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The march that nearly succeeded

Tuesday 19 March marks the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the US with the UK government as its principal supporter and a large part of the British population opposing. The highlight of the anti-war movement was the biggest protest march London has ever seen, when around one million people took to the streets of the capital to voice their protest. Ian Sinclair has written a fascinating oral history of the event which he launched in Hastings. Nick Terdre went along.

In contrast to the standard approach to writing history, Ian decided to let people – participants, members of the government, other politicians, activists, commentators, researchers, reporters, leader writers – speak for themselves. In addition to 71 face-to-face interviews and 51 written testimonies, he also culled contributions from newspapers, books, other historians, archives and other sources.

Ian does not claim to be a neutral observer – he makes it clear he sides with the opponents of the war. But his history gives a voice to all sides. Even a neutral observer couldn’t achieve complete objectivity. Instead the author gives readers plenty of material to make up their own mind.

In a way it’s a story of the one million marchers, and the other millions of opponents who couldn’t make the march, against prime minister Tony Blair, who promised military support to US president George W Bush without consulting his government colleagues and then set about manipulating the case in favour.

Ten years on, many questions arise. Iraq is certainly different, but better? Radio reports on current conditions for ordinary Iraqis make depressing listening. Bush and Blair claimed they would make it democratic, an aim that certainly seems to have failed. But they liberated the oil, which many take to have been the true motive for the war.

Reclaiming the march

So what did the march on 15 February 2003 achieve? According to accepted wisdom, nothing, or at most, very little. Some historians barely mention it. Ian Sinclair begs to differ. “I wanted to reclaim the march from this kind of defeatist attitude,” he told the meeting organised by Hastings Against War last month.

In the few short weeks between the march and the invasion, Blair found himself under intense pressure, and his government came close to falling. Concern in Washington at the shaky state of his war campaign was so great that according to US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, Bush three times called Blair offering to let off the UK from participating in the first wave of the invasion in order to ensure the survival of his government.

Blair’s nadir came on so-called Wobbly Tuesday, 11 March 2003, when minister of defence Geoff Hoon was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops from the invasion and flaky Labour MPs were themselves wobbling in sufficiently large numbers to threaten Blair with defeat in the parliamentary vote the mounting opposition to the war had forced him to accept. The man himself was at times ill with worry.

Such was the indignation at Blair’s cynical manoeuvring that great numbers of normally passive people suddenly became politicised, and even school children spontaneously walked out of class to join demonstrations or hold one of their own. Moslems, in many ways marginalised following 9/11, found themselves political space as welcome members of the wide-ranging anti-war coalition.

In the end, Sinclair said, Blair was fatally wounded by the Iraq war and eventually had to leave office sooner than he wanted, leaving a legacy of widespread cynicism about the British political system. The invasion went ahead, but the attempts to stop it were by no means futile, as the author’s book amply documents. Next time, perhaps, they can be made successful.


The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003, by Ian Sinclair. Published by Peace News Press. £10 + £1.50 p&p, available from

Wobbly Tuesday: more here.



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Posted 19:16 Sunday, Mar 17, 2013 In: Campaigns

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