t withdraw the last of its troops until 2011, and Iraq is still dealing with the legacies of the conflict. To make matters worse, it was later revealed that Iraq never had weapons of mass destruction, and many people feel that the war was illegal and politicians such as George Bush and Tony Blair should be charged with war crimes.

The global protests on 15th and 16th of March 2003 may not have had the desired effect of preventing the invasion of Iraq, but they certainly demonstrated the strength of global opposition to the war and the increasing ability of social movements to coordinate internationally. The London protest was probably the biggest political demonstration the UK has ever seen, and it was a clear statement that not everyone accepted the black-and-white geopolitics of the War on Terror.

Sources and Further Reading

IWM. “5 Photographs from the Day the World said No to War.” Last modified 15 June 2018, accessed 31 January 2020. Available at https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/5-photographs-from-the-day-the-world-said-no-to-war

Jeffery, S. “UK’s ‘Biggest Peace Rally.'” The Guardian. Last modified 15th February 2003, accessed 31st January 2020. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/feb/15/politics.politicalnews

Murray, A. and Lindsey German. Stop the War: The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement. London: Bookmarks, 2005.

We are Many. Film directed by Amir Amirani (2014).

Wikipedia. “15 February 2003 Anti-way Protests. Last modified 30th January 2020, accessed 31st January 2020. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/15_February_2003_anti-war_protests

On This Day: Women’s Sunday, 21st June 1908

Women's Sunday Ticket

A ticket for Women’s Sunday (Source: Museum of London).

On the 13th of June 1908, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), organised a huge march in London to demonstrate the strength of their commitment to women’s suffrage. Just a week later, on the 21st of June, the Women’s Social Political Union (WSPU) organised a ‘monster meeting,’ also in London. The WSPU was much smaller than the NUWSS, but its militant tactics were better at grabbing headlines, and it is by far the best-known women’s suffrage group now. In June 1908, however, the WSPU decided to try a more peaceful method of campaigning, which was a resounding success. Up to 500,000 people gathered in Hyde Park to hear 80 speakers talk about women’s suffrage at the biggest political demonstration the UK had ever seen.

The meeting was organised by WSPU Treasurer, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and her husband Frederick. Like the NUWSS’s march a week earlier, the demonstration was organised in response to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s challenge to prove the strength of feeling behind the demand that women be given the vote. Special trains were chartered to transport WSPU supporters to London from around the country, and a Sunday was chosen in order to maximise working class attendance.

Women's Sunday More Crowds

The crowds in Hyde Park, surrounding some of the 700 banners carried by the WSPU marchers (Source: Museum of London.

7 processions totaling 30,000 suffragettes marched from around London to Hyde Park. This was the first time that the WSPU’s now infamous colours of purple, green, and white were featured in public. Women were asked to wear white dresses, and accessorise with green and purple. The effect was striking. Emmeline Pankhurst and Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy led the procession from Euston Road, Annie Kenney headed the march from Paddington, and Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence helmed the demonstration from Victoria Embankment. Flora ‘the General’ Drummond, a formidable suffragette known for leading marches in a military-style uniform, visited each of the 7 processions. Like the NUWSS procession the previous week, banners played an important role in the marches. The suffragettes carried up to 700, although none are known to survive.

Women's Sunday Platform 6

A photo of speaker’s platform 6, taken by professional photographer Christina Broom (Source: Museum of London).

20 raised platforms had been constructed in Hyde Park, from which 80 prominent supporters of women’s suffrage gave speeches, including Emmeline Pankhurst (of course!) Keir Hardy, Barnard Shaw, Israel Zangwill, and Amy Catherine Robbins (wife of H.G. Wells). The meeting was considered to be a great success, although several newspapers pointed out that most of those attending were there out of curiosity rather than support for the cause. I don’t really see this as a problem though; surely it was a good opportunity to win over a few converts to the cause.

It seems unlikely that the WSPU deliberately planned Women’s Sunday to be a week after the NUWSS procession, but the sight of women marching through the streets of London, proud, defiant, and well-ordered, was still enough of a novelty to draw hundreds of thousands of people to Hyde Park.

