“What did you do in the war daddy?”
For people of my generation that was a question many of us (in particular the boys) asked of our fathers when we were little. My dad’s answer was that he had piloted a Lancaster in Bomber Command and I was always enormously proud of him. As a teenager I would have been more than willing to follow in his footsteps and to fight the good fight because back then still I believed there was such a thing.
Fortunately National service had finished by the time I was old enough to qualify and as there was never a stage in my youth when I was in any danger of volunteering to join a conflict, it wasn’t until the Falklands that my dad shared his feelings about wars and his belief that they were rarely if ever fought for the reasons that were presented for public consumption.
By the time the Iraq war began on March 20th 2003, I was under no illusions whatsoever about the amount of duplicity, deceit and double-dealing that had been employed in a vain attempt to justify it.
Consequently I had informed my managers at Barnardos that in line with a request by the Stop the War Coalition, I would be registering my protest against the illegal and immoral US/UK action by not going into work on whatever day the invasion started.
When I got up that Thursday morning and heard on the radio that the inevitable had happened, I phoned work and confirmed that I wouldn’t be in. It was a bright spring morning in London and I had a Triumph Tiger on test so I was sorely tempted to head for the South Downs for the day. But when it came down to it the reality of war was far too disgusting for me to treat it as a cheap day off – which was a bit of a shame when all’s said and done.
It was all very well being civilly disobedient but my colleagues already knew exactly how I felt about the ‘Blush Alliance’, as did HR and any employee who used their web board (apparently the views I’d been expressing on my employer’s intranet vis-à-vis the war were causing concern all the way to director level. Unfortunately for them whenever HR attempted to censure me, they invariably claimed that it was an issue of tone rather than the views I was articulating, which allowed me to cite numerous examples of people who were expressing very robust pro-war views on their boards and to ask poker faced if they thought I was being too aggressive in my pacifism? In the end, I copied an e-mail to all my line managers, asking why I was being singled out and demanding to know whether or not the children’s charity I worked for was actually in favour of war, which shut them up). Having made a comparatively token gesture at work, I was left wondering how and where I could best demonstrate my absolute opposition to Blair’s bloody criminal folly.
I know I could have just gone and stood in my local high street with a placard (and perhaps a braver man would have done) but I’ve always thoroughly believed in the principle of strength in numbers so I wanted to be somewhere where I could add my voice and presence to a significant gathering of like minded people. Outside the Houses of Parliament seemed the obvious place to look and the jam I ran into as I approached Lambeth Bridge, suggested I might have been right. By the time I got across the bridge and onto the roundabout on Millbank, the traffic was gridlocked but mounted on the tall Triumph and with a background as a courier, it was child’s play to pick my way through the mayhem and find a parking space just around the corner from Parliament Square.
When I arrived, I was greeted by the thousands of ‘hands of peace’ planted in the grass by an inspired sixth former. The junction at the southwest corner of the square, was blocked by a group of mainly secondary school age youngsters sitting in the road and chanting, “Sit down and stop the war!” It may have been a rather simplistic (not to mention optimistic) idea but there was no denying their passion, nor their opposition to the war and their willingness to do whatever was needed to register it.
I wandered around for a while, before a group broke away and shut down the road in front of Parliament. I felt both shamed and incredibly moved by the youngsters’ determination so I strolled across the road – unmolested by the police – and joined them on the tarmac. Initially I felt a bit like a middle aged man at a teen disco but it quickly became apparent that, age aside, I had infinitely more in common with these youths, than I did with most of my peers. I have to admit that generally the police seemed to be aware that it was mostly school children they were dealing with and with only a few exceptions, they appeared to have their kid gloves on. And sure enough, in a while I was carried away by a couple of very nice policemen, who gently placed me on the pavement outside Westminster Abbey.
Moments later another group rushed into the road in front of me, to prevent a white van which had manoeuvred around the main block, from making any further progress. Youngsters were sitting in front of the van, while the aggressive besuited young man driving it, revved the engine and edged forward. I grabbed a passing policeman (their were certainly enough of them) and drew his attention to the driver’s dangerous and threatening behaviour. The rather wishy-washy officer was having a debate with the driver, while he continued revving his motor, insisting that he was on urgent business and he only needed to get another 25 yds along the road to the western entrance to the Houses of Parliament. That was it in my mind, not only was he an aggressive arsehole, but as far as I was concerned, he was also almost certainly part of the New Labour spin machine. I called out to a female police sergeant, who strode over and commanded the driver to put the hand brake on and turn his engine off before she arrested him for threatening behaviour.
Obviously this was greeted by cheers and jeers, which left the suit in the van struggling to put a face on it after being put in his place in front of a large audience that had every good reason to be hostile towards him. I suspected that matters were made even worse for him because it was a woman who had barked at him so I got up close to his window and said, “How do you feel now? You really must feel like a complete tosser after being slapped down and put under manners by a woman in front of all these kids!” He adopted the staring straight ahead and pretending I didn’t exist approach that I’ve seen so often on the faces of car drivers, when I pulled alongside them on my bike and confronted them about their murderous manoeuvres.
I tossed him a wanker sign and went back and joined the others in the road. One of the youngsters – who clearly had a lot more experience than me at these things in spite of the enormous gap between our ages – told me to lay down, because that way it would require four police officers to carry me off. Which struck me as a good idea, so I made myself comfortable.
In a while, there was a police officer crouching alongside telling me I was obstructing the highway and asking very politely if I would leave. I thought it was better not to get into an argument (especially as he was merely an agent of the State) so I ignored him. Still remaining extremely polite, he asked if there was anything he could say that might persuade me to leave. I asked him if he had any influence with the Blair government and when he informed me that he didn’t, I said that in that case, it was extremely unlikely that he could. Although I was laying down as recommended, I’d made the mistake of crossing my legs, so I tied up 25% less policeman than I would have if I’d made a star – but hey those kids were obviously hardened troublemakers, whereas it was all new to me.
I was carried back to the square and fully expected to be dumped unceremoniously on my head but clearly the police had agreed to maintain a softly softly approach because I was gently lowered to the grass feet first. I thought it would be good to get a report on the Barnardos web board, to inform my colleagues that a bunch of schoolchildren were carrying the conscience of the country; so I called it in to a friend who had been part of the anti-war lobby on the company board and he posted it up my behalf. It was entitled “The Kid’s Are Alright” and Jan wrote it in a “Our man on the spot” style. It turned out to be a controversial thread – ho hum – with some respondents querying what the management where going to do about my civil disobedience, while others were suggesting that I’d somehow Pied Pipered the kids from schools all over the southeast and brainwashed their simple unformed minds into thinking that there was something immoral about war.
By the time I’d completed my despatch, the road had been cleared but the throng of youngsters were still shoving against the police lines. They were chanting “SHAME ON YOU” but it was difficult to work out if their disdain they was directed at the police who were blocking their way, the drivers in the traffic who were carrying on business as usual while another nation was being brutalised, or the MP’s and Lords inside the two Houses, who had conspired in the awful travesty. The one thing that was patently clear, was that they were thoroughly ashamed of the actions of their ‘elders and betters’ and wanted to be sure that they all knew it.
Once again I felt obliged to add my support to the kids’ efforts and on a personal level, it felt good to know that by so doing, I was able to distance myself from the adults whom they held in such justifiable contempt. I added my weight to their shove and my voice to the chant. When I got to the front of the throng, where it met the thick blue (and fluorescent yellow) line, I came face to face with the only badly behaved police officer I encountered throughout the entire day; a particularly nasty and snidey piece of work with three stripes and ZT 2 on his shoulders. Obviously when every other policeman was reminded at their morning briefing that the protestors were only schoolchildren and should be treated as such, he’d been too busy eating a kebab and reading his edition of Fascist Monthly to register it.
Although the crowd were every bit as resolute in their determination to stop the traffic, as they were in their opposition to the war, their pushes against the police lines were just that: good natured pushing, rather than any attempt at violent confrontation. But from his place on the frontline, hidden from the prying eyes of the media, the spiteful little short-arse Sgt ZT 2 seemed to be getting a real kick out of lashing out and inflicting as much pain as possible, to any youngster who came within range.
I remonstrated with him, suggesting that if he was determined to inflict violence on innocents, he ought to go the whole hog and join the forces, and then he could go and slaughter women and children in Iraq with impunity. He responded by telling me that I should be ashamed of myself, so I laughed in his face contemptuously and informed him what a truly pathetic little man he was.
Many of the youngsters had been threatened with permanent exclusion when they walked out of their schools but their determination to voice their objections and to ensure that everyone knew that the war wasn’t in their name, outweighed their fear of retribution; and when you think of the tens of thousands of innocent Middle Eastern people who have died and the millions of others whose lives have been completely turned upside down over the last fifteen years, those kids can proudly tell their children that they were on the right side of history.