Iraq: Ten Years Since The Great Protest March Of 2003

In February 2003, London was consumed by a huge demonstration against the invasion of Iraq. A decade on, the Huffington Post joined one of the organisers of the march on a walk along its route.

On a freezing February morning, commuters are emerging from London’s Embankment Tube Station.

It was a very different scene a decade earlier, when as many as two million people took to the capital’s streets to try to stop the invasion of Iraq.

February 15, 2003 was one of the biggest ever days of public protest in the UK, with similar marches taking place around the world.

Chief steward in London that day was Chris Nineham, of the Stop the War Coalition.

Looking down the Embankment towards Waterloo Bridge, he recalls the day when the roads were closed and crowds stretched as far as he could see.

“We had realised about 10 days before it was going to be epic,” he says.

“I remember standing on this bridge, looking back along the Embankment, and the sea of people coming over Waterloo Bridge. It was just wall to wall people, and the noise was just unbelievable.”

Protesters march down Piccadilly in central London

Two meeting points had been arranged, with similar numbers gathering at Euston.

Nineham, who led the march from Embankment, set off at 1pm on the bright winter’s day, heading towards the Houses of Parliament and down Whitehall to Downing Street.

“It was not one of those demonstrations where people are just going through the motions - there was kind of a feeling of both anger and a sense that we could maybe make a difference.

"There was chanting, drumming, lots of banners. You can tell when a demonstration is more than the left, the trade unions, when people bring banners they've made themselves.“

The organisers had woken to the news that a huge demonstration had already taken place in Australia, with more planned across the world later in the day.

Estimates of the true turnout vary – the police put it at 750,000 – but Nineham stands by the organisers’ claim of two million.

They stopped outside Downing Street, although Prime Minister Tony Blair was not at home, and continued up towards Piccadilly Circus.

It was there, at around 2pm, that they spotted the rest of the protesters who had made their way from Euston. “There was the most unbelievable cheer, absolute pandemonium,” says Nineham.

“It was very moving. People were amazed at the size of this demonstration, but this was only half of it. We were euphoric.

“It’s so different today, it feels like a different reality. In a sense it is, because the whole dynamic of the city had changed."

Striding down Piccadilly towards Hyde Park, the noise reached deafening levels, with baffled foreign shoppers coming face-to-face with a sea of angry protesters.

Nineham was at the front, alongside trade unionists, MPs and other activists.

“Even when we arrived at Hyde Park, there were hundreds of thousands of people on the Embankment who had still not moved.

“We got to Hyde Park at about 2.30pm, and it was absolutely rammed. People had just turned up here, set up stalls, and there was music playing.”

Two giant screens had been set up with speakers from Tony Benn to Miss Dynamite addressing the crowds.

“It started to get dark about 5pm, but people were still coming in. they started to light fires, there was such a sense of occasion that they did not want to leave.”

Despite the protests, Iraq was invaded March weeks later, and Tony Blair went on to win the 2005 Election.

So what did it all achieve?

“Obviously we didn't stop the war, but we made it very difficult for governments to fight future wars,” he says. "What developed on February 15 was a kind of anti-war block that has been very obstinate.

“The government is continuing to conduct these wars, but public opinion is very much against them.”

The steward insists the former Prime Minister was eventually “hounded out” of office because of Iraq. “He tried to move it on, but the fact was that it was Iraq that did for him.”

In the decade that followed, he admits the surge in public support for the military has made his job more difficult, and says much of the protest movement is now fighting against public spending cuts.

Has the anti-war movement lost its way?

“In a certain sense the issue isn't so centre stage given the austerity cuts, and a lot of the activism associated with the war has moved on,” Nineham says.

“But we don't think that is a perennial thing. People will be marching again in very very large numbers, I am absolutely convinced."