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Saturday, 15 February, 2003, 20:36 GMT
A new era of activism?

In many ways it ought to gladden the hearts of ministers. Estimates suggest at least a million people, and very possibly more, joined Saturday's anti-war protest in London and other cities and towns.

The London march was the largest political demonstration Britain has ever seen and the biggest taking to the streets since VE Day.

Stop the War march in November
Organisers and police expect a record number of marchers
The turnout dwarfed not just last year's Countryside Alliance march, which enjoyed a degree of bankrolling by wealthy landowners, but also the 1980s CND rallies that became a feature of the Thatcher years.

In recent years we have become used to members of the government fretting about diminishing interest in and respect for politics and political party activism - usually just after the latest abysmal election turnout figures have been posted.

Their concern is genuine; many of them cut their political teeth at the coal face of extra-parliamentary political activism.

Not Tony Blair, who himself acknowledges that he came late to politics.

Gordon Brown, Charles Clarke, Peter Hain and Jack Straw, however, are just a few at the cabinet table with an honourable record of youthful rabble-rousing in the best sense of the word.

Broad alliance against war

The irony won't be lost on them that a huge resurgence of street protest sees their government on the wrong end of public opinion.

It has also mobilised people from all walks of life in a coalition that could have been copied from Mr Blair's big tent text book.

The Stop the War Coalition (STWC) has more than 500 organisations affiliated to it, including 11 political parties (the Liberal Democrats among them).

Assorted luvvies and celebrities are on board, as are many trade unions, Greenpeace and assorted bishops.

So too are Bare Witness ("naked protest for peace") and Knitters Against The War. A lecturer-and-student contingent from Eton College, meanwhile, was on the phone to the STWC seeking advice on the best assembly point to make for.

New era of activism?

A disparate bunch, certainly; but also a broad one that can't be dismissed as the usual collection of Heinz 57 varieties of hard-left activists sometimes relied on to make up the numbers at many a protest.

Does it all add up to a new era of activism? Campaigners who have been waiting for a resurgence of grassroots activism hope it does, but know that it is too early to tell.

The prospect of imminent war, albeit one in which the bombs will fall thousands of miles away, is about as serious as protest issues get. Small wonder, in that sense, if it were to bring record numbers of marchers onto the street.

What ministers are hoping, including those concerned at the government line on Iraq as set down by Mr Blair, is that the coalition of voters ranged against them on the looming war will, once the issue that binds it has passed, break up and go its separate ways.


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12 Feb 03 | Politics
07 Feb 03 | Politics
15 Jan 03 | Politics
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