David Cameron lost last night because the Coalition’s MPs were unwilling to risk the loss of authority and electoral defeat that New Labour suffered as a result of imposing a war on an unwilling electorate. The anti-war movement has been on a minute scale until now and it would be a delusion for the left to pretend that we caused the government’s defeat. But this hurried vote did not take place in isolation from the last twenty years’ history.
Of all the people who have been retrospectively vindicated by last night’s vote, one name occurs to me: Vic Williams, the first of the Iraq war resisters. Vic had been a Gunner serving in Germany. At the start of the Gulf War of 1991 Vic was on leave in Britain where he met by chance a group of socialists selling papers in West London. He explained that he was nervous about returning, and hostile to being sent to fight in Iraq.
So began a process which saw him refuse to return to Germany, going absent without leave, and eventually speaking from a series of anti-war platforms. A Defence Campaign was set up.
At my school, a group of friends wrote to communicate our solidarity to him. I was astonished that he responded. He was on the run, after all. But he did, and he wrote to us with a quiet courage and immense conviction.
Eventually, Vic saw a solicitor and explained that he was fed up with life on the run.
He was shown for the first time the Army Regulations which make desertion at war time a serious offence, carrying years in military detention. ‘Why didn’t the army show me these?’, he asked.
Giving himself up, he was discharged with disgrace and received 14 months in military prison. By some magic of the internet, you can now watch Andy Wilson putting Vic’s case on ITN in the aftermath of the verdict. He explained that Vic was not a conscientious objector; he had served in Ireland. But he simply could not fight in a war whose aims he deemed offensive. The clip is also worth listening to for General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley former commander in chief of Nato’s Allied Forces Northern Europe having to explain that neither Britain nor the US has ever had a “hidden agenda” to enter Iraq and “subjugate it…”
Here’s Robb Johnson’s song, the Ballad of Vic Williams, which I recall being played at benefits for Stop the War 10 years later.
The army didn’t stop persecuting Vic afterwards. Employers were “spoken to”, and the army made it as hard as they possibly could for him to find a stable career.
The numbers who had heard Vic speak at Hyde Park were relatively modest – tens of thousands compared to the millions who marched in 2003. His detention caused no public outcry.
And yet there must have been hundreds of thousands of people who heard the news of Vic’s treatment, and thought to themselves in the privacy of their own heart that the way he had been treated was just wrong.
Soul by soul and silently an argument was being won – against military power – and for popular consent as the only check to it.
Twenty years on, the wavering Coalition MPs fear the capacity of war to become an issue which dominates a generation, as the failure to find WMDs dominated politics for five years afterwards. And they fear the potential of the anti-war majority to become organised: to build a social movement, and to create an electoral machine. For the wavering Lib Dems, in particular, several of whom owe their seats to people’s revulsion against Blair after 2003, this anxiety must have been intense.
We may be bigger, in a better campaigning shape, and more of a menace in their imagination than we are in reality. But we carry this threat from the memory of the occasions when our side did organise.