As several hundred antiwar protesters chanted outside the Houses of Parliament in London on a cold Wednesday night, a sitting British government suffered the largest parliamentary revolt in the past 100 years. After a tumultuous six-hour debate on whether Britain should follow the Bush administration to war, more than 120 members of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party defected and voted for an antiwar amendment that described the case for war as "as yet unproven." The antiwar amendment lost, and a bland government motion that did not mention war passed, but the size of the revolt stunned observers here. The final vote in the House of Commons was 198 for and 393 against, with the Labour rebels including not just 30 to 40 hard-line antiwar members but many moderates. The result threw the ruling Labour Party into extreme disarray and sent shock waves throughout the British political system.
The upcoming U.N. Security Council vote on whether to go to war, expected to take place within the next two weeks, now becomes critical for Blair. If the 15-member council does not approve an invasion, and Blair opts for war anyway, as expected, he would face a potentially catastrophic split within his own party. (British prime ministers do not need parliamentary approval to wage war.)
On Thursday morning, the headline in the Guardian newspaper read in enormous type, "Rebel Vote Stuns Blair." Other major British papers carried similar headlines, while major U.S. newspapers gave the story much less play.
At 8 p.m., when the news of the vote was announced, the antiwar forces knew they had scored a major political victory. While traffic sped past, the police kept a close watch on the Parliament Square protesters, inspecting signs and banners.
Almost no one believes that Blair will change his pro-war stance as a result of the vote, but it came as a painful reminder that the prime minister is poised to commit 40,000 British troops to war without strong backing from his country. The parliamentary vote comes on the heels of a massive peace march through central London on Feb. 15 that was part of simultaneous protests in major cities throughout Europe and the United States. A million people rallied against the war in Hyde Park; it was one of the largest demonstrations London has ever seen.
Maxine Narburgh, a Green Party activist and member of a group called Theater of War, said the vote showed that members of Parliament had finally heeded their constituencies and emphatically rejected the reasons for a military intervention in Iraq. "The vote is evidence of the pressure people have been putting on their representatives -- they've been totally heckled, bombarded by an avalanche of phone calls and faxes. How does Blair walk away from this situation without looking silly?"
When asked what the peace movement might do after a war started, she described a wave of civil disobedience directed against the infrastructure in Britain. "There will be grass-roots actions that target trains, planes and oil refineries. At the end of the day people know what to do." Ms. Narburgh said plans for the actions were in their initial phases and were not being discussed publicly to prevent interference from the police. "The nitty-gritty stuff is done in private meetings," she said.
Among the protesters on Wednesday night was Brian Haws, a 54-year-old man from Birmingham who has lived outside the Houses of Parliament under a plastic sheet for the past 637 days. Green Party activists and members of other political groups holding matching banners that read "Don't Attack Iraq" surrounded him, chanting and waving at the cars while tourists gaped and took pictures.
Mr. Haws, something of an ancient mariner character who loves to take people aside and explain his thinking on Iraq, has been the subject of some parliamentary debate himself. Members of Parliament have argued about whether to let him live outside in Parliament Square and protest the ongoing situation in the Middle East. After several legislators came to speak to him about his ideas, they decided to exempt him from the anti-loitering laws and allow him to live in a primitive peace camp, not far from Big Ben.
Despite his rough life as a homeless man, Mr. Haws is well spoken and expresses himself in clear moral terms about the imminent war. He was quick to point out one of the hundreds of pins on his wool hat that showed two flags intertwined, a Union Jack and the American flag.
"You're not monsters, you're good people in America and I've been told that many people in America don't want war," he said. When asked how he thought the world had drifted ever closer to conflict, he observed, "We live in democracies but we have people at the top who act like dictators who feel that they have the right to decide what is right and what is wrong with the world." Asked how he would resolve the current crisis, he said, "How are we going to solve it? We are going to solve it by being decent people for once in our lives."