History / Politics

‘Are they all Lefties?’

Twenty years on from the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, here’s an extract from Alwyn Turner’s All in It Together: England in the Early 21st Century, out now from Profile Books.

The overwhelming response of the British public to the 9/11 attacks was sympathy with America, but even at the outset there was some dissent. A special, unscheduled episode of BBC One’s Question Time was broadcast live (rather than pre-recorded as was the normal practice) two days after the atrocities, and aroused considerable controversy.

Labour MP Tam Dalyell, a veteran of anti-war campaigns, warned against military action: ‘If there’s massive retaliation, sure as nuts, it’ll happen again.’ Another panellist, the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, said that Americans were only now realising that ‘many people really, truly detest them around the world’. Some of the audience joined in, denouncing the country’s foreign policy, and when one person spoke in defence of America, he was booed. Also on the panel was Philip Lader, recently retired as American ambassador to Britain, who was close to tears at some of the comments: ‘I find it hurtful that anyone could suggest the majority of the world despises the United States.’

Over 2,000 complaints were reported to have been received, but the sentiments were not confined to the studio audience. Chelsea Clinton, daughter of the former US president, arrived at Oxford to study for a masters degree that autumn and was struck by how hostile the atmosphere was: ‘Every day I encounter some sort of anti-American feeling. Sometimes, it’s from other students, sometimes it’s from a newspaper columnist, sometimes it’s from peace demonstrators.’

On the left, it was America’s perceived warmongering and its support for Israel that attracted condemnation; on the right, there were memories of American backing for Irish terrorism, as former Tory minister Virginia Bottomley later reflected: ‘I thought 9/11 was a horrific event, but the American reaction was in total contrast to how they had responded to the IRA over the years.’ It was an uncomfortable truth, rarely articulated in public, that for many British people, news of 9/11 was received with a gut-level ‘They had it coming.’

A week after the bombing of Afghanistan started, a demonstration in London attracted over 20,000 protestors, not all of whom were the usual suspects. ‘Old men in Islamic dress marched with former Greenham women and dreadlocked anti-capitalists who booed when they passed McDonald’s,’ reported the Independent on Sunday. There were contingents from other major cities, where a level of activism was expected, but also coaches arriving from less noted centres of protest: Guildford, High Wycombe, St Albans, Woking.

When the international focus switched from Afghanistan to Iraq, opposition grew and so did the protests. Churches, mosques and temples mobilised, as did trade unions and colleges, while many non-aligned individuals from housing estates, suburbs and villages turned out for what was often their first experience of political protest. ‘Alongside veteran peace campaigners, trade unionists and anti-globalisation activists will be pensioners, lawyers, bankers and middle-class housewives with their children,’ noted the Birmingham Mail on the eve of the biggest demonstration of all.

That came on Saturday, 15 February 2003 in a coordinated programme of some 800 marches in 60 countries around the world, from Australia, Bangladesh and Indonesia to Russia, Spain and South Africa, bringing out tens of millions of people. There were a million on the streets of Rome, 500,000 in Berlin; there were 200,000 in Damascus, 10,000 in the Canary Islands, and 80 on Orkney. And in London an estimated 2 million staged the largest political gathering in British history.

‘Are they all lefties?’ asked the Daily Telegraph in advance of the demonstration, and gave its own answer: ‘Pretty much, though not exclusively.’ That, however, was not most people’s experience of the march. ‘The Socialist Workers marched next to posh Jane, who brought her own bottle of port because she remembered how cold she’d been on the Countryside March,’ reported the Sunday Herald. ‘It was the most ethnically and socially diverse march Britain has ever seen. There were Peruvians and Pakistanis, Nigerians and Norwegians. In Parliament Square an Ali G lookalike danced to dub reggae on his ghetto blaster while a wan young Christian stood next to him holding a home-made crucifix.’

Playwright Alan Bennett was there, the first time he’d been on a demonstration since Suez in 1956 (and even then he hadn’t intended to be involved). ‘There seems no structure to it, ahead of us some SWP banners,’ he noted in his diary; ‘beside them the Surrey Heath Liberal Democrats. Scattered among the more seasoned marchers are many unlikely figures, two women in front of us in fur hats and bootees looking as if they’re just off to the WI.’

The demonstrators represented a new mood in the country. ‘The nineties are looking like an innocent decade, and who would have thought that at the time?’ wrote Ian McEwan in Saturday (2005), a novel set on that day. ‘Now we breathe a different air.’ David Blunkett, who wasn’t present, described the protest as ‘frighteningly intimidatory, and people so bellicose’. He was wrong. There would be real anger to come, but the tone of the march was light; many of the participants had never even chanted a slogan before, and didn’t do so now, instead simply marvelling at the multitudes that filled central London.

‘They were ordinary people in their everyday clothes, from every walk of life and every age group in Britain,’ wrote Robin Cook. The irony, he reflected, was that many were the people Blair had courted for the last decade: ‘he is destroying the new base that he almost single-handedly built for Labour among the new middle classes…’

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