Sources and Further Reading

Marches, Protest, and Militancy. “Women’s Sunday: Hyde Park 1908.” Last modified 14 April 2016, accessed 6 June 2018. Available at  https://womenofinfluencesite.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/womens-sunday-hyde-park-1908/

Wikipedia. “Women’s Sunday.” Last modified 18th March 2018, accessed 6 June 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Sunday

Women of Tunbridge Wells History Project. “‘Women’s Sunday’: Hyde Park Rally 21st June 1908.” Inspiring Women: Hidden Histories from West Kent. No date, accessed 11 June 2018. Available at https://www.kent.ac.uk/sspssr/womenshistorykent/themes/suffrage/womenssunday.html

On This Day: The Hyde Park Railings Affair, 23rd July 1866

The Hyde Park Railings Affair is a little-known protest that took place 149 years ago today in Hyde Park. When the Home Secretary banned a rally organised by the Reform League from taking place in Hyde Park, the League decided to question the legality of the ban by marching to Hyde Park anyway. Demonstrators managed to break into the park, which led to scuffles with police and several days of rioting. The protest questioned the nature and control of public space in London, and contributed to Hyde Park’s radical legacy.

The Reform League was an organisation formed in 1865 to campaign for universal manhood suffrage in Britain. They had their origins in the Chartist movement, but they were not as radical. After the failure of the 1866 Reform Bill, controversy over which brought down the government in June, the Reform League decided to step up their campaigning by organising mass meetings. Meetings on the 29th of June and 2nd of July in Trafalgar Square were relatively peaceful, but the League’s next meeting was destined to be more controversial.

Edmond Beales, President of the Reform League (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

Edmond Beales, President of the Reform League (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

The Conservative Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, banned the planned meeting in Hyde Park. Edmond Beales, the president of the Reform League, argued that the Home Secretary had no right to ban the demonstration, as the park either belonged to the people or the monarchy. Spencer Walpole was neither, therefore he had to right to dictate what was allowed to happen in the park. The protest became about more than electoral reform; it was now also about who had the right to use, control, and police public space. The Reform League decided to challenge the legality of the ban by marching to Hyde Park anyway.

On the afternoon of the 23rd of July, the League and their supporters set out from their headquarters in Adelphi Place towards Hyde Park. When they got to Marble Arch, they found the gates locked and guarded by the police. Edmond Beales requested to be allowed entry, but he was not prepared to start a violent confrontation, so he withdrew when he was refused permission to enter. Beales and the Executive Committee of the Reform League led the march to Trafalgar Square, where they had a peaceful meeting.

A contemporary illustration of the Hyde Park Railings Affair (Source: Illustrated London News).

A contemporary illustration of the Hyde Park Railings Affair (Source: Illustrated London News).

Not everyone followed Beales and the Reform League however. A group of protesters stayed behind, and soon discovered that if the railings surrounding Hyde Park were rocked back and forth, they could be pulled from their foundations and toppled over. This happened at several locations around the park, leading to clashes with police as demonstrators poured into Hyde Park. There were injuries on both sides, but no deaths, and 40-70 people were arrested. The Police used Marble Arch as a temporary holding cell.

Rioting continued in the park for several days, which resulted in a lot of damage to the park. The stump of one oak tree which the protesters burnt down became known as the Reformers’ Tree. It became a focus point for radical activity in the park, and is commemorated by a mosaic. In 1872 the right of assembly and free speech was officially recognised in the northeastern corner of Hyde Park by the Royal Parks and Gardens Act. Speaker’s Corner is now a world famous site of public speech and debate.

The memorial to the Reformer's Tree, near the site where the tree was thought to be located (Source: Royal Parks).

The memorial to the Reformer’s Tree, near the site where the tree was thought to be located (Source: Royal Parks).

The Hyde Park Railings Affair is one of several protests in London that escalated because of government attempts to suppress protest, and Londoner’s determination to assert their rights; Bloody Sunday is another. Access to public space and the right to assembly is something many of us take for granted, but it is not a given. It has been fought for by generations of Londoners, and still needs to be defended.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon., “History and Architecture,” Royal Parks. No date, accessed 28th September 2014 https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/about-hyde-park/history-and-architecture.

Tames, Richard. Political London: A Capital History. London: Historical, 2007.