Brian Haw: The ultimate protester
The traffic continues to flow around Parliament Square, the tourists continue to bustle. But something is unmistakeably missing.
Early on Saturday Brian Haw died of lung cancer. It was the end of a life whose last ten years had been among the most unusual in modern British history. He had devoted himself to a solitary protest against Britain's foreign policy, earning himself an unusual place in the history books. His dogged unshakeable stubbornness was as British as the red buses constantly passing by.
Haw's message was all the more powerful because, somewhat paradoxically, he shunned attention. "I will not be a media whore," his website declared. His target was MPs, the men and women who had authorised the invasion of Iraq and the suffering it and its aftermath caused. The media, so often viewed as part of the establishment, were invariably treated with suspicion.
I caught a glimpse of this during the heavy snowfalls of early 2009. Central London was brought to a standstill and many MPs were forced to stay away from parliament altogether. But Haw was there, in the midst of the blizzard, and so an obvious candidate for interviewing.
Perhaps it was the suit, or the notebook, or the fact I had clearly emerged from the Palace across the road. Whatever, he didn't answer my first few remarks. He just stood there, glaring contemptuously. "Look," I said desperately, "I just want to know what you think of all the MPs not bothering to come in." Slowly, like an ancient tortoise, he craned his neck towards me. "I'm still here," he growled. And then began showing me, half-covered by snow, pictures of dead babies.
Haw's comment was an appropriate one. He had begun his protest on June 2nd 2001 over the economic sanctions being imposed on Iraq. Doing so was an extraordinary step for anyone to make: after a couple of years sleeping in the square he and his wife divorced, after all. Even before the 2003 invasion an attempt to remove him was made. It was the first of many defeats for those seeking to end his vigil.
Haw was an irritant to many in parliament. So MPs decided they could get rid of him on security grounds in 2003. Their recommendation became part of New Labour legislation two years later, by which time public anger at the Iraq war was at its peak. It was now combined with frustration by civil liberties campaigners. The court of appeal overturned the measures.
The transition from an angry carpenter to a global icon was not quite complete. Even as fresh attempts were begun to oust him, he won an award for being that year's 'most inspiring political figure'. In 2007 a reproduction of one of his protest banners by artist Mark Wallinger won the Turner Prize. He appeared on CNN regularly.
Wallinger has described Haw as a man of "tenacity, integrity and dignity". "Brian showed us what a quiescent and supine country we've become," he wrote in an article for the Independent newspaper. "What Brian was saying was never really reported properly, nor was the depth and heroism of his struggle. People who should know better would describe him as a crank and wouldn't bother to hear what he had to say."
It had looked as if the days of his protest were numbered, for he had lost an appeal in March against eviction from the grassy area of Parliament Square. But in the end, it was to be lung cancer, not politicians or officials, which forced him from Parliament Square.
Haw was never interested in becoming a legend. He was a pain, a thorn in the government's side, nothing more. Those inspired by his example who attempted to join him were often surprised when he turned out to be irascible and grumpy. His purpose was not to charm, like a politician, or tell a story, like a journalist. It was to make a point – an enduring reminder that the decisions made in Westminster have real consequences.