Syria & Shelley

A few people in my twitter timeline last night were suggesting that the vote in parliament rejecting military intervention in Syria showed a delayed influence of the march and protests against the launch of the Iraq war ten years ago.

It’s not straightforward to see a direct connection, but clearly the shadow of Iraq fell over parliament – and that included not just what has happened and is happening still in Iraq but also the levels of public opposition expressed to it in this country.

This idea that campaigning delivers sometimes-deferred outcomes reminded me of the anti-roads protest in the nineties – and particularly the quote in Tim Gee’s Counterpower that the protest at Twyford was “an absolutely successful campaign in every respect except stopping the road”.

The road at Twyford was built – and in fact no road was stopped once construction had begun, despite significant displays of opposition. But cumulatively these protests raised the political cost to the government and financial cost to the roadbuilders and led to the planned roadbuilding programme being massively scaled back (until its more recent resurrection).

I also thought of the suggestion (in A Radical History of Britain) that Shelley’s response to the Peterloo massacre – the poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ – inspired Gandhi and was chanted at Tiananmen Square.


Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you –

Ye are many – they are few.


The women and men who attended the protest – and bore vicious attack for it – were acting with a sense of solidarity and justice whose ripples were felt far and wide.

Nobody planning the protest St Peter’s Field in Manchester in 1819 wrote out a theory of change setting out this chain of results. But campaigning is sometimes about sowing seeds even if you don’t know when or where (or even if) they will germinate.





  1. jeremy says:

    I remember 10-12 years ago at a certain large INGO, there were no plans or strategies, and campaigns were developed informally, based on the intuition of research staff. This was all too loose, so there was a drive to SMART objectives, proper strategies and theories of change. Now the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way in a reaction against overly formalised, over-simplified, linear campaign models. We need to keep space for fluidity and for the content experts to follow their hunches, but we also need structure. As part of this, a theory of change is a guide, not a straitjacket.

  2. Mark Luetchford says:

    You know I like to see the accumulation of progress as a continuum stretching back to the Levellers and hat wearing fellow travellers (and beyond) but doesn’t mean we can’t get better at accelerating that process by learning and improving how progressives effect change. I have seen new generations come into campaigning who bring energy and enthusiasm but too often they forget they are standing on shoulders of giants and spend too much time reinventing rather than carrying on the baton. Too madly mix my metaphors.

    Interestingly Shelley wrote a poem at roughly the same time called the Revolt of Islam – “Hope is strong; Justice and Truth their winged child have found”.

    Incidentally I have always been slightly puzzled by the negative use of the word Anarchy as of course Shelley was part of the grouping around William Godwin – considered to be one of the founders of anarchist thought in England – and married his and Mary Wolstonecroft’s daughter, Mary, the author of Frankenstein.

    Keep up the the thoughts

  3. Titus Alexander says:

    I agree with Jeremy about the need for fluidity as well as structure, and a theory of change, as well as strategy, experience and knowledge as guides. We should remember that campaigns also teach the opposition how to campaign, so that Mrs Thatcher learnt how to deal with the miners union from the strikes under Edward Heath and the three day week. Going back further, to Peterloo in 1819 the campaign for universal suffrage took another hundred years and by then the Conservative Party learnt how to campaign and use the franchise it had once feared to become the dominant party during the 20th century.

    The vote on Syria was not influenced by the protests over Iraq so much as the disastrous course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq themselves. If those conflicts had been seen as successful the vote would have been very different.

    The bigger question about Syria is about global peace making: how does the international community prevent conflicts like this from arising in the first place? And how to intervene earlier and more effectively when they do? This is part of the sustained long term campaign for equitable global governance and world peace. The vote yesterday has put these questions on the political agenda again.

    As Shlley wrote, “Change is certain. Peace is followed by disturbances; departure of evil men by their return. Such recurrences should not constitute occasions for sadness but realities for awareness, so that one may be happy in the interim.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.