LONDON -- The festive mood of the crowd that gathered in the streets surrounding London's Euston Station last Thursday afternoon to protest George W. Bush's visit to Britain seemed at odds with the other news of the day. Drums beat wildly, hippies danced, fathers hoisted toddlers onto their soldiers. Few seemed to know or care that earlier that morning, al-Qaeda had attacked a British consulate and London-based bank in Turkey, leaving more than 20 -- including the consul himself -- dead.
The Guardian would later report that, in Istanbul, there were "scenes of chaos in the surrounding streets, where the bodies of the dead and injured were strewn among the wreckage of the building and cars."
London felt very much a continent away. With more than 100,000 people in attendance, the demonstration, which began about five hours after the Istanbul bombing, was the largest weekday protest in British history. Signs ran the gamut, from the predictable ("Bush is a war criminal") to the creative ("For Thanksgiving, Stuff Bush") to the random ("Lula for President"). Protesters dressed as giant pink pretzels and carried signs reading "give pretzels a chance," a reference to an incident in which Bush reportedly choked on a pretzel.
In London, as the crowd marched past the London School of Economics and the BBC's headquarters, a man resembling Homey the Clown -- but sporting a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt -- drummed the beat from atop a bus stop. As it passed Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the crowd sang, "We all live in a terrorist regime" to the tune of the Beatles song "Yellow Submarine." Weeks of haggling with police had finally resulted in approval of a protest route along Whitehall, the seat of the British government. A sympathetic government official waved from a window overlooking the march while a pair of demonstrators wearing Bush and Tony Blair masks kissed and hugged each other just a block from 10 Downing St. One placard urged, "Make tea not war," while another asked of Bush's visit, "Has he come to liberate us?"
A group of demonstrators chanted, "Nazi police, off our streets" to a phalanx of bored and remarkably restrained cops lining the protest path. In fact, many of the 5,000 officers were asleep in their police vans. The hundreds of European anarchists whom Scotland Yard feared would participate did not seem to materialize. In the end, the demonstration was almost entirely peaceful, save for a few arrests in Trafalgar Square as it wound to a close.
So the London protest had an air of surrealism, taking place, as it did, just hours after a terrorist attack against British interests overseas. The protest did seem far less nasty than many of last year's anti-war rallies. The tenor of the demonstration, while harshly critical of U.S. foreign policy, was less anti-American and anti-Semitic than those of similar gatherings in the United States. Many protesters appeared intent on driving home the distinction between despising Bush and hating America. Indeed, after the crowd converged at Trafalgar Square to watch the toppling of a papier-mâché effigy of Bush -- in a staged mimicry of the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad -- a leader of the Muslim Association of Britain preemptively addressed potential critics of the march. "Don't say that we are anti-American," he said, pointing to the large contingent of Americans participating in the protest. "And don't say that we are anti-Jewish," he added, "for Jewish people marched with us today." More surprisingly, the crowd -- which included many an "End the Occupation" placard and a host of unflattering references to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- applauded the conciliatory statements of the Muslim leader.
But if the British left is putting forward a moderate face, it has a problem all the same: With Blair having triangulated progressives out of a position of influence in the country's electoral politics, it's not clear that they have anywhere to turn. The public may continue to express anger toward Blair about the Iraq War and his government's misrepresentation of intelligence. (As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said in speaking at Oxford University last week, Blair and Bush waged war "on the wings of a lie," misrepresenting a war of choice as a war of necessity.) But the terrorist attacks last week gave Blair another chance to link the fight against al-Qaeda to the fight against Iraq. When Bush and Blair emerged Thursday for a joint news conference following word of the attacks, Blair declared solemnly, "This is a war, and its main battleground is Iraq."
To some Brits, jarred by the attacks, the black-and-white moral universe of Bush and Blair held appeal in the wake of the Istanbul bombings. Paul Palmer, writing in the conservative Evening Standard, described Bush on Thursday as acting "like a man burying his own dead." Palmer continued: "As the protests and the bombs and the chaos reign elsewhere this president came here as perhaps the most vilified of American war leaders. We had expected him to be humiliated. It didn't happen. But he was humbled, and all of us with him."
Meanwhile, to the crowds lining Whitehall, Blair was just as popular a target as Bush. "Bliar" signs were ubiquitous in the crowd, and references to Blair as Bush's "poodle" were repeated incessantly. A massive color television screen in Trafalgar Square alternated among speakers addressing the crowd, images of Bush and pretzels, and a picture of a monkey jumping around meant to represent Blair. One of the more popular chants equated the two leaders: "No more Bush. No more Blair. We want leaders who are just and fair." Anti-war Parliament member George Galloway, who was expelled from the Labour Party earlier this year, expressed his wish to see a Democratic administration elected in the United States.
But the questions remain: How does the British left propose to replace Tony Blair -- and with whom? Blair's approval ratings have been dropping, but no substantial opposition to New Labour has come together. While the United States has the Democratic Party to challenge Bush, there is no ready-made institutional force gearing up to defeat Blair. There is no Howard Dean in England.
As the London demonstration wound to a close, organizers urged the crowd to fight against both Bush and Blair and to "work to make their careers as short as possible." The crowd greeted this sentiment with loud applause. But amid the roar of cheers emanating from across Trafalgar Square, one lone voice cautioned, "But don't let the Tories back in."
Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a Prospect contributing editor and Rhodes Scholar.
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