Brian Haw: Veteran peace campaigner who occupied Parliament Square for a decade in protest at war
Monday 20 June 2011
Brian Haw thrust himself into the public eye as an anti-war protester in 2001, living in a tent outside the Palace of Westminster for almost a decade in a vigil that was brought to an end only by his illness and death.
A heavy smoker, he died of lung cancer, for which he was being treated in Berlin. Supporters blamed the establishment for his death, saying he had been "relentlessly persecuted by the authorities which eventually took its toll on his health".
Some viewed his campaign as an expression of public conscience. Others regarded him as a public nuisance whose collection of banners, placards, posters, teddy bears and other impedimenta lessened the dignity of Parliament Square.
But everyone – supporters, critics and observers in general – marvelled at his persistence, whether they regarded it as splendid or excessive.
Despite his extraordinary commitment he never became a folk-hero: in fact he never sought to, concentrating on individual protest rather than broadening his campaign.
His rhetoric, often delivered via a megaphone, was emotional and uncompromising, particularly stressing that children were being injured and killed. He declared: "I've been witnessing against the genocide our murderous greedy country has been inflicting against the most helpless. We're killing each other – dropping bombs on our children."
Born in Redbridge, London, Brian William Haw was brought up in Worcestershire but lived in and around London for most of his life, working as a carpenter, boatbuilder and merchant seaman. His father, who as a soldier entered the Belsen concentration camp, committed suicide 20 years later. "My dad gassed himself," Haw once told a journalist.
He first set up camp outside Parliament in 2001, initially in protest against British support for UN sanctions against Iraq and before Britain became involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many such protests have petered out in weeks or months but at no stage did Haw appear likely to abandon his campaign. He maintained it over the years, not even leaving on Christmas Day, displaying a persistence which came at a high cost to his family.
His wife filed for divorce after his first year in Parliament Square, and after a time he rarely saw any of their seven children. The loss of family life added an extra layer of bitterness to his views.
He told Jerome Taylor of The Independent in 2009: "I have effectively lost my family because our nation doesn't care enough.
"I love my wife and children so much, but I blame the Government for losing them because I shouldn't have been here eight years. I didn't want to be here eight bloody years but, while the killing and murder continues, I'm staying."
A play based on Haw's story, entitled The State We're In, examined the effect on his family. Its author, Zia Trench, said: "There is a messianic illusion around him, something so Jesus-like about him.
"He has taken on our fight but what has this cost him? The play looks at the man behind the protest and how battles fought for liberty can cost a man his wife, home and sanity."
In 2007 Haw was delighted when he was the runaway winner of the Channel 4 news award for Most Inspiring Political Figure. He attracted 54 per cent of the votes cast by viewers, compared with 8 per cent for Tony Blair and 6 per cent for David Cameron.
"Yeah, that felt damn good," he said with satisfaction. "Ordinary Joe Bloggs on the street being voted ahead of Blair and Cameron – felt great."
Another distinction came when an artist, Mark Wallinger, recreated his camp as an exhibition which went on to win the Turner Prize. Wallinger described him as "the last dissenting voice in Britain, waging a tireless campaign against the folly and hubris of our government's foreign policy".
A spokesman for the Tate Gallery, where it was displayed, said Wallinger "raises challenging questions about issues of freedom of expression and the erosion of civil liberties in Britain today".
Just as Haw harassed authority, so did authority harass him. His years in the square were marked by continual legal attempts to have him shifted, and by numerous arrests on charges such as "suspicion of obstructing police".
After one early-morning police raid, the civil rights group Liberty accused the government of "intolerance which has surely reached a fever-pitch".
At one court hearing, counsel for the Metropolitan Police said it was not suggested that Haw posed a terrorist threat, but police were concerned that "his unique position in Parliament Square may be exploited by terrorists wanting to strike a devastating blow to the heart of democracy".
Counsel added: "To set off a terrorist device within Parliament Square would reverberate around the world."
Later a senior police officer, explaining in court why he had not reached an agreement with the protester, said plaintively: "The problem is that whenever I do speak to Brian Haw, he stands and shouts at me."
Legislation designed to expel him from the Square turned out to be badly drafted and failed to budge him, although police curtailed the amount of space he occupied.
Although he had many opponents, The Independent called for three cheers for his activities and chided David Cameron for saying: "I'm all for demonstrations but my argument is, enough is enough."
The newspaper declared: "The right of protest and the issues of peace and war are far too important to be dismissed in a prissy preference for order. That's not the British spirit. Nor should it be of anyone who aspires to power in a country that values freedom."
Haw claimed he had supporters in unexpected places, maintaining: "There are good judges who are horrified and outraged and there are good coppers who are horrified and outraged."
As the years went by his health deteriorated, perhaps not surprisingly for a man who lived in a small tent with primitive cooking facilities, rudimentary hygiene and the din and fumes of traffic. His brushes with the law were never-ending, his anger palpable.
His face became deeply weathered; he had a thick bronchial cough; he smoked cheap cigarettes; he was described as visibly skeletal. He was treated for his lung cancer in Germany, which meant he had to leave his camp, so that Parliament no longer had him as an enemy at its gates.
Brian Haw, peace campaigner, born Redbridge, London; married Kay (seven children); died Berlin 18 June 2011
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