Brian Haw is definitely not a morning person. Today was the veteran activist’s 2,999th day camped out on the pavements of Parliament Square and the cantakerous 60-year-old was in no mood for small talk.
“I don’t do talk about the weather,” he grumbled, stirring a fifth spoonful of sugar into a milky cup of coffee which had just been boiled on a small gas burner behind his tent. “I hate it when people ask me all those silly questions, like ‘How’s it going? Did you sleep well?’ or ‘How long are you staying here?’ It’s meaningless.”
And he is equally nonplussed at the thought that tomorrow will mark the 3,000th day of a world-famous protest that defied an entire government and remains the most permanent symbol of free speech in a country which has suffered increasingly autocratic legislation curbing the right to free assembly.
“I’m not into this Guinness Book of Records rubbish,” he says, tipping back his pin-badge littered helmet to reveal a weathered face and two piercing blue eyes. “Three thousand bloody days, sleeping here and watching the politicians lie while children continue to die and people walk by. And each one of us is responsible. Each one of us, responsible.”
Eight years of living in a tent opposite the Houses of Parliament, railing against the country’s political elite through two bitterly controversial wars, has made Mr Haw an irritable man. Any of the friends, passers by, tourists and journalists who have come across him will be more than aware the deep seated anger he feels towards the British government, which he accuses of anything from “murder, to torture and genocide”.
When the former carpenter-turned-peace-activist first appeared outside the Houses of Parliament on the 2 June 2001 to begin his one man protest few could have guessed that he would stay there for what has already the best part of a decade. He began by demonstrating against Britain’s support for the UN sanctions in Iraq, but the ongoing wars in that country and Afghanistan have since given him plenty more opportunity to consolidate his contempt for British foreign policy.
Since then council chiefs, police and the Government have all tried and failed to evict him. Tired of his non-stop megaphone vigils, MPs even passed a specific piece of legislation aimed at ridding Parliament Square of his presence which - for the first time in over 350 years - effectively made it illegal to protest outside the Houses of Parliament without permission (a promise by Gordon Brown to repeal that law has so far failed to materialise). Undeterred, Mr Haw has fought and eventually won every attempt to have him removed.
The sheer logistics of his continued protest are remarkable. For the past 3,000 days Mr Haw has called the pavement opposite the Houses of Parliament his home. His bed is nestled under a leaking and weather beaten tent whilst the few possessions he has beyond the limited remaining placards he is allowed to display by Westminster City Council lie under a tarpaulin sheet which crawls with mice.
A modern day ascetic, he survives purely on the kindness of strangers and a small contingent of sympathisers who donate food and tobacco, which has lent him a thick bronchial cough that splutters throughout much of his sentences.
Daily washes, meanwhile, are made in a bucket but once a week he has the luxury of being able to take a shower at the home of an anonymous supporter. To stay in contact with the outside world he beckons all and sundry to his makeshift shrine or calls friends on his mobile phone, which is charged by a sympathetic toilet attendant in Westminster tube station.
But eight years of living on the streets have clearly taken their toll. Mr Haw’s weathered skin and viciously tanned arms are testament to the days on end spent out in the elements and his frame is visibly skeletal.
Leaning forward on two crutches and sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with anti-war slogans, Mr Haw cuts a lonely figure among the thronging crowds of scantily clad tourists who stop to take pictures of Parliament’s most eccentric resident.
A year into his protest, his wife Kay filed for divorce and he rarely sees any of their seven children who now range from 16-30-years-old. Although he has previously insisted his family support his vigil, births, weddings and birthdays have all gone by leaving the father of seven deeply embittered.
“My kids are an off limit topic,"”he says, angered by the question of whether they still stay in touch with him. “But 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.”
Despite living his life so publicly, Mr Haw remains a deeply private person. Personal questions inevitably receive replies that wind their way back to his raison d’etre – the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq.
For instance, in answer to a question about whether he prays (Mr Haw is an evangelical Christian) he replies: “People get so organised don’t they? They think that prayer is something you do on your knees. Well I bet there are a few soldiers praying on the other side of the world right now. And who is going to answer their prayers? I would suggest that you are the answer to your own prayers, if you get off your arse and do something.”
One of the few times he breaks into a smile is remembering how he was voted Most Inspiring Political Figure at the 2007 Channel 4 Political Awards. “Yeah, that felt damn good,” he recalls. “Ordinary Joe Bloggs on the street being voted ahead of Blair, Cameron and General “Donut” Dannatt. That felt great.”
But while Mr Haw remains an angry individual who feels he is a long way from achieving his goal of “peace, love and justice for all”, his days of fighting the law over his pitch are largely over.
If anything, his peace campaign has grown. There are now anywhere between three and five regular campaigners who join Mr Haw in Parliament Square and local officials appear to have largely abandoned trying to evict them.
Barbara Tucker – or “Babs” as she is known among the campers – is the square’s longest squatting resident after Mr Haw. Barring her 33 arrests, the half Australian half English protestor, who is campaigning for peace in the Middle East, has herself camped out for more than 1,000 days now.
"”t was Brian that inspired me,” she says. “I had the complete capitalist lifestyle before all this but I gave it up when my two sons reached adulthood. Brian showed me that a single man can make a difference. Everyday we meet so many people from around the world who have heard what he has done and want to meet him when they are in London, it's amazing.”
As a busload of tourists pass by and all shout out “Hi Brian!” at the behest of a tour operator with a microphone, it is clear that Mr Haw’s
protest is now as much part of Parliament’s landscape as Churchill or Cromwell’s statue. And it’s clear he’s not going anywhere fast.
“I’m not leaving because we haven’t finished the job,” he says. “We are all responsible for what our Government does in our name. When our country does good we can be proud of that, and when it does wrong we must hold the liars to account. And we have to keep doing that.”
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