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Philip Hensher

How one man's protest backfired on us all

Mr Haw has given the Government an excuse to exercise control over demonstrations

Three years ago Mr Brian Haw, a carpenter and evangelical Christian from Redditch in Worcestershire, decided something had to be done about the Government. He came down to London to mount a protest, opposite the gates of the Houses of Parliament.

And he stayed. In fact, he has been there ever since, protesting for 1,250 days. What his original protest was about, I could not tell you, since it began in the summer of 2001, before 11 September, and has since followed public events. Since the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, Mr Haw has been making placards against the conduct of the Prime Minister. Now, his protest expresses outrage against the Prime Minister's statements to the House of Commons and to the country about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

The placards cover an entire side of Parliament Square, and say things like "Stop Bloody Zionism Freedom for Palestine and Iraq, Chechnya, Terrorist N1 [what, Islington?] USA, UK, Israel, Russia." Mr Haw enlivens parliamentary debate by chanting slogans through a megaphone; "Tony B, Liar" is a favourite.

He keeps it up all day and all night, and is always there. The House of Commons has slowly moved from "Well, of course, important democratic right, etc etc" to "Christ, enough is enough, how can we get rid of him?" Nothing has worked. At one point, the police removed all his placards; Mr Haw just wrote them all again. Now, they've decided that there is nothing to be done but pass a law specifically directed at this nuisance.

Yesterday, faced with imminent eviction, he was on the subject of himself. "You would make me a criminal? I am a Godfather. This is my weapon of mass information ... The FBI have a public enemy number in America and Blunkett has decided I am Britain's public enemy number one. And his evidence: I have megaphone. And this display: it is the Westminster United Nations Art Gallery."

It's easy to have sympathy for the authorities on this one. Mr Haw's undoubted right to protest has exceeded all reasonable bounds. Unlike other indefinite protests, such as the 1980s vigil outside South Africa House against apartheid, this has gathered almost no public support, and it is impossible to conceive of anything which might ever bring Mr Haw's protest to an end.

And, it may seem a trivial point, but should anyone be permitted to erect a shanty town, covered all over with raucous slogans, all across one side of Parliament Square? It is a lovely space, and doesn't deserve to be permanently defaced in this way. The fact that Mr Haw has gathered very little active support, despite what one might think of as the popularity of his message, may be partly due to the fact that he looks like a peculiar extremist; it is, more likely, down to an irritation on the part of Londoners that an individual may create a display of such squalor for such a long period of time.

But the strongest argument against Mr Haw is precisely what might be thought to defend him: the right to protest. There are many serious issues on which individuals may wish to protest, and may wish to raise placards about facing the gates of the House of Commons. Mr Haw is effectively occupying space which other people might well want to use from time to time. I'm sure he makes no objection when, say, pro-Israeli demonstrators ask if he could move his placards for an afternoon, or supporters of gay marriage stand in front of his political arguments. But on the whole, campaigners and protesters deserve the space to make their arguments, and not constantly to have to jostle with someone they might not approve of.

The fact is that Mr Haw has done nobody a favour, least of all democratic protesters, by giving the Government an excuse to exercise control over demonstrations. It's highly dubious for the Government to pass a law so specifically directed at one person in one particular place, and of course it is not framed in personal terms: it bans all permanent demonstrations in Parliament Square. The police will be given new powers of control over demonstrations around Parliament - probably requiring a licence to be granted in advance.

Of course, most sensible people, if they think about this, will find these new powers decidedly worrying. It is certainly our right to mount protests right up to the gates of Parliament, and that goes for Mr Haw too, to whatever grotesque degree he has abused that right. Could the police really have the power to refuse a licence for a one-off demonstration? On what grounds could such a refusal possibly be based?

The Government will, quite reasonably, say that everything possible has been tried to persuade Mr Haw that his argument has now been made, and that this is a last resort. To a degree, I see their point. But it's difficult to avoid the suspicion that Mr Haw, in the end, has served a useful purpose for them, and, yet again, we are placed in a position where we have to take it on trust that the authorities, having taken a degree more control over our civil liberties, will possess the fineness of feeling which will preserve, in the individual case, those ordinary freedoms. Thanks, Brian.