Stop the war

Mark Curtis 

Contribution to Andrew Murray and Lindsey German, Stop the War: The story of Britain’s biggest mass movement, Bookmarks, 2005 – available at

Anyone who believes that the protest movement against the Iraq war was a failure should consider the Blair’s government’s military planning.

Over the last seven years the government has been developing unprecedented plans for military intervention around the globe. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) stated that the priority in future will be “force projection” and that “in the post cold war world we must be prepared to go to the crisis rather than have the crisis come to us”. It was thus Blair, not Bush, who made a commitment to a “pre-emptive” military strategy – and this, three years before September 11th.

The SDR outlined plans to buy two larger aircraft carriers “to power more flexibly around the world”, a new generation of attack helicopters, submarines equipped with cruise missiles, and fighter and bomber aircraft. It stated that “long-range air attack will continue to be important both as an integral part of warfighting and as a coercive instrument to support political objectives”, thus a modern-day equivalent to gunboat-diplomacy. A key aspect was the  retention of nuclear weapons with which Britain should be “retaining an option for a limited strike” and which would be able “to deter any threat to our vital interests”.

A new chapter added to the SDR in July 2002 noted “the emphasis on expeditionary operations”, and the need for “rapidly deployable intervention forces” and “force projection and strike capabilities”. At the same time, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon was saying that the military was being equipped “for more frequent operations” and “higher numbers of concurrent smaller operations” in regions beyond Europe.

Then in December 2003 – nine months after the invasion of Iraq – the government produced one of the most worrying documents I have ever seen, the Defence white paper, with its Orwellian title: Delivering security in a changing world. This states that British intervention capability needs to go beyond even that envisaged in these two earlier documents: “We must extend our ability to project force further afield than the SDR envisaged” including in “crises occurring across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia” and arising from “the wider threat from international terrorism”. It notes that “the threat from international terrorism… now requires the capability to deliver a military response globally”, and calls for the British military to conduct “expeditionary operations” while “rapidly deployable forces” are needed for “a range of environments across the world”. In all this, the report states that “our armed forces will need to be interoperable with US command and control structures”.

These documents amount to a reconfiguration of military strategy, to the point where Britain now has a Ministry of Offence. The December 2003 White Paper was in effect saying that Iraq was to be followed by more interventions. Even though it was drawn up nine months after the invasion of Iraq, the sheer scale of public protest must surely have deterred the government – at least temporarily – from putting these plans into action. This is a major public success, a sign of how significant a force popular protest can be, and how it can push elites off course.