The Forgotten Story of How Scottish Train Drivers Tried to Derail the Iraq War
They tried to stop the invasion in its tracks, if you will.
In the first days of January 2003, the Royal Navy's flagship aircraft carrier – HMS Ark Royal – docked alongside a naval jetty in Loch Long in the west of Scotland. The deep sea lochs that intersect the mountains of the southern Highlands offer some of the most dramatic scenery in the country and, just over an hour from Glasgow, have long been popular with visitors. Beneath the surface, however, it is one of the most heavily militarised parts of western Europe, dotted with training areas, munition testing facilities and the naval base which houses the UK's fleet of nuclear subs .
A few miles north of the naval base, the Glen Douglas munitions facility is found, a secretive network of hillside bunkers capable of holding 40,000 cubic metres of ammunition. The remote base is served by both a railway line and the jetty at which the aircraft carrier docked, where it was due to stock up on supplies ahead of sailing to the Gulf. Two months before MPs would get the chance to vote on the invasion of Iraq, military preparations were well underway.
As Britain prepares for the impact from the long-delayed Chilcot report, many will remember the protests that took place to avert war taking place. The most famous brought up to two million to the streets of London and many more elsewhere. Their failure in stopping the conflict means they've since become the go-to example for anyone looking to prove why protest "doesn't work". But what if the drive to war could quite literally be stopped in its tracks?
For a group of freight train drivers working a remote railway line in Scotland, this was more than a hypothetical point of discussion. Drivers of the West Highland Line refused orders to shift military materials, setting the stage for an unlikely stand-off. Until now, it has largely been forgotten.
The Ministry of Defence contracted freight firm EWS, which was privatised in the mid-90s, to take supplied to the Highlands munitions base by rail. But when the order came through to the EWS depot in Motherwell, the drivers were having none of it. Fully aware that provisions were being made for a war that was still to be sanctioned by the UN (and ultimately never was), and with the tacit backing of rail union ASLEF, the drivers refused to shift the materials.
Their wildcat action proved successful, with panicking rail managers forced to cancel the consignment and transport the munitions by road instead. The uniqueness of the line – a narrow single-track railway that weaves through the western Highlands, and which further north features the Glenfinnan Viaduct of Harry Potter fame – meant that only a small number of drivers were trained to drive freight along it. When all of those came on board with the munitions boycott, and another dozen drivers at the depot threatened anti-war action, the game was up. No munitions would be making their way on board Ark Royal, at least by rail.
Far from passing into history or legend, the story has rarely been mentioned since – lost in the build-up to the massive marches that happened a month later. Even at the time, little fuss was made over it, although Labour MP John McDonnell – now an embattled shadow chancellor, but then an anti-war backbench rebel – sponsored a parliamentary motion applauding the "courageous and principled action" by the drivers. Among the 24 other signatories was current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. "This House... believes that the right to conscientious objection extends to all British citizens who refuse to participate or contribute to this threatened war," the short statement concludes.
Those "conscientious objectors" directly involved with the action have shied away from publicity, with the driver who led it declining to be interviewed for this article. "He's been a union member all his life, but not an activist as such, but he decided to take a stand at the time," explains Hugh Bradley, the Motherwell depot's ASLEF branch secretary during the dispute and a member of the union's executive, recalling that it was a primarily a "personal" motivation. "The guys did take a stand and refused to work and they never got disciplined. But that would have been on the back of the trade union, because management knew that if they'd taken disciplinary action, it would have been all-out war."
In the early 1970s, just a few miles from Motherwell, the employees at a Rolls Royce plant in East Kilbride refused to carry out repairs on warplanes belonging to the Chilean air force. They opted to leave the engines rusting outside the factory rather than return them to Pinochet's right-wing dictatorship which had recently seized power. Their act of solidarity is fondly remembered in both Scotland and Chile to this day, and is soon set to be the subject of a feature-length documentary.
But generally, this kind of action is rare in the UK partly because it is, in effect, unlawful. "Such action is political action which has no immunity under Britain's employment law," explains Gregor Gall, editor of the Scottish Left Review and professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford. "In other words, it is not part of a trade dispute with the employer, and thus workers are liable to be sacked."
The particular circumstances of the drivers' boycott – involving a small number of specialised workers in a strong union – were enough to protect them, but they were still putting their jobs on the line to resist the "USA's seemingly headlong rush into war", as their union branch motion put it. When the Guardian was leaked the story by an ASLEF official, rail managers and military officials denied that the drivers had been making a political stand, insisting a technical fault had caused the job to be cancelled.
"Once a declaration [of war] takes place, the focus for effective action must turn to direct action to halt, impede and disrupt the operation of the mechanics of war," Professor Gall told VICE. "Transportation of combatants and equipment is an obvious strategic point to focus upon, as would be disabling aircraft. But hitting transportation means that civilians can do so without fear of criminal charges, because doing so is only a civil breach of their employment contracts."
The war would begin in late March, setting the anti-war movement off on an ever-dwindling series of marches over the best part of a decade, as chaos in Iraq extended across the region. This week, the long-awaited release of the Chilcot report into the Iraq War will spark an onslaught of hand-wringing about why the war proved so disastrous, and what could possibly have been done to avoid it. It could be the case that a small group of reluctant militants at a Motherwell rail depot had more foresight than they've ever been given credit for.
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