On 15 February 2003, the UK’s largest ever anti-war protest took place. About a million people took to London’s streets to demonstrate against the imminent invasion of Iraq, an invasion for which British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush had failed to secure backing from NATO, the European Union, or the UN Security Council. Blair and Bush went ahead anyway, and on 20 November 2003 Bush made a state visit to Britain. Anti-war protestors once again demonstrated, unbowed by their failure in February. In fact, according to the police, 100,000 people took part; the organisers estimate double that number.

Frederike Helwig was commissioned by The Face magazine to photograph the demonstrators on 20 November, and she also collected quotes from the press about the anti-war protest, insights that many thought should have stopped the invasion. Her images and the commentators’ words record the flashes of humour of the anti-war movement, but also its increasing sense of bitterness and futility. Military action in Iraq destabilised the country and exacted a heavy toll on its citizens; according to a BBC2 report in 2021, some 100,000-500,000 Iraqi people had died by the end of the war in 2011. By contrast, just 179 British service personnel lost their lives. The so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction, so central to Blair’s justification for the invasion, were never found.

Revisiting her images nearly 20 years later, Helwig has paired them with quotes from the debate in February 2003, the inquiry into the war in 2016, and commentary from more recent years. Blair still maintains he was right, despite all the evidence to the contrary and the mass of public opinion which was always against him. “The leader’s responsibility is to lead,” he stated in 2021. “It’s to take the decision and stand by the decision and if in the end people condemn you for it, and public opinion moves against you on it, well that’s just the way it is.”

Blair’s words and Helwig’s images are eerily relevant now, with the British government successfully pushing through the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill on 26 April 2022. This legislation will potentially ban all effective protest, and as such has been described by journalist and activist George Monbiot as evidence that “a vaguely democratic nation is sliding towards autocracy”. Politicians are supposed to act on our behalf. If they’re ignoring enormous, repeated protests, or quashing demos before they’ve even begun, we need to be asking them why.

Diane Smyth 2022