The Life of Brian

As elections approach, Britain’s most visible activist maintains his stubborn vigil.

Dawn Starin

Brian Haw maintains his vigil outside the British Parliament in London. (Photo by: Chris Young/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — Britain will hold a general election on May 6, but one of the country’s most admired political figures will not be on a ballot. Instead, he’ll be sleeping under a tarpaulin on a grassy traffic island in London, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, and living solely on handouts from the public.

Haw has been the target of many attempts to suppress a critical voice. Council chiefs, the police and the government have all tried and failed to evict him from this prime piece of real estate.

This has been Brian Haw’s home – and headquarters – for nearly nine years. Haw began a peace campaign in June 2001 as a protest against Britain’s support for the United Nations sanctions in Iraq. He persists because of his contempt for his country’s foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A father of seven children and an evangelical Christian, Haw believes that he must do everything in his power to try to save the children of Iraq and other countries who are dying because of my government’s unjust, amoral, money-driven policies.

My neighbor’s kids are as precious as mine,” says the former carpenter, merchant navy deckhand and world-traveling independent missionary. The nearby Houses of Parliament have an air of exclusivity, elitism and isolation, and the massive statues of historical figures in Parliament Square lend the scene an air of solemnity. 

In contrast, photos of war victims, hand-lettered signs and colorful flags that promote peace dominate his makeshift headquarters.

Haw has been the target of many attempts to suppress a critical voice. Council chiefs, the police and the government have all tried and failed to evict him from this prime piece of real estate. His placards have been confiscated. He has been arrested several times. He has suffered a number of assaults and broken bones. Parliament even passed a specific piece of legislation aimed at ridding Parliament Square of his presence.

Haw has fought and eventually won every attempt to have him removed, though his encampment was once much larger than it is now. In 2006 police raided the site and confiscated most of its contents. They also imposed a limit on its size: 3 meters by 3 meters. Despite its downsized dimensions, Haw’s headquarters continues to be a welcoming place that connects with the man and woman on the street – the great unwashed,” as he calls them. 

The media have described Haw as irascible, irritable, embittered and angry. Some he has worked with consider him self-righteous, pedantic and a control freak who suffers from a bit of a God complex. But many hail him as a peace-loving hero and a champion of free-speech. 

Jo Glanville, the editor of Index on Censorship, puts it this way: Brian Haw’s dogged campaign has become the most enduring symbol of opposition of the Blair-Brown years. The government actually changed the law to try and remove him – and undermined the right to protest of the entire nation in the process. The treatment of protesters – and the use of legislation, including counter-terrorism – to control them, has been one of the most significant blots on the copybook of this government. Brian Haw’s lonely stand has been a defiant rejection of all those attempts.”

In 2007 he won Channel 4’s most inspiring political figure of the year – beating out the prime minister, the leader of the opposition party and the head of the army. And, while his Parliament Square protest site has been called a grotty eyesore”, a squalid encampment” and a national embarrassment” by members of Parliament, it was faithfully recreated in a show titled State Britain” inside the Tate Britain Museum and resulted in the artist Mark Wallinger winning the prestigious Turner Prize in 2007.

As for the upcoming general election in Britain, Haw describes it as only a facade.” Because of our system, elections won’t change things. [Politicians] do what the moneymen tell them to do,” he says. They don’t listen to the people – to us, the great unwashed.’ Most of all, they don’t heed or obey the Creator who made each of us with such love, and has no favorites.”

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Dawn Starin is a research associate at UCL, London and does anthropological research in West Africa and Asia. She has published in Natural History, Gastronomica, New York Times, New Statesman, and New Internationalist, amongst others.
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