Marching on to war – The March That Shook Blair

The March That Shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003, by Ian Sinclair, reviewed by Paul Anderson
August 2013


The argument about the significance of the 15 February 2003 anti-war march in London has been going on ever since – and got serious again with a flurry of polemics to mark the 10th anniversary earlier this year.

Peace News journalist Ian Sinclair’s oral history is part of that argument. The very fact that he spent years producing this book shows that he thinks the demo was very important, a point he makes explicit in his introduction.

He has put in an impressive amount of work – more than 70 face-to-face interviews, dozens of email exchanges and a trawl through the clippings – and The March That Shook Blair provides fascinating insights into the thinking of a lot of the key people in the anti-war camp. This includes several who are critical of the role of the Socialist Workers Party in the Stop the War Coalition, which organised the giant march. Future historians of the British left will mine this book shamelessly.

It isn’t perfect. It could have given more space to demonstrators who were neither involved in the organisation of the march nor old hands in the peace movement and the left. The left pro-war argument gets a look-in only through reproduction of old clippings. And there’s no room at all for waverers or people who fell out with Stop the War (of whom there are quite a few).

There could also be more to contextualise the anti-war movement of 2002–5. Yes, it was primarily a reaction to the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’ after 9/11 and Tony Blair’s support for it – but that’s not the whole story. Most of the key players interviewed by Sinclair had been around for ages before, but few talk about their previous formative experiences – the collapse of the Communist Party and the Labour left and marginalisation of CND in the late 1980s, the 1990–1 Kuwait war, the giant left bust-ups over Bosnia and Kosovo, the Socialist Alliance.

All the same, this is an important document of political and social history. It deserves to be widely read – even if it’s not the last word.

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Steven Taggart 29 August 2013, 09.32

From your review it seems to be the same old sterile arguments between people who still do not seem to have come to terms with the reality of the modern world unable to rise above dead ideologies and dead organisations. As someone who in the past was an active left winger, I find even the title of this book ludricous. Blair probably shrugged his shoulders and had a good joke with Alistair Campbell!
If there had been a march the week after and the week after and on and on- yes it would have had an effect. But there wasn’t – Mass marches no longer are a major part of any effective campaign and have not been since the miners strike.
Most of the non political, first time attenders,( the large majority) and other non ideological people attending were disillusioned by it. They really thought it would make a difference – when it didn’t they said” what we say doesn’t change anything -why bother” and they haven’t !

Ian Sinclair 1 September 2013, 11.18

Hi Steven

As the author of the book reviewed, I thought I’d respond to your comment.

You say “I find even the title of this book ludicrous. Blair probably shrugged his shoulders and had a good joke with Alistair Campbell!”

In actual fact the documentary record shows the march on 15 February 2003 – or more precisely the anti-Iraq War movement of which the march was the high-point – almost certainly did “shake” Blair and the Government and nearly stopped British participation in the war.

The level of Government panic and how close things actually were can be understood if you read the relevant sections of the following books: Alistair Campbell’s ‘The Blair years. Extracts from the Alastair Campbell diaries’, Tony Blair’s autobiography ‘A Journey’, ‘Blair Unbound’ by Anthony Seldon and Andrew Rawnsley’s ‘The end of the party. The rise and fall of New Labour’.

To take just a couple of quotes from Campbell’s diaries:

10 February 2003: “TB [Tony Blair] could barely be in a more exposed place now. PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] tricky. Massive march being planned.”

7 March 2003: The Cabinet Secretary “quietly looking into how a JP [John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister] caretaker premiership would operate” should Blair be forced to resign.

This is broadly confirmed by a careful reading of newspaper reports from the time. For example, on 16 March 2003 – just a few days before the war started – the Daily Telegraph noted that a few days before the Ministry of Defence “was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” (

I agree that more marches of a similar size – more direct action perhaps – would maybe have stopped the war. And that many people on the march became disillusioned with protest because of the march and its popularly understood failure.

My book is not an uncritical look at the anti-Iraq War movement – rather there are several chapters that include testimony from people who are critical of Stop the War Coalition, the SWP role in STWC. There is also discussion about the march’s effect on those attending in the long and short-term.

Kind regards

Ian Sinclair

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