London rallies for peace

 Almost one million people braved bitterly cold temperatures on Saturday to voice their opposition to a war in Iraq by marching through the streets of London. Police said 750,000 protesters walked the route from Gower Street and Embankment to Hyde Park. It is normal at any rally for the organisers to claim attendance figures that are vastly higher then official estimates, and today was no exception - the Stop the War coalition put the figure at nearly two million. But one thing is certain: it was the biggest ever peace demonstration in Britain. And it felt like popular political activism was enjoying a healthy revival - this certainly wasn't the electorate berated by politicians at recent elections for being apathetic. "People have to stand up and do something because we can't let Blair put us into a war," said one marcher. Christian peace groups were out in force. There were many hundreds of Pax Christi, CCND, Quaker and other organisations represented among the marchers and speakers. There was a bewildering array of banners on display at the protest, reflecting the broad coalition that makes up the Stop the War organisation and the wide range of ages and ethnic groups that marched. They ranged from the straightforward - 'Stop the War' - to the whimsical - 'Make Tea not War' to the very specific 'Sydenham Industrial Musicians Against Fascism'. One of the largest contingents - wielding a forest of orange placards - was the Liberal Democrats, who formed a polite and orderly queue behind their leader, Charles Kennedy, a Catholic, and the highest profile politician on the march. The strains of 'We shall overcome' which drifted from Mr Kennedy's immediate entourage suggested quite a few of them were veterans of past peace protests. But this march was unique for having so many who had been moved to add their voice to the anti-war lobby for the first time. Anna, a Spaniard living in Croydon, had waited until she was almost 70-years-old before joining her first peace protest, but she now felt enough was enough. "I think Bush and Blair are terrorists and I'm against terrorism. "Blair tells too many lies - you can fool some people some time, but not all the time," she said, her voice shaking with emotion. Richard Weber from Highgate, London, was also on his first peace rally: "It really doesn't help anyone's objectives, we cannot live in a safer world with war." The strength of feeling in this huge demonstration is not in doubt. It is a powerful message to see the Arab Labour party marching with the Jewish Socialist Group and Turkish Kurds shouting the same slogans as the Iraqi Communists - all united in a conviction that war should not be waged in their name. But what the peace movement often seems to lack is a convincing alternative to conflict, while still being able to condemn Saddam Hussein as a brutal and oppressive dictator. It needs to move beyond simply pointing out the West armed the Iraqi leader in the first place, or accusing the Bush and Blair administrations of cynical timing, or arguing that the world has always contained a few very nasty characters whom unfortunately wield an enormous amount of power. All these arguments are true, but none is compelling - none combine the opposition to oppression which must surely go hand-in-hand with the condemnation of conflict. If it managed to achieve that balancing act this movement, this massive surge of popular opinion, would be truly unstoppable.

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