London, Feb. 16: Tariq Ali, the former Pakistani student leader turned grey-haired, middle-aged and respectably middle class author and broadcaster, received thunderous applause in Hyde Park yesterday when he concluded his fiery anti-war speech with a simple rallying call to the British masses: “Bring Blair down!”
And he began his speech on an equally uncompromising note: “If there’s one country that needs a regime change, it’s Britain.”
He argued that the British government had lost its authority to speak on behalf of the British people, and that if Saddam Hussein possessed chemical weapons, it was because the Iraqi leader had been sold the stuff by Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, and by Tory and Labour governments in Britain. “He was more dangerous when he was ally of the West than he is today,” he said. This is a point of view with which many people in Britain might agree.
Yesterday’s demonstration was unquestionably historic. Anything between a million and two million people turned up in London in what is being described as the biggest peacetime demonstration witnessed in Britain.
Tariq Ali, photogenic yesterday in a bright red bomber jacket and a flowing white scarf could be reliving the heady days of 1968 when he was a young Oxford student leading the anti-Vietnam demo in front of the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. Yesterday, the massive police turnout ensured that the embassy, a few minutes walk from Hyde Park, was off limits to the demonstrators.
Although there were many disaffected folk yesterday, who would turn up for any demo whatever the cause, a large proportion, possibly even a majority were people who had never before carried a banner or turned out for a protest.
The targets of the demonstration were clearly Bush and Blair. “Bush and Blair Wanted for Murder”, read the placard widely distributed by the extreme left Socialist Workers’ Party.
One of the most popular said: “Make tea not war”. “Not in my name,” probably best summed up popular sentiment.
The signals this morning are that while British people don’t want military action, Tony Blair does and whatever the threat to his prime ministership, he is committed to executing the war against Saddam Hussein alongside George Bush.
Too many men and too much hardware have been sent to the Gulf for the tide to be reversed. However, the gap between the British Prime Minister and the British public is widening day by day. No one knows precisely how many people turned up in yesterday’s demonstration in London. The organisers claimed a figure of two million. The police, which usually underestimates the size of any anti-establishment turnout, suggested 750,000.
This morning’s Sunday Times reports the turnout at “at least 750,000”, the Sunday Mirror at “two million”, the Observer at “one million” and the Mail on Sunday’s headline stated, “1,500,000 Say No to War against Iraq”.
Between 10 and 20 per cent of the turnout in London consisted of Muslims, who fear that any war against Iraq will have adverse consequences for the 1.5 million members of the Islamic faith in London. An enterprising group set up a stall on behalf of Mecca Cola, the Islamic alternative to the capitalistic Coca Cola.
Before Tariq Ali, a young Muslim woman, Salma Yaqub, addressed the Hyde Park crowd. “I refuse to be treated as a second class citizen in the country of my birth,” she declared.
An interesting point was made by Michael Foot, the former Labour leader, a founder member of the campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and an old friend of India. He felt that the inspections’ regime was working in Iraq and ought to be extended to other countries with nuclear weapons. “We can do it in other countries,” he said. “They can go to Iran, to Pakistan,” he suggested.
An irate pro-Pakistani voice in the crowd was not having this. “What about India'” the man shouted. “Why doesn’t Foot name India'”
Speakers yesterday included Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party.
But although at least half the Labour Party MPs in parliament are said to be opposed to war, none turned up, probably too scared to incur Blair’s wrath.
However, senior British political journalists say that if Blair goes to war without a second UN resolution, several Cabinet members will resign and that half the Labour Party will revolt against the Prime Minister.
There is no sign, though, that Blair will change his mind. He made a point of not being in London for the demo but told a Labour Party conference in Glasgow: “Getting rid of Saddam would be an act of humanity.”
He is gambling that once he and President Bush have done just that, public opinion will hail him as a strong Prime Minister not afraid to take the hard decisions he thought were best for his country and the world.
Meanwhile, a senior Indian businessman in London, with good contacts in the Middle East, said he believed that the Saudi royal family was trying to persuade Saddam Hussein to take up their offer of exile in Jeddah, where the Iraqi leader could join Idi Amin and Nawaz Sharif.
Amartya Sen protest
Amartya Sen’s sentiments about the gathering war against Iraq were couched in academic language but there are no doubts about how the Nobel Prize winner feels. He has revealed that he is against the war in Iraq during comments made in London at a seminar organised by Ahimsa, a new group set up by Indian and Pakistani women in London in the wake of the Gujarat riots with the aim of fighting communalism.
Professor Sen, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was addressing a packed audience at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where the seminar was discussing “Militancy, Nationalisms and the Bomb: the Indian Subcontinent”.
In remarks made on the eve of the anti-war rally in London, Sen stressed the significance of protests by “civil society”.
He said: “I hope there will be a million people there tomorrow.” His hopes were more than fulfilled because between one million and two million people turned for the protest rally